Unitive Seeing — The Vicar’s Palm Sunday Sermon

A sermon offered by the Vicar, The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck, Palm Sunday, March 29, 2015, @TheAdvocate 

 

It’s a lot to take in.

And it happens pretty fast.

It’s as if we are being liturgically jerked around.

We start with the glorious re-membrance of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

We become the crowd, you and I.

We take up our palm branches and we sing triumphantly.

“Hosanna Glory, hosanna Glory.

Jesus is coming oh yes I know…”

 

A little awkward perhaps, but certainly fun.

And maybe we connect just a bit

to that happy day,

when the crowds were really excited to see Jesus,

to be near Jesus,

to follow Jesus.

He is loving and kind, on the side of the oppressed, compassionate, wise.

And he heals.

He heals us and makes us whole.

“Hosanna Glory, Hosanna Glory.”

 

But … awkward though it is,

fun though it is,

it doesn’t last.

The liturgy tones down,

a lot,

and we tone down with it.

Crucify him!

And he breaths his last….

 

This is a yo-yo of a liturgy.

Barely do we take our seats

and the triumphal cheers become the sordid jeers.

“Crucify him!”

we shout.

And maybe we connect just a bit

with our very human part in his demise.

 

Time was, the liturgy for Palm Sunday didn’t include the story of Jesus’ death,

what we call the Passion Narrative.

The palm and passion Sundays got blended in the mid-20th century.

But they stay blended even now,

to be sure that folks who miss out on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday still get to hear the story of the crucifixion

before they slide too quickly into Easter and the celebration of the resurrection!

 

But this dual focus, compromised though it is,

can really preach.

Because as we re-member the crowd shouting Hosanna one day

and Crucify Him! a few days later,

it helps us more fully to understand the Way of Jesus.

And the Way we are to walk if we are to follow him.

 

In our lives,

in our world,

We are ever tempted to default into dual thinking –

good – bad

desirable – undesirable

right – wrong

orthodox – heresy.

 

But instead of dualities,

the Christian faith calls us to,

what Cynthia Bourgeault calls

“a non-dual consciousness”,

or unitive seeing.

Bourgeault is speaking of the unity between the mystical and the mundane,

the cosmic and the earthbound.

But unitive seeing can get us beyond a lot of dualities that tempt us,

can help us walk the Way of Jesus the Christ.

 

 

Much of Christian faith and life is lived between two apparently contradictory realities, claims, or practices.

The most blatant, of course,

being our claim that Jesus is as once fully human and fully divine.

But there are many.

Wise and innocent, for example.

You know, “wise as serpents, innocent as doves”.

In time, temporal,

and beyond time, eternal.

The Kingdom of God has come

but it’s not here yet.

On a more present and practical level,

last week some of us talked about the way that good liturgy is highly planned,

but also spontaneous.

 

As Anglican Christians, we walk a peculiar way

between Roman Catholic and Protestant.

A chunk out of each, yet also something new.

 

Christianity in general,

and Anglican Christianity in particular,

is not a faith for those who like things black and white, yes or no, clear and simple.

 

Except for the one unitive claim that is as clear and simple as can be:

God is love,

loving us

and calling us to love one another.

No nuance in that.

Nothing gray about it.

But to walk the Way of love compels us regularly

to walk in creative tension between two apparent opposites or dualities.

Like Jesus today,

like Jesus this week.

Hosanna!

Crucify him!

 

Richard Rohr describes the Way of Jesus this week as a unitive way between flight and fight

saying,

Jesus’ passion and death exemplified in dramatic theater a “third way,” which is neither fight nor flight,

but a little of both.

It is fleeing enough to detach oneself from excessive ego and the emotions that attach to it

and fighting just enough to stand up courageously against evil.

 

….fleeing enough to detach oneself from excessive ego and the emotions that attach to it

This could be called making oneself vulnerable.

 

and fighting just enough to stand up courageously against evil.

This could be called being strong.

 

Fleeing and fighting.

Vulnerable, yet strong,

open, yet determined.

 

We have a lot to emulate here.

I know I do.

Situations and circumstances arise

which tempt us to go or only see one clear way or another,

to assume one behavior or another.

 

But for those who have been baptized into the life, death, and resurrection

of Jesus the Christ,

somewhere between “Hosanna” and “Crucify Him”,

We are called to walk a different way.

And it isn’t always clear

and it isn’t always easy.

 

As Christians, we are called to seek the Way of Jesus,

the Way where the Holy and the human touch.

We are called to live our lives

walking the way of the cross –

which means, among other things,

that we are to be vulnerable, yet strong,

mindful of others, trusting in God.

Some call it resilience,

others perseverance.

 

It is true as we relate one human to another

It is true as we strive to be a community of Christians relating to each other …..as a community of Christians!

And it is true for us each as Christian individuals

or as a Christian community

relating to the wider world.

Vulnerable, yet strong,

mindful of others, trusting in God.

We will be hurt,

but love bids us to keep going,

keep going.

And we do

because Jesus walked that Way before us.

 

This day,

this Holy Week,

Let us walk the Way together

You and I.

In the Name of Jesus the Christ.

AMEN.

John 3:16. A Johnny Tuttle Sermon

A Sermon Offered by Johnny Tuttle, Duke Divinity School Intern
Lent IV
March 15, 2015

Almighty God,
Since the beginning this Holy Lent,
we have remembered that we are dust
and to dust we shall return.
Now, O God, we ask with your faithful Psalmist
that you remember we are dust;

O God,
remember and Love the dust of this world
so that we might love it as well.
Amen.

_______________

You would think that John 3:16
would be a piece of cake for the preacher.
This, my dear friends, is false.
Because it is so well known,
it is incredibly intimidating.
I am charged with speaking about a verse
(or set of verses)
many of you know by memory
and perhaps knew before you stepped foot in church.
So, I face the possibility that one or more of you
might think whatever I might have to say about it
is unnecessary and/or pedantic.

Yet, while I am concerned with this possible reception,
I have some questions about the way we have read
and continue to read these verses,
particularly in light of our Lenten frame of reference.

I wonder whether we are even acquainted
with the dust to which we are so deeply bound.
Do we know what we mean when we say, “love”,
let alone that God “loves”?

Throughout this past year,
it has become more apparent to me
that we are so alienated from the world –
from the earth and one another as God’s creatures –
that we have no idea what it might mean for God to love the world.

Similarly, “belief” has been drained of all its concrete implications.
I fear we have reduced “belief”
to an individual’s opinion or conceptual assent.
And this belief is vaguely related to the nebulous idea of “eternal life”.
In both cases, belief and love become abstract concepts
without any concrete articulation.
And our belief in this love
anticipates some kind of future reward – eternal life –
that we suppose is great
(but we secretly fear will be super boring)
Ultimately, these abstract categories
threaten to render this passage nearly vacuous.

To complicate matters a bit more,
while God indeed loves the world,
we live in a world within a world –
a world of our own construction.
We have alienated ourselves from God’s creation
by constructing synthetic institutions and systems
of alternative mediation.
We work within processes and bureaucracies
that dictate the ways we relate to one another.
They mediate for us.
We who are bound to the dust,
who come from and return to the dust,
have constructed modes of relating
that fundamentally alienate us
from God’s dusty, beloved creation.
I’ll share some examples:

In our globalized economy,
money is the almighty mediator
between the gift of God’s creation
and the work of human hands.
Many of us are well acquainted
with the way those who grow and pick our food
struggle under this unmerciful mediation.

The value of the care and attention given to the plant
is marked by a number driven by market demand
rather than the need of the farmworker.
Similarly, we consume the food
without having to actually know who grew it,
where it came from, or how it was grown.
All we have to know is the dollar amount assigned to it.
Money itself is an alienating mediator.

Or we might consider the tragic events
in Ferguson, Missouri this past week.
Two officers were shot and wounded
in a city that has been the epicenter of the movements
of protest against racial injustice in this country.

We must both lament the violence
suffered by these two police officers
and stand in solidarity with those
who are subject to the racial injustice
created through the system of so-called “law and order”.

Such a system is presented as a given, a necessary mediator.
We assume we need it to maintain the peace.
Moreover, “law and order”, as a system,
exists as something more fundamental
than the people who participate in it.
It is a socially constructed ideal
with underlying biases and prejudices
imposed as a necessary absolute
mediating between officer and protester.
So, it may be the case
that the racial injustice felt by so many of our brothers and sisters,
is built into this system that creates
the alienating space for dehumanization and violence.

