Interrupted by grace

If you receive the weekly newsletter from St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Millburn, this will be familiar.  It is the message for March 1, 2019.
This week in the office has been “one of those weeks.”  You get my meaning, right?  A week in which it seems that nothing I set out to do went without a glitch.  We had computer and phone issues.  We needed to call in the locksmith to fix a broken emergency egress lock.   We were working on all of the somewhat mundane behind the scenes stuff that is necessary to keep the parish going. And, to top it all off, it is also the week the annual parochial report is due.  This is the mandatory reporting to the diocese and national church about membership numbers, attendance at Sunday services, and finances.  Although it is important to our understanding of health and vitality of The Episcopal Church and one of the data sets that is used to decide mission strategies and such, it is probably fair to say it is one of the least favorite parts of parish ministry for most clergy.  And yet it has to be done so we do it.

 

While working on it this week and, if I am to be truthful, doing so with less than a joyful heart, with thoughts that this is not why I went to seminary and jumped through all the hoops on the way to ordination running through my head, I was interrupted by a woman who came in to talk to me about a personal concern.  I’d never met her before, so I was a bit surprised and had absolutely no way of anticipating where the conversation would go or how it would turn out.  And I am aware that the sudden transition from the highly detailed work I had been doing to talking with someone didn’t feel as seamless as it usually feels for me.  At first I found it hard to ignore the ticking clock that was reminding me so loudly of all the things I needed to get done.

 

And then it happened!  The wise, wild, and wonderful Holy Spirit cracked it wide open, cracked me wide open.  Suddenly I saw – in that top-of-your-head-to-the-tip-of-your-toes ways of seeing – that this time with her is exactly why I went to seminary and jumped through all the hoops on the way to ordination.  The privilege to just be with someone, to listen to them with your whole heart, to acknowledge their pain and their hope, is what makes all of the mundane daily, weekly, monthly, and annual work worth doing.  True, the gift of getting to be with people often means the work we planned to do gets pushed aside or delayed and we need to rethink our plan.  True, too, the gift of connection to others is one of the surest signs of God’s grace.

Blessed to be a blessing

This is my sermon (more or less, because I preach without notes)  from February 17th, the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany.  You will find the lectionary here.

Today’s Gospel is the “Sermon on the Plain”, one of two accounts of Jesus’ beatitudes.  It is easy to confuse or conflate the two but Luke’s Sermon on the Plain is not Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.  There is no “poor in spirit” or “those who hunger for righteousness.”  There is only “you who are poor…you who are hungry now…you who weep now…you who are hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed.”  And there are the corresponding woes, which are not a part of the story in Matthew. This is quintessential Luke, bringing the Good News to the people in ways that are raw and real, demanding an examination of one’s heart and choices as a prerequisite to discipleship.  In Luke’s version of the story, there can be no doubt what Jesus wants, who Jesus prefers.

Jesus wants disciples who focus on God’s desires, God’s dream.  These are people who choose to follow his example and to do it in real and sacrificial ways. True followers of Jesus modify their dreams and desires, their goals, their very lives, to demonstrate an understanding that the measures of success we humans all too often prioritize will not get us deeper into the heart of God.  The Sermon on the Plain is a good reminder that the Gospel is not intended for our comfort, but for our transformation.  In the words of C.S. Lewis, “If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

This is a challenging and often deeply uncomfortable message for those of us who are privileged – and we here are all privileged in one way or another, some of us greatly and multiply so. Luke reminds us that in the Good News there is a preferential option for those who lack privilege.  Failing to recognize our privilege and to see the obstacles faced by others leads to a self-congratulatory confidence that can be our demise.

I thought about that this week when I watched part of an interview with Ralph Northam, the Governor of Virginia.  In the interview, Gov. Northam was explaining how he has changed and continues to change since his medical school days, when he posed in blackface alongside a friend in a Ku Klux Klan hood.  Gov. Northam seemed contrite and genuinely interested in better understanding why his actions from 35 years ago are so offensive and hurtful today.  One of the things he said is that he did not know, and continues to try to better understand, that his privilege blinded him to the very different experiences of others.  He was talking about those not lucky enough to be born white male, and middle class, with all of the opportunities that combination of accidents of birth provides.  His privilege was and continues to be an obstacle to his ability to see and understand that the trappings of traditional success are unattainable for many and often are the mechanisms by which others are oppressed, kept in a particular place, and not seen and valued for who they are: beloved children of God.

