Sermon: “Everyday Spirituality”

I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on July 26, 2020 using lessons (lightly) from the Revised Common Lectionary lessons from Paul's letter to the Roman, and the gospel of Matthew.


Thank you for having me speak to you again, and thanks to Pastor Gatton for inviting me back.

The last time I preached was the first Sunday in June, but who can remember back that far? It feels like months have passed, rather than weeks. That sermon was a long and rolling attempt to speak to the emotional temperature of the moment, invoking themes of disappointment and loss; and asking you to rely on two pillars of Christian faith: that God's nature is love and connects everything, and that there is a great sadness in the world that cries for salvation.

This time I'd like to talk about applied theology, namely our spirituality.

This is normal, now

Now if I had my choice, I'd like to step aside from the obvious problems of the epidemic, plus the breakdown in national governance and the withering economy. I'd also like to put aside the eerie sameness of these days and (even more) I'd like to dismiss the horrible ways the eerie sameness is punctuated by the something terrible. I would like to do away anything that's called unprecedented, for that's now the way to describe the breakdown of law, culture and morality. And to cap it all, I would appreciate some consistently pleasant weather: something that doesn't threaten to kill people exposed to it.

But we have (at least) months to bear up with all of those, and perhaps much longer before we can look back and say that life has gotten measurably better in this or that way. We are in the middle of this crisis. And to be fair, if it weren't this crisis exactly, we would have the pre-existing conditions of racist violence and climate change and much else to face. Holding our breath and pressing through is not an option. Bless those who can find a way to deal with all this, because I hear voices cracking.

We don't know what our lifetime will be. We have this moment and standing today, we make choices about how we live the rest of our lives. We shall inherit eternity, but we live day by day. Reflective, thoughtful religion teaches us that large and small crises are a part of human life, and that we can face the one we have now.

New solutions

So, failing an overaching solution, because so much is out of our control, let us build new responses. We have to find new ones because the solutions and resources we already have can only do so much, and only last so long.

For many years when I was a child, I lived in suburban New Orleans, and so got used to anticipating and preparing for hurricanes, or at least as much as children can. My family prepared, but could only prepare for so much disruption. The energy that comes from the initial threat is a kind of resource; I remember the nervous excitement of high wind and rain more than the flooded carpets, ruined possessions and swampy smell. In the same way, I was more frightened this March and April, but I also had more energy and (to be honest) more goodwill.

But back to my childhood. One of the men on our street who owned a small flat-bottomed skiff, also known a jon boat. Days after one hurricane — I must have been six or seven years old — us neighborhood kids were bored and restless. The power was out, the streets were flooded to the curb and the air was still and hot. This Good Samaritan loaded us onto the little boat and towed us around the block, him walking though the knee-high water, like it was some amusement park ride. It was the only safe way for us to get past our front steps, which we wanted to do, and in so doing gave both the adults and children a break. He couldn't have taken us out during the storm, but that little boat ride was exactly the thing we needed as the crisis dragged on.

Likewise, our needs change today, so our response has to change. Making homemade bread isn't going to cut it any more. And (of course) some of these new solutions won't have anything to do with this church. But those that do, I put under the heading of everyday spirituality. We can (and I think, should) engage in everyday, practial, even homespun spirituality. But this takes a balance, and negotiating a direction between two bad choices.

Totalizing spirituality

It's important that we make we distinguish good spirituality from bad, or if not bad, at least unsuited spirituality.

The first bad option is to go overboard. Religious people, and Christians particularly, are tempted to totalizing their religion. By this I mean, trying to put all parts of your life within the context of your religion, including religiously-condoned alternatives to the mainstread, often by filtering them through a cloying aethetic or constricted morality. Christian music, television and films are the most obvious examples.

From the animated series King of the Hill, Hank Hill, the protagonist, put it best to a worship leader when his son was caught up with a praise band:

"[Y]ou're not making Christianity better. You're just making rock and roll worse."

This totalizing spirituality avoids dealing with what it doesn't deal with very well — I would put the Faustian bargain Evangelicals have made with the president into that category — or worse, it forces its believers either withdraw deeper into a world of their own making, or everyone else into theirs.

A totalizing spirituality doesn't allow us to appreciate the world outside the one we interpret as being correctly religious, and so perversely makes the religion itself smaller. This leads to cramped, even fearful and undersized world that it makes me weep for those who are trapped in it.

But there is a better option: the difference is between making religion a total experience, and using your religion as a lens by which you interpret your relationship with the world.

Fashionable spirituality

Of course, there's the other extreme.

When we speak of spirituality today, or see it decribed online or in books, it often comes with a large number of cultural associations. I think of candles; clean, tastefully minimalist spaces; silence or else speech in slow, low tones; retreats in the woods or desert; coded language that invests everyday words with magical significance and the like. There's a certain forced effortlessness and breathy casualness about it all.

When critics of spirituality dismiss spirituality as so much wishful thinking, I think this is what's being rejected. Like the other extreme, it is a smaller world than it needs to be, and smaller than we need because it stands away from everyday life.

This desire for spirituality is also a way to distinguish practices from religion, which is declining in popularity and seems old-fashioned, manipulative and corrupt. But I tend to be less critical of these expressions of spirituality. At least people are trying something new. But I think there is a better option: a spirituality that's integrated with your life as you live it, and that moves you to where you want to be.

Spirituality practiced

Different branches of Christianity have different approaches to religious life. in the family tree of Christianity, Universalism falls in the broad Reformed tradition. As such, we tend to be very practical about how we approach our religious lives, discount tradition for tradition's sake and use a common sense approach. We tend to say, "does this work or not?" And we're are willing to experiment to find a better way to accomplish our religious goals. (There's an obvious downside and that we can confuse activity with development, and success with wholesomeness, so keep an eye on that.)

But it's the reason we don't build monasteries, and rarely if ever engage in pilgrimages. Our spirituality tends to be rather homey. Our church building is exceptional and that it is self-consciously historic; normally, it would be an plain if large room with clear glass windows. (The original UNMC plans would have given us a church that looks more like All Souls Unitarian.) The clear glass windows act as a metaphor for a clear, practical religion.

