Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Love Born Off-Script: Christmas Pageant Reflection 2015

"A Love Born Off-Script"
Christmas 2015

Christmas in Selma and across the nation had a different “feel” to it than most.  In fact, most of Alabama felt air temperatures rise into the low 80s!  On Christmas Eve, parishioners at St. Paul’s had to dodge several severe downpours just to make it to the service.  We were the lucky ones though as others around the southeast saw tornadoes and flooding and some even tragically lost their lives because of the weather. 

Meanwhile, as a thunderstorm raged on outside St. Paul’s, the children and youth were poised to offer the annual Christmas Pageant.  The weather didn’t dampen the Christmas spirit though as over 200 gathered at St. Paul’s to celebrate the birth of our Savior.  The children, especially the younger ones, were showing off their angel and shepherd costumes and giggled with excitement. 

When the organist keyed the first few notes of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” the youth and children flooded down the center aisle that was paved with a red runner.  Some strutted as if there were celebrities.  Others walked timidly trying to deflect the eyes of the entire congregation.  And a few walked as if to say, “I can’t believe I am humiliating myself like this.”  In procession, they all carried a piece of the Nativity scene to place at the front of the Nave for all to behold. 

Before the pageant officially began, one angel got distracted during the procession and ran to her grandma.  Another angel, who reluctantly put her lamb by the baby Jesus, kept going back to get it.  Another angel (who shall not be named) became hysterical after one of the shepherds accidentally bumped into her. This angel could not recover and was taken to the nursery.  And we even had a “runaway” shepherd as proclaimed by one of the older shepherds. 

Eventually the chaos dissipated and the show went on.  And through it all, the gospel was proclaimed by the voices of youth and children in word and song.  The good news of the birth of a Savior was heard and seen despite the many distractions and like Mary the congregation "treasured all these words and pondered them in their hearts."  

As the rector and the person in charge of worship, my anxiety level increased with every little mishap during the service.  I couldn’t help it.  I wanted everything to go smoothly and be “perfect.”  But a part of me, the voice of God most likely, kept reminding me that the story doesn’t have to be perfect in order for the love of God to be made known. 

If we remember the story from scripture, we also know that Christ’s nativity didn’t go off without a hitch either.  First of all, Mary had to give birth while traveling to a different city and she was well into her third trimester!  And because the city of Bethlehem was packed with those who went to be registered, they couldn’t even find a place to have the baby because there was no place for them at the inn.  Despite all obstacles, Mary and Joseph found to way to safely bring the Savior into our chaotic world. 

After Jesus was born, an angel of the Lord and a host of others appeared to the shepherds and proclaimed the birth of a Savior singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  The shepherds heard and believed the news and went to Bethlehem and found Jesus lying in the manger.  At once, the shepherds proclaimed the good news of a Savior and all who heard it were amazed. 

After the pageant, God lifted our voices and we sang the praises of the new born King.  The St. Paul’s Choir sang the Vivaldi Gloria in stunning fashion and gave us a glimpse of that heavenly throne room where a chorus of angels stand around the Lamb of God singing his praises night and day.  The St. Paul’s Youth and Children’s Choir sang of the wonders of Christ’s love and reminded us of what it means to have faith like that of a child. 

Veigh Kay Spencer left the congregation in awe and wonder with her vocal and violin solo of What Child is This?.  Veigh Kay was accompanied by her brother Mac on the guitar.  “This, this Christ the King, Whom shepherds guard and angels sing: Haste, haste bring Him laud; The babe, the son of Mary.” 

Still, over 2,000 years later, God has given us the greatest story ever told.  Like a well-aged wine, the story of Christ’s birth only grows better with time.  The story that started with an angel’s announcement to the Blessed Mary that she would bear a son is a story that is still pregnant with possibilities.  This is a story that still has much love to give to people everywhere.  Even when the story goes off script, the love of God in Christ is still proclaimed. 

