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Sunday, December 09, 2018

Crying in the Wilderness

A Sermon for ADVENT II 
December 8, 2018
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE 

Have you begun to feel it yet? I certainly have.

The tension of keeping Advent is enormous! The pressure is ON! It’s easy to simply say, oh, play the Christmas music already! Why not?!?! They’re playing Christmas music in the stores and malls!  Santa is already receiving guests at Rehoboth Beach. What’s wrong with you, anyway?!?!

I was talking with a woman the other day who was looking for Advent candles. She was hoping for three blue, one pink and one white but she would have settled for purple instead of blue.

She went to several stores without any luck because green and red candles seem to have taken over the stores. She finally stopped in at her local grocery store, thinking certainly they’d have a great variety of candles. Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Zip. Nada. 

She finally asked a passing clerk: Do you have Advent candles? The clerk looked at her as if she had two heads and one was flopping.

Advent? What?!?!?

The rest of the world is “decking the halls with balls of holly” and we’re out scouring the stores for blue or purple candles. 

Or, at least, some of us are. 

I’m no Advent purist but I do love the season of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” to borrow a line from the poem “The Second Coming,” by W.B. Yeats.

Yeats, of course, was describing the aftermath of World War I. He was drawing on a biblical image to depict a world that had become unmoored, a world falling apart into anarchy. Which, of course, is what John the Baptizer is yelling about, out there in the wilderness. 

The apostle Luke names all the various leaders of the day to show how far Israel had fallen. 

Politically, the Jews were ruled by foreigners, and religiously, Annas and Caiaphas had been illegally put into their positions by the Roman authorities, and constantly used their power to line their own pockets and increase their own authority. Annas was even sometimes called a viper who hissed or whispered in the ears of judges and politicians in order to influence their decisions.

John the Baptizer did not say, “The falcon can not hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” That, of course, was Yeats, but it’s a perfect echo of John.

I have to turn down the volume on my own Christmas voice. I’m no purist – or, as one of my friends says, “An Advent Jihadist" – but there is something about staying in the wilderness for a bit, listening to Luke’s Apocalypse which we heard last week, and tolerating John the Baptizer’s ranting in the wilderness – this week and next!

How else will we be prepared to hear Mary singing the Magnificat on the fourth week? How will we hear the Baby Jesus cry? In my experience, it’s important to listen to all of the voices of Advent – even the ones we don’t want to hear – in order to prepare for the joy of Christmas.

Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about.

I spent a good amount of my ministry in the Tri-state Area, mostly in New Jersey but also in New York and a wee bit in Connecticut. I was rector of a fairly large suburban congregation in northern NJ where taking one’s child to Radio City Music Hall at Christmas was almost a rite of passage.

And so it came to pass that a child I had baptized, one beautiful little girl named Olivia, celebrated her fifth birthday and lo, it was decreed by her father that the family should make the cultural pilgrimage into New York City for the Annual Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall.

Lo, the mother and father and their girl-child did board a train and traveled into the region known as The Big Apple where these modern pilgrims did pay homage at all the Holy Places: The State Building of The Empire, The Store of the American Girl Doll, and, of course, they, as a family, venerated the hallowed halls of F.A.O. Schwartz. (Of course!)

Olivia loved it all. Her parents were delighted. Everything was going well. They had great seats in Radio City Music Hall with a wonderful view. They thrilled as the Rocketts high-stepped and step-kicked their way through all the familiar Christmas songs.

And then, as it is written somewhere where no one can read but everyone just knows, the traditional ending of the Christmas Special at Radio City Music Hall began. The lights dimmed and a manger scene appeared under the spotlight of an otherwise darkened stage.

There was Mary. There was Joseph. And there, in a manger, was the Baby Jesus.

Then, a man’s voice began to intone from his tried and true script, read to thousands of people over decades of Christmas holidays: “And it came to pass that a child was born in Bethlehem, in a manger and wrapped in swaddling clothes. And it was for this he came into the world: To be killed and hung on a cross and to die for the salvation of the world.”

At which point, Olivia sat up in her seat and, at the top of her voice that would have made John the Baptizer proud, cried out, “WHAT! They killed Jesus?? Mom! Dad! THEY KILLED JESUS??”

At which point, a hush did fall over the entire section in which they were sitting in the hallowed halls of Radio City Music. Olivia’s parents did look at each other in horror, and fear did strike every corner of their parental hearts while embarrassment did cover their faces.