And for a number of historial reasons, we are part of an American Protestant sub-tradition that engages with with the secular world, the world of arts and letters, the world of commerce and ideas. The goal is balancing an appreciation for the world and its glories, and a healthy mistrust of its excesses and desceptions.

Today's lessons

A word about the readings.

The lesson from the letter to the Romans is a continuation of the reading Pastor Dave Gatton preached on last week. It's also a well-loved devotional passage, and one of my favorites. The passage from the Gospel of Matthew contains a series of teachings from Jesus that are also well beloved. The simple fact that they are so well-loved and often cited make me think that this sermon should be dedicated to the ways they might be applied.

Some mixed thoughts I had, as an example of how I respond to scripture in my reading:

  • We live by the grace of God, but we recognize different truths and do our best to hold them at the same time.

  • And so when we live by the spirit, it pulls us in different directions having us here and try to understand. Our spirituality should serve that perspective.

  • What is the Spirit? It is the presence of God in the world.

  • Paul's puts the Spirit's binding presence in terms of childhood and inheritance. The point? The value of our connection to God is a greater than any human honor. And it's not just power leading us towards the great and glorious, but the fear of pain, loss and despair.

  • The connection to God through the Spirit empowers us.

Likewise, the passage from Matthew is also well-loved and very special.

  • It's a collection of Jesus' teaching. Parables so short and memorable that I believe that the likely came from Jesus himself.

  • But here in the context of the passage from Matthew, and from our own lives, it takes on a special meaning. Not heaven but the kingdom of heaven, which is to say life here on earth, among the living, governed in a divine fashion.

That's one way to introduce scripture into your everyday life.

Suggestions

I'd like to leave you with four more suggestion for improving your spirituality. This isn't homework, but they're all free or very low-cost so what's to lose?

  1. Take up journaling. Use a notebook you already have, or do as I do: type it into a file on your computer. You could even email yourself notes. But the important thing is to read back in time. This will give you a better persective about your life, particularly about themes that do or do not bless you.

  2. Reach out to someone you've lost touch with that you miss. These last few months show how important, but fragile, human connection is, and you have it within you to cultivate grace by reopening connections. Write someone a letter; you can use me as your excuse. Here's a sample you can personalize and use:

    Dear Angela,
    The minister at church today suggested reaching out to distant friends. Since I know you don't like email or social media, I though immediately of you. Little has changed here, except we are thinking of adopting a senior dog and that Jackie is taking a gap semester this fall. Sorry about the notebook paper and odd assortment of stamps, but it's what I had at home, but I didn't want to wait another day to say hello.

    Love,
    Pat

    And send it. But be gracious if someone doesn't want the attention.

  3. Travel in your mind. Use the lockdown to "get away" another way. Take time to understand other people, places, ideas or times by reading about them (and this is the important part) from their own voices. And if not a book, perhaps music or some other medium. Maybe take in a religious service from another part of the world, since so many are being streamed or recorded now. The goal is a different perspective and stimulated empathy.

  4. Sing. Singing in worship is a problem, due to coronavirus transmission, but there's nothing but self-consciousness to keep you from singing at home, or outside alone with your mask on. Hear the words that come out of your body. For most of us, this will be a different way to communicate than we're used to. How does it make you feel? And what does your choice of songs tell you about where your soul is right now?

Can you think of others? These skills develop over time and are shared. You may have something to offer the world.

Your everyday spirituality needn't be difficult or arcane. It can put your life into focus, and strengthen you when you need help.

God bless and keep you.

Audio service, June 7 (published June 14)

The full text of the service for the First Sunday after Pentecost — last Sunday —  follows. Low bandwidth users might want to download and unzip the lower-quality audio file.

Higher-quality audio:

Download: Lower-quality audio file, zipped (2.0 Mb)

Welcome

Greetings. This is a service of worship for June 7, 2020, the First Sunday after Pentecost

Sentence and Votum (Psalm 124:8)

Day and night without ceasing they sing, “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.” [Revelation 4:8b]

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Collect for the Day

Let us pray:
O Lord our God, who by your Son has taught us that love is the fulfilling of the law and of the gospel; fill us, we ask, with the spirit of universal charity, that we may love you above all, and our neighbor as ourselves. Amen.

Lord’s Prayer

Let us pray, as Jesus taught, saying:
Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, As it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; But deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

Psalm

Let us praise God with words from Psalm 29

Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name;
worship the Lord in holy splendour.

The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.

The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.

The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’

The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king for ever.
May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

Lesson

A reading from the Gospel of John [John 3:1-15, NRSV]

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

Here ends the reading.

Address

Greetings: my intention with these services was to create moments of worship for scattered Universalists and others, and to test how a lone person could produce them. This service, the last, is a week late because of the deepening sense of crisis and doom in the country. But it’s a canon of pastoral practice to not leave the people without hope, and so I’d like to conclude with a thought from today’s lesson.

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Jesus’ parallel between his own coming crucifixion and agony, and Moses lifting up of the bronze snake is not obvious. The reference is from a passage in Numbers where the people were attacked by snakes, and this was interpreted as being a curse from God because the people rejected the provision of manna. They wanted their own familiar food, but God sent serpents instead. The people interceded with Moses to intercede with God, and God’s response was for Moses to fashion the bronzen snake. “So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” (Numbers 21:9, NRSV)

One connection seems clear. Sins against God requires divine response if we are to be healed and be whole. But does that make Jesus the snake? No, it makes him the conduit between heaven and earth. But there the parallel breaks down. Where Israelites needed only to look upon the bronze snake and be healed, Jesus said “believe.” Lazy habits then and now confuse obedience with a changed and good life. Belief without change is simply subordination, a kind of oppression. But if you should believe, and turn to the good, and do good, you will have eternal life here on earth.

Think of what happened to that bronze snake. It was later placed in the Jerusalem Temple, but as we read in 2 Kings, Hezekiah destroyed it, consolidating worship to the One God “for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it.” (2 Kings 18:4, NRSV) Rather than turning the people towards God, it became an emblem of worship in its own right. In the first case, God’s means of healing became a scandal, yet Jesus Christ took the cross, a scandal, and made it life for us. So it’s not enough to look to the cross. Let it move you closer by grace to God despite — perhaps because — its cruelty. Indeed, keep a clear eye on cruelty so you are not seduced into believing it can justify the good. The goal is peace, love and light.