And, at the risk of being labeled a fanatic,
I have to mention the so-called criminal justice system once again.
Both victim and perpetrator
Are victimized by the alienating mediation
of the state or federal government.

The victim and perpetrator rarely encounter one another
After the initial incident,
Because the crime is ultimately against the state
Rather than against another person.
The personal and social consequences of an offense
are rarely confronted by the offender
and the victim is left to navigate
the bureaucratic hell that is the Criminal Justice System.

But this way of seeing one another runs back as far as that first garden.
Through the deception of the serpent,
Adam and Eve begin to see one another as obstacle rather than gift.
“That woman you gave me…”, Adam says.
“But the serpent…” says Eve.

No longer speaking to one another.
Only speaking about one another.
God’s creatures speaking of one another in the third person,
Speaking about one another as objects rather than beloved gifts.

How can we who are so alienated from one another,
who have learned to see one another as objects,
who have lost sight of one another as gifts,
who have disdained the dust from which we came, –
how can we begin to love one another as God’s beloved creatures
who believe, trust, and participate in God’s love in Christ?

It may help to reimagine what this famous Gospel text is saying.
How do we understand the “belief” spoken of in these verses –
“so that everyone who believes in him
may not perish but may have eternal life?”
What is this belief? What does this mean?

If you are anything like me,
this has meant a kind of rational assent
to a set of ideas about Jesus or God.
If I just think the right things about Jesus,
if I can just wrap my head around the doctrine of the Atonement,
then I’ll be saved.
This “rationalist approach” terrifies me.
What about those who are cognitively differently abled,
those whose memories are not what they used to be,
or children who rely on the patience and faith of their parents?

Putting stock in a “think your way to Jesus” plan of salvation,
is a far too limited account of God’s love for the world.
So I think, at least at this point in my life,
I really want to resist this understanding of “belief”.
But the modern narrative of “reason” and “rational thought”
has done a number on a lot of us.

We may do well to recover what is lost in translation:
That is, that “belief” and “faith” are translated from the same word.
So, when I hear this famous chunk of the Gospel,
I want to think of it in terms of “fidelity” or “trust” –
something that is time-tested and relational.

An alternative might be:
“This is how God loves the world: God gave God’s only Son,
that those who are faithful or who trust in him
might not perish, but would have life eternal.”

Now, this New International Johnny Tuttle Bible translation
still doesn’t answer all my questions.
Part of being “faithful in Christ”,
if we are to accept my interpretive translation,
is knowing what that fidelity actually looks like.

I had a professor in college put it this way:
“I can tell you and explain to you the concepts of what I believe.
But if you really what to know what I believe, what I trust in,
follow me around for a few days.”

Describing belief in terms of trust and fidelity
puts it on the ground, makes it immanent.
And if it is this belief – or trust – that brings life eternal,
it may mean life eternal is closer
than we may have once thought it to be.
“…Everyone who believes in him may not perish
but may have eternal life.”
When God gives God’s son,
life eternal presses into the world as an immanent reality and free gift.
It does us no good to think of eternal life
as something in the far off, distant future
It is something God has brought to us in Christ
And we are invited to join it, to participate in it now.

But what does this “life eternal” look like?
How do we live in such a way that we participate
in the life eternal God has already given in Christ?
How do we “believe” on the ground?

I think it has something to do with seeing how God loves the world.
And yet “How” God loves the world
is not so much a “how” but a “who?”
That is, God’s love comes to the world
in the person of Jesus Christ.

If we are to be those who are faithful in Christ,

if we are created in Christ for good works,

our fidelity as disciples depends on the perfect fidelity of Christ

to God’s love for the whole world

Here, we can look to First John 3:16.

 

“This is how we know what love is:

Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.

And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”

 

The love of God and the faithfulness of Jesus are one and the same.

God’s love looks like Jesus.

To “believe” – to trust and be faithful –

we are called to participate in the love of God

manifest in Christ Jesus through the gift of the Spirit.

 

Similarly, First John chapter 4 says,

“Dear friends, let us love one another,

for love comes from God.

Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.

Whoever does not love does not know God,

because God is love.

 

This is how God showed his love among us:

He sent his one and only Son into the world

that we might live through him.

This is love: not that we loved God,

but that he loved us and sent his Son

as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

 

Dear friends, since God so loved us,

we also ought to love one another.

No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another,

God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”

 

If we are to believe, and therefore participate

in the immanent life eternal given in Jesus Christ,

we must participate in the love of God in Christ

poured into our hearts by the Spirit –

the Love with which God loves the world.

 

We look to Jesus to see the love of God for us,

We look to Jesus to see our love as creatures for God

And we look to Jesus to see one another as God’s creatures.

“This is how we know what love is:

Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.

And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”

 

So we look to Jesus, who gives his life eternal to us

in this Bread of Life and in this Cup of Salvation

In these simple elements of bread and wine

The Incarnate God comes to us as a dust-bound, dirt-borne gift,

Revealing to us and for us the extent of God’s love for the world.

 

We who come to this table draw near to Jesus,

we draw near to one another to be joined by Christ in the Spirit.

And though the serpent in the garden alienated us from one another,

the Body and Blood of Christ are lifted up

in the elements of bread and wine

just as Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness.

There we behold what we are, and we become what we receive,

that we might behold one another, no longer as alienated strangers

but as beloved creatures and gifts to one another in Christ.

 

And from this table, we are called into the world that God loves.

We are called to one another as people of the Advocate,

to support one another in our various and common ministries

caring for one another as each has need.

We are called to our neighbors in the Rogers Road Community,

developing sincere and vulnerable friendships

that we might see one another as beloved creatures and gifts.

Finally, we are called to love, not by our own strength

But by that very love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit,

The love with which God loves the world

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holiness of Life: The Vicar’s Sermon for Lent III

The following is a sermon offered by the Vicar, The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck, on March 8, 2015. Year B – Lent III. At The Advocate

Jesus is really ticked off.

No meek and mild, milk toast fellow he.

Turning over tables,

thrashing a whip.

More physical expression of anger in this story than most of us have ever had,

or ever will.

Scary, perhaps,

But it’s kind of liberating, isn’t it?

Heck, if Jesus can get that mad, maybe it’s okay for us to get mad, too.

 

Of course,

we do well to ask ourselves just what it is that has him so worked up.

And to ask ourselves what the story has to say to us here in this little temple.

Taking him at his word, the flash point for Jesus’ anger,

seems to be the presence of those who are selling animals in the temple.

Animals, presumably, to be used for ritual sacrifices,

not farming,

(though the story doesn’t say that directly).

Cattle, sheep and doves are being sold in the temple.

“Take these things out of here!” he shouts.

“Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

 

I guess we can take solace in knowing that we aren’t selling cattle, sheep and doves here.

We’re not even selling the bread and wine for our ritual sacrifice.

Or indulgences,

or the best seats in the house.

So, is that the end of the story?

Solace that we aren’t as inducing of Jesus’ anger as those sellers were back then?

 

Of course…. the pairing of this Gospel story with the Exodus reading that gives us the so-called 10 Commandments

may be worth some consideration.

No, we are not selling cattle here.

But what are we doing?

And is it good?

Would Jesus have any admonitions for any of us here?

for all of us?

 

This is Lent, after all.

—————-

Now, I am a believer in the importance of paying attention to confluences

to the ways in which things come our way from a variety of sources

to shape our actions or our thoughts.

When streams or trends or circumstances come together in a certain time or place,

I believe God is calling us to take heed.

 

The Advocate itself was born of such confluence.

Three established churches ready to work together,

a new bishop eager to start new congregations in the Diocese,

a region growing in population.

a priest with a particular set of skills and history,

a particular people feeling called to make a new church together.

Beauty!

 

The past few weeks I’ve experienced a confluence of influence and thought about God and church and people.

And it’s starting to sink in….

 

1) It started with Nathan sending pages of a book by Timothy Sedgwick, a professor at Virginia Theological Seminary. Nathan had to read this book by Sedgwick as part of his training to become an Episcopal priest. It’s called The Christian Moral Life, and it has a wizz bang chapter on “The Anglican Perspective”.

In it, Sedgwick reminds us that for Anglicans, and therefore for those of us Anglicans who are Episcopalians, faith is not so much a matter of right belief. Faith is not a check box form with things you are supposed to believe in order to be a Christian. Rather, faith is something formed in community and in worship.

It is “practical”, (as in practiced), and it is a way of life.

Christian faith is a life lived in the presence of God, directed to God, aware of God.

Christian faith is marked, not by a list or a rulebook,

but instead, by holiness of life.

