Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent by Brother James Dowd

As you have no doubt gathered by now, this morning we mark the first Sunday of Advent. In our church calendar this is the beginning of the new liturgical year, and in our secular calendar and popular culture it is a kind of crossover from the Thanksgiving holiday to the Christmas holidays.

And all of this just in time for Jesus to get his Christmas cards out early with the heart-warming Gospel message we just heard, that the world is coming to an end; that disaster waits around every corner; and that you better be ready. Happy Holidays from our house to yours, signed: Jesus, Mary and Joseph!

Not to be outdone, our ever pervasive media, from which we are seemingly unable to find refuge, has decided that the end times are indeed upon us, and that the apocalypse begins here in the United States, rather than in the traditionally anticipated place of the Middle East.

And perhaps they are correct. Maybe it is that bad. The signs of our times are not looking good and I believe we really, truly, need to pay attention to them. To sweep under the table the questions, concerns, and even panicked response to the election of our sisters and brothers who are handicapped, or immigrant, or Muslim, or poor, or LGBT, or African-American, is morally indefensible. Just as it was to sweep those same concerns that many white working class people had. Concerns that no one was listening to them regarding their increasing poverty, their inability to find work, the growing very serious drug problem in rural areas and more.

So, yes. I’m here to tell you they are all right – the world is falling apart. Insane terror organizations like ISIS control large parts of the Middle East murdering untold numbers; climate change is real and yet most of our leaders fiddle as millions of acres of forest burn, our coastal areas flood and havoc is wreaked on our agriculture; Neo-Nazis and Klansmen openly celebrate, “their” election victory; many of the women and men who built our major industries throughout the Midwest and Appalachia are in desperate need; race relations haven’t been this bad since before the civil rights era; young men of color continue to be harassed, imprisoned, and even killed at alarming rates by the police; police officers are being randomly assassinated; and so much more.

So, yes, we should pay attention. That is what Jesus was instructing us to do when he told us to awaken. But as Christian, we are also not to despair. We are never to despair. Advent is an important liturgical season in any year, but this year, I think it is essential for our lives as Christians because Advent is nothing if not about light, peace, joy, and hope.

And that is why, when Dean Loya, Mother Sarah, and I were planning the Advent program for our community, we chose the theme of Breathing into Christmas as a way to focus our faith journeys at this time. We will seek to teach, in various formats, the theological and spiritual aspects of light, peace, joy, and hope and how they help us to breathe into Christmas. The idea of breathing into Christmas is a way to bring those theological aspects of light, peace, joy, and hope into the everyday reality of our lives. To change what can seem like abstract ideas into something as close to us and as necessary to our existence as our breath.

This week, we’re focusing on light. This morning we heard the great prophet Isaiah, the prophet of Advent, invite the House of Jacob, to “walk in the light of the Lord”. And that reminded me of another prophet I greatly admire – not nearly as well known – but very important to my life and to the lives of many others. Father James Otis Sargent Huntington was the founder, back in 1884, of the Order of the Holy Cross, the order to which I belong, and the first male monastic order in the Episcopal Church. He fought against many church, societal, and governmental forces to bring the light of Christ to another period in which both our church and our country was being roiled by great unrest.

In his time, the Industrial Revolution was creating a great deal of wealth for a very few on the backs of the mostly immigrant working poor who labored in near slave-like conditions. He first chose to work with very poor German immigrants, none of whom were Episcopalian.

God always works in mysterious ways and that is no less true with Father Huntington. So, here was the young James Huntington, a patrician son of a well-heeled New England family, whose father was a bishop of the church, called to serve in the slums of the Lower East Side of New York. And the way he would serve and welcome others to serve with him was to dedicate his life and community to prayer and service to society’s outcasts.

All that prayer – what I call breathing – led Father Huntington to develop his most famous teaching which is a simple sentence: “Love must act, as light must shine, and fire must burn.” “Love must act, as light must shine, and fire must burn.”

Inherent to the fact that light must shine – it cannot not shine. It is not light if it is not shining. And inherent to the fact that fire must burn – it cannot not burn. It is not fire if it is not burning. So too, is the fact that Christian love must act. To love as a Christian one cannot not act. It is not Christian love if it is not acting. One must, in fact, act. And that very act of love is learning to live into the light.