And, the father did open his mouth and bravely said to his daughter, “Olivia, let’s wait until tomorrow and we’ll talk with Reverend Elizabeth.”

And it was night, and it was morning, a second day. Sunday. In the fifth year of Olivia’s birth, when Barack Obama was in his first term as President and Chris Christie was Governor of all New Jersey. 

And, lo, the father and mother did bring the girl-child Olivia to church. As fate would have it, the parents did see their priest at the end of the church service but before the child Olivia came upstairs from Church School and they did tell her what to expect.

But, before the priest could even begin to think of an answer, lo! The child Olivia came careening around the corner, yelling, “Reverend Elizabeth! Reverend Elizabeth! Did you know? Did you hear? They killed Jesus? Why did they do that, Reverend Elizabeth?”

You know, there are times in the life of a priest when, if she keeps her mouth shut and her ears opened, she can actually hear the voice of God. And, so it came to past that I sat with Olivia on the chancel steps, kept my mouth shut, and let God speak.

“You know, Olivia,” I heard my voice say, “the people who killed Jesus were good people. They were kind people. They were just scared people. And, when people are scared, they make bad decisions. That’s what happened to the people who killed Jesus. They were good and kind people. They were just scared people. And, they made a bad decision which made them to a bad thing.”

Olivia considered very carefully what I was saying. “Here’s the thing, Olivia. It’s very important not to make a decision when you are scared. Or lonely. Or, tired. Or, even if you’re hungry. Some very wise people say that when you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired you should HALT. Stop. Because if you are any of those things, you are probably going to make a bad decision. Just like the people who killed Jesus.”

Olivia looked at me and said, “Wait. Did they kill the BABY Jesus or did they kill JESUS?”

“Oh,” I said, “they killed Jesus. Not baby Jesus.”

“Oh,” said Olivia, getting up on her feet, “Well, that’s different!” 

And then, she ran off to play.

What's that old joke? You know, the one bout the kid who asks his mother, "Where did I come from?" And she sits him down and tells him all about the birds and the bees, at the end of which the kid says, "Oh, well, see? Tommy comes from Pennsylvania so I wondered where I came from".

Right. Le sigh. 

So, here’s my Advent message to you on this Second Sunday in Advent: We all know how the story ends. Don’t rush Advent.

Don’t rush the story. Live it.

Take each week as it comes. Light each candle, one by one.

Yes, the pressure is on and it is all around us. But, keep Advent. For as long as you can.

Stay and cry in the wilderness this week and next.

How else will the falcon hear the falconer’s song?

How else will you be able to join Mary in her song when it’s time?

How else will you hear the angels sing when the infant Jesus takes his first earthly breath?

Resist the pressure to rush the story.

Slouch your way towards Bethlehem.

We’ve been doing this for thousands of years.

The center will hold – especially if you take the time to listen for it and find it.



Thursday, December 06, 2018

When Christmas Hurts: Joy Anyway!

"It's the most wonderful time of the year .. . . ." 

Well, for some people, it is.

For others, the thought of "chestnuts roasting on an open fire" leaves them cold.

Grief is one human emotion which is not supposed to be part of either Advent or Christmas.

But, for many, it is.

It really doesn't matter whether or not their grief is just weeks or months new, or years or decades old.

It still hurts. As one woman whose husband died ten years ago said to me recently, "The other day when I was putting up Christmas lights, one string wouldn't work. I looked at it carefully and found one bulb that was out. And, because that one little bulb was out, the whole, entire string of lights wouldn't work. And, I thought to myself, that's exactly how it feels since my husband died. I've got my health, my children and grandchildren, my great friends and co-workers - all of which I'm deeply grateful for - but ever since his light went out, nothing else seems to work right."

Grief is not limited to death of a loved one. Divorce, family separation due to geographical distance, demands of work, family feuds, and ruptured relationships are just some of the losses we experience, the pain of which can be intensified during the holidays. 

Oh, and don't diminish the pain of the loss of a pet. They are family members, too.

So, how to get through this Season of Advent with all of its "contemplation" and "joyful expectation"? How to prepare for Christmas?

Over the many years, I've been privileged to be a priest - and through my own experience of grief - I've developed bit of a Survival Guide.

Well, here are seven things that may help when Christmas hurts.