And upon further reflection, maybe the story is supposed to go off script.  In twenty years, we will still be talking about the runaway shepherd.  We will still be talking about the angel who threw a temper tantrum.  When we remember the parts that went off script, we will ultimately be reminded that through it all love was born.

At the end of the day, this is the story of how the love of God is born in all of our hearts.  This is a story that reminds us that God’s love is made known most clearly when everything else in our lives seems to be going wrong.  Even more, this is a story that tells us that God love’s is with us no matter what—nothing can prevent God’s love from breaking into our lives.    

May the love of God that was born in a manger in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago be born again in your heart today.  May the love of our Savior carry you through the changes and chances of this life and lead you home to the dwelling place of God in heaven. 

Monday, December 28, 2015

How Secular Christmas (can) Enhance the True Meaning of Christmas.

     This may be surprising to some of you but historians believe that the birth of Jesus did not take place during the winter months.  If you look at Luke’s Gospel in particular, two things take place that would never happen during the winter.  First of all, it would have been too cold for shepherds to stand outside to guard the flock of sheep.  Secondly, the sheep would not be grazing because the grass was dead during the winter months.
            So the obvious question asks, “Why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25th?”  The celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25th was not a tradition of the Church until the 4th century when the Church started to Christianize pagan rituals.  Instead of flat out rejecting these pagan festivals, the Church tried to name how the eternal truth of God was present in idol worship.  One aim was to convert pagans and another was to redirect the hearts of nominal Christians.
            The days around December 25th were common for pagan festivals that observed the winter solstice.  In particular, an Egyptian festival honored the birth of the only son of the queen goddess of heaven whose name was Isis.  This celebration also observed the renewal of the cycle of the sun when the days began to get longer again.  It isn't difficult to see why the Church chose December 25th to name the day when the Son of God "came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary."  
            Later the Catholic Church urged all Christians to cease from observing any remnant of the pagan holiday connected to Christmas namely the receiving and exchanging of gifts.  Obviously, I do not believe this is a stance that the Church needs to make today when it comes to the secular observance of Christmas. 
Like 4th century Christians, I think we would do well to name how God is present in the secular observance of Christmas.  And that is why I will invite the children forward for a Blessing of the Toys.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to make the connection with God’s help! 
            Before I get to the blessing, I want to note something in John’s Gospel that will help prepare us.  John recalls that everything that came into being is because of God’s Word.  The opening sentences of John’s Gospel take us back to Genesis when he says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God.”  At the end of the creation story, we are told that all of God’s creation and all that is in it is named “very good” by God. 
            So why is there so much evil in the world we must wonder?  Why is there evil in a world that God calls “very good.”  One way to answer that question is to say that evil is the perversion of good.  Evil manifests itself when creation is used for purposes for which it was not intended.  Remember when Adam and Eve took the forbidden fruit?  Evil is often the result of using what God has given us for selfish gain. 
            Ultimately, the danger of material goods is when they become the object of our worship.  The danger of things like money and houses and toys and any good thing like family happens when our world revolves around those temporary things instead of the God of eternity who made all things.  As yourself this, "Where does your identity come from?  From the things that you have? Or from the One who made all things?"
            I read recently that the purpose of life is finding your gift and the meaning of life is to give that gift away.  As Christians, the ultimate gift is life and the fullness of that life is revealed in Christ.  Later in the book of Genesis, we learn that God blesses his people so that they may be a blessing to others.  So during the Christmas season, we gather to discover again the gift of life through God’s Son Jesus Christ and our hearts are kindled to share that love with others.

I want to leave you with one final note connecting the secular observance of Christmas and the Christian observance.  The narrative of Santa Claus tells us that only the “nice” kids receive gifts on Christmas while the “naughty” kids get coal in their stockings.  However, the narrative of God in Christ tells us that we are given the gift of salvation for free!