 

That’s why the Creed is best sung, not said.

Because when it is sung, it is more likely to be experienced as a love song,

a love song sung by the community gathered to worship God together.

Rather than a bold declaration of “our way or the highway”.

 

2) The next element of this season’s confluence

is the way that the society of St. John the Evangelist is using this Season of Lent at a time to call our attention to the gift of time and how we use that gift.

Paul Marvin and Char Sullivan are leading us in conversations here at the Advocate,

based on the SSJE videos week by week.

In those reflections we are reminded, first one way, then another,

that we are given a choice about how we will use our time,

how we will direct our yearnings,

how we will enter into any given experience of life.

Again, this is a call to a holy life,

using our time, or at least some smidgeon of it

to direct our lives to God.

 

Then 3) Bishop Curry came our way on Lent One,

and preached the Gospel according to Jimi Hendrix:

“When the power of love overcomes the love of power

then the world will know peace”.

The Bishop pointed out that this is deeply reminiscent of how Jesus yearns for us to live our lives,

“Love the Lord your God with all you heart, mind and soul,

and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Love the Lord your God more than power,

more than money,

more than rules and societal norms.

 

No wonder Jesus was mad when he saw the temple full of activity that screamed otherwise.

Where’s the love??

 

4) Last week, Nathan, no doubt influenced by the same book by Timothy Sedgwick, Nathan reminded us that the way of faith is to follow Jesus the Christ,

not the rules that have grown up around the faith through the millennia,

but Jesus.

This is not to say that certain rules and disciplines might not help us to focus our attention on God.

But all too swiftly, the rules and disciplines can become ends in themselves,

rather than a holy life lived.

 

5) Last, this week I have been re-reading a book Hilda Bukoski gave me three years ago,

the last time the so-called Ten Commandments came up on the Sunday readings.

It’s called…. The Ten Commandments: Laws of the Heart, and it is written by Joan Chittister.

One of the things that Chittister points out is that the writing on the tablets of stone are only called “commandments” once in scripture – in Exodus 34.

And, she says, they “are not actually statutes, because there is no punishment for disobeying them.”

More accurately, and way more often, the writing on the tablets of Moses are called the “Decalogue”

or Ten Words.

They are words, she says, that describe a holy people,

words that describe those who live a holy life in relationship with God.

We are not so much to be convicted by them

as we are to be transformed by them.

Because God created us for love,

and has delivered us from bondage.

God has freed us up to love God and to love our fellow human beings.

We, when we turn to God,

will be transformed by a life lived in holiness.

a life lived with “singleness of heart”.

Boom!

 

Do you see the confluence?

1) The study of the Anglican perspective,

2) the little SSJE videos,

3) Bishop Curry’s sermon, 4) Nathan’s sermon,

5) Hilda’s book.

They all call us to assume,

that is, to put on,

a garment of mindfulness,

being aware of being in the presence of God.

They call us put on a headscarf of intentionality in thought,

a willingness to be transformed by life lived with God.

 

In times of solitude,

then, too, in the fleshiness of community,

in daily routine,

then, too, in Sunday worship,

we are given the opportunity to see the gift of God

and to receive it,

aware that,

as expressed in the newly released Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,

“there is no present like the time.”

—————————-

Yeah, Jesus was really pissed off when he saw the animals being sold in the Temple and the people buying and selling with oblivion.

Given what we know about anger,

being the 21st century psychologically savvy people that we are,

we know that anger is very often an outgrowth of grief,

or a cover for grief.

So Jesus’ anger makes a whole lot of sense.

Jesus is angry, yes,

because it’s got to grieve his heart when God’s people persistently ignore the simple invitation,

the offer of the gift,

to draw nearer to God,

to be aware of God’s presence in all of life,

to love and be loved by God.

It’s got to grieve Jesus’ heart

when God’s people instead busy themselves with the busyness and false promises of the day.

“Buy this cow and your life will be better!”

“Keep browsing the internet and you will be satisfied!”

“Don’t stop what you’re doing

or you may feel sad,

or lonely,

or inadequate.

So just keep doing it, whatever it is!

Bzzzz, Bzzzzz, Bzzzzz.

 

The call to have no other God but Yahweh,

is not a threat to punish those who don’t believe each phrase of the Creed.

Rather it is an invitation for us to examine whatever it is

that we say and have and do

that gets in the way of our mindfulness,

our intention,

our seriously seeking God.

And Jesus’ anger,  Jesus’ grief,

are not unleashed with narcissistic rage

or exaggerated by manipulative tears,

or controlling cruelty.

No.

They are genuine,

born of a vision, a hope, a deep, deep desire

for us to live life in true joy and peace.

“Come on, you all!” he is saying.

These animals are not what matters!

Even this Temple can be destroyed.

 

God is what matters.

Your life with God… matters.

 

Jesus calls us o’er the tumult.

God bids us to rest … in God.

The Church invites us to be … together,

and discover what it means.

Risking Rejection — A Sermon by David Wantland

 The following sermon was offered by David Wantland, seminarian, at The Advocate, on the last Sunday after the Epiphany, 2015.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. Amen

Maybe there’s no easy week to preach on the Transfiguration of our Lord, but this Sunday feels particularly hard. We gather together this morning only a few miles away from where Deah, Yusor, and Razan were murdered. I won’t speak for you, but after a week of wide-ranging emotion, I come into this place looking to God with a lot of questions. And today of all days, when our liturgy, our prayers, and today’s gospel lesson are intended to give us hope and strength as we prepare to make a holy lent, hope seems in short supply. I keep thinking: what hope does glimpsing the transfiguration give us in light of these deaths?

To be sure, there is a word of hope for us today. But to get to it, I’ll need to criticize one of my loves.
Gandalf_the_White_returnsIf, like me, you love J.R.R. Tolkien, you’ve been deceived about the Transfiguration. An even if you don’t love Tolkien, anyone who’s seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy will know what I am talking about. The middle of the Two Towers, Gandalf the White, newly minted upgrade from Gandalf the Grey, enters the mountain town Edoras to confront a possessed king and his toxic advisor. Ascending the mountain with three other companions, Gandalf is cloaked, not in the white robes of his current order but in the old color of his prior rank– a coarse grey wool veil. Atop the mountain, Gandalf enters the throne room of Theoden king, using that wizard staff-turned walking stick to deceive the king’s court. See, this weak old man needs to pass as safe so that he can get near the king. Theoden, possessed by another wizard, mocks the weakness of this old man. Gandalf is having none of it. In a moment of surprise, Gandalf casts off his grey cloak, transfiguring before the eyes of all into Gandalf the White, strong enough to overcome the king’s possession and the trickery of the king’s advisor. Order in the kingdom is restored and the viewer/ reader is left pleased with Gandalf’s game.

I love Tolkien, but he has led us astray. To be fair, he isn’t the only one who has led us astray. Many have imagined the Transfiguration as the revelation of what Jesus had been veiling. But imagining Jesus in this way means that he was pretending all along. Wearing an untransfigured body like a coarse cloak, Jesus was just performing humanity for the sake of deception–even a virtuous one. If Jesus were performing humanity, then the Transfiguration is nothing more than a big reveal of the ruse he’s had to put up with for our sake.

Jesus in this understanding, has had to condescend to the world. His “true self” becomes the one on the mountain, glorious and eternal, not the one down in the crowd, with the diseased, and the Gentiles, and the Romans. You can imagine how this understanding of the Transfiguration, and of Jesus’ life in general, suggests that the Incarnation of Jesus was an act of obedience before it was an act of love, that Jesus’s ministry was one of patient endurance before he could get back to his heavenly throne. And it was only worth it so far as some people caught on. Jesus’ love for the world gets turned into love exclusively for the believer– Jesus loves those who love and obey him back. The rest of the world… well…

But that is not the Transfiguration of our Lord. And I praise God for that, because were this little deception game representative of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain, I don’t think there’d be anything hopeful to say as Christians who grieve the murders of Deah, Yusor, and Razan.

So praise God that Tolkien’s account is not the gospel account.

jesus_heals_boy_holeNo, brothers and sisters, we are given the account of Jesus of Nazareth, whom God transformed for a moment on the mountain to reveal who he was– the Son of God– the very one who would suffer and rise again. Most importantly, we are given a picture of Jesus of Nazareth who does not tarry on the mountain to savor in his glorified state. No, we encounter Jesus of Nazareth who goes back down the mountain. You see the Son of God is not hiding behind Jesus. The Son of God is the one who loves the crowd, who hurried back down the mountain, , knowing full well that the crowd may reject him. Just before the reading we heard today, Jesus foretells his death and resurrection. Great suffering, rejection, murder, and resurrection. He names it all. He anticipates it all and journeys that way.