May God bless and keep us today and always.

Winchester Profession

Let us profess our faith:

We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.

We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.

Collects

For peace

Let us pray for peace:

O God, who is the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom stands our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom; Grant us, your servants, we humbly ask you, that peace which the world can neither give nor take away; that we, who in all our dangers rely on your goodness, may under your parental protection be defended against all adversities, and rejoice evermore in your blessed service, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

For grace

Let us pray for grace:

O Lord, our heavenly Father, almighty and everlasting God, who has safely brought us to the beginning of this day; Defend us today with your mighty power; and grant that we fall into no sin, nor run into any kind of danger; but that all our doings may be ordered by your governance, to do always that which is righteous in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

For all conditions of humankind

Let us pray for all people

O God, the Creator and Preserver of all humankind, we humbly ask that you would make your ways known unto the breath and width of the human family, your saving health to all nations. More especially we pray for the good estate of the Church Universal; that it may be so guided and governed by your Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life. Finally, we commend to your tender goodness all those who are any ways afflicted or distressed, in mind, body, or estate (particularly sick people and those close to death); that you would comfort and relieve them according to their various needs, giving them patience under their condition, and a happy result from all their afflictions. And this we ask for your mercy’s sake in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Concluding prayer

Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen. [1979 Book of Common Prayer]

Benediction

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.

Notices

This is the last of these services but for more information, visit revscottwells.com. The portions of scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version.

This is Scott Wells. God bless.

Sermon for June 7

What follows is a transcript of the sermon I preached extemporaneously for the Universalist National Memorial Church. Like a flower that's been pressed into a book, it only gives an impression of what I said: the context and the execution of preaching being lost. But perhaps better a representation of the sermon than none at all, particularly for those who saw it live. I've added the occasional bracketed word where the meaning may not make sense.

The texts were from the Revised Common Lectionary: 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 and Matthew 28:16-20, but from the Revised Common Version.


Good morning and thank you to Pastor Gatton for asking me back and for welcoming me into your homes and putting up with the fact that sometimes I don’t see the microphone button. But I want you to know that I’ve been thinking about each of you over the last several weeks, and I’ve been praying for you by name. Uh, special things this week to Lee Folia-Brunt who asked me what the sermon title was going to be. Not knowing that that was such a such a loaded and important question, because when she asked I didn’t have an answer, and that’s therefore there is no title today because how can you know what’s going to come? Two days ago, four days ago, a week ago. Who would believe that we would be where we are at this moment? And where will we be a day, three days a week, a year from now. So I didn’t have an answer.

And what do you then call what you’re not going to know what to say? Now I mean. And how can you even conceptualize the life that you’re in when everything is changing so quickly? So the sermon doesn’t have a title. But I’m hoping that it does have some threads which will carry back a day back, four days back. A week back. A year back. Back centuries and likewise centuries forward.

Let’s recap. It has been up until the last couple of days absolutely terrible. I don’t think this is controversial or news to anybody. When I started writing the sermon back when I thought it had a title. There were helicopters whirling overhead through the neighborhood. We were under curfew. And the only thing that would come up on the news — online or on television — were images of people being shot with rubber bullets or tear gas, or who knows what? And everything just seemed like it was going downhill continuously fast. These are not great conditions under which to write a sermon or for to think, or really to live.

So, we could be undercut by despair. We could be undercut by fear or anger or bitterness. We can certainly feel all these things, but to the fear of being pulled down by all these things is what worried me most of all. To think: what can we pull out of our religious lives in order to overcome this? Not just for this moment, because problems have come before.

Our problems are not a week, or a year, or three years old. Some of them go back decades and centuries. And whomever is elected in November, or whatever decisions are made in the next year or two, those problems will continue unless we are able to make systematic, deep-seated, heartfelt and hard-won changes.

We have a lot of resources. They’re not fairly distributed, of course. Some people have wealth and other people don’t. Some people have comfort at home and other people don’t. Some people have large and supportive families and other people don’t. Some people have health and their right minds and other people don’t. But collectively we have a lot of strength and one of the things that we can [also] call upon is our faith, because even though that is also not evenly spread out through the population, it is a resource which keeps giving and will not be exhausted. So I’m not [going to] talk about your wealth, and I’m not going to talk about your families, and I’m not going to talk about your political opinions and not even going to — and this is really rare for Washington — I’m not even going to talk about policy. But I am going to talk about our faith, because that’s something that we can do here and trust one another with. And that will give us some direction where we need to go with everything else.

Faith is not the same thing as religion, after all. Religion is sort of what we’re doing now. It is the customs and the folkways and the language and the texts and the stuff. Now that Zoom has become part of our religion. It’s the doing of the faith. But I want to talk about the faith part. The faith is what draws us into an understanding of the universe and the nature of God. It’s sort of the meta-level over which religion is the day-to-day piece. And it boils down to one question: What do you have trust in? Because sometimes we’ll talk to one another, and will say “I have a lot of faith in you”, or you may get this at a employment review. Or you may hear this among friends or within your families. “I have faith in you.” But in the larger sense, perhaps in the more proper sense, what we have trust in shows what we’re willing to rely on when we have to make those difficult decisions. And one thing that we can have trust in, and one thing Christian should have trust in, is the nature of God to be love.

Now that is so easily brought out that’s almost as bad as “you’re in my thoughts and prayers.” It’s so easily [used], just thrown out with no particular meaning and falls to Earth without a sound. But for us, who should be taking these things very seriously, there can be no greater and deeper guarantee than God’s nature is love, because it builds connections. And we can trust those connections that whatever else happens in the world, no matter what cruelty or power or strength or principalities, to use Paul’s language, we have that connection to the creator of Heaven and Earth who cares for us. And that’s important to remember when other people are willing —whether in your family or in the neighborhood or in government or around the world — who’re willing to say that you are nothing.

And that you were not important and what you care about is not important, you know, and can trust in your heart that the maker of Heaven and Earth cares for you. And the feeling is [ought to be] returned.