1. Accept your feelings, whatever they may be

The only cure I know for grief is to grieve. The paths your grief will take are many and will be different from anyone else's grief.  You may also find yourself traveling several paths at the same time: anger, resentment, sadness and even guilt because you are feeling joy may all surface for you. Try to stay in tune with what you know to be true and good about yourself and acknowledge the feelings that you have are normal and part of being human. See all of your emotions as companions on your journey. Say 'hello' to anger when it appears and ask him to stand over here, please, while you both scontinue walking. "Ah, there you are!" you might say to sadness, and tell her you wondered where she had been hiding. Ignore your feelings at your own peril.

2. Acknowledge those who have died or are no longer present in your life. 

It can be helpful to participate in a related holiday ritual in memory of the person who has died. Some ideas: lighting candles for them, talking about them, buying children's toys or books to donate in their name, donating to a cause that was dear to their heart in memory of them, dedicating a prayer service in their name, planting a tree - if you can, in a place that brings a happy memory or would be otherwise meaningful -  purchase flowers for the altar at church or temple or mosque, making a card or writing a letter which displays their picture or placing an item of theirs among holiday decorations.

3. If you need something, take a risk: Ask.

One of my dear friends found himself in an awkward and painful situation the first Christmas after his divorce. His children had planned to be on vacation with their spouses in in a warm place. He couldn't bear the thought of being alone. So, he picked up the phone and called some friends and asked what they were doing for Christmas. When they said they planned a "quiet Christmas at home," he said, "If I promise to be quiet, can I stay in your guest room?" They were surprised but delighted and said "Of course." He said, "I realize that I had leaned a lesson from the pain of the loss of my marriage: I am responsible for my own happiness. If I need something, I need to ask." (He reports that it was a 'different but very wonderful' Christmas, adding, "I am so grateful I spoke up.").

4. Feel free to say 'no'.

The other side of having wonderful family and friends is that they'll want to take care of your needs before you even know you have a need and have thought to ask. You may well be barraged with invitations to parties and social events. If you feel it will be too much for you and you'd like to simply opt out of participation in a holiday, let family and friends know. But, plan alternative, comforting activities for yourself and let someone know what you will be doing. Let them also know that it's okay if someone checks in with you on that day.

5. Consider something different

Don't hide from the truth that things have changed and that the holiday will probably never be the same as it was ever again. Accepting this - sometimes, it takes saying it out loud to yourself in the mirror - will help to manage expectations. This is especially important if you and your family plan to return to your usual routines and rituals after the first year. It's also okay to plan new activities - go to a new location for family celebrations change the menu, attend the theater, travel. Just understand why you are doing it - because this loss has changed your life and you are managing the best you can - and be honest about it, at least with yourself.

6. Scale back

Grieving can take an enormous amount of energy. Don't be surprised if the very thought of the holidays leaves you exhausted - emotionally and physically. For some people, it is wise to plan for this and manage the expectations you have of yourself. If the thought of many holiday activities feels painful, overwhelming or inappropriate this year, cutting back may help. For example, you might opt for minimal decorations at home and take a break from sending holiday greetings, or try e-greeting instead. You could limit holiday parties to small gatherings with your closest friends and family. Do whatever feels safe and comfortable to you. Create realistic expectations for yourself and others, but above all be gentle with yourself.

7. Give.

For other people who are grieving, sometimes the biggest comfort is to give to others. Some of us will feel paralyzed by the sheer emotion — sadness, feelings of helpless or hopelessness. In times of loss, grief compels some people to do something that will make a difference. For those folks, consider volunteering for an organization that helps others. Like:
Agencies that help the homeless or feed the hungry or assist families affected by domestic violence or partner abuse.
Assisting at hospital or nursing home reception desks
The ASPCA often asks volunteers to walk or or help feed or spend time with dogs or cats.
Community food banks need volunteers to stock shelves or counsel families
Local Thrift Shops need help with the registers, sorting through and sizing clothing, shoes and jewelry, testing (and repairing) appliances, or arranging attractive displays of furniture. 
If none of that feels appealing there is absolutely nothing in the world that is wrong with writing a check to an organization in memory of your loved one.

Or, for those who are struggling with divorce or separation or the rupture of a relationship, refuse to be defined by loss and make a donation to a worthy cause in your own name. Feel good about what you can still give despite your loss.