Luke speaks to this quite directly, at least by scriptural standards.  He has Jesus come down and stand on a level place with the apostles, disciples, and all who came to hear him and be healed.  Jesus speaks to the crowd and apostles together, giving all of them the same message about God’s grace, which is unequivocally about the preferential option for the poor, the hungry, the outcast.  Luke reminds us that Jesus seeks out the underdog, those left behind or cast aside.  Furthermore, he says that discipleship is a life-altering proposition.  It is, in the words of theologian John Stott, “inconvenient because it requires a rethinking and reworking of all manner of things.” You must change the way you live in order to have a transformed life.

The Gospel reminds us of Jesus’ commitment to leveling the playing field, so to speak. My former bishop, Doug Fisher, calls this, “Jesus’ mission of mercy, compassion, and hope.”  It is Good News, though it is not easy, not without considerable cost for those who are followers of Jesus and called to a particular way of living and seeing the world.  This business of being part of the Jesus Movement and to “walk the way of Love,” of working with God’s Holy Spirit “to change the world from the nightmare it is for so many into the dream God has for it,” to quote our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, is no easy feat.

To fully experience God’s grace, to know God’s love and feel God’s presence, requires that we look at ourselves and others with God’s eyes, God’s ears, God’s heart.  It means living our lives with an embodied faith, with Jesus as model, as well as guide.  It is aspirational and incarnational.  As we seek deeper understanding and to move further into the heart of God, we act in ways that acknowledge others are beloved and beloved in the way that Jesus would choose them first.  And, as odd as it sounds and as hard as it is to believe, this is not about exclusion, even exclusion of “you who are rich…you who are full now…you who are laughing now…”.  It is radically inclusive. It is about realizing that God has provided all that is needed for everyone – every single person born and living in every single circumstance – to thrive in God’s world.  The blessed are those who know that this is possible only with God’s help, by God’s grace, and who choose to live their lives that way, offering what they have to the good of others.

When I read Luke’s version of the beatitudes, with the corresponding woes, I am comforted, my heart is gladdened, the challenge to my privilege notwithstanding. Luke brings Jesus’ message of blessing and grace to the most basic terms: poverty, hunger, sadness, and loss, all of which are real and prevalent, all of which can be helped if we with privilege and resources choose to live our lives generously and with an openness of heart.  Sharing what we have and paying good attention to the accidents of birth and other circumstances that prevent others from achieving the same, is one of the most important and necessary aspects of Christian discipleship.  Through it we actively live the “love your neighbor” command, all while we grow in faith and experience God’s love and grace in deeper and more meaningful ways.

When I read this Gospel, I can almost hear Jesus saying:

Blessed are you who know you have need, for you can love others.                                  Woe to those abide in your privilege, for you fail to love fully.

Blessed are you who love others well, for you choose to love me.                                        Woe to those who fail to love fully, for you are blind to my grace.

This thing called calling

This is my sermon (more or less because I preach without notes) from February 10th, the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany.  The lectionary for the day is here.

Today’s lectionary is all about calling, that invitation from God to share in the realization of God’s dream for the world.  We start with the calling of Isaiah, one of the most beautiful stories of someone hearing and responding to a call after a significant life experience.  We hear something similar in the Epistle, though perhaps not as directly, with Paul recounting his conversion from persecutors of followers of Jesus to, well, St. Paul.  And this Gospel, the story of Jesus gathering some of his apostles whose calling it will be to “catch” people, is pretty familiar to most of us, I bet.

Some of you, because you served on the vestry and search committee when I was called to be your rector, have heard about my call to ordination.  Because I think it helps to illustrate the message we are hearing today, I offer a couple bits of it here.

