Do the Right Thing: Vote

As we round the corner into November, it is stunning—as always—to grasp the passage of time. November brings that unique day which, for people of faith, combines politics, outreach and stewardship: Election Day.

My husband and I recently finished watching the Ken Burns film The Roosevelts. It was stirring and educational and I found myself longing over and over that I could vote for any of them: Teddy, Franklin or Eleanor. Their words and their actions were an inspiration, after all these years, even though I have so little in common with them. But that was their genius, each of them: even the most common folk felt that TR, FDR and Eleanor knew them.

On the other hand, there is one thing I do share with all three Roosevelts, the Episcopal Church. Official Episcopal policy recognizes voting and political participation as acts of Christian stewardship. “A faithful commitment to political participation aligns with our Baptismal Covenant’s promise to ‘strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being, ‘” says the Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations.

In the parish where I have served for just seven months, I have probably mentioned…oh…10,000 times that I am big fan of our Baptismal Covenant (see the Book of Common Prayer, p. 304.) I find it to be a roadmap for living faithfully in Christ. Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, says this about the Christian’s obligation to participate in the political process and in public discourse: “The New Testament tells us that we are to participate in the life of the polis, in the life of our society [and] the principle on which Christians must vote is the principle ‘Does this look like love of neighbor?'”

Wherever you live, the upcoming elections on November 7 matter more than ever. I urge you to vote. Vote as an act of faith, as an act of devotion to our nation and to our God. If you catch yourself wondering what difference your vote could possibly make, remember the miracle of the five loaves and two fish (one of those rare stories of Jesus which is found in all four gospels: Matthew 14, Mark 6, Luke 9 and John 6.)

Our wonderful democracy is not simply a static form of government, it is dynamic. The Word of God is dynamic and alive, and is always calling us to engage with what my friend Br. Curtis calls “the least, the last, and the lost.” Vote your faith. Vote your heart. Vote.

PS: If you need help knowing what’s going on, Google your state’s Department of Elections. Also let me recommend one of my favorite spiritual Internet resources, Spirituality & Practice, which has a new spiritual resource called The Practicing Democracy Project.

 

 

 

Sermon: Gather. Pray. Serve.

Last week, I began my sermon with a baseball metaphor. In observance of this transitional season, when the sports are changing, today I’d like to tell a story from football lore. It was July of 1961 and the 38 members of the Green Bay Packers football team were gathered together for the first day of training camp. The previous season had ended in heartbreak. The Packers had blown a lead and lost the Championship to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Packers had been thinking about this brutal loss for the entire off-season and now, finally, training camp had arrived and it was time to get to work. Coach Vince Lombardi’s plan for training was to re-establish the fundamentals. Lombardi walked into training camp, held up a ball, and said: “Gentlemen, this is a football.”

I want to do something a little different today. In the spirit of Blessed Vincent of Green Bay, I’d like to review some fundamentals. I do not want to preach on the lessons, per se, but do a little pastoral tending for our hearts.

It has been said that a preacher should preach with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. As the news seems to worsen, and the world feels more chaotic every day, we feel shock and grief, helplessness and loss. Disaster and violence—caused by nature and by human beings—these things are pressing in on us. There is no end to the questions we ask ourselves and each other. I have these conversations every day, as do you: what is happening? How could these things happen? What has come over us? What’s to become of us? What can we do to make a difference?

The questions are exhausting and so is the struggle to answer them. When things are hard…when the world is overwhelming, and we can feel our own hearts beginning to harden…it is good to pause and remember who we are and what we are to do. As my favorite theologian, Jackson Browne, says: “There’s a God-sized hunger underneath the questions of the age.” When I feel overwhelmed, it helps me to boil things down to basics. I think that two of the fundamental questions are: “Who are we?” and “What do we do?”

We are the body of Christ, a part of God’s great and powerful network of love. This is our identity, this is who we are. And what do we do? We Gather. We Pray. We Serve.