John’s Gospel says we are children of God not because of the will of the flesh or of the will of man or even because of who our ancestors are.  Instead, we are chosen as God’s beloved because that is who God says we are regardless of our posture towards God and the world.  No matter what, God’s posture toward us will always be a posture of love--a love that we know in the Word made flesh.
            The more and more we are able to live by this narrative God's free gift of love the more we are able to live a life that is soaked in "grace upon grace."  The more we live by God's narrative of unconditional love the more we grow in gratitude and the freer we are to become that blessing to others. 
During this season of Christmas, I invite you to remember the free gift of God’s love in the Word made flesh.  Remember that God’s blessing is pronounced in the truth that God lives in the heart of humanity as we know perfectly in Christ.  Remember that God’s perfect love lives in you through Jesus Christ who is born in the heart and flesh of all humanity. 

May you have the grace to receive the free gift of God's love so that you may share God's perfect love with a broken and sinful world.  Amen.  

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Power of (Christmas) Hymns

Dear Friends,

A few nights ago I found myself tossing and turning wondering if I'd ever fall asleep.  I don't think I was particularly worried about anything.  If I had to guess, I would say I was filled with energy and excitement that this season has the potential to bring.  

Anyway, I stumbled across a version of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" that I had never heard before (on Facebook).  This version of the song was produced by a band that I had seen in concert called The Civil Wars.  I clicked on the link to listen to the hymn and almost immediately a calm overwhelmed me, and I was able to fall asleep.  

While no expert on the subject, I have always had a profound appreciation for hymnody.  Hymns, especially ones where the tune matches the gravity of the text, seem to transport me to place of calm and peace.  I feel deeply connected to God and his peace that surpasses all understanding.  In a way that nothing else can, hymns have the power to center me in the face of the many changes and chances of this life.

Not only do the hymns take me to a place where I feel at peace with God but also to a place where I feel more connected with the human family.  My heart is softened and is able to be more compassionate and understanding of a broken and sinful world.  Even more, I am easier on myself and am freed to live and treat my neighbor as a beloved child of God.

On Christmas Eve (5:30 p.m.-You Are Welcome!), we will gather to worship, and we will sing lots of hymns.  At St. Paul's, we will devote a portion of the service to the singing of and listening to hymns.  During the pageant, we will join in singing God's praises with our youth and children.  Again, during Holy Communion, we will sing Christmas hymns as we approach the altar and partake in the life of the One whose birth we celebrate this season.

I invite you to be fully present in the singing and listening to of these hymns.  Like the Angel Gabriel says to Mary, "Do not be afraid."  Don't worry about how you sound.  Don't worry if you sing off key--I know I will!  Simply sing using the joy you find in receiving the greatest news of all-the birth of a Savior.  

Sing boldly in the knowledge that these songs do have the power to soften your heart and change the world as you know it. Sing boldly because these are the songs that announce with joy the peace found in the birth of the One who came to save us from sin and death.  These are the songs that have the power to take us to the land of light and life where we discover again we are beloved children of God.

These are the songs that have the power to take us to a manger in Bethlehem where we remember that God saved the world through the birth of a child, the birth of God's beloved Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.   

With the Joy and Peace of Christ,


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

"You Serious, Clark?!": A Response to the Good News of Salvation

You Serious, Clark?!

I want to do something that an Episcopal priest should know better than to do.  And that is ask the congregation a question that isn’t rhetorical.  I’d like to wait patiently for some of you to raise your hands but for the sake of time I might have to call on one of you.  So, are you ready?!  What is your favorite Christmas movie?  (insert: "You serious, Clark?!)

Congregation Replied:  Home Alone, Elf, It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Love Actually, Christmas Vacation, Muppet Christmas Carol, A Christmas Carol...to name a few.