I first heard God call me on Good Friday during the veneration of the cross.  “Heard” is a funny word.  It wasn’t an actual voice, more a full body knowing that God wanted me to do what the priest was doing.  The fact that I didn’t really know what the priest was doing because he was speaking in Latin and I didn’t understand Latin didn’t matter at all.  This call came to me in the Roman Catholic Church (I attended that Church with my mother and the Episcopal Church with my father until I was 12.) so the fact that woman were not yet being ordained in the Episcopal Church may have been the least of my problems, a point the nun I first mentioned it to made clear in no uncertain terms.  But I digress…

Fast forward about 40 years.  As part of the formation process in the Episcopal Church, postulants and candidates undergo psychological testing.  In the Diocese of Massachusetts, where I was ordained, this means multiple visits with two different psychologists, a primary who focuses more on conversational assessment and the other a battery of testing.   During the session with the primary guy when he was reviewing with me the results of my testing, there was only one surprise: I tested high on a scale that measures risk tasking.  Me – the girl, now middle-aged woman, who followed the rules and lived a pretty low-risk kind of life – tested high for risk taking!  This made no sense.  Risk takers jump out of planes with balloons on their backs, something I would never, ever, ever do.  Risk takers moved to foreign lands where they knew not another soul and had only perfunctory understanding of the language, something I wish I’d had the courage to do when I was younger.  Or, in my job as a social worker, less healthy risk taking was the reason people became my clients.

The psychologist saw my confusion and immediately knew why.  He said, “Paula, think about what you are doing.  You have entered a process that requires you to make huge changes in your life, giving up a career you are devoted to and have worked hard to establish reputation and success.  Your family has had to make adjustments to accommodate your schooling and everything else you are required to do.  You are leaving the parish you love.  You have no guarantee of a job when you graduate.  Furthermore, you are doing all of this with no way of knowing if, in the end, the bishop will consent to ordain you.  I’d say that’s risk.    And yet you willingly do it. You asked to be allowed to do it. It’s a big risk with the potential for heartbreak.”  His words describe calling to a T.   Calling is about responding to God at work in your heart.

My friend, Sue, used to talk about the difference between “head” faith and “heart” faith.  She was pretty clear that it is the heart faith that changes your life, though certainly using one’s head is not a bad thing.  When I was discerning my call she would remind me that my head could get in the way because what I was doing was not logical.  My life was good.  I was happy.  I had a beautiful family I would do anything for.  I had a job I loved, and friends I enjoyed spending time with.  I had three kids to put through college and a mortgage.  It was crazy to risk all of that with absolutely no way of knowing if all of the seemingly kazillion other people who would need to see in me what I felt God still wanted me to do.  I could, literally, do everything right, follow all the rules, and not be ordained at the end. And yet I could not, at that time in my life, do anything else and be faithful to God.

The good news for the world is that calling is not limited to those who seek ordination, are hanging out with kings and seraphs, are blinded on the road to Damascus, or run into Jesus after a bad night of fishing.  God’s Holy Spirit is working in and through all of us all of the time.  Our job  is to listen for what the Spirit is saying and then respond.  So much of what God is saying to us is not even stuff we need to try to figure out.  The Bible is full of God’s expectations, God’s dreams.  Jesus showed us how to translate those dreams into action: he sought out sinners and outcasts to offer them love and compassion.  Jesus challenged the status quo. He looked beyond what we can see to see who God created.

Jesus loved.  Jesus loved unconditionally.  Jesus loved big. Jesus told us to love big, to love unconditionally.  Jesus told us to open our hearts to be a part of bringing God’s dream for the world to life right now.  And that doesn’t require all of us to change our lives in the ways that being ordained changed mine.  What it does require is that we listen to God and then act in some way on what we hear, in big ways and small.

Imagine what the world would be like if we all responded to God’s call for us to love one another.  What if we looked at the poor and the hungry with our hearts, recognizing beloved children of God?  I can’t say for sure exactly how God would have any one of you respond, but I do know it would not be by saying, “But it’s too expensive to feed and house and give medical care to all those people.”  That’s a human head response, not a Jesus heart response.

What would happen with our LGBTQ brothers and sisters if we looked at them with our hearts?  Imagine what the world would be like, imagine how their lives and ours would be changed, if we got to the point where we dropped the “LGBTQ” and just said “brothers and sisters.”  Imagine if we saw people of color as simply “people.” This is how God sees them.