First: Gather. We come together as a community—we are here today—to remind ourselves that we are God’s body on earth. We bring our hard hearts and our losses and our joys…we don’t come here to be churchy. We bring our authentic selves. As the Eucharistic prayer says, we bring our selves…our souls and bodies to this place.

Our worship has a pattern. And every time we come together we are following this pattern: we gather, we hear Scripture and some kind of elucidation of it, like a sermon or a discussion. Then we confess, come to the table to be fed, and then go out to “love and serve the Lord”, to do the work God has given us to do. And then we come back and do it all over again. This is our pattern, we make it our habit. We gather to remind ourselves and one another that God is with us. The kingdom of heaven is here, among us, and we draw strength from gathering. The Greek word for church is ekklesia, and it means “assembly,” it does not mean “building.” From the earliest days, the “church” has been understood to be the people. Us.

Now, when I say one of the fundamentals is to gather, I’m not speaking only of “going to church.” I am saying we need to be with others…stay together…get together. Have dinner and lunch with people you love around tables and on patios and in living rooms. All meal fellowship is Eucharist. The faith is not some intellectual exercise, it is a practice of inviting God into our despair and into our joy. The faith is a practice. Good habits get us through bad times.

Unlike what you hear from some Christians, the practice of the faith is not a matter of being “saved” once and for all, and it is certainly not about one day arriving in heaven. The Apostle Paul tells us today that it is a long race, “I am straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal.” We do not have any expectation of arriving. Our work is to press on toward the goal. And by the way: Your faith is not supposed to make your life easy. Anybody who tells you otherwise is selling something.

My second fundamental is this: while we are pressing on, we Pray. Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his wonderful “Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life” says this: “Prayer, as I understand it, is not a matter of begging or bargaining. It is the act of inviting God into our lives so that, with God’s help, we will be strong enough to resist temptation and resilient enough not to be destroyed by life’s unfairness.” We pray—whether with words or silence or music—so that we will be changed, and soothed, and strengthened. I sent a note this week to the parish, inviting you to pray the psalms of lament. This is a worthy practice these days. God understands lament. Every prayer that goes something like “ARE YOU KIDDING ME??” is just as valid as any other prayer, and maybe more authentic. Anne Lamott says there are three main types of prayer: “Help, thanks, and wow.” Be authentic in your prayer. God can handle it.

Theologian Jim Wallis says: “When I was growing up in my Christian world, I was told the greatest battle of our time is between belief and secularism. But I now believe that the real battle is between cynicism and hope.” Prayer—even something as simple as sitting quietly and opening your heart to God—gives us hope, reminds us not to despair.

Which brings me to my third and final point in our review of the fundamentals. (The first were Gather and Pray.) The third is: Serve.

I have pointed this out before and will no doubt do it again because it bears repeating. We pray at the altar that God will “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this table for solace only and not for strength; for pardon only and not for renewal.” We gather and we pray so that we are strengthened to serve the world in God’s name. And by “the world” I mean “all of it:” our fellow parishioners, our families, friends, neighbors, those who are alone. People we love, and people we hate. Every little kind act is a building block. Random acts of kindness, planned acts of kindness. Say a word of encouragement to someone. And be kind to yourself: look for good news, spread good news. Every small thing you do for someone else helps heal the world. A Rabbi from the first century of the Christian Era said: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.”

We come for strength and renewal, so that we can go out to do the work God has given us to do. The dismissal at the end of our service is not just a nice turn of phrase. It is a charge, an exhortation: Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. God is not a guy who lives in buildings, or on a cloud somewhere. God is also a verb: a moving, loving force, and we are charged with spreading that love and being a part of that force.

William Temple was the Archbishop of Canterbury during World War II, another time when everything seemed to be going to hell in a handbasket. Bishop Temple said, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” In other words: get out there and help heal the world.

Slow down. Remember to breathe. Turn off the news. Our practice of the fundamentals matters. We gather. We pray. We serve. What you do matters. It does. We don’t ever get there. Not in this life anyway. This life, this faith, is all about straining forward and pressing on. And we encourage ourselves and each other to keep going.