I believe one of the reasons we love our Christmas movies so much is because on some level they speak so much to our own experience with Christmas.  In particular, most of these movies name a disaster that threatens to destroy Christmas.  There is a lot of grace and laughter found in the knowledge that you aren’t the only one with issues around the holidays. 
Kevin McAllister, an 8 year old boy, gets left home alone for Christmas.  And then the next year Kevin gets left alone in New York.  And I’m not sure where he gets left alone the next year…I stopped after Home Alone II. While I hope none of your parents left you home alone on Christmas, I imagine that many of you know what it is like to feel alone around the holiday season. 
In the classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, George, a man of great character, keeps getting passed over in life until finally he snaps when his insurance agent said he’d be worth more money dead than alive.  Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer is made fun of because he looks different.  In A Christmas Story, Little “Ralphie” Parker and his friends are bullied by the cool kids at school.  Bob Cratchit has to practically beg Mr. Scrooge to give him Christmas day off.  In the movie Love Actually, Liam Neeson’s character Daniel grieves the death of his wife. 
In the movie Four Christmases, Brad and Kate played by Vince Vaughan and Reese Witherspoon, are a married without kids.  They don’t have kids because both of their parents are divorced and don’t want to repeat the same mistake.  So Brad and Kate spend their Christmas visiting all four sets of parents.  And for Clark Griswold, everything that could go wrong goes wrong. 
However, these Christmas stories don’t end with the disappointments.  Something unexpected happens.  Joy is experienced in the most ordinary places like at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas morning.  George finds hope when he realizes his self-worth isn’t defined by money but instead he discovers that he is defined by something as free as love.  And in order for Clark Griswold to give his family the Christmas present he hopes for Cousin Eddie has to kidnap somebody, something scandalous has to happen. 
Joy and hope are born out of the unexpected, out of the ordinary, and even out of the scandalous.  This sounds a lot like another Christmas story we know, doesn’t it?  It sounds like it because that other story is the first Christmas story, it is THE Christmas story.  And the beginning of THE Christmas story has one leaping for joy. 
Scripture says that when Mary greets her cousin Elizabeth with the good news of Jesus, the child in Elizabeth’s womb, John the Baptist, leaps for joy.  Up until now, the promise of the coming Messiah, the promise a Savior, has been a story filled with disaster and detour.
But hope is poised to break into a seemingly hopeless story.  And the story of hope is made known to two unsuspecting pregnant women.  One is a preacher’s wife and the other is a lowly young virgin.  Even more, neither of these two women have any business being pregnant.  Elizabeth is well beyond child birthing years and Mary isn’t even married.  How unexpected? How ordinary? And even how scandalous?  This is the kind of stuff that ends up on tabloid magazines at the grocery store checkout aisle.  But this is where we find the beginning of THE Christmas story.
THE Christmas story is a story that has John the Baptist leaping in his mother’s womb, a story that begins with a song.  First, Elizabeth sings and then Mary sings.  They sing songs of hope.  They sing songs of the miraculous.  They sing songs of thanksgiving.  They sing songs of joy.  They sing in anticipation of the coming of their Lord.        
Last Sunday, the mouths of unsuspecting children sang of the good news. Our newly formed youth and children’s choir sang a song like the songs of Mary and Elizabeth.  Their song anticipated the coming of our Lord.  As we prepare to receive the news of salvation through the child of Mary, I can think of no better way for the news of salvation to be proclaimed than through the voices of children.   
                The sound of their innocent, tender, fragile, beautiful voices coupled with the good news of salvation left the congregation paralyzed with joy.  Sometimes I wonder what might happen if the voices of children surrounded our world with songs of good news.  Maybe the world would be paralyzed with joy and live in peace.  Is that too much to hope for?  Is it too much to hope that the world can be paralyzed with joy and live in peace? Maybe.  But that is THE Christmas story. 
                As the season of Advent comes to a close, we are reminded through the songs of Elizabeth and Mary that the story of salvation isn’t found by looking for big flashing neon signs.  The magic of Christmas isn’t about making sure we get the biggest and best toys.  Instead, the story of Christmas is announced in unexpected, ordinary, and even scandalous ways.  
                The magic of Christmas is about finding the love of God being born in all the wrong places like at the food pantry when people who aren’t supposed to associate with each other embrace with a hug.  The magic of Christmas is poised to be born in a dysfunctional family situation when we let go of our pride and say, “I’m sorry.”  The magic of Christmas is all about finding hope revealed in all the places we would never expect to find hope.  
                 The love of God is pregnant with possibilities and that is the hope that we celebrate and sing about. And this story isn’t proclaimed by professional singers but instead by the faithful, by the ones whom God has chosen to sing of the good news, people as ordinary as Elizabeth and Mary.   Like Mary and Elizabeth, we too have a song to sing.  We, too, can surround this broken and sinful world as children of God and sing about the wonders of God’s love.  
                 We can respond to the Cousin Eddie's of the world who say, "You serious, Clark?!" and reply, "Yes, we are serious.  Hope is on the way! (in a manger, not on a sled).  