And all those families separated at the border?  I can’t imagine that we would have literally countless numbers of children lost in a system that doesn’t know who they are, where they are, or how to get them back to their families.   Imagine how this would be different if we saw with our hearts children who have parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, grandparents, who love them and are grieving for them.  Imagine if we recognized all of them, children and adults, as beloved children of God. I don’t have the answer to the huge problem this is, but I do know we could not possibly continue acting as we have, justifying the horrific toll this is taking on them because we say we lack resources or infrastructure or whatever of the excuses we are using to say this is okay or necessary.

Calling is about listening faithfully.  Calling is about responding meaningfully.  Calling is about being the best you God created you to be.  How is God calling you?

 

 

Unexpected roads: The transformational wisdom of the magi

The manuscript from my sermon on The Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2019.  The link to the lectionary is here.

Have you ever gone to meet someone or to do something and have it turn out differently than you thought it would?  Maybe you’ve heard stories about someone and carry those stories with you into a meeting. You go into the meeting prepared to react in particular ways, to have feelings like those of whoever has told you the stories.  And then something odd happens.  You meet this person and it is as if he or she must be someone else.  Your experience is so different than you were told to expect, that you find yourself wondering if it is the same person.

Maybe you’ve agreed to do a favor for a friend or co-worker.  At first it seems like it makes sense but then…after you’ve actually started in on whatever it is, something changes and you think, “Ahh…not so much.”   So you change things up.  You listen to whatever is telling you something is not right. You go in a different direction.

The wise men in today’s Gospel are kind of like that.  We call them “wise men” but their real title would be “magi.”  Magi were people from Persia or Babylonia.  They were not Jewish.  They were not kings.  They likely were astrologers who believed that the stars always shine a bit differently whenever a king is born or crowned.  Back in those days it was customary for people to travel great distances to show their respects by bringing gifts to new kings, so the magi set out from their homes to do just that.

Along the way they run into King Herod, who asks them to come back and tell him where to find the newborn king.  It seems they agree to do that, and why wouldn’t they?  Herod says he wants to be able to visit the baby and show his respects.  That probably would have made complete sense to the magi.  After all, it’s what people do.

But …something happens.  The magi follow the star and find the place where the baby Jesus lay.  Before even seeing Jesus,  “they were overwhelmed with joy” (Matthew 2:10).  Just being in the place where the infant lay, they were overwhelmed with joy.  Wow!  And then they meet Jesus and it can’t have been what they expected.  A newborn king born into poverty?  Lying in a feeding trough?  No trappings of wealth or privilege?   Suddenly this isn’t just a polite visit to make nice with a new king.  This isn’t what they expected. This is different.  Sure, they go on and pay their respects as planned, they give Jesus the gifts they brought.  But they don’t go back to Herod as agreed. They have a dream and decide to heed its warning. They return home by another road.

One of the most amazing things about this story – something we don’t think about that often – is that the magi didn’t know what we know today.  They didn’t have 2000+ years of history to help them understand who Jesus is.  They weren’t Jewish so they didn’t even have the Hebrew Scriptures with the prophets’ foretelling of the birth of the Messiah.  We’ve all heard the stories of Jesus’ life, with all the miracles and the parables and the absolute commitment to love and justice.  We have Easter and the Resurrection.  We are part of a Church that is founded, that gets its very name, from the reality of those things.

The magi didn’t have those things.  Those things hadn’t even happened yet.  The magi had themselves and their experience in the world.  They were intelligent men, learned men, some of the scientists of their day. They were courageous and curious, traveling great distances to learn more about the stars.  And they were willing to change their plans when it made sense.

They had something else we have today – what all people for all time have had and will always have – God fully present and at work in their lives.  What the magi responded to that day in their encounter with the baby Jesus is the God who is present to all of us even when we do not know it.  Even when we do not understand it.  Even when we don’t know we are seeking God.  In following that star to the place where the baby Jesus lay, they got the answer to a question they probably did not know they were asking.  That was the overwhelming joy.