Let us pray. O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Repair These Losses & Be a Blessing

I see great things in baseball. It’s our game–the American game. It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses, and be a blessing to us. (Walt Whitman)

I love baseball. Growing up in southwest Missouri I was, naturally, a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards were historically the westernmost ball club until the team expansion began, so you will find Cardinal fans in the strangest places, all the way out west. Plus, they win a lot.

Brock and McCarver
Lou Brock and Tim McCarver embrace at the St. Louis Cardinals’ 1967 World Series win. 

It’s not that I have actual memories of summer evenings listening to the radio or watching games on TV with my family. I do have a vague recollection that my parents traveled to a playoff game in St. Louis once or twice in the 1960s. (I was also aware that my maternal grandfather was a Yankees fan, and that made him somehow controversial.) But I must have listened or watched, because there are names in my heart that evoke happy feelings: like Orlando Cepeda, Julián Javier, Lou Brock, and Red Schoendienst, for starters.

For the past 35 years, though, my heart has belonged to the Chicago Cubs (who—you may have heard—won the World Series last year.) I married into this loyalty for the Cubbies, and with that loyalty came the burden of all those years of pathos, desperation and broken dreams. There is something religious about a devotion to something that never quite pays off. There is a sad joy in keeping the faith in the face of continual disappointment. And by the way: I am always surprised when somebody tries to tell me I can’t possibly be a fan of both the Cubs and the Cards. Balderdash, I say.

I could go on and on about the beauty of baseball: the perfect parabola of a flyball that falls just shy of the fielder, the constant and wordless communication between all the players and coaches. Baseball seems slow, and some people think it’s boring. You may be one of them. But stick with me for a moment more.

Baseball and church have a lot in common. There is power in gathering with others for ritual, and for the purpose of sharing a moment. I can certainly pray by myself, and often feel the presence of God most keenly when I am alone. But to pray with others raises my spirit and my heart even higher. The prayers of others buoy me up. Gathering for worship in a community makes us a part of something: it is spiritual, and emotional, and intellectual. We do not need to ask God to show up; God is already here. God is in our joys and present in our crises. God is dwelling and moving among the people of Florida and Texas and Puerto Rico and Bali and Mexico. God is in Charlottesville, and in the NFL, and in all our efforts to love people we don’t want to love.

To gather for worship with others is one of the best human things, right up there with what Annie Savoy calls The Church of Baseball. Church done right–and heaven knows it can be done wrong–worshiping with others gathers us into the Holy. I also believe with all my heart that people who gather together to worship can and do help heal the world. One of the Episcopal Church’s Eucharistic Prayers asks God for this: “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to [the altar] for solace only and not for strength, for pardon only and not renewal.” Gather to worship with others. It will change you, strengthen you and renew you. Then you can go out into our world and repair its losses and be a blessing. Thanks be to God.

PS: In case you haven’t noticed, the Cubs clinched their division again on Tuesday. Bring on the post-season.

Sermon: Of Cassini & Forgiveness

Nearly 20 years ago, on October 15, 1997, NASA launched the Cassini spacecraft. Cassini traveled for seven years to reach the planet Saturn, which it did in 2004, and has spent the last 13 years orbiting and exploring the moons around Saturn. Cassini’s mission was to study the giant planet, its rings, moons and magnetosphere. The data it collected and images it sent home led to many discoveries about our solar system. No other spacecraft has ever been so close to Saturn.

On Friday, September 15, Cassini completed its mission. The mission had lasted longer than planned and scientists were afraid that the craft would run out of fuel. If it had, Cassini would have crashed into one of Saturn’s moons, and contaminated the planet. So, as an NPR reporter said: “With Cassini running on empty and no gas station for about a billion miles, NASA decided to go out Thelma & Louise-style. The plucky probe took a final, intentional dive into the object of its obsession.” Cassini’s scientists deliberately sank the craft into Saturn’s upper atmosphere at a high speed. Cassini burned up as it plunged into the planet. The final signal and last bits of data reached Earth about an hour and a half later. NASA confirmed the spacecraft’s demise at 7:55 ET Friday morning.