Yes, the one who is revealed to be the Son of God descends the mountain to be caught up with the masses and to risk rejection.

Risking rejection, I think that’s what the transfiguration points us to today. I don’t think its about the future– its not about enduring suffering to gain our future state. It is that seeing Jesus revealed as God, we can trust to go where he goes. In the transfiguration and the subsequent descent down the mountain, we see Jesus’ willingness to bear the rejection and hatred of others just so that he could be close to those whom he loves, the very ones who hate and reject him.

And I think today, to go where he goes is to risk rejection. TO go where he goes is to show up in solidarity with the suffering and the marginalized, recognizing that most of us are privileged and empowered. And even if we would not claim those words for ourselves, our being here today, as Christians, and Episcopalians, means that we bear traditions that have oppressed. In our name, many have killed the queer, the person of color, the Muslim. So to show up in solidarity is to risk rejection, because histories of suffering may make even the well-intentioned indistinguishable from the enemy.

The transfiguration teaches us to say that we are here, we have put our bodies in places of solidarity BECAUSE we have glimpsed the transfigured body of Jesus. We have learned that this man was not simply some avant garde kook who liked to befriend the stranger so as to shock the friend. We have learned that this man who put his body alongside the forgotten, the insignificant, and the negligible (better terms), is God incarnate. To go his way is to do likewise and to do likewise in his name.

It’s a subtle thing, but I am saying that to hide our faith to be welcomed as supporters is to mislearn from Gandalf. It is to deny who we are so that we may be let in. It is an attempt to control our acceptance. The Transfiguration says, because I am who I am, this is what I do. Because I am one claimed by the story of Jesus of Nazareth, this is what I do. I show up in love and support of those who are unloved and unsupported even if I am rejected. How many times did Peter reject Jesus?

We as the People of the Advocate are self-consciously aware of the evil that has been done by and in the name of Christianity. And its no wonder that, with such knowledge, we may find it difficult to associate with the name. And I’m not saying we show up with banner. But I am saying that perhaps the most difficult task for us is to put our well-informed bodies in places where, regardless of our awareness, we may be rejected, suspected, and made to feel unable. But we keep showing up.

I was at a panel discussion following the recent events at Duke University where the administration decided, for a variety of reasons, to reverse their decision to permit the projection of the adhan from the Duke Chapel belltower. The panel was comprised of Muslim, Christian, and self-described pagan university scholars. Over the course of the discussion, panelists did not avoid naming the ways in which Christianity has contributed to violence and exclusion the world over. In that moment, it struck me as vitally important that Christian bodies be at that table, that Christian bodies be there to hear the cries of a crowd who may want to reject Christian voices, and that Christian bodies nevertheless remain, in love. To me, that was a moment of life seen through the transfiguration. Precisely because we have glimpsed the one whose name has been misused in histories of violence, we put our bodies in places that defy that violence by receiving the anger of those who’ve been hurt by it.

The virtue this Transfiguration life requires is perseverance. Therefore, it requires a community of support, strengthening us in this life vulnerable to rejection in the very moment we are trying to love. But that is where we find hope in today’s gospel lesson. Jesus himself goes down the mountain. Jesus goes down into the crowd and says, I love you enough not to believe your rejection. I love you enough not to believe your rejection. Amen.

 

 

 

Voices Behind Curtains: A Johnny Tuttle Sermon

A Sermon for Year B, Epiphany IV, February 1, 2015

at the Advocate

Johnny Tuttle

 

Grant us, Lord, the lamp of charity which never fails,

that it may burn in us and shed its light on those around us,

and that by its brightness we may have a vision of that holy City,

where dwells the true and never-failing Light, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

===================================================

Wow. The first sermon I am asked to preach at The Advocate

after three years (give or take),

and I am “coincidentally” scheduled

on a text about demon possession.

Well…here we go.

I imagine we are tempted

to avoid the obvious situation in the text –

that Jesus heals a man who is demon possessed.

I imagine if you are like me, you want to read this

in some way that allows you to take it seriously

while maintaining a safe distance from these antiquated themes.

We’re Episcopalians, after all.

We don’t have to “check our brain at the door…”

I sympathize with this way of dealing with the text,

and I would probably fall into this category more often than not.

I fear, however, that oftentimes we simply check our brains

out of one close-minded way of thinking

and check right into another,

in the name of so-called “enlightened, rational thought”.

We work around, beside, and straight past stories like this

because it challenges the way we understand and perceive,

the way we see the world.

But, my dear friends, it is so very difficult to see in the dark.

This is why we must look to the light that shines in the darkness,

because the darkness has not overcome it.

So I want to try and see what the light of Christ is exposing for us

in order that we might begin to reflect

that light into the midst of our darkness.

We should be careful not to pass over

the setup for this scene in the synagogue.

In fact, it may be the catalyst for the whole series of events.

Verses 21 and 22 say, “…he entered the synagogue and taught.

They were astounded at his teaching,

for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

Jesus comes into the synagogue preaching the good news –

a new teaching with authority!

Only after Jesus has unleashed the Gospel does the demonic appear.

It is in the light of the Gospel

that the covert powers in our midst are challenged and revealed.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

The Gospel brings light,

the Word of God shines in our midst,

opening our eyes to see what may be lying in the shadows

of those spaces we take for granted.

And so we cannot underestimate the fact

that this unclean spirit was in the midst of the synagogue,

in the midst of the community of worshippers,

only revealed, only drawn out

when the Holy One of God comes into their midst,

bearing in his very body the Good News of God’s in-breaking Kingdom.

It was there, lying dormant – no, not dormant –

silently active beneath the surface,

masking its movements and manipulations

behind the all-too familiar status quo.

Only the presence of the Body of Christ,

the Word of God, draws the demonic into the open.

I want to be clear: it would be a mistake

to ignore the scriptural presentation of the demonic

precisely because the demonic relies

on being masked by the status quo.

It relies on covert operation.

It relies on our blindness to it in our midst.

When we turn a blind eye to its presence,

we lose the way it works into our institutions, systems, and habits

until we take its presence to be normative, perhaps even welcome.

As I thought through this story, I was reminded of a song

by the Country artist, Sturgill Simpson.

The song entitled “Voices” says,

“How I wish somebody’d make these voices go away

Seems they’re always talking but they ain’t got much to say

A picture’s worth a 1000 words but a word ain’t worth a dime

And we all know they’ll go on talking til the end of time

Don’t call it a sign of the times when it’s always been this way

Forked tongues and voices behind curtains with no name

They plot their wicked schemes setting fate for all mankind

With evil that can fill God’s pretty skies with clouds that burn and blind

Many of you may know that I am deeply affected

by the current state of our so-called criminal “justice” system,

the Prison Industrial Complex, and the politics of the death penalty.

I am convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt,

that if we are going to name the demonic at work

in our social systems and structures,

the prison system is where we ought to start.

It would take more time than we have

to enumerate the evils of the Prison System.

There are a couple, however, that I think relate

specifically to the issues raised by the Gospel story

that might put what I’ve been saying on the ground for us.

The first, and perhaps most obvious, is its relative silence.

The prison works in covert ways,

creating a barrier between those behind its walls and those outside.

The actual prison walls are the obvious part.

The bureaucratic nightmare one must go through

to enter the prison as a visitor creates a further barrier.

There is an intentional effort to hide incarcerated people

effectively cutting them off from the communal support systems.

The prisons statistically breed fear and violence,

reinforcing patterns of behavior that lead

to an extremely high rate of recidivism –

that is, people who are in prison usually go back

because of the inability to re-enter society.

And the reality of the prison system

is decidedly so far removed from our own view,

we have the luxury of forgetting

those who are daily dehumanized by it.

“Forked tongues and voices behind curtains with no names,”

as Sturgill Simpson sings.

How I wish somebody’d make these voices go away.

The second silence is created

by what Michelle Alexander calls “colorblindness”

in her book The New Jim Crow.

There is, without a doubt, a racial bias

in the criminal justice system.

It is proven statistically by the enormous disparity

between the number of incarcerated white people

and incarcerated racial minorities,

black men and women making up the vast majority

of our incarcerated brothers and sisters.

And Alexander gives a brilliant account of this social evil

by tracing its development historically,

and marking its invisibility through the rhetoric of “colorblindness”.