They felt God’s presence up close and personal and it changed their lives.  God had come into the world in a new and different way and they were curious enough and courageous enough to let go of their plans and their expectations.  Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ we, too, get to experience God in new and different ways, all of the time. We are able, as were the magi, to live with a curiosity and a willingness to be changed by the new, by the unexpected, by any of the myriad ways God will show God’s grace and love to us.  That isn’t always so easy, though, is it?

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one here who has had the experience of God’s presence in a new or different way and known it at the time.  I’m probably not the only one who has said, “Thank you, God, for being with me in this way at this time,” and then gone right back to doing whatever it was I was doing.  Living with the kind of curiosity and openness to God that leads to changed hearts and minds, can be a challenge.  It often is easier to rely on the planned, the familiar, the status quo, to accept the change that comes in surprising, unexpected, even overwhelmingly joyful ways.  And, yet, that is what the magi teach us.  They teach us to be open to the ever present invitation from God to journey deeper into the heart of God and to let that set the course of our lives.

As we journey through the season after the Epiphany and beyond, may each of us be curious enough and courageous enough to feel the overwhelming joy that is ours through Jesus Christ.  May we be open to changes of mind and heart as we follow where the Living Spirit guides us, trusting in the presence of God at all times, in all places. May each of us welcome God’s presence with joy and express our gratitude to God in ways that make a difference in the world. Amen.

Rainbows and incarnation

This is my homily for the spoken Eucharist on December 30, 2018, a day on which our principal service was Lessons & Carols.  The lectionary can be found here.

A little more than a year ago, I had one of the most amazing experiences of my whole life.  It was a dreary day and I was feeling kind of blah.  Okay, I was feeling more than “blah.”  I was cranky.  The dreary day followed a couple of intense weeks, with several deaths and other sad or frustrating experiences in my hospice chaplaincy.  I was tired and grieving and hungry and anxious to get home to my warm and comfortable home on a wet and dreary day.  It wasn’t happening soon enough and I was cranky.  Very cranky.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, I was on my way home.  To get from my office to my home, I headed due north on Rt. 95 and made a right turn onto Rt. 195 East. I turned onto 195 and had not driven more than 100 yards when I saw the most spectacular rainbow I’ve ever seen.   A double rainbow with colors so vivid they didn’t seem real.  It was huge!  It was so huge that it seemed to touch the ground.  You couldn’t see the arch at the bottom of the lower rainbow.  And I love rainbows.   They remind me of God’s promise to Noah after the flood.  Seeing this rainbow lifted my spirits immediately.

And then it got better than that, if you can believe it!  I drove a bit further and found myself noticing that everything looked soft, kind of fuzzy, and oh-so-colorful.  I realized I was driving in the rainbow! The colors were beautiful: vivid and vibrant, shimmering.  They were spectacular and I saw them with an astounding clarity.  As clear and as vibrant as they were, there was nothing harsh or stark about them.  I wish I could describe what I felt in those moments.  What I can say is that I had an awareness of God, of God’s presence, that is beyond the typical.  And although only a few minutes before I had been dying to get home, I found myself wondering if it would be possible to simply stop, to stay where I was, to bask in the prismatic light and continue to soak up this awesome experience of God’s grace.

I remember thinking of the passage from John that is today’s Gospel, which, though not necessarily the easiest to understand, is one of my favorites. I love the poetry and the mystery. On that day on the highway I thought about light and grace.  It thought about the kind of light and grace that brings life, that which can overcome darkness, all sorts of darkness, including the darkness of my crankiness. And now, reading this Gospel I think about what it was like to be bathed in light, to want to sit and be silent while basking in it.  I can honestly say this was truly a transformative experience, beyond what it did to lift my spirits.

Now, I know not everyone will be lucky enough to be able to spend time inside a rainbow.  Yet, we all will have some kind of experience that speaks to us in the way we need in order to be open to experiencing God’s grace and light in the ways we need to be reminded of what’s most important, to be reminded who and whose we are.

Today’s Gospel reminds us who and whose we are because it is all about who God is, who Jesus is, and what that means for us, for the world.  We are reminded that, no matter our attempts to define God, to understand God, to do what sometimes feels to me like putting God in a box, God can never be fully understood.  Nor is there anything God would not do to help us journey deeper in God’s heart, to invite, encourage, and support us to be part of the realization of God’s dream for God’s world.