The photos that Cassini sent from Saturn are stunning. I’ve watched several videos and photo montages about this story. My favorite video is 90 seconds or so of control room footage. The control room looks like you’d expect: several computers arranged in concentric circles; technicians with headphones. Like a doctor beside a deathbed, Flight Director Julie Webster called out “loss of signal” at about 7:55 a.m. Friday, and Project Manager Earl Maize announced, “end of mission.”

I don’t know why I find this so moving. This very scientific thing—all about math and science and years of research—it seems so spiritual to me. I feel affection for this machine, which orbited Saturn 293 times, took 400,000 photos, collected 600 gigabytes of data, and discovered at least seven new moons. They will be analyzing all that data for years to come. The mission has ended, but the work continues. And it’s such a great story.

There is always a tug-of-war, isn’t there, between hard data and quantifiable evidence on the one hand…and interpretation and spiritual, Big T “truth” on the other hand.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 18:21ff), Peter asks Jesus this famous loaded question: How often do I have to forgive? As many as seven times? Of course, Jesus’ response to Peter’s question is typical…the answer is bigger than the question: No, not seven times. Seventy-seven times. This is also sometimes translated “Seventy times seven,” which is an even greater number.

But you know it’s not about the math, right?

Forgiveness is part and parcel of the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s a given, a constant. Forgiveness not optional. It’s not a choice. We want it to be optional—we want to be able to control and choose it. This is what is at the heart of Peter’s question. This question—how often must I forgive—sets our memories in motion. It prompts us to start quantifying, making lists. I start remembering people I am reluctant to forgive, and those whom I don’t think I can ever forgive. Furthermore, what about those wrongs which are unforgivable? And there are many.

Paul Simon has a song about a divorced couple who has made some peace with each other. They get together every once in a while to “speculate who had been damaged the most.” Peter is trying to pin Jesus down on the limits of forgiveness, to quantify forgiveness. Like Peter, we want life and relationships to be quantifiable and transactional. But God doesn’t work this way.

Our resistance to forgive is based in our resistance to believing that we ourselves are forgiven. Let’s switch our attention away from Peter’s question—our question—and take a look at Jesus’ answer, Let’s hold our lists of hurts and offenses up to the light.

Jesus tells a story about the servant who is forgiven his debt, and then refuses to forgive the other. The king forgives the first slave a debt of 10,000 talents. I know it’s not about the math, but get a load of this. A single talent was about 130 pounds of silver and would take about fifteen years to earn. This means that the servant owed the king about 150,000 years of labor. He would never, ever be able to pay this debt back. A denarius, on the other hand, was worth about a day’s wage, which meant that the second servant owed the first about a hundred days of labor – no small debt, but certainly do-able.

We are certainly called to forgive—we will talk about that another time, make no mistake. (I have heard it said that not forgiving someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.)

I’m not going to talk to you about being forgiving. What I want to talk about is how forgiven YOU are. Our incalculable debt has been forgiven. How can we accept this? How can we believe it? The failure of the first servant isn’t JUST that he won’t forgive his comrade. David Lose says “His failure is that he has just experienced an utterly unexpected, completely beyond-his-wildest-dreams, life-changing moment of grace and seems absolutely untouched by it. He exhibits no sense of gratitude. His whole life changed…and he didn’t even notice.”

We have all suffered storms and disasters and hard times. And it is hard to clean up and get rid of the debris that is left. How often do we leave the old hurts, our old sins…how often do we leave those things lying around where they keep getting in the way, where we keep tripping on them? We have a hard time forgiving ourselves for having made this mess, and so we drag the wreckage behind us forever. This is why we say the confession when we gather as a community…this is why we need to confess. I like the prayer of confession that offers to God “things known and unknown, things done and left undone.” We need to confess our sins, and we need to hear God’s absolution. God loves you. God forgives you. You are forgiven.