Of course it’s not just us, it’s not just a private property to be a member of a church, even the Universalist Church [it] isn’t to say that I have something that you don’t have. It’s not the AAA. you don’t call them up to jump your battery or to your car away, and if you’re not a member, you don’t get those things. But rather we know that based on that relationship — sometimes we forget — but we know that based on that relationship that same thing is true for everybody else as well. Which means that we are in an elastic but very strong network. Jesus had a word for it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” So that connection that we have runs all ways.

God, we love to deny it though. We love to deny it in our casual habits and in our systems. The ones that we inherit, the ones that we built and the ones that we suffer under, whether we choose to or not. That’s sort of the one thing I think of: the first pillar of Christian faith that I was to come back to. But the other ones a little sneakier. That in a word the world is not what it seems to be. Because if everybody was decent and forthright and believed this way, or at least kind of fell along with the program, we could rely on God being love and God loving us and that we would love everyone and everything would just be OK wouldn’t it ? But it’s not that way. Never has been.

We know that there is another pillar to Christian faith that we have to rely on and that is knowing that the world has this deep strain of sadness in it. Something’s not right. I’m not going to get into whole doctrine of original sin because I think that’s been so overplayed that it kind of misses the point that we just kind of know that things aren’t right. That suffering continues and life ends. And they’re good people don’t get what they deserve. And that sometimes people, even if they’re not good, just don’t get the basics to keep going. We know that there is something sad and continuous in this world, but that the same faith that we have — the same trust we have in that God is good and loves us knows that the world is not as it seems, and that we just cannot trust everything that comes to us.

Just because someone says that the powerful rule does not mean that they have a right to that that the systems that they exist, even though they are long and inherited, does not mean that they are good. And that we can look and think that there are other ways that we can have dreams. And those dreams as they form in our consciousness can become ideas, and that idea is the basis of hope. I mean, you don’t have to take my word for it. I mean God will flip the script on you really quick. There’s a line that I come back to every once in a while. I’m just going to read it.

This is Saint Mary and her praise of God at the in the first chapter of Luke. And she cries out, sings even. Speaking of God:

He has scattered the proud in their imaginations of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree. He has filled the hungry with good things. And the rich, he has sent empty away.

I mean, you don’t have to agree with me on these things because we’re not that kind of church. But one thing I hope that I can encourage you to think about, or at least engage with is there. There are two pillars of Christian faith that we can rely on. [First,] God’s nature is love, not just some sort of thing that God pulls out every once in awhile to impress us or to get us to think that maybe we should join the club, but that God’s nature is love, and that connects everything.

And that just because things seem to be set in stone doesn’t mean that they are. I can’t promise you policy changes. (I told you I wasn’t gonna talk about policy.) Can’t promise you wealth either, or a long life, or all the dreams that you’d cooked up. But I hope that that something that you can carry away and give yourself a little hope, because hope is the anchor of the soul. And without which it doesn’t matter where else we come up with.

But this is Washington after all, and you don’t think I’m going to [not] talk about something that’s happened in practical terms recently. The president came up with a really good idea on Monday. I mean, you’ve seen it. You watch the news. He was going to make a stand, I guess. I don’t know what goes through his mind. So he had some people clear out [the] people who were protesting, which it was their thorough right to do. Clear them out: horses, tear gas, pushed them away. We saw that we’ve seen that. That would be bad enough, galling enough, abusive enough. Boy, he just took it that much further, didn’t he? (And I know that the tear gas and the horses and all that, that’s the serious thing; that’s the important one. I get that.) But then he came out and used a church and a Bible as a prop piece to remind us that power is the first and most important [thing]. We know that’s not true, but it came out to remind us of this “fact.” And I’ll tell you that just sticks, sticks right here. [Points to throat.]

Um, so it’s sticking so much that I actually decided to pay for a subscription to the Washington Post so I can see some of the photos in more detail. Now when I’m gonna spend money for something you know that there’s a problem. OK. So I was able to get a photo of the president in his photo op. Holding the Bible as, like it was a dead fish. And they gotta close up of it, and I saw it, and I saw the spine. And I just about… I saw it in my heart went cold. It said the Revised Standard Version on it, which is not a new Bible. This was the sort of the mainline favorite between the late 40s. President Truman was given the first copy of it. That might be his copy for all I know. I suspect it was a presentation piece left at the White House at some point. Between the Truman administration and say, though the first, Bush administration. That was sort of the highlight of that of that version and so I decided to redeem it a little bit today, and Alex very graciously read today’s lessons from that version.

Because I think that if we take our religious life. Seriously, we need to reinterpret and understand what corrupt and powerful forces would have us believe. This thing, [gestures a bible] we will open it. And we will find strength from within it. We will look into our hearts. We will open them. And we will know what we have to do. Let’s talk about the readings for a second. These actually are the appointed readings for the day. I didn’t come up with these. I didn’t invent these for the purpose, but there’s something that’s really interesting about both of them.Both the second Corinthians and the Matthew are the last passages from their respective books. And Paul offers council to this unsuccessful little church in Corinth that needed his help remotely. If he had Zoom, he would’ve had a much easier time of it. And in Matthew, on the other hand, you have the departing narrative of Jesus, the his earthly ministry is ending and he is transferring authority to his students that he might be — that what disciple means — to his students, so that he might create new students in a world that might understand this way of God’s relationship with the world. But both of them are parting stories; both of them are endings.

Something, something in our sad world is ending right now. Maybe something better will follow. I don’t know; people have said that a lot, too, over the centuries and generations. I’m not going to make any promises. But when it comes to endings, we know that there’s grief that follows. And there’s a lot of tears that haven’t been shed yet. Not only for these people who were slain and had no.… I just can’t say it … Who should be with us here today.

Not only are there not enough tears for them, but for the ones, for them [for whom] there was no camera nearby. An artificial report was written up, which itself is deception and lies. We have not had enough tears for the dead and not enough truth to address the lies.