Living into the light, breathing into the light, is an act of Christian love. It is an act so radical that it is, in fact, quite counter-cultural to engage in such acts of love. You see, all around us, the forces of the market-place, our current political system, and our governmental, military and industrial complex all conspire to have us believe that if we gorge ourselves on buying products we don’t need; and if we vote out of fear even when that vote is not in our personal or national self-interest; and if we allow our treasure to be squandered on needless armaments and wars; We will be happy. We will be satisfied. We will be safe.

You see the powers of darkness are best at deception. They want us to be so afraid that we will attempt to assuage that fear with the supposed balm of a hyper commercialized and militarized society. A society that is susceptible to the Big Lie. And these same powers tell us over and over and over again: you don’t need to act: politics doesn’t belong in the church; you don’t need to act: those immigrants are taking our jobs; you don’t need to act: those people who are protesting are just whiney crybabies; you don’t need to act: your life is hard enough.

Darkness. Darkness. Darkness. But Advent is about Light. Light. Light. Light. In fact, we have this great symbol in the Advent wreath that we use each year. As the literal darkness descends and we have less light each day from now until nearly Christmas, we keep lighting first one, then two, then three, then four lights on that wreath in defiance of the darkness. To be a Christian is to out-light the darkness, even if by only one candle, because light must shine.

And so we too must act. We stand up at Advent and we light those candles and we keep lighting those candles, and we put lights up on our houses and on our trees, as we proclaim to the world that we will not let the darkness overcome us. We will act for love, for mercy, for justice, and for peace. Nothing will stop us because if God can love us so much that God would come among us, become one of us, teach us God’s way of living, and then die for us; the very least we can do is to attempt to become a little bit like God and behave in a way that is about the light.

As light must shine and fire must burn, so too we must act as God’s hands and feet and heart and mind and voice in our time and in our community, just as the great prophets Isaiah and Father Huntington did in their times. This is our time, my sisters and brothers, to stand up, light those candles, pray into that light of Christ, and act for justice, act for peace, act for the immigrant, the despised, the poor, and the forgotten. Let that light shine in you so that it becomes the fire that must burn in our communities. AMEN.

Sermon for Christ the King Sunday, 2016

Two TV moments to start this morning. Sixteen years ago at this time, after George W. Bush and Al Gore had fought through a bitter and mean campaign (it seems pretty mild now), the country waited weeks and weeks to sort out what was essentially a dead tie between the candidates. Cynicism about politicians and Washington had been growing for a while, and seemed universal. NBC’s “The West Wing” was just hitting its stride. Against the backdrop of an election scene that looked a little like a circus, and then as the country started to become more and more fractured, “The West Wing” provided us with a sort of alternate political reality, where President Josiah Bartlett and his team united a country with integrity and a commitment to service that seemed both pleasantly old-fashioned and hopefully forward thinking.

Fast forward to today, and in the aftermath of this year’s bitter and mean campaign, I’ve been watching the Netflix original series “The Crown,” which traces the reign of England’s Queen Elizabeth II from her ascension as a young woman in the late 1940s. In one of the early episodes, Elizabeth is seeking advice at the bedside of her sick grandmother. The older woman leans in and says forcefully, “Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to bring grace and dignity to the earth. It gives ordinary people an ideal to strive towards, an example of nobility and duty to raise them in their wretched lives.” Her point is that the monarchy serves as a grounding point for English identity, an anchor of stability and history in the midst of a rapidly changing world, and a British empire coming apart at the seams.

Today is the last Sunday after Pentecost, which since the early twentieth century has been celebrated as the feast of Christ the King. Pope Pius XI instituted the feast of Christ the King to remind a divided Europe in the aftermath of World War I of their common allegiance to Christ rather than to any earthly ruler.

It’s a feast that seems as relevant and important today as it did in the 1920s, and I think the alternate reality of “The West Wing” and the Crown’s ideal to strive towards can help us make sense of what it might mean for us today.

Our gospel lesson today gives us a sense of what the ideal Christ our king sets for us might be. Here is Jesus in the most unlikely position for a monarch: being executed alongside common criminals as an enemy of the state. Three times Jesus is mocked and challenged to save himself, and three times he forgives and embraces his tormentors. While the nations and kingdoms of the world are ruled by force and intimidation, our kingdom is ruled by a king who suffers alongside us, a king who uses his power to dispense boundless mercy, who promises paradise to criminals and outcasts. When Jesus was handed all the power in the universe, he didn’t choose to simply be the biggest king with the biggest empire, he chose to give his power away in love, he chose to use his power to upend all the ways we normally organize kingdoms.