If God is to be relevant, the God of the sunny days is there in the storms. The God of the mountaintop is with us in the valleys. There is no way of getting to God without starting with, and going through, our own messy and beautiful humanity. You could say forgiveness starts at home. It’s not about the math, about transactions and who owes whom what. We are loved, in the midst of our very messes and disasters. We are loved, and we are forgiven. God is not far away, God is near.

Unlike Saturn. Saturn is 746 million miles from Earth. It took the NASA spacecraft Cassini seven years to get there, and then it faithfully stayed in Saturn’s orbit for 13 years, weaving in and out of Saturn’s 53 moons like a Celtic knot. The craft’s mission was to explore Saturn, stay close to it, learn all it could. And it did. It did what it was made to do. And when it had done all it could, Cassini gave its life to the mission. The way it went out in flames sounds like something out of the Revelation to John.

Not to push the metaphor beyond the breaking point, but our mission is to orbit around God, study God, to be drawn into God’s magnetosphere. Augustine of Hippo said: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Our hearts are restless until they rest in God.

We have been made to know and love God, just as God knows and loves us. We are made in God’s image, made to lose ourselves in God’s love. And the closer we get to God, the more readily we can grasp God’s mercy, and forgiveness.

Pentecost by William Blake (1757-1827)

Unless the eye catch fire,

The God will not be seen.

Unless the ear catch fire

The God will not be heard.

Unless the tongue catch fire

The God will not be named.

Unless the heart catch fire,

The God will not be loved.

Unless the mind catch fire,

The God will not be known.

Expecto Patronum: Evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, the world is not ending

An intense cold swept over them all. Harry felt his own breath catch in his chest. The cold went deeper than his skin. It was inside his chest, it was inside his very heart. (JK Rowling, The Prisoner of Azkaban)

As Joseph Campbell famously intuited, all True Stories share a basic narrative pattern. Campbell identified as the Hero’s Journey a model that all archetypal stories follow. “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” (Campbell: The Hero With a Thousand Faces, 1949.)

The hero’s supernatural encounters are, clearly, not always “fabulous” in a good way; it is obvious that not all supernatural forces are benign. There are myriad examples of evil forces in the battle of Good vs. Evil, but I am thinking of three which seem particularly apt.

Before CS Lewis’ White Witch goes to battle with Aslan and the true Narnians, she assembles her followers, among them Hags, Ogres, Boggles and Werewolves. When JRR Tolkien’s wizard Saruman seeks to destroy Middle Earth, his army consists of the slimy and bred-for-war Orcs as well as the flying, undead Nazgûl. And then there is JK Rowling’s Voldemort, the Dark Lord. When Voldemort is finally restored to human form, he gathers to himself a host of Death Eaters, Dementors, and (these guys again!) Werewolves, among others.

Common among all of all evil forces, besides a taste for murder, is the emotional violence they unleash. One has had a sense of the worrisome seriousness of the situation, but then the day comes when Evil Itself swarms or swoops or rises up from the sewers in its full malignity. It is only then that the good guys realize what they are truly up against, and, dangerously, start to lose hope. We who read the story or watch the scene on the screen share this loss of hope, the despair, and the emerging, horrifying conviction that all is lost. We feel sick.

Here’s why I bring this up, just in case it isn’t obvious. Like many, the above paragraph is a pretty accurate description of my emotional state in recent months. Maybe for you as well. (If not, God bless you. Please reach out to us.) But the wondrous thing is that as soon as I realized the source–the archetypal truth–of my emotions, I began to calm down. We may feel sick, but Orcs and giant snakes are not, in fact, about to feed on our flesh. We are not about to be turned into stone; we are not back-to-the wall in a cavern, soon to be torn limb-from-limb by a broadsword. That’s good news, no?! There is, of course, the bad news. Gandalf is not going to ride in on his magical horse Shadowfax, driving the darkness back. Aslan is not coming to save us.

But there is this. There is this. Harry Potter was thrilled to think that his father had come to save him just when the Dementors were sucking his soul away. Just in case you haven’t read the story, suffice it to say that in a very complicated turn of events, it turns out that it was Harry himself who wielded the power, who cast the spell, saving himself.