The incarnation, the inbreaking of God into the world in the infant Jesus, is one of the many ways other than rainbows that God reminds us of the promises that are ours simply because God is who God is, regardless of whether we can navigate 40 days and nights of flooding with an ark full of animals or if we get unusually cranky at some time or another in our lives.  It still amazes me, after all of my years of living and the years of intentional study and commitment to my faith, that God could love so fully and completely and unconditionally that entering the world in human form, to live and grow and die as one of us would even begin to make sense.  Can you imagine knowing what God knows about humankind and the mess we so easily make of so much and then deciding of your own free will to make the choice to become as vulnerable as one can possibly be to show the people who do ultimately kill you how much you love them?  Wow!  Just wow.

The incarnation is one of life’s most awe-inspiring mysteries.  It is the most wonderful of paradoxes: nothing we can begin to be fully understand and yet something we can personally and intimately experience, even today, over 2000 years later.  My prayer for you, for all of us and the world, is that we remain open to experiencing grace and light whenever, wherever, and however we have the chance. I pray, too, that when we have those experiences we remember them in the darkness that will undoubtedly be a part of our lives, and remember that the promise for us is light and life.

 

Surprisingly important…

This is my sermon from December 9th, the Second Sunday of Advent, more or less… The link to the lectionary is here.  We use Track 1.

Today’s Gospel is one that is pretty well known.  For many people, John the Baptist, traveling the countryside, proclaiming the coming of Jesus, evokes images of camel hair cloaks and meals of locusts and honey.  I’ll admit that when I read, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” in my mind’s ear I am singing, “Pre-e-e-pare ye, the way of the Lord.  Pre-e-e-pare ye, the way of the Lord” from “Godspell.”  It’s an important message, sometimes told in catchy and memorable ways.

You might end up wondering, then, why I am not going to preach this message, at least not at the start of this sermon.  Instead, I am going to focus on two verses that tend not to get much attention, verses that I admit I know are there but haven’t given much thought since I passed my New Testament and Church History classes in seminary.

Bishop Doug Fisher, who was my bishop in Western Massachusetts, spoke about these verses at diocesan convention in October.  I dare say he caused a couple hundred clergy and lay delegates to scratch their heads when he challenged us to name the “two most important verses in the Bible” and then quoted the first two verses of today’s Gospel:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2)

Yep.  Lots of mystified delegates.

Bp. Fisher is a wise man, so of course the confusion was cleared up when he explained his thinking.  He reminded us that these two verses are the verses in the Gospel which firmly and unequivocally ground Jesus in a particular time and place.  These verses give Jesus political, social, economic, religious, and historical context.  It occurred to me that, just as for readers of a certain age who hear the name Franklin D. Roosevelt and think “New Deal” or hear the name John F. Kennedy and think “Cuban Missile Crisis,” Luke’s community and the earlier followers of Jesus would have heard Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, etc. and had an understanding of what it meant to be living in Jesus’ time.  They would have heard and understood Luke’s Gospel though the lens or filter of that particular context.

And this is point at which I start to share my thoughts about Bp. Fisher’s contention.

This is different than the times we are given Jesus’ genealogy, as in the first chapter of Matthew, which seems to go on and on and on…detailing Jesus’ ancestry.  Don’t get me wrong, this is important, too, although quite frankly it can be hard to follow and has been known to provoke a bit of boredom.  While this helps us to understand Jesus in the context of generation upon generation of family, what it doesn’t do is tell us anything about the times in which Jesus lived his life on earth.  And that to me is the crux of it, why I agree with Bp. Fisher that these two verses are so incredibly important.  In some significant ways, understanding that context helps us to answer the question, “Why Advent?”  And, I dare say, it goes beyond understanding Advent better.   It helps us to understand in deeper, more profound and life-changing ways why it is we even celebrate Christmas.