Again, being aware of why you are doing what you are doing - increasing your activites or scaling back, accepting your feelings, considering doing something different, saying 'no' to things you don't want to or simply can't do, taking a risk and asking for what you need - is absolutely key to grieving. 

No, none of these things will cure grief. Only grieving will do that.

But, they will help you survive the holidays in the hopes that you may eventually find the 'comfort and joy' promised by the prophets of old and sung in the carols and hymns of Christmas.

Or, as my dear friend, Louie Crew Clay, says, "Joy Anyway!"

Sunday, December 02, 2018

How to Survive The Apocalypse

A Sermon Preached for ADVENT I
December 2, 2018 - Proper Year C / RCL

 The Episcopal Church of St. David, Kinnelon, NJ

"American carnage." Isn’t that the term used in the inaugural speech of the present occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

Dark. Bleak. Chaotic. Fear. Foreboding. Apocalyptical.

Some of our ‘end time’ Evangelical brothers and sisters clapped their hands with great delight on hearing the term “American carnage”.

They would like nothing more than for the Apocalypse to happen, for the Second Coming of Jesus to happen now. Right. Now. This now. Now, now.

The church has been expecting Jesus to return for a long time, and he hasn’t done it yet.

“It’s hard to stand on tiptoe for two thousand years,” says William Willimon.

We've seen some of those apocalyptic images come out of Alaska after their 7.0 earthquake. The images look fearsome and foreboding. 

One of my friends who lives in Alaska, where they can have up to 24,000 earthquakes a year - admitedly, none of them of quite this magnitude - said, jokingly, "Tell everybody if they want to help, send dishes."

We also caught some glimpses of that American carnage just this week when a few hundred refugees and asylum seekers and their children from the American-funded carnage in Central America rushed the border between Tijuana, Mexico and the United States.

So, in the face of all that, what are we to make of this morning’s passage from the 21st chapter of Luke’s gospel? How are we to avoid the temptation to see what’s happening in our world today through the lens of the apocalyptic chaos of this piece of scripture?

Well, the first thing is to understand that these words of Christian Scripture are poetry. 

Yes, poetry.

We don’t listen to poetry and try to drag meaning out of it. We let poetry be poetry. We let its images dance a seductive dance over our imagination and creativity. We let it carry us to places deep in the inner recesses of our memory where the sacred lives.

Apocalyptic passages, like poetry, challenge reason and pull us to consider what is possible and what is impossible. 

That’s what Jesus is doing here in this passage. As C. S. Lewis once wrote—Jesus is describing a God without disguise who comes at us so unmistakably that he will “strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature.”

And, Jesus is asking, “Are you ready?”

Ready not just for the first coming of Jesus as a sweet babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, but ready for His coming again into your hearts as a light into these dark days.
So allow me take you where this amazing piece of apocalyptic poetry from Jesus took me as I considered what is happening in the world, what is happening in my life, and how it is I am to prepare for this Season of Advent.

I was seven or eight years old (not so very long ago!), the oldest of four, when I discovered the truth about Santa Claus. 

I didn’t mean to. I was just exploring my house for a quiet place to hide from my younger siblings so I could read my books in peace when I found that the door to the attic was unlocked. I climbed slowly up the stairs and scanned the room quickly and found a few spots, actually, where, with the addition of a blanket and pillow, would be most acceptable.

That’s when I saw it. 

There, over in the corner, hidden under a blanket were some of the toys we had asked Santa to bring for Christmas. I was confused and devastated. My carefully constructed fantasy world caved in on itself.

It was the end of my childhood innocence as a whole Pandora’s box of questions came flooding out at me: Why had my parents lied to me? Why didn’t they just tell me the truth? I mean, did they think I’d never figure it out? Did they think I was that dumb?

Just then, my mother came up the stairs and put her arms around me. She didn’t try to explain or excuse it. She just said, “I’m so sorry you had to find out this way. We meant to tell you earlier. We thought we still had some time. We never meant to hurt you.”

Now, I’m not going to get into a whole thing about Santa Claus and what you should do about your children and grandchildren. (I understand a substitute teacher in Montville, NJ told her first grade class that Santa isn't real and now she's out of a job.) 

That’s not the point of my telling the story. I believed my mother when she said my parents never meant to hurt me. I later figured out for myself that this is what happens when you take poetry and metaphors literally. 

People can get hurt.

Anyway, my mother said now I was old enough to help her wrap the presents for the younger ones and begged me not to tell them what I had learned the hard way. She promised that she would make sure to tell them before they found out on their own.