Something old is ending. But we cannot step to what is new, even if it’s good, even if it’s holy, and wholesome and beautiful until we properly, accountably, and in a holy way remember the hurt and the dead. We’ve been through these things long, I mean. Years and generations. Of course, we know how the story goes. There will be another disease, or there’ll be another crisis, or the economy will probably tank out from under us and will be caught up in all of that. And people who for whom this is not the first concern. (Those people are largely white people. So let’s put a little bit little flag in that.) We want to move on. We will not move on, right? Because our hearts are not yet open for that love which God has for us. And at which we must have for one another! must have! And we have not yet trusted that the world in its stream of sadness, [which] tells us lies about what is right and wrong. It’s not there yet. But I have faith and I have faith in you, each of you, that you will not let this pass away with the next new cycle in the next distraction or the next possibility of something more pleasant.

There’s this evidence of this. There are signs. Last week was horrible. Early on it got a little bit better, and once again, that’s in part due to you. And for the people who turned out on 16th Street in front of church. Who showed up in the smallest little towns across America and around the world to say no. No. “But my life matters.” And the things are not going to be the same. And that is, tt’s not the new, but it is a foretaste of the new which, like someone looking for food in a time of hunger [would] be a taste to allow us to go forward.

I’ve said too much. Let us mourn. Let us reflect. Let us be open. Do not be forgetful or distracted. But have faith, knowing that God is love. And that we must love one another, and that has responsibilities with it, and duties which we will find in order to address our sad world. To cheer it and to create that city which comes down adorned like a bride and be united with God. Amen.

Tomorrow’s (June 7) service may be delayed

Update (June 7). I'll be slow getting out today's audio service and the sermon text I preached. As it happens, I preached extemporaneously and so will need to transcribe it. But not today. Take care.

A word to my faithful audience. Tomorrow's service may be late, but I hope to have it up some time on Sunday. Given the situation, I didn't want to prepare something too early, and I'm also preaching (on different texts) for Universalist National Memorial Church tomorrow. I'll have that sermon text posted.

And there's a good chance I'll be out in or near the demonstrations, too. Wear your masks and stay as safe as you can be.

Black lives matter.

Non-Subscribing Presbyterians have new website, services online

I was watching some Holy Week and Easter videos from Non-Subscribing Presbyterians in Ireland. I have known about them for decades but have never seen one of their services. Be sure to see and the several videos by the Rev. David Steers, including his effective use of a litany to create a moment of worship, here for Good Friday, and the Easter service from Killinchy, led by the Rev. Philip Reain-Adair.

Killinchy, where is that? I went to the website of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland, and saw that it had been completely revamped. Congratulations!

Sermon: Good Friday 2020

I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on Good Friday, April 10, 2020.  The text was the passion of St. Matthew.  (Matthew 27:11-54)


Friends, we turn to the difficult fact of Good Friday. Here, God's beloved dies before the jeering crowd. Betrayal, cruelty and falsehood triumph. Hope burns to ashes, and light and color drain from the world. We are left with questions, grief and silence.

Good Friday so becomes a spiritual challenge. In good times, we might have to specially direct our spirits to be receptive to this horror and grimness; so when the sun shines and the air is warm, it can seem a strange thing to try and be sad. And when times are bad, well, who needs more sadness? That's this year, and I’m sad and anxious enough, and don’t like it. The trope, well-shared in social media, is that this Lent has been far more Lenty than anyone expected, perhaps too much to bear. Nevertheless, Good Friday prepares us for hard times, at least giving us familiar concepts to interpret them.

Perhaps we can identify the losses that come from the COVID-19 pandemic, and try to set them directly in a framework that Good Friday presents. It is a natural thing to do: tying Good Friday to the suffering we're experiencing collectively. There’s a risk, though. It's a collective hardship, but not an even or fair one. It is not a leveler. Those who suffered before, will suffer more — including the loss of health and life, and anxiety and depression, not to mention the economic impact. Millions of people will be pushed beyond breaking, into lasting or deeper poverty and unemployment. Its results will follow us for many years, perhaps for the rest of our life. Most hardships don’t end in redemption.

Instead of comparing the pandemic to the crucifixion directly, I think about what the disciples must have asked themselves that Friday when all their hope died: where do we go from here?

If Easter's resurrection brightness is hard for us to conceptualize now, after centuries of meditation and interpretation, it surely must have been unthinkable for the disciples: not even an option to consider, much less weighing the up pros or cons of its likelihood. But Easter did come, and those who survive this crisis will have to decide what we will do next.

The trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate is remarkable for any number of reasons. We know so little of individuals from that period, and what little we know of Pilate is that he crucified a lot of people. I’m not prone to read him as the antihero, swayed by the mob. (Passages which have been used for centuries to justify violence against Jews, I should add. And this scene from Matthew is less troubling that the one from John.) And another odd thing was the choice of the crowd in letting one condemned man go, a practice that has no independent confirmation. So what follows is not an original thought, but one I picked up in college (I was a religion major) about thirty years ago. Consider that there were not two criminals, one of whom might be set free, but one man with two names, Jesus the Messiah, the anointed one, and Jesus Barabbas, Jesus “son of the Father.” The first tinged with triumph and the power of the governance; the other pointing to mystical connection with God. Which seems backwards, doesn’t it? Because Barabbas is described as a bandit, but well, we know not to take one-sided charges too seriously. After all, the man who died on the cross told us, “they know not what they do.” We know he was innocent.

We might have two names, too. Which will we chose? We must seek the good impulse, and live into it, but that won’t protect us. We may not escape hardship, but might, just maybe, choose what we suffer for. For goodness and for the common good. To defend the helpless, and to overcome domination. To chose life in its fullness, rather than to concede to bitterness.

How will we be known? And will that name be a blessing to those who come after us? Challenged by the experience of the Resurrection, the disciples went out to ends of the world, to share the gospel that the world might not despair, because on the cross we saw that all is not as it seems and that God’s purpose and blessing come to those, however grieved and confused, do what is good, and right and true.

Let us pray:

Eternal God, before the cross we stand in awe and trembling. Comfort and console the mourners this day. Confirm in us that mind and spirit you put within Jesus, our comfort and our strength. And lead us from this place, to go forth with your blessing, and to live without fear, waiting in hope.