So why is the social, political, economic, religious, and historical context important to understanding Advent and Christmas?  Because they tell us that Jesus didn’t enter a world that was not in need of God.  The in-breaking of God into the world in the person of the baby Jesus happened at a time that was far less than perfect, a time that was not all that different than our own in terms of violence, conflict, misuse of power, economic and social injustice, gender inequality, and…The list goes on and one.

Jesus was born into the world at a time and in a place that so closely resembles our own that one wonders if humans have made any progress at all.  This adds layers of meaning to the “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son” message that is such a huge part of Christian understanding.  Perhaps it should be written, “God so loved the crazy, out-of-control, mixed up, messed up world and the broken and deeply flawed humans who inhabit it that he sent his only Son…”

That is the Good News, isn’t it?  That God so loved the world as the world was, not as God dreamed it to be, that Jesus was born.  The unconditional, undefinable, beyond-human-comprehension love of God compelled God to take our human form to live as one of us, to live among us, to show us what it means to be loved by God and to love as God would have us love.  No easy task then.  No easy task now.

But God did it.  Jesus lived and died as one of us.  Jesus lived with us, loved us, and was killed by us.  And still Jesus lives, as our Christian faith tells us.  The Holy Spirit continues to work in and through us, inviting us and guiding us and, if I’m any example, occasionally cajoling us to accept the invitation to journey deeper and deeper into the heart of God.

Which brings me more directly to today’s Gospel.

John the Baptist got it!  He understood and was not shy about proclaiming the ways in which we humans need to shift our focus away from the distractions and influences of our human lives, to focus on Jesus, to accept the amazing grace that is God’s love.   In a way few others do, John the Baptist gets right to heart of it.  “Repent and prepare to meet Jesus!”  You can’t get much clearer than that for an Advent message.

“Repent” means to turn away, to feel regret or remorse, a kind of letting.  For us, as for those in John the Baptist’s and Luke’s times, the admonition would be to let go of all the distractions and influences of our time and our place that keep us stuck in our brokenness, to focus on Jesus and living our lives as Jesus would have us do.  Think about what happens when you turn away from something – you turn toward something else.  Along that path there may be lots of other something elses, some we may notice, some we may not.  But the Holy Spirit notices.

I know that when I am intentional about turning away from the distractions of my life to focus on God, to letting go of my human flaws and frailties, to which I am often oddly and sadly attached, I find myself smiling. It occurs to me over and over again that, in the turning away from those things that are not of God, that are not life-affirming or life-giving, I get chance after chance after chance to seek to see God, to see Jesus in all sorts of people and places.  The wild and wonderful Holy Spirit will jump at the chance to use whatever opportunity I give her to show me how to accept the invitation to move deeper into the heart of God, the invitation to transformation.  And I’m pretty sure she’d jump at your opportunities, too.

Last week I gave you a little challenge: to spend some time each day in prayer and reflection to help you prepare to meet the incarnate God as if for the first time.  Today I want to add a bit to that challenge: in the time you spend each day, carve a bit of that to focus on those things about which you want or need God’s forgiveness, those things you need God’s help to let go of so that you can turn away from them and toward God. Accept God’s forgiveness. Pay attention to the opportunities you can create so that the Holy Spirit can jump in and do her thing.  Remember, God does not need us to create huge spaces in order to fill them with immense grace.  Amen.

 

 

And the journey continues…

This is a link to an article written shortly after I arrived at Grace Church, Oxford MA .  There are a couple of minor errors, e.g. I was six not “barely 12” when I first felt called to the priesthood (in a Roman Catholic Church, no less!), but overall Amanda Roberge did a great job telling this story.  I’m adding it to this site mostly so that I don’t lose track of it as I settle into a new call, another step on this wildly and weirdly wonderful journey.

I post this from my office at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Millburn, NJ.  My husband and I, along with our kids (in the ways young adult kids move when they are connected to college and graduate school and the Peace Corp) moved to Millburn three weeks ago and I began working at St. Stephen’s two weeks.  There is so much to say, though, because there is still so much to do to get settled in the rectory and in my ministry with these beautifully faithful and generous people, what I will say is that my heart is once again filled to overflowing with gratitude for the life I am so fortunate to be able to live.  God is indeed good, or, as my seminary colleague Cathy C. and I like to say, “Life is good. God is gooder.”