(click to watch video)

Friends, we, too, have reason to leap for joy, a child is to be born.  In just a few short days, we will gather again to be paralyzed by joy as our youth and children proclaim the good news of a Savior.  May the proclamation of this news give us the grace to go out into the world and sing so boldly, not only with our lips but in our lives, that our world is paralyzed by the joy we have found in THE Christmas story.  Amen.

Monday, December 7, 2015

An Open Invitation to the Ball

           For some reason, the movie Cinderella has been on my mind a lot lately.  I cant imagine why?!  We are currently trying to transition Mary Katherine to Christmas movies and now we are stuck on Mickey Mouses “Twice Upon a Christmas.” 
            Anyway, I am reminded of the scene when Cinderella receives the invitation to the princes ball.  While Cinderella is strictly forbidden to interrupt her step-mother while her step-mother is giving music lessons to her musically challenged daughters, Cinderella cant wait to share the news of this ball with the rest of the family.
            So Cinderella puts the breaks on her chores and races upstairs to inform the rest of this exciting news.  At the sound of Cinderellas knock at the door, the step-mother hammers out a sour note on the piano.  Step-mother is enraged.  But Cinderella is not deterred, she exclaims with excitement the news of the ball.  Nothing is going to hold Cinderella back from sharing this news not even it means breaking the rules of the house. 
After the initial shock of Cinderellas interruption, the step-mother and sisters are excited by this news and immediately begin to dream about living in the palace.  However, when it is made clear that Cinderella is also invited to the party, they begin plotting ways to make sure Cinderella doesnt make it to the ball.  The step-mother and sisters will not tolerate their servant attending the same party as they do.   