Our king provides an ideal to strive toward, a grounding point for our identity, but it is an ideal of service, and mercy, and love, and peace. It’s an ideal of loving rather than winning. It’s an ideal of being merciful. It’s an ideal of standing with those who are cast out. Our king rescues us from the power of darkness by turning the order of a dark world on its head.

“The West Wing” provided a different way of imagining one season of our nation’s history. But, of course, it was fantasy and escape. The alternative kingdom we belong to—the Kingdom of God—is actually more real and more true than the darkness we currently see. Our job is to make what seems like a different and fantastical reality shine through that darkness, until it turns the whole world to Christ’s light.

In the coming months and years, there will be no easy or cheap healing of the deep and complex divisions among us in this country. I’ve heard from so many people who I love, who I work with, that the immigrants, refugees, gays, lesbian, and transgender persons, and so many others who were targeted by hateful rhetoric in this campaign are scared about what happens next. That the election came out the way it did suggests there’s a whole lot of people in our country who are angry they’ve been overlooked and ignored and dismissed. Others are simply tired of hearing about it, and simply want to move on.

I don’t know how it’s all going to shake out, but wherever a person falls on that spectrum on this day, the call to us is the same. On the feast of Christ the King, we are invited simply to renew our commitment to Jesus Christ, not as a doctrine or a belief or a religion, but as a way of life. We are invited to renew our commitment to living the way Jesus lived and taught, and to renew our allegiance to the kingdom his life announced. We are called to make Jesus’ way of standing with the suffering, solidarity with the marginalized and threatened, offering peace at every turn, the ideal we strive towards, the thing that lifts us out of our ordinary lives.

But then we are challenged to help make this other kingdom a reality here and now. We are challenged to ask ourselves: what is one thing we can do today, or this week, to wave the flag of Christ’s kingdom? How can I stand with the suffering? Where can I offer forgiveness?

The good news today, and every day, is that no matter what happens in our lives, in our nation, or in our world, God has already overcome the powers of darkness and sin and death. “He has rescued us from the power of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” The resurrection assures us that’s a done deal. Our job is to use whatever life we have to offer that promise to those who are still trapped in darkness, until the kingdom of life and light and love appears in its glorious fullness. Amen.

 

 

Sermon for All Saints Sunday by the Reverend Canon Liz Easton

Last week, I visited New York City for the very first time. I was there for work, but I was able to stay an extra day to explore the city with my best friend since middle school, who moved to Brooklyn a couple years ago.

We did all the things that you do when you visit New York—we ate great food, walked a ton, and explored different neighborhoods. We also went to a Broadway show, “Falsettos,” a revival of a musical that first appeared on Broadway in the early nineties and has now returned for a short run. Like all good theater experiences, this one has really stuck with me, and I found that I especially couldn’t shake it as I was thinking about All Saints Day, baptism, and today’s tough gospel reading.

“Falsettos” is a family drama, set in New York in the late seventies and early eighties. The second act of the play centers on the family’s young son, Jason, struggling to decide whether or not to have a bar mitzvah. He’s not especially religious, and bar mitzvah’s—as you may know—require a ton of hard work to pull off. He’s nervous about who to invite, about messing up the complicated prayers in front of all the girls he has crushes on. His divorced parents don’t get along, and their pressure to go ahead and plan the party just adds to his resistance. He’s on the fence about it, and he won’t budge.

Suddenly, his father’s partner, with whom he’s especially close, gets mysteriously ill. Jason decides to wait to have the bar mitzvah until the man recovers. What the audience knows, and what Jason’s parents are just starting to realize, is that this young man won’t get better. Like scores of other gay men in New York at that time, he’s been diagnosed with a disease that will soon be known as AIDS, and he’s going to die.

Jason departs the room after announcing that he wants to hold off on the Bar Mitzvah, leaving his parents to have a conversation that I think all parents are familiar with—is it better to tell him the truth, or protect him from it? Bar Mitzvah’s are about becoming a man, but he is still very much a little boy. What is the healthiest way to get him through this, whole?