Sermon: on healing

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UNMC chancel mosaic

I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on March 23, 2020 using lessons for the common of Healers of the Sick from the 1963 Book of Common Worship of the Church of South India.  These are from the second Book of Kings (5:9-14) and the Gospel of Mark (1:40-45).


Good morning, and thank you for welcoming me into your homes. As far as I know, this is the first time a service from Universalist National Memorial Church has been broadcast to you, instead of being held at the church. We all know why; there’s no reason to rehearse the endless stream of COVID-19 news. But, given the occasion, I’m going to depart from my usual practice of preaching from the lessons of the Revised Common Lectionary, but instead use a set of lessons from the 1963 Church of South India Book of Common Worship for special days commemorating the Healers of the Sick.

At one level, this is an act of thanksgiving for all those who practice the arts of healing, including not only nurses, physicians and pharmacists, but therapists, medical researchers, nutritional staff, chaplains; and by extension administrators, cleaners and engineers. We thank those working double-time to produce masks and ventilators, and develop new vaccines and therapies. And I will remember those who care for the sick at home, and those who keep food and other supplies available, and those who watch out for their neighbors. Indeed, there are too many people to name even by category. May God bless and protect those helpers of humankind, today and always.

In our first lesson today, Naaman, “commander of the army of the king of Aram” suffered from a skin disease. His wife’s servant was an Israelite, and so he went to Elisha the prophet for healing. But Naaman was unimpressed by what little the prophet seemed to do in order to heal him.

In the second lesson, a leper asked Jesus (who knew about Elisha and Naaman) to heal him, which Jesus did. And Jesus asked the healed man to keep this a secret, but he proclaimed it openly and so people flooded to Jesus to be healed also.

So, from what exactly were Naaman and the unnamed man healed? After all, today we expect to have information about disease. How many days can you be contagious? Is my cough COVID-19 or just allergies? What kind of alcohol should I get? And so on and so on. If never see another one of those spiky ball graphics of the virus it’ll be too soon.

Which makes the diseases in today’s lessons that much more unusual. They were obvious to those who suffered them and to other people, but were evidently not life-threatening. And they assumed to know the cause. Back then, they thought illness depended on sin: either their own, or sin inherited from their ancestors. In other words, bad things happen for a reason, so clearly you are at fault for your own misery. This confuses personal responsibility over what we have control, with responsibility for those things we cannot control.

I’d like us to keep that in mind whenever it seems plausible that persons get what they deserve. Are they really? But I digress.

Now, we know that this “leprosy” wasn’t leprosy in the way we use the term today. Naaman and the man Jesus healed may have had psoriasis, a condition where the skin overproduces and comes off scales. It can be painful, embarrassing, debilitating. And while we no longer think it’s punishment for sin as they would have, it does attack one’s sense of self. In Jesus’ world, it was a sign of impurity, and so kept its sufferers from fulfilling their religious duties.

That is, it was an illness that kept sufferers away from away from God. So when Jesus healed the man and told him to go to the priest, it was so the priest could certify his re-inclusion into the community, and allow him to fulfill his religious obligations. The disease wasn’t, at root, about the skin, but about the soul. It may not be medicine as we know it, but the soul needs healing, too. I tell you: I think the secret that Jesus was trying to keep in that moment was that none of that blaming is true, and none of it from God, the rules about purity included.

Jesus, and prophets before him, healed diseases of separation: the leprosy here, but also blindness and paralysis. He healed those possessed by demons, for what other language did they have for the diseases of the mind. And he healed that greatest separation of all: the separation of life and death. Jesus healed the person or persons depicted, giving them health, function and life. But the people around the healing saw these miracles, and were changed by them.

We, too, hearing these accounts are changed by these healings. We empathize with the people who suffered in these passages, but it’s not at all clear that the people then did. Though empathy, we grow closer to God and to one another. We are also healed from a hardness of heart and a vision that excludes other possibilities. It’s a good lesson for how we regard people too. By not relying on the approval of others to measure our own worth.

This is part of the lifelong path of spiritual healing. In the moment, we could use a little emergency medicine.

Right now, we are physically separated in order to protect one another. That hurts. I’d love to be able to stand close and talk, or shake your hand or give you a hug. But we can’t do that right now. Even though we’re about a month into the pandemic, its effects have just begun. Something that seems easy, even thrilling now, might soon become burdensome, annoying and anxiety-provoking. And the longer we go, the harder it will be to be apart. Tempers will rise and nerves will shake. We’re still in that giddy, novel phase, like the when the winds and rain of a hurricane pick up, but before the power goes out.

So, let me offer some advice. Stay close to the church, even in this virtual form. This is a place of grace and caring, and something you can look forward to if you feel adrift. Keep in touch with one another, and especially pray for one another. Prayer isn’t a kind of magic, but a commitment to that closeness we have with God, and a listening to what God asks of us. And know that others are praying for your well-being. I am, and others, too. If you have a passing thought that nobody cares for you, remember that we not only care, but miss you, and carry you to our God and Creator.

After that, search out wisdom. Read the preaching passages for yourself, and other part of the Bible besides. You may find more in them that speaks to you directly. Read the spiritual classics, because wise people rise up in every generation and this is not the first time human beings have had to cope with epidemics (or economic downturns) in religious terms. Use that wisdom to preserve your health: physical, mental and spiritual. A deeper religious life doesn’t fix all your problems, but it does give you more language to interpret the world around you. Like Naaman, who wondered “is that all there is to it?” let’s accept that little bits of faith can unlock larger resilience and compassion. It’s this way that we find health and peace.

Friends: let us care for the sick, mourn the dead, support the healer, and grow toward health. In this unexpectedly challenging Lent, let us deepen in faith so might live in the fullness of life.

Sermon: “Mountaintops”

I preached from this sermon manuscript at Universalist National Memorial Church, on February 23, 2020 with the lectionary texts from the Book of Exodus and the Gospel of Matthew.


From the twenty-fourth chapter of the Book of Exodus:

Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.

I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me into the pulpit again, and thank you for welcoming me back.