That is, in our legal system, if there is not explicit racism,

it cannot be contested.

And the demonic continues to fester

unnoticed beneath the surface.

“Forked tongues and voices behind curtains with no names,”

as Sturgill Simpson sings.

How I wish somebody’d make these voices go away.

And because we participate in and benefit

from the social and political systems

that perpetuate the unnamed evils,

we are complicit in them.

Often we pray, “Forgive us the evil we have done,

and the evil done son our behalf.”

This is evil done on our behalf.

Bishop Scott Benhase of the Diocese of Georgia

recently wrote an article about the recent execution

of a man on death row named Warren Lee Hill.

Bishop Benhase condemns the execution

as State-sanctioned murder, saying,

“This murder was done in…my name,

and in your name. Every citizen of this State,

whether we want to own it or not,

is complicit in the murder of Warren Lee Hill.

No, we did not strap him to the executioner’s table,

nor did we inject him with poisonous drugs,

but we cannot deny our complicity.”

Covert, unnoticed, yet in our midst.

“Forked tongues and voices behind curtains with no names,”

as Sturgill Simpson sings.

How I wish somebody’d make these voices go away.

And it is perhaps most ironic

that it is these very institutions and systems of oppression

that inform a social imagination around the demonic.

That is, these very institutions teach us

to demonize incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.

We are taught by the demonic how to think about what is demonic.

“Forked tongues and voices behind curtains with no names,”

as Sturgill Simpson sings.

How I wish somebody’d make these voices go away.

Dear friends, this is precisely what Jesus does here.

Jesus draws it into the open, silences it, and drives it away.

The silencing oppressor is silenced by the Word made Flesh,

and the voiceless is given back a voice by means of that same Word.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it!

We look to the body of Jesus, and in his presence,

that which oppresses God’s beloved creatures

is exposed, silenced, and driven away.

The church, as the community of people

called the Body of Christ,

is empowered by the Spirit to participate in this work

of exposing, silencing, and driving out.

We are given the strange, terrifying gift

of binding ourselves to the life and work of this Jesus,

the “outside agitator”, the seditionist,

the one who was executed by the State.

As promised in Deuteronomy,

it seems that God has indeed raised up a prophet.

While I believe Jesus was certainly prophetic,

Jesus is much more than a prophet.

Jesus is God with us.

Jesus is the Word of God in our midst,

dwelling among, with, and in us.

And this Jesus is the Word that has been put into our mouths

for speaking the Gospel of God’s Kingdom,

bearing witness to its in-breaking in our midst.

The church is called to be the prophetic bearer of God’s Word.

But we should not speak where we are unwilling to act.

In a sermon preached to the first year class at orientation,

my fellow seminarian, Racquel Gill, put it this way:

“Don’t speak for people you don’t speak to.”

“You’ve got to put your body where your mouth is.”

If the church is to be the prophetic witness,

raised up from within the community,

we the church must be willing to put ourselves

in places where both our words and our presence

reflects that light that shines in the darkness,

exposes the demonic, silencing the voices of oppression

and restoring a voice to the silenced and oppressed.

What does this look like?

I am convinced that it looks like the church going into the prison,

visiting incarcerated people, creating networks of support,

love and trust that give voice to those

who have been demonized and silenced.

I think it looks like creating a space in our congregations

for those who are re-entering society,

committing to come alongside them in compassion,

bearing with them the incredible burden

placed on them by the carceral system.

It means seeking a restorative and compassionate justice

over against the retributive calculations of the State.

I think it looks like joining alongside

People of Faith Against the Death Penalty,

holding vigils when the State exercises

its usurped power over life and death,

coming alongside families of the incarcerated people

and those on Death Row to hear their stories,

and bear with them their burdens.

If you are an employer, it looks like hiring those

who have been incarcerated,

those who are forced to secure a job while identifying as “criminal”

on their applications.

It means coming together as a community

of shared and redistributed resources,

bringing what we have to the neighborhoods around us.

But the temptation will be to rely only

on the systems in place to effect these changes.

For example, we may be tempted to think voting

is the pinnacle of our Christian social witness.

Voting may be serviceable in our Christian witness,

but it too is caught in the systems of oppression.

Voter I.D. laws and politicians that offer nothing more

than a lesser of two evils reveal its grave limitation.

So, we must go beyond this.

We, the church, are called to create an alternative space,

a space that challenges our empires,

that draws out and silences that which oppresses God’s creatures,

and bears witness to the Kingdom of God

Our witness and prophetic voice is ultimately,

fundamentally bound to the Gospel

whereby we hear the Word of God in the Spirit of Christ.

In the words of Walter Bruegemann,

Being a prophetic witness means,

“evoking cries that expect answers,

learning to address them where they will be taken seriously,

and ceasing to look to the numbed and dull empire

that never intended to answer in the first place.”

As the church, we instead look to this table –

We are invited here to receive the Body of Christ,

drawing near to the Light that has scattered the darkness.

Here, we behold what we are,

and we pray that we might become what we receive.

As we come to this table, we receive Christ, the Word of God

and we are transformed as a community into the Body of Christ,

May we who bear the name of Christ,

who carry his presence with us,

expose, silence, and scatter the darkness

as we go forth in the light of Christ.

Amen.

Re-Member: A sermon by the Vicar for Epiphany III

The following is a sermon offered for Year B – Epiphany III, January 25, 2015, @The Advocate, by The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck, Vicar

A friend of mine showed me the website for his church.

Where we at the Advocate have embraced Core Values of Compassion Justice and Transformation, this church had Proclaim, Exalt, and Serve.

“Whew!” I felt. That sounds exciting, but also kind of exhausting.