Not only that, she said, but now I was old enough to have my own room.

Well, THAT was a Christmas miracle I NEVER expected.

I mean, we lived in a small tenement apartment on the second floor of my grandparent’s house. There were two bedrooms. There were four kids. My parents had converted the parlor into their bedroom. My baby sister slept in a crib in their room. My younger sister and I slept in twin beds in one bedroom. My younger brother – whom we called, between clenched teeth, ‘The Little Prince” – slept in the other bedroom, which he had all to himself. Grrrrrr.

So, to trust that another bedroom would magically appear after learning about the lie of Santa Claus seemed like way too much to ask. My mother spread out her arms and said, “Welcome to your new bedroom. Daddy is going to paint the walls and we’ve got a nice rug to put down and your godparents have given you their daughter, Judy’s bed because she’s gone off to college. You just wait and see.  It’s going to be lovely.”
And, it was. It was ready by Christmas Eve – my first night in my new room. I was so excited I could barely sit still through the evening’s festivities.

In all the excitement, it wasn’t until it came time for my parents to tuck me in that we realized there was one important feature missing.

A nightstand and a table lamp.

There was a light in the ceiling – right in the middle of the room – with a long string that hung down from it. Which meant that when the string was pulled and the light went out, the only light was that from the hallway at the bottom of the stairs. Which wasn’t great but it was okay. I mean, I had my own room. How cool was that?

“Good night,” my parents called from the bottom of the stairs. 

“Good night,” I called back.

And then, it happened. They closed the attic door and turned off the hall light. Suddenly, it was completely dark in my room. No, I mean pitch-black dark. I couldn’t see my hand in front of me which meant, of course, that now I could begin to see everything that wasn’t there.

Scary things. Monster things. Fear and foreboding sank over my body and settled deep into my bones. If there wasn’t any Santa Claus, were guardian angels a hoax as well? 

At age eight, I knew one true thing: There WERE monsters under my bed. I knew that if I got out of bed to pull the light string, they would get to me before I was able to get back under the covers.

And then, because I was like every eight year old girl who ever lived in any time or any place anywhere, EVER, I had a flare for the dramatic. 

I KNEW – knew beyond a shadow of a doubt – that I. Was. Going. To. DIE.

I started to weep softly as I said my prayers, hoping against hope that there was actually a God and that hadn’t been all a lie my parents told, too.

And suddenly, I heard it. 

Despite all the noise in my head, I heard it. 

It was the unmistakable sound of the click of a wall switch. 

I opened my eyes and there, at the bottom of the attic stairs, was a little sliver of light at the bottom of the attic door. My parents had turned on the hall light which was just enough to comfort me and rescue me from the depths of my despair. 

And, ever since then, from that time forward to this very day, when I am anxious or frightened or just flat out terrified, I look for that little sliver of light. That, for me, is how I understand Jesus. That’s who I understand him to be – a little sliver of light in the midst of fearsome darkness.

As the Season of Advent moves steadily upon us and the world around us continues to swirl seemingly out of control, I hope that you can remember this little story. 
I hope you can remember that apocalyptic passages are, essentially, poetic passages and ought to be treated as such. We don't demand literal interpretations of poems, we ought not to demand them of apocalyptic passages.
Introduction to Poetry
By Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

In preparing for this sermon, I've untied Luke's Gospel from the chair and I've stopped trying to "torture a confession" from the "sun, moon, stars, and earth".

I encourage you to do the same.
Rather, I hope you will press your ear against the Gospel hive, listening for the buzz. Or, blindfold yourself and feel along the walls for a light switch of inspiration and insight.
Allow it to carry you away from the doom and gloom of life and into another metaphor of your life which is life-giving and salvific. 

It occurs to me that its a good way to prepare for Advent.   

I recommend waterskiing across the surface of the Gospel stories of Advent and Christmas while you wave to the authors at the shore. 
I strongly urge you to drop a little church mouse into a Gospel story and watch him probe his way around, looking for a morsel or two of goodness upon which to feast. 
You may discover there the small sliver of the light of Christ which dwells in you. 

To your great surprise, you may even learn that YOU are the sliver of light in the darkness that shines for others.

When Christmas finally arrives, like Jesus at his coming, may you strike “irresistible love” into the hearts of every living creature.

Are you ready?