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration, and this is why that’s important. To transfigure here means to transform in such a way that improves and elevates, namely by being brought closer to God in space and purpose but mostly in spirit, and in so doing becoming more like God. It’s this becoming more like God that I think is the main purpose of life, and how we are able to enjoy a life of blessing here and now. If you want to know the point of the sermon, it’s that. It’s one thing to believe we are loved by God (and we are) but another to become more wise, more loving, more compassionate, more creative, more forgiving and so much more. In other words, to accept the inheritance we have as beloved children of the God who is. So I believe that we can, by grace and patience, grow in a God-like way.

Which makes the Transfiguration — the feast and the concept — very important. The passage we heard in the second reading is its warrant. It’s marked today in some Protestant churches: the capstone of the season following Epiphany. On the day of Epiphany, last month, Jesus’ divine essence was disclosed by the presence of a star and discerned by foreign sages, the “three Wise Men.” Now at the Transfiguration, the dim light of a star has become a light that is unavoidable and blinding, though seen only spiritually and not with the eyes. At Epiphany, we come as seekers, but at the Transfiguration we approach as trusted (if unsettled) friends. But the message is essentially the same: we will have more understanding, and that is what will guide us towards God. The wonder and amazement remain constant.

Today’s last-Sunday-before-Lent observance is a Christian minority opinion though. Catholics, Episcopalians and the Orthodox observe it on August 6, which you will recall is the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. That makes me shudder. But perhaps reminds us that dramatic change can also be traumatic change, and that bright light and power can also utterly destroy. And yet that horrible coincidence, which chills the blood and might move you to tears, is also a reminder that change for the sake of change promises us nothing more than change. What we want is a change towards something better. And yet the Godwards life has no promise of happiness, or sweetness or creature comforts in the usual sense. There’s so much pain and hurt in our world. To both love the people and living things in it, and yet hope for something greater and eternal, will stress us, will tear us, will break our hearts.

And so being changed is usually unwelcome, often distressing, and sometimes painful. But it is not optional. To live is to change. How you change, and what you become, relies in part on what you choose to become. Growing into the likeness of God means taking God as your guide. There are other options, but I cannot recommend them. Becoming an indifferent person (say) with a callous soul is also a change and a path, but one where where others pay the price for your comfort.

Sometimes I complain that the recommended passages from the Bible are hard to preach. After all, in any number of lessons brought together by custom or committee, it’s sometimes hard to see the connection. Or there’s a bit of Iron Age morality that needs to be interpreted for the Silicon Age. But I’m not complaining today; the lessons lock together like puzzle pieces. Someone early on, hearing the passage from Matthew, might have thought, “I know where this is going.” And like any good story, you’re happy to hear it in a new voice or from a new angle. Even in Jesus’ time, the story from Exodus about Moses and the rest was ancient. Arthur and Merlin and Guinevere ancient. Moses took his key deputies to a high place, where God was made manifest to him in the others’ presence. And Jesus took his key deputies to a high place where they had a stunning, divine vision of Moses and Elijah. So Jesus made the connection himself, and it was obvious to the disciples, if overwhelming.

These are both hierophanies, manifestations of a higher power like God, but can also be legendary heroes, angels and the like. We can anticipate them or prepare for the to a degree —that’s part of taking a pilgrimage, say — but we don’t have control over them, and there’s no reason to believe that any of us will have this transcendent experience. But can try and understand experiences like those in the reading. And we do have moments in our lives on which we must pivot or chose, and very often we don’t have control over those either.

But what if we have experienced something. Moses experienced hierophanies, and one can say that Jesus was a hierophany. What makes a manifestation a manifestation? Perhaps you’ve had an experience that defies description, or didn’t demand an explanation: an experience where you were called by God without words, or were just pulled up by a sense — somewhere between grief and elation — to a new place where you understood something in a new way. And that leads us to the devouring fire atop the holy mountain. Its light reveals what we carry in our hearts.

On the mountain in the gospel reading, Jesus was also joined by a manifestation of Elijah, and Elijah also had a hierophany It was one of my preaching texts a few months ago, but I don’t expect you to recall the details. He had just slain the priests of Baal — that’s another sermon — and now was on the run for his life. From the first book of Kings, chapter nineteen (7-12):

And the angel of the Lord came again the second time, and touched him, and said, Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee. And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God. And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah? And he said, I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away. And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

The New International Version translates the sound of God as “a gentle whisper” and the New Revised Standard Version as “the sound of sheer silence.”

And so seems to me that the violent storm surrounding Elijah, the “devouring fire” on the top of Moses’ mountain or even Jesus’ sure crucifixion mentioned in his disclosure to his disciples that a hierophany isn’t made up of troubles and tumult, violence and strife, but that they surround and perhaps hide it.

And one thing is sure: you don’t return from the mountaintop the way you came. The experience changes you. And even as we live, we are not exactly the same people we were. We do have some choices: to grow or to wither; to learn or to ignore; to take on a greater likeness to God or withdraw and betray what we might be.

Hierophanies give an experience of great and holy things, but not the means to interpret them to others. That is what we add to our experience of the holy. But direct language fails, even though we have vocabulary and concepts the people living millennia ago didn’t. We can speak meaningfully (if partially) of the working of our minds, of language, of various religious experience, of economics, of the natural world in the micro and macro scale and much more besides. Little wonder we turn to figurative descriptions and the arts to help. Little wonder we relive them though ritual. Preaching is supposed to help explain or at least describe sacred encounters, but can only go so far with the words and gestures we have in common.

Nevertheless, once we have experience of the Holy (if we have it) and once we have some interpretive means for understanding it in our lives — and this interpretation will take on new meanings over the years — you have to do something with it. Growing into a greater likeness with God has responsibilities.

Universalists have not, historically, made much of the Feast of the Transfiguration. An exception is Edwin Hubble Chapin, long-time minister of the church now known as Fourth Universalist in New York. He described a painting in the Vatican by Raphael depicting the Transfiguration, and what its moral implications were.

Writing in his Living Words (1860), he had to paint his own pictures in words of what he saw. The first thing you would see is Jesus is blazing white garments, lifted up as if swimming in the air.