I mean, I have my moments… driving on I 40 with Amy Grant or the Kings College Choir on the stereo, belting it out: “PraiseYear B – Epiphany III January 25, 2015 The Advocate The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck A friend of mine showed me the website for his church. Where we at the Advocate have embraced Core Values of Compassion Justice and Transformation, this church had Proclaim, Exalt, and Serve. “Whew!” I felt. That sounds exciting, but also kind of exhausting. I mean, I have my moments… driving on I 40 with Amy Grant or the Kings College Choir on the stereo, belting it out: “Praise my soul the King of Heaven!!” But I don’t think I personally can regularly sustain proclaim and exalt. Thank goodness some folks can! Yet…. there it is, right there in today’s Collect: “Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation….” And then there is the baptismal Covenant: “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” “I will!”, we boldly say, “With God’s help”. Our bishop, Michael Curry, has taken the opportunity over the past two years to encourage the people of the Diocese of North Carolina to “Go!” (exclamation point). He gets the word from Jesus telling his disciples to “Go to Galilee!” and he has developed this theme to include pretty much all that we do to make the Way of Jesus known in the world, all that we do in the name of the church, outside of the church. This certainly jives with our Epiphany themes – let the Light shine throughout the world, y’all. Today’s Gospel is a little more appealing to introverts, though certainly no less challenging. Rather than “Go!” Jesus says follow me. I don’t want to split hairs too much here about the visceral distinctions between being told to Go! (exclamation point) and being bid to follow. But I want, in true Anglican style, to suggest a Via Media, a middle way. Rather than “Go!” or “follow”, I wonder about “re-member”. ——————– Last week in our discussion about the first two chapters of Verna Dozier’s “Authority of the Laity” we talked about whether we identify ourselves as religious people. Dozier’s little book was written in the early 80s, after the publication of Fritz Ridenour’s How to be Christian without being Religious, but before being religious had taken on as many negative connotations as it does today – what with the evolution of the catchy phrase “spiritual but not religious”. As we considered our identities, we began to realize that our identity — as religious or not, as Christian or not, as minister or not, shapes the way we relate to the world. If we identity ourselves as religious, we may then feel religious and act religious. If we identify ourselves as Christian, and mindfully enter the world identifying ourselves as Christian, it could actually change the way we relate to the world. Even more, if we see ourselves as Christian ministers in that world. We say this in our liturgy week by week, of course. We are dismissed at the end of the liturgy with the words, “Go in Peace to love and serve the Lord”, or “Let us Go forth in the Name of Christ” or “Let us go forth in Peace and in Power.” “Thanks be to God!” we respond with cheer. At the Advocate this dismissal loses some of its power because we don’t very much go forth right after being encouraged to go forth. Rather, we usually stay for that extension of the Eucharistic Feast, our shared meal. We go forth from this place at varying times. And by the time we go forth, that sense of going out into the world with boldness sent by Jesus, is likely to have been lost. Though we may very well be feeling good about our life in this community. Which is a good thing, mind you. One solution we came up with last week is to maybe have a sign made to go by the side of the sidewalk between the chapel and the parking lot. The sign would have the words of one of the dismissal sentences painted on it: “Go in Peace” or “Go in Peace and in Power”. —————— But I wonder if we might take a few steps back in the liturgy, back to the Eucharistic rite. Specifically, to the words of Jesus, repeated by priest at the altar, just before the elevation of the elements: “Do this in re-membrance of me.” or “Do this to re-member me.” You will note that when I say these words, I don’t appeal to a nostalgic kind of sweet memory. “Ah, remember Jesus? …” Neither to a bitter, challenging, “Never forget!” Rather, I try in English to transmit the idea of a word that connotes actually to make some thing or some one present again. To re-member them. The reason we partake of the bread, and/or the wine, is to re-member Jesus. To make him present, to make him known, in and through us. “Do this, in re-membrance of me.” When we go forth, therefore, from this place. We are not being sent to will ourselves into a better life or to muster ourselves to be able to proclaim the faith. Rather, when we go forth from this place we go forth with Jesus, in Jesus through Jesus. As John’s Gospel reminds us: He in us and we in him and him in God so we’re in God. All very co-mingled and lovely. Kind of like a Celtic knot. As those words ascribed to St. Patrick proclaim: “Christ be with me, Christ within me.” This concept is reinforced and amplified at the end of our Eucharistic Prayer, after the bread has been broken. The priest lifts the paten and chalice and says, “Behold what you are.” and the people respond, “May we become what we receive.”. This exchange, though not in the Book of Common Prayer, derives from the writing of St. Augustine of Hippo, who, in the fifth century, wrote of the distribution, when the priest offers the consecrated bread and wine: When you hear “The body of Christ”, you reply “Amen.” Be a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your “Amen” may ring true! listen .. to what Paul says about this sacrament: “The bread is one, and we, though many, are one body.” [1 Cor. 10.17] One bread,” he says. What is this one bread? Is it not the “one body,” formed from many? Remember: bread doesn’t come from a single grain, but from many. Be what you see; receive what you are. This is what Paul is saying about the bread. And then Augustine goes on about the wine: ….what we are to understand about the cup is similar and requires little explanation. …. Remember, friends, how wine is made. Individual grapes hang together in a bunch, but the juice from them all is mingled to become a single brew. This is the image chosen by Christ our Lord to show how, at his own table, the mystery of our unity and peace is solemnly consecrated. So when priest lifts the paten and chalice and says, “Behold what you are.” and the people respond, “May we become what we receive”, It is, at once, a personal and a collective hope. Behold the Body of Christ! May we become the Body of Christ! And when we receive and go forth from this place, we are not going forth individually, by ourselves. We go forth with Christ, re-membering him. And it’s not just me and Jesus or you and Jesus, either. No. We go forth as members of the Body of Christ, who have become what we received, we pray. If we indeed believe and “inwardly digest” this faith, imagine what difference it could make in how we then are present to the world at large and to the individual people who are in it. Imagine what difference it could make to each of us, in you. “Behold what you are!” “May we become what we receive!” I’m thinking maybe that sign between the chapel and the parking lot might simply say, “Re-member”. Amen. my soul the King of Heaven!!”

But I don’t think I personally can regularly sustain proclaim and exalt.

Thank goodness some folks can!

Yet…. there it is, right there in today’s Collect:

“Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation….”

And then there is the baptismal Covenant:

“Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”

“I will!”, we boldly say, “With God’s help”.

Our bishop, Michael Curry, has taken the opportunity over the past two years to encourage the people of the Diocese of North Carolina to

“Go!” (exclamation point). He gets the word from Jesus telling his disciples to “Go to Galilee!” and he has developed this theme to include pretty much all that we do to make the Way of Jesus known in the world, all that we do in the name of the church, outside of the church.

This certainly jives with our Epiphany themes – let the Light shine throughout the world, y’all.

 

Today’s Gospel is a little more appealing to introverts, though certainly no less challenging. Rather than “Go!” Jesus says follow me.

I don’t want to split hairs too much here about the visceral distinctions between being told to Go! (exclamation point) and being bid to follow.

But I want, in true Anglican style, to suggest a Via Media, a middle way.

Rather than “Go!” or “follow”, I wonder about “re-member”.

——————–

Last week in our discussion about the first two chapters of Verna Dozier’s “Authority of the Laity” we talked about whether we identify ourselves as religious people.

Dozier’s little book was written in the early 80s, after the publication of Fritz Ridenour’s How to be Christian without being Religious, but before being religious had taken on as many negative connotations as it does today – what with the evolution of the catchy phrase “spiritual but not religious”.

As we considered our identities, we began to realize that our identity — as religious or not, as Christian or not, as minister or not, shapes the way we relate to the world.

If we identity ourselves as religious, we may then feel religious and act religious. If we identify ourselves as Christian, and mindfully enter the world identifying ourselves as Christian, it could actually change the way we relate to the world. Even more, if we see ourselves as Christian ministers in that world.

We say this in our liturgy week by week, of course. We are dismissed at the end of the liturgy with the words, “Go in Peace to love and serve the Lord”,

or “Let us Go forth in the Name of Christ” or “Let us go forth in Peace and in Power.”

“Thanks be to God!” we respond with cheer.

At the Advocate this dismissal loses some of its power because we don’t very much go forth right after being encouraged to go forth. Rather, we usually stay for that extension of the Eucharistic Feast, our shared meal.

We go forth from this place at varying times. And by the time we go forth,

that sense of going out into the world with boldness sent by Jesus,

is likely to have been lost. Though we may very well be feeling good about our life in this community. Which is a good thing, mind you.

 

One solution we came up with last week is to maybe have a sign made to go by the side of the sidewalk between the chapel and the parking lot. The sign would have the words of one of the dismissal sentences painted on it:

“Go in Peace” or “Go in Peace and in Power”.

——————

But I wonder if we might take a few steps back in the liturgy, back to the Eucharistic rite. Specifically, to the words of Jesus, repeated by priest at the altar, just before the elevation of the elements:

“Do this in re-membrance of me.” or “Do this to re-member me.”

You will note that when I say these words, I don’t appeal to a nostalgic kind of sweet memory. “Ah, remember Jesus? …” Neither to a bitter, challenging, “Never forget!”

Rather, I try in English to transmit the idea of a word that connotes actually to make some thing or some one present again. To re-member them. The reason we partake of the bread, and/or the wine, is to re-member Jesus.

To make him present, to make him known, in and through us. “Do this, in re-membrance of me.”

When we go forth, therefore, from this place. We are not being sent to will ourselves into a better life or to muster ourselves to be able to proclaim the faith. Rather, when we go forth from this place we go forth with Jesus, in Jesus through Jesus.

As John’s Gospel reminds us: He in us and we in him and him in God so we’re in God. All very co-mingled and lovely. Kind of like a Celtic knot.

As those words ascribed to St. Patrick proclaim: “Christ be with me, Christ within me.”

This concept is reinforced and amplified at the end of our Eucharistic Prayer,

after the bread has been broken. The priest lifts the paten and chalice and says, “Behold what you are.” and the people respond, “May we become what we receive.”.

This exchange, though not in the Book of Common Prayer, derives from the writing of St. Augustine of Hippo, who, in the fifth century, wrote of the distribution, when the priest offers the consecrated bread and wine:

When you hear “The body of Christ”, you reply “Amen.”

Be a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your “Amen” may ring true! listen .. to what Paul says about this sacrament: “The bread is one, and we, though many, are one body.” [1 Cor. 10.17] 

One bread,” he says. What is this one bread? Is it not the “one body,” formed from many? Remember: bread doesn’t come from a single grain, but from many. Be what you see; receive what you are. This is what Paul is saying about the bread.

And then Augustine goes on about the wine:

….what we are to understand about the cup is similar and requires little explanation. …. Remember, friends, how wine is made. Individual grapes hang together in a bunch, but the juice from them all is mingled to become a single brew.

This is the image chosen by Christ our Lord to show how, at his own table, the mystery of our unity and peace is solemnly consecrated.

So when priest lifts the paten and chalice and says, “Behold what you are.”

and the people respond, “May we become what we receive”,

It is, at once, a personal and a collective hope.

Behold the Body of Christ! May we become the Body of Christ!

And when we receive and go forth from this place, we are not going forth individually, by ourselves. We go forth with Christ, re-membering him.

And it’s not just me and Jesus or you and Jesus, either. No.