You have the power to do good. You may be wandering in the dark forest and afraid you are lost forever. But remember that Campbell’s archetypal hero always gets lost and despairs but then fights himself (herself) and keeps going. Even better, for people of faith, hope and life are restored in a mystical combination of human effort and divine grace.

Do not despair. See the good. Be the good. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Be a hero. Summon your own Patronus. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God.

 

 

Something’s Coming: A Sermon for Advent 2

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.

The musical West Side Story was written in 1956: Leonard Bernstein wrote the music and Stephen Sondheim wrote the words. West Side Story of course tells of Maria and Tony: a Puerto Rican girl and an Anglo boy who fall in love. The story is modeled on Romeo and Juliet, a tragedy about young lovers from different sides of the tracks. From opposing gangs, in Tony and Maria’s case.

As West Side story opens, Tony’s first song is called “Something’s Coming.” It is about his sense that something momentous is about to happen to him.

Could be!
Who knows?
There’s something due any day;
I will know right away,
Soon as it shows.
Could it be? Yes, it could.
Something’s coming, something good,
If I can wait!
Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is,
But it is
Gonna be great!

I thought of this song—for the first time in years—this week. It occurred to me that the lyrics of this song are a pretty good reflection of where we are in our church year.

Our liturgies, our preparations, our scripture readings… All have a sense of anticipation that points towards something coming. Since we tell the story of Jesus’ anticipation and birth and life and death and resurrection…since we tell this story over and over and over, we know how it turns out. But I think we could learn a thing or two from Tony’s sense of anticipation, of something coming. He has no idea what is about to happen to him, but his knows it’s gonna be great.

If we look at this Gospel reading about John the Baptist with fresh eyes, it’s pretty easy to think: what In the world is he talking about? WHO in the world is he talking about?

John is attracting all these people out to his revival at the river. It is a huge event that has attracted the people of Jerusalem and all Judea, and all the region along the Jordan, and John baptized them. Just to give you some idea of the scope of the thing: the Jordan is over 20 miles east of Jerusalem. We are talking about a lot of people coming long distances.

And yet, even though he is the headliner of his event, John himself tells the people: You ain’t seen nothing yet. “One who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

I get the impression that John’s baptism is a kind of temporal thing earthly repentance. I imagine him pointing to Jesus who is beyond time. The way he talks about Jesus is more timeless and universal. John the Baptist’s job was to point to Jesus. Even with all the attention he garnered with his shouting and his wild-animal outfit and his locusts and wild honey…even with all the attention he attracted, John knew that his job was to point to Jesus. He was a messenger from God.

We hear from several messenger-prophets today: Isaiah, the writer of the psalm, and the apostle Paul. The opening prayer for the day, the collect of the day, thanks God for sending messengers to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation. We ask God in our opening collect to give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.

The Greek word for messenger is angelos: it means messenger, but also it’s where we get our word “angel.” Angels figure prominently in our story this time of year. We hear a lot about the heavenly host of angels, about the angel Gabriel who announces to Mary the news of her miraculous baby.

Heavenly beings do not often visit regular humans. But make no mistake: God talks to us. God sends us messengers and angels all the time. Who are some of the other, less famous messengers from God? Messenger can be a word of Scripture, a Word from a friend or a song, or it could be, as with Tony in west side story, it could be a feeling that something’s coming.

For Christians, the season of Advent anticipates the coming of Christ from three different perspectives. Bernard of Clairvaux (d.1153) spoke of the three comings of Christ: in the flesh in Bethlehem, and in glory at the end of time…but most present to us in this moment: we prepare a place for Christ in our hearts daily, The season offers the opportunity to share in the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah, and to be alert for his Second Coming.

West Side Story begins with anticipation that something wonderful is about to happen. And it does, when Tony meets Maria and they have a brief, miraculous few hours together before the reality of their world tears them apart. Tony dies in a street fight between the gangs. And yet. And yet. As the show closes there is a sense that the warring gangs have been chastened, there is a sense of hope for a new unity.