            In todays gospel lesson, we learn about the invitation that John the Baptist receives from the Lord.  Instead of being locked up in a drafty attic, John spends most of his time in a dry desert.  He is shut off from most of the world.  While going about his normal life, John receives an unexpected invitation from the Lord.  One that is filled with hope.  An invitation that says, “prepare the way of the Lord…all flesh shall see salvation.” 
In other words, John receives word from God that there is a way out the hopelessness of Roman occupation and oppression in the holy land.  John must share the news that his people will be set free like they were set free from Pharaoh in the land of Egypt.  And like Cinderella, John is not going to let social custom prevent him from sharing the good news even if his presence is a nuisance for the establishment.  But unlike Cinderella’s story, John’s story does not end happily-ever after or least not in the fairy tale kind of way.  His story ends in more of a horror film kind of way…      
            John’s world is controlled by people who are much more intimidating than evil step-mothers.  These people are listed at the beginning of the gospel lesson and are fueled by power and greed and will take out anyone who gets in their way much like they try to take Jesus out after the announcement of his birth and these are the people who will eventually sentence Jesus to death on the cross.  To put it bluntly the announcement of this good news will shatter all social and political agendas and send many into an uproar of biblical proportions.
            This past week I participated in a discussion with other Episcopal clergy in the area on the subject of evangelism.  We talked about the challenges of sharing the good news of Jesus especially in a world that is often hostile to this news.  In order to get us talking, we talked about the importance of Christs presence in our lives.  After all, understanding what Jesus means in our lives ultimately dictates what news we will share.
            A majority of us talked about how the presence of Christ gave us a sense of peace even in the midst of a chaotic world.  One person, however, sort of shattered these pleasant ideas about Jesuspresence in our lives.  And believe it or not, this person was not me nor was it John the Baptist resurrected from the dead—now that I think about it this person did I have a beard.  This clergy person said that the presence of Jesus often means a kick in the backside.  He went on to talk about Jesuscall to peace is rarely a call to complacency but rather a call to repent and prepare the way of the Lord.
            This priest is absolutely right.  The presence of Jesus in our lives is often a kick in the backside.  And today, that kick in the backside comes in the form of John the Baptist preparing the way of the Lord as he calls the people to repentance.  Scripture tells us that John is fulfilling the prophecy as recorded by Isaiah.
            This prophecy as recorded in Isaiah and as told by John in the wilderness foretells of the way in which God will make salvation known to all flesh.  He will fill every valley.  He will make every mountain and hill low.  The crooked will be made straight and the rough made smooth.  In other words, Jesus is going to carve out a way no matter the obstacle and no matter who or what stands in his way.  So John is warning the people to get ready for the way of the Lord because if you arent ready then you might just get a kick in the backside. 
            Again, during this Advent season, a season that is advertised as quiet and calm, we get a rude awakening from our Lord.  This rude awakening comes via a wild haired hippy crying out in the wilderness.  While this news will be good news for many, this news will strike a sour chord for some.
Ultimately, the invitation is an open call God’s very own ballroom where all flesh shall see salvation—the rich and the poor, the healthy and the lame, the black and the white and the brown and the tan, the American and the Latino and the Middle Eastern and the Asian, the democrat and the republican and the independent, the Auburn fan and the Alabama fan—all are invited to Gods ballroom.     
For many, this invitation to Gods ballroom will be received as good news.  This invitation will be the only good news some will receive in a life that is otherwise consumed with bad news.  For others, this invitation will stir chaos into ones life.  This invitation will cause grief for those who already have ballrooms of their own. 
Friends, if we are honest, then this kind of news will kick most of us the back side—I know this news is kicking mine.  If we are honest, then this invitation will hammer a sour note in an otherwise pleasant life—I know these questions hammer a sour note in my heart.
But receiving this kind of news is what the season of Advent is all about.  Embracing this news is how we as Christians can prepare the way of the Lord.  This is the kind of news that is preparing a place where all people are invited to the party.  And if you feel that kick in the backside upon hearing this news, then what you are feeling is a call to repentance. 
And the good news is that a life of repentance leads us to experience the knowledge of Gods forgiveness.  The good news of Gods forgiveness is the truth that there is always a chance to start over.  There is always an opportunity to begin anew.  There is always the opportunity to say, “you know what, I could do a better job preparing the way of the Lord in my own life and in my own community.” 
This process reminds me of a “Coffee with Jesus Cartoon.”  Carl says to Jesus, “Don’t you ever get tired of this? Me and my same old screw-ups and my same old apologies?  Jesus says, “Two way street, Carl. Do you ever go tired of my same old forgiveness?”  This is what growing in grace looks like.

The process of repentance and forgiveness, the process of grace, calls us to be less present in a world controlled by evil step-mothers and more present in a world that is ruled by the humble presence of our Lord, by the one who humbled himself to the point of death.  The process of repentance and forgiveness, allows us to see that a kick in the backside is actually good news as this loving gesture from Jesus is actually a way to put us back on the road to salvation.
The process of repentance and forgiveness gives us a way to be less satisfied with the rulers and rules of this world and more content sharing the news of a ruler who is making all flesh one even if that means a disruption to the world as weve always known it.  
In the end, God is preparing a place where all flesh shall see salvation.  In the end, God is preparing a place where all may find true joy.  And the good news is that God has already prepared this place of joy, a place where all flesh can know salvation and that place is in the face of Jesus Christ, in the face of the One who draws the whole world to himself in a spirit of love and compassion for all people.

Friends, ready or not, the redemption of our world has drawn near in Christ.  May we have the grace to prepare the way of the Lord.  Amen.