In one of the most poignant moments of the play, Jason’s step-father asks, “Why don’t we tell him that we don’t have the answers, that life rarely goes according to plan, and this is the start of becoming a man?”

Today’s gospel reading is from the Sermon on the Plain. We might be more familiar with the Sermon on the Mount, which appears in Matthew: “Blessed are the meek…blessed are the peacemakers…” Luke’s version, which we just heard, is a lot grittier, and honestly probably less memorable because it might make us a little uncomfortable, tempting us to forget.

Here, the blessings that Jesus bestows are strictly literal: “Blessed are the poor,” he says, not “the poor in spirit.” Luke’s version also stands out because Jesus’ blessings are balanced with curses, basically: “Woe to you who are rich,” he says. “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” The fact that Jesus preaches this sermon on a plain instead of a mountain tells us something too: Here, Jesus stands on level ground with the people who seek him out; he meets them where they are and takes his place within the complicated and often painful equilibrium of their real lives. “Blessed are you,” he says.

In the Sermon on the Plain, suffering is balanced with rejoicing. Blessings are balanced with woes. Jesus points toward a kingdom that has not yet come, but is near enough that we are blinded by glimpses of its glory. It’s a mess, and God became a human precisely for this reason: to share with us in suffering, and to share with us in joy. To be in the midst of our brokenness, and to point us toward ultimate restoration, perfect unity with the Creator.

Jesus even gives good advice on how to live here: “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

I am more and more convinced that this is what it means to be a Christian—to stand on the plain with Jesus and with the whole host of humanity. To hold all of it—the blessings and the woes, the kingdom that is now and is not yet now—to hold it all, and to stand there. To love even in the midst of such brokenness.

Like many of you, perhaps, I find myself a little anxious this week. This presidential election has pulled back a veil in our country, and has revealed to us a nation that is far more divided than I think I realized. We are learning more about each other’s prejudices, seeing first-hand each other’s pain, discovering where we stake our identities, and the lengths that we will go to affirm that we are right and others are wrong. As a country, we have behaved badly in this election.

The thing that disturbs me most of all, I think, is how this political season—more than any other I’ve witnessed—has pulled us like magnets to opposite poles, making us stare across the divide and point fingers and shout curses. Relationships have been broken, if not severed completely. Families have been divided. People are terrified, and angry, and exhausted. This is simply not Christian. This is not what Christians do.

I wonder if the space between those poles might be the plain where Jesus stands. I wonder if it’s where we’re being invited to stand in the coming weeks and months. As Christians, we have practice being there. We know the terrain. As a country, we have to learn how to live with each other going forward, and my prayer is that those of us who can will abandon our poles and walk into the plain.

Today, we are baptizing two souls into the Body of Christ. All Saints Day is a particularly beautiful occasion for a baptism, because it reminds us as powerfully as ever that we are not alone in this messy world. We are united with one another, with Christ, and with all the saints in heaven as we seek to hold our ground, as we bravely take our place on the messy plain of humanity.

Baptism, like all things Christian, balances the here and the not yet. Initiated into the Body of Christ, we can expect the glory of resurrection and an eternity with God. But we’re also powerfully equipped to live the life we’ve been given, here on earth.

As a priest in baptism, there’s one prayer that always stops me short, chokes me up, and confronts me with what it really means to follow Jesus. You’ll hear it in a moment: “Heavenly Father,” we pray, “we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed on these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace.” That’s the coming Kingdom part. But the prayer goes on:

“Give them an inquiring and discerning heart,” we ask, “the courage and will to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.” That’s the standing on the plain part, and I can’t imagine a better hope for our children, a better hope for ourselves. The prayer says it all.

So, what about Jason? What about his family, and his dying friend, and his growing realization that life rarely goes according to plan? Well, Jason decides to have the Bar Mitzvah, but he decides to hold it in his friend’s hospital room rather than the event hall that his parents had rented. He only invites their family and two close friends. He turns a small hospital table into an altar, wears his prayer shawl, sings his prayers with abandon. He becomes a man in his religious tradition that way, in the midst of brokenness, pain, and grief. It is a beautiful impulse, coming from a child. To honor love, community, relationships, and hard, messy spaces. To hallow a place when so many would rather run away.

That is my prayer for all of us as we walk into what might be a rather difficult week: may we choose the plain, knowing that God is there.

AMEN.