We go forth as members of the Body of Christ, who have become what we received, we pray.

If we indeed believe and “inwardly digest” this faith, imagine what difference it could make in how we then are present to the world at large and to the individual people who are in it. Imagine what difference it could make to each of us, in you.

“Behold what you are.”

“May we become what we receive.”

I’m thinking maybe that sign between the chapel and the parking lot might simply say, “Re-member”.

 

 

 

 

The Senior Warden’s Annual Report

1376600_10200652870747272_87108402_nSenior Warden’s Report for 2014

January 11, 2015

Tom Fisher

Every so often, I like to take my camera and go out in search of photographs that I can make. Last year, 2014, was a particularly good year for doing that, for me.

 

On January 2nd, Candy and I flew into Boston, arriving just an hour or so before a dramatic blizzard closed Logan Airport.  We spent a couple of days mostly indoors, including one sunny morning when I was able to take a few good pictures at the Museum of Fine Arts.

 

In late July, we were in Manhattan, where I did a couple of days of street photography, and then attended a day-long intensive workshop with an excellent photography teacher.

 

Then, in the second week of December, I was out in the evenings making photographs of the Christmas lumieres on the Champs Elysee.

 

I between, I drove over to Raleigh six or seven times to photograph many of the people of the Advocate marching on Jones Street and Fayetteville Street for the Moral Monday protests.  And I drove up to southern Person County to photograph Jonathan and Megan planting flowers and, later in the year, raising the walls of their new home with a little help from their friends.

 

But of all of the hundreds of photographs that I took last year, the one that means the most to me was taken right here. A lot of you are in this photograph, taken at the Easter Vigil on Saturday, April 19th.

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The photograph makes me think of the being on the first three-person vestry eleven years ago, and how we were renting space where very few people could find us, first at the Chapel Hill Kehillah and later at Unity Center for Peace. And how, in the second year of this church, in 2004, we were already longing for a place where we could set our own schedule, have our own liturgical space.

 

It made me think of all of the people, some of them experts in fund-raising or non-profit finance, who gave the vicar and me perfectly logical and reasonable explanations of why we could not afford to buy the land, why we would certainly not be able to raise enough money to build a chapel, why what we were trying to do was too risky, too unattainable, and was happening too soon.

 

But what I see in the photograph are six or seven dozen people of the Advocate who gave generously of their time, their money, and their energy and wisdom, and who somehow made this improbable adventure, this goat rodeo, come together.

 

I also see the people who are not in the photograph, were not here that night, going all the way back to George and Mary Esser.  Including Beth Lassiter and Mark McGraw, who along with Brian Dangler, Barbara Rowan, and Emily Cameron, managed to get this building from Germanton to this site.  And then worked tirelessly to get it put back together and upgraded to meet building codes.

 

Of course, I also see our tenacious and utterly determined vicar, Lisa Fischbeck, who never doubted that we would do this, and was always finding some small step, every day, to bring it all closer to reality.

 

I can also see and recall the time, last January, February, and March, when we were completely stalled on this project, when the last couple of work crews were never, ever, going to show up and finish the plumbing and the wiring, when the inspector for the town of Chapel Hill was never going to give us a certificate of occupancy, when we were so close, but we were watching weeks go by and getting no closer at all.  So that is when I see David Buchanan and Pete Barber, who worked magic and small miracles, cussed out and cajoled, and somehow got us a temporary certificate of occupancy on the late afternoon of Maundy Thursday, just two days before this picture was taken.

 

Now I want to tell you just one thing about photography.  This is from my own personal and private edition of the Apostle’s Creed, a section that I added and which I recite from time to time, although never before in church.  Here it is:

 

The Fundamental Truth about Photography, the most important thing to know, is that photography is NOT about the camera.  Photography is about learning to see. Yes, you have to have a camera, but only in same way that an artist has a brush or a writer has a keyboard.  It is only a tool, a means to an end.  In truth, it is all about learning to see.

 

And I will tell you the best thing about having been on the Vestry of the Church of the Advocate for the past four years. The best thing has been what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard, what I’ve learned.  I know first hand that this church is led by its vicar and its vestry, but it is defined by dozens and dozens of amazing people, you the people of the Advocate. doing kind and generous things for each other, and doing brave and visionary things out in our world.

 

The Fundamental Truth about this community of faith, this Church of the Advocate, is that our life together is NOT about the chapel.  It is about learning to listen and to hear each other, about looking and being able to see each other, and about being Christ’s gospel going out into the world.  Having a place in which, and from which, to do that is important, but it is just a tool, a means to an end.  We are here, and we will grow here.  But now we are in our place, and so now we are free to dream new dreams, and see new visions.  Let us begin. Amen.

 

 

2014: The Year of Transplanting. The Vicar’s Report

IMG_0371Annual Meeting 2014

The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck, Vicar

2014: The Year of Transplanting

 

I’ve never called myself a church planter.

Rather, I claimed the descriptor of “Gathering Priest” back in 2002. Gathering a congregation of people who wanting to make church in the 21st century. We’ve never really talked about planting the Church of the Advocate, either. Saying instead that the Church was launched in 2003.

Launching seems much more lively and spirit-filled and interesting than planting…

So the planting metaphor hasn’t been a favorite of mine.

Yet….

 

Yet in many ways, 2014 was the year in which the Advocate was planted, or really transplanted.. It’s as though we had been a little shrub. A little shrub in a plastic container. Or maybe even a terra cotta container. Carried from place to place, getting heavier and a bit more cumbersome from year to year.

 

If 2013 was the Year of the Mud, (which is certainly was here), then I’ve got to say that 2014 was the Year of transplanting.  2014 was the year in which the Advocate was transplanted  from its temporary, migratory pot into the ground here on 8410 Merin Road, off Homestead Road in north Chapel Hill.

 

One of the reasons I am now ready to embrace the planting or transplanting metaphor is that in the past few months I learned that if you want to plant or transplanted bushes, shrubs or trees, you do it in the cold months of late autumn and early winter.

Why? Because in those seasons, the energy and biological systems that go into branches and leaves go dormant, and the plant instead puts its energy into extending its roots more deeply into the ground. So while it seems as though the tree is taking a rest, hibernating like a bear, it is really using its energy in a different way. A tree or bush planted or transplanted in the chilly months can better get its roots established before it gets all distracted with branches and leaves.

 

IMG_9596Well, for the sake of this illustration, the Advocate Chapel was transplanted over many months, reconstruction and adaptation took a while…. but the soil was patted down and the metaphorical mulch added right around Eastertide.

 

We celebrated our first full liturgy in the Chapel with Town approval, The Great Vigil of Easter,

on April 19. Not enough thanks can ever be given to Pete Barber for taking on the building and certification process in its final months.

 

And in the months since Easter, (It hasn’t even been a year yet) we have been rooting ourselves here on this site, experiencing one “first” after another –

first Easter, first Christmas….

first baptism

first wedding

first funeral

first burial of ashes in the church yard….

 

We have tried things on – chairs set-up “Choir style”, slightly different processions, incense, a kids area (still needs thought…), and lunch instead of dinner (continued thanks to Martha Wheeler and Ernie Bowen for their gift of making it happen!)

We also tried on a contemplative Eucharist on Sunday afternoons, daily evening prayer  (which is now weekly evening prayer…), Adult Christian education conversations on Sunday after lunch (it’s going well)

We started a Conscientious Projector series and have a bold vision for its expansion. we moved Indulgences from the bar to the chapel.

 

We have also rooted ourselves in prayer, thanks to the spirit-filled leadership of Char Sullivan

who anchors our Wednesdays, which in turn anchor us. (they certainly anchor me!)

 

Some of our ministries are such a part of the Advocate, if we want to continue the transplanting the tree metaphor, that they are neither roots nor branches. Maybe the trunk of our tree? (maybe time to let the metaphor go here….)

Anyway, one is our ongoing engagement in the community and world around us. Many of the people of the Advocate are involved in ministries of justice and restoration. Collectively, we support numerous ministries through our Advocate Tithe (a list of 2014 Tithe Distributions will is now posted on our website). In 2014 we also participated in the ongoing work of the InterFaith Council, Orange Justice United, and the Moral Monday Movement.

 

Another ministry of this congregation is our “incubation” of individuals for ministry in the wider church. In 2014, we celebrated the ordination to the priesthood of Joslyn Schafer, now serving as a priest at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte. We continued our support and sponsorship of Elaine Tola, who will be ordained a Vocational Deacon later this month and Molly McGee Short, who will be ordained a Transitional Deacon in June. We also sent David Wantland to the Bishop with our blessing and he continues his discernment of a call to the priesthood in the diocese. Johnny Tuttle is not sponsored by the Advocate, but he is certainly one of our own, and has been serving his Divinity School internship here since September.