The story of Jesus’ birth always foreshadows his death. But it also promises his resurrection, and his coming again. The beginning and the end come together in this time of anticipation. We will look back with a celebration of the first arrival of the Messiah. We will look ahead as the collect says, to greeting with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.

In between, we prepare. And we look for signs of God’s kingdom NOW. We keep our eyes peeled and our ears tuned for God’s messengers, who come to us in ways we cannot always expect. We are so used to seeing what we expect to see. This is the season to look for the unexpected. The conjunction of what God has done in the past, what God is doing among us now, and what God promises to do in the future come together to undergird the seminal Christian virtue of hope.

Could be! Who knows?
There’s something due any day;
we will know right away, Soon as it shows.

God is With Us. Be Not Afraid.

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

[Sermon preached at Trinity Episcopal Church, Marble Falls TX, November 8, 2016.]

These words from Julian of Norwich have carried me through this year, and this season. I have a heart full of hope today. The world will not end today. The sun will rise tomorrow, and we will remember, again, that God is in the midst of us. We will remind each other—in the coming days—that where two or three are gathered in God’s name, God is there. As people of faith, we are actors in a great drama, the story of God’s people. We are the people to whom God says, over and over: Be not afraid. Do not fear. I am with you.

It has helped me, during this season, to remember history: to take the long view. Humanity has seen fearful times before. In every generation, someone—or some entire group—has hated or imprisoned or gone to war with another someone or another entire group. The victims of hunger, fear, injustice and oppression (for whom we pray every Sunday in our Prayers of the People)…these have always been among us. Sometimes WE are the victims of hunger, fear, injustice and oppression.

History is on our side, my friends. Remember this today.

Nearly 3000 years ago, the Jewish people of Palestine were conquered and carried off into captivity in Babylon. They were not only captives, but exiles from their own country, cut off from their home and from their religion. In Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7, the prophet Jeremiah is sending word from Jerusalem to the exiles. The prophet speaks an encouraging word from God to the exiles, telling them, in essence: All shall be well. “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters.” In other words: you might as well get on with your lives, because this is going to take a while. But while you are settling in, seek the welfare of the place you live, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. In other other words: Bloom where you are planted.

The Babylonian Exile lasted 60 years. That’s nearly two generations, or about the length of time it has been since the post-WWII era. Think how the world has turned since then: in wonderful ways, and in other ways. When the wheels of time and history are turning, as they are now, it’s easy to feel pinched in the gears. But remember that time does turn. History is on our side. God is with us. Be not afraid.

The Apostle Paul reminds us that we are all one in Christ Jesus. We belong to God, and we are one people. Paul is talking about unity: not unanimity. We are one body, one people. We are not all the same, but we do not let our differences divide us. This language “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” was not poetry when Paul wrote it, it was not scripture.  This was a letter written in anger to the church at Galatia, whose priorities were in the wrong places. He’s banging some heads together here, reminding them to re-focus their attention from divisions and theological arguments back to their unity in God.

And then we have the reading from the Gospel of Matthew. I encourage you to read it over and over today and in the next few days. This is typical Jesus, who said “Be not afraid” over and over. Here he says Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Our greatest fear, as Franklin Roosevelt once said, is fear itself. The anxiety in our nation, and the world-wide anxiety caused by our national anxiety, is just an outward sign of our own individual fears. It is the fear that reverberates.

Writer Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat Pray Love) has a book on creativity, which contains this: It is her Letter to Fear: “I recognize and respect that you are part of this family, and so I will never exclude you from our activities, but still—your suggestions will never be followed. You’re allowed to have a seat, and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote. You’re not allowed to touch the road maps; you’re not allowed to suggest detours; you’re not allowed to fiddle with the temperature. Dude, you’re not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.”

Perfect love casts out fear. We are a people of love. We are a people of the resurrection. Do not allow fear to cause you to forget who you are.

Be joyful in the Lord, all you lands; serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song. Know this: The Lord himself is God; he himself has made us, and we are his; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise; give thanks to him and call upon his Name. For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his faithfulness endures from age to age.