But [Rafael] saw what the apostles at that moment did not see, and in another portion of his picture has represented the scene at the foot of the hill, — the group that awaited the descent of Jesus, the poor possessed boy, writhing, and foaming, and gnashing his teeth, — his eyes, as some say, in their wild, rolling agony, already catching a glimpse of the glorified Christ above; the baffled disciples, the cavilling scribes, the impotent physicians, the grief-worn father, seeking in vain for help. Suppose Jesus had stayed upon the mount, what would have become of that group of want, and helplessness, and agony? Suppose Christ had remained in the brightness of that vision forever, — himself only a vision of glory, and not an example of toil, and sorrow, and suffering, and death, — alas! for the great world at large, waiting at the foot of the hill ; — the [280] groups of humanity in all ages: — the sin-possessed sufferers: the cavilling sceptics; the philosophers, with their books and instruments; the bereaved and frantic mourners in their need! (pp. 279-80)

Raphael tied the scene of the Transfiguration with the next passage in Matthew, where Jesus healed the boy with epilepsy and scolded the faithless around him. Chapin carried the point in his own ministry in New York. The experience of God demands a change, and that change demands positive action that shows that each of us are heirs to God, whether we know it or not. And it shows God that we have heard and seen.

Now, if you know your Moses, Elijah and Jesus, you’ll recall a span of forty days. It’s a biblical convention for a long period of time. Elijah survived forty days on the divinely provided food he ate. Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days. And Noah had his forty days of rain and flood when all the earth was destroyed.

Friends, starting this Wednesday, we are beginning our own forty days with the coming of Lent.

In our society, Lent has become something between a self-improvement opportunity and a running joke, if it is known or understood at all. This is fine, so long we see the forty days as a preparation for a persistent change in our lives. We wouldn’t give up cruelty for Lent, only to re-adopt it for Easter. At its best, Lenten discipline changes you for the better, putting your steps in a Godwards direction. So I charge you not simply to do better but to be better. If you choose a Lenten discipline, make it something practical than will stretch you, but you can accomplish. Tie it to the direction that you feel God leading you towards. If you do not have a clear sense of how God is directing you, make your discipline an act of discovery. Review your life, so as to get a better scope of your life. Learn from the example of others who have gone before you, both to test your self-examination and to encourage you.

And with renewed focus, you can be better by adopting those habits of love and mercy that the logic of this world can not readily understand. Or if it does understand it, it is through the evidence of our lives made glad, living in a way that honor loving kindness.

In short, we will be known by our love for one another, with love to spare and overflow.

Christmas sermon, 2019

I preached from this sermon manuscript at Universalist National Memorial Church, on December 25, 2019 with the lectionary texts from the Letter to Titus and the Gospel of Luke.

The service format was drawn from the twelfth order of service (for Christmas Day) from the 1937 Services of Religion prepended to the Hymns of the Spirit. The responsive reading used the alternative, second-person text of the Magnificat from the English Language Liturgical Consultation.


Merry Christmas.

I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me to preach again, and thank you for welcoming me back.

Plainly put, Christmas sermons tend to write themselves. The stories are well-known and well-loved, and they say something different to us in our different stages of life. And we fill in the details with the singing, the shared companionship and the general warm feeling. My sincere hope for anyone struggling now (and struggling with Christmas in particular) that these moments will bring you rest and refreshment; you’re among friends.

And yet for the familiarity of the Christmas stories — I learned part of today’s lesson in King James English through repeated viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas — it takes years of living to recognize what strange stories they are, and to appreciate the differences between them. Today, we have two lessons from the Gospel of Luke, the most familiar version of Jesus’ origin story. We heard the part about the manger, the shepherds and the actual birth from chapter two, and Mary’s song from chapter one, which we read as the responsive reading. Though considered separately, they are part of a whole. In Mary’s song, she recounts her place in cosmic history. We took her part, and declared to God:

You have mercy on those who fear you from generation to generation. You have shown strength with your arm and scattered the proud in their conceit, casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. You have filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.

This is perhaps less familiar than the angel and Bethlehem, but it is very much part of the same story.

Mary speaks of those who fear God; they will receive mercy. Similarly, the shepherds were terrified: God was being revealed for them, as an infant and nearby. Yet it’s awkward to speak of fear and think of the love of God at the same time. Too often, we fear that which can and would hurt us. This is not what we mean by the fear of God. Rather we also fear what we cannot understand, and we fear disruption to our customary and ordinary life, even it means something good might be coming.

Divine living is not customary or ordinary, and we can scarcely understand how it might come about. That itself is frightening, but also gives us cause for hope. God’s ways are not our ways. In Mary’s time and ours, the proud get their way, the mighty get their way, the rich get their way and it’s hard living for the rest. When Jesus said “the poor will be with you always” we was not mandating poverty, but recognizing what had always been, casting a light on it, dignifying the suffering rather than ignoring it. Divine living is living with a God who knows us and sees us, and desires our good. And God acts by confusing our expectations. Thus a baby, not a warrior or Caesar. Thus Bethlehem, not Rome. Thus a word and not a sword.

And so too, the confusing, unexpected love that God shows us. It can make us afraid because we may not want to love so deeply. God would not hurt us, but love often does. It breaks our hearts, but also gives us life. We can be afraid of being loved so deeply. Consciousness of God’s love pulls out out ourselves, and away from anything low and self-serving. It can lead us to a life of serving one another, as Deacon Eliserena spoke of on Sunday. Is this how God scattered the proud, and cast down the mighty? And it is how God lifts up the lowly?

Or as the author of the letter to Titus puts it, “when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy…” We do not earn this love and cannot earn it; it’s God’s unreserved gift. Accept it. Let it take you to a moment of tenderness, answered by gentle tears. Let it take you, like the shepherds, to the manger.

And then, on returning, what? Where then do the Christmas stories take us? At the very least, this tender goodness and loving kindness should lead us to reflect on how we regard one other in families, among friend or at work, as a nation and in the world. Have been too hard on one another? And in doing, have you been too hard on yourself? For the gift and goal of Christmas is that nearness to God which draws out our likeness to God. Day by day, we can (by God’s grace) strengthen and express those same divine qualities, and above all, a heartfelt love for the world and the people in it. By it, we fulfill the angel’s song of peace and goodwill.

God bless each and all of you this Christmas morning.