And then there are the remarkable ministries of Nathan Kirkpatrick and Sam Laurent. Both of whom give of their time and talent here freely. How does a church this small get preaching this great?!?!!!

 

In addition to preaching monthly, Sam serves as our Theologian-in-Residence, and has been leading our Indulgences twice monthly. He now is ready to head down the road to serve as interim Episcopal chaplain at Duke.

In addition to his preaching once a month, Nathan serves as our Pastor-in-Residence while he continues his process of transitioning from Methodist minister to Episcopal priest. We expect him to be ordained as a transitional Deacon in June as well.

 

In 2014, we sent out a few shoots of growth, to make clear that from the beginning this chapel is to be, not just a place of refuge and strength for us, but also a resource for the community and world around us. We have hosted dances and drum circles art exhibits and yoga classes. We’ve learned from these acts of hospitality  about inconvenience, about increased heating bills and toilet paper rolls that seem to vanish, because they get used up so quickly.

We’ve also learned more about what it is like to pitch your tent on the door sill, where the two worlds touch. Our lives are enriched and our worldview made more vital.

 

On the grounds around the chapel, Martha Wheeler continued to take the lead on tending the roadside garden while Kathleen Herr and others created the Chapel garden out front.

We added two lithic “furnishings.” A stone altar on the south end the pond for use in our outdoor liturgies was funded with gifts given in memory of those people of the Advocate who have gone before us. And what I call “The Rock of David” on the north end of the pond, was funded with gifts given in memory of our brother David Buchanan, who regularly found rest and solace overlooking the pond.

 

Getting rooted more deeply has included becoming more reasonable about what tasks can be expected to be done by volunteers and what tasks need to be paid for. This is an ongoing discernment process for any church, and very much for us. As the Vestry and Vicar realized fully that we had been given to unrealistic expectations in prior years, we set out to re-define the expectations of the resident and the administrative assistant. Thanks, too, to Barbara Rowan and Linda Snow for their help with this. Resident, Anna Shine, and Administrative Assistant, Charles Rousseau,

are now welcomed in those positions.

 

We also realized a need to hire someone to mow and tend to the grounds south of the pond twice a month. Similarly, we have hired someone to clean the chapel twice a month. We offer thanks for the work of Don Hayes for the former   and Guadeloupe Collazo for the latter!

 

Notably, the people of the Advocate really came together on two occasions in 2014, in ways that deepened our roots significantly. First, on August 24, we hosted the Diocesan celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church. Both bishops of our Diocese were here, as well as two of the original “Philadelphia Eleven.” The Rev. Dr. Carter Heyward preached and the Rev. Alison Cheek con-celebrated. We gathered under a tent over the parking lot, with huge fans circulating the August air. The hospitality, music and spirit that the Advocate provided was glorious.

And greatly appreciated by all.

 

More poignantly, the people of the Advocate gathered round  our brother David Buchanan as he was diagnosed with liver cancer in the summer and declined rapidly to death in October. We had just cheered his baptism at Pentecost…. By September, dozens of us provided twice-daily visits to him.

When he died, we mourned.  We gathered on the night of his death for a vigil and memory-sharing in the Chapel, And on October 12, we incorporated the Burial Office into our Sunday morning liturgy.

Rarely has one human being touched the hearts of so many in a congregation in such a short period of time.

 

In all of this, I have been grateful for the steady leadership of our Vestry: Sallie Moore, David Moore, Celisa Steele, Elaine Tola, and David Pass, our Treasurer, Kerry Bullock-Ozkan, and our Clerk, Anne Henrich (who also most notably chairs our altar guild).

I am hugely grateful for the wise and diplomatic leadership of our Senior Warden, Tom Fisher.

Tom was the launching Senior Warden of the Advocate Vestry from 2004 – 2006. He returned to the vestry to fill out the term of someone who had left in 2011, Then agreed to a full three-year term, 2012 – 2014. Two of those years he has been Senior Warden, seeing us through the move, the transplant, and a few note-worthy bumps in the road. And I think he has served on the Finance Committee from the start.

Oh. my. goodness.

Thank you, Tom Fisher.

 

——————–

Now, I know that, being in a largely academic community, we are used to starting things afresh with a new school year in late August or early September. And I know that the liturgical new year starts with Advent One, four weeks before Christmas,

 

But there is something about early January and a new calendar year, something about Epiphany,

something about the baptism of Jesus launching him into his earthly ministry, that gets us feeling like we are on the verge of something new. And we are!

 

In 2015 we will likely continue to deepen our roots. But soon and very soon, we are going to start to shoot out some branches and leaves. Nathan is going to help us sort through just what that might look like during lunch. But I want to take a minute to offer three possibilities.

(very Trinitarian, that!)

 

First, I hope that we will be intentional about being good neighbors in this part of Chapel Hill.

That will include connecting with the historic Rogers Road community. One part of that will likely include the restoration and restocking of our pond so that it can become a local fishing destination once again. Our Rogers Road connection will also include advocating on behalf of that neighborhood for more affordable housing and access to utilities.

 

Our being good neighbors will also include welcoming the Community House, a transitional housing program for men, when it opens later this year,  and helping some of our more reluctant neighbors to welcome them too.

 

And there will be neighbors who move in to one new development of another, (and there are several going in around here). We need to be good neighbors to them as well.

 

Second, n the year ahead, I also hope we can find new ways for the people of the Advocate to support one another in our several vocations and ministries in the world. We will begin with our Epiphany Commissions in the weeks ahead.

 

Third, I want us to become a community that welcomes children more fully and safely, teaching them the Christian story, giving them a place where they know that they are loved and cared for

and where they can begin to connect that love to God.

 

Being a good neighbor,

Supporting one another in the world,

welcoming children.

If we can do these three, we will be blooming!

 

As a way to wind up this report of the year gone by and to get us thinking and feeling about the year ahead, and to give everyone a chance to stretch, I asked Elaine and the Blue Grass Band to getting us going again with that classic rally-up song: This little light of mine.

So if you would, and as you are able, please take a stand and get ready to sing!

 

 

To Risk It All: A Nathan Kirkpatrick Sermon for the Feast of the Nativity, 2014

To risk it all

The Feast of the Nativity of our Lord 2014

The Episcopal Church of the Advocate

 

For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given.

 

It’s uncharacteristic for me, but tonight, you get the point first.

We’ve waited long enough. We’ve waited four Sundays to hear it.

Some of us have waited a lifetime to hear it.

God loves the world — loves us — enough to risk it all by becoming human. 

That’s the point of Christmas.

That’s the point. Anything else that I say tonight,

anything else that any of us say about Christmas,

is simply commentary on that one sentence.

God loves the world, and you and me in it, enough to risk becoming human.

 

Now to understand what that one sentence means takes more than a lifetime; it takes an eternity.

So everything that follows is only provisional.

 

But, together, tonight, we will begin to inhabit the mystery

by breaking that sentence down into three parts.

If it wasn’t so very trite, you could say that I have three points,

But then you might fear a poem with rhyming couplets in your future.

 

The first part of that sentence is that God loves the world – loves us.

That may, at first blush, seem self-evident. This is, after all, the heart of the Gospel.

This is the foundational theological claim for Christians:

God loves extravagantly, extraordinarily, prodigally.

This is the witness of the Scriptures from Creation to Consummation.

It is how the story begins and ends.

You remember Genesis?

God, the eternal, whose very nature and essence is love,

creates earth and water and wind;

fashions creatures exotic and domestic;

knits humanity together and blesses us on our way.

And everything that is created

is created out of love, by love, for the sake of love.

Or if you prefer the obverse:

Nothing that has come into being

did not have as its origin or its purpose love.

This is the point of Genesis 1 and 2 and John 1, also.

It’s all made from and for love.

 

It is how the story begins, and it is how the story continues.

When humanity proves that loving is hard and our love fails,

God’s love does not fail us,

but pursues us to claim us and call us as children,

to remind us who we were and who we are. We are beloved.

It is the message of every prophet and every priest of Israel:

God loves the world and us in it.

Gloriously.

 

Those of you who are Advocate regulars have heard me talk about my first parish a good bit this year. Sorry for that. But one more time tonight.

In that church, there was a beautiful young woman named Molly.

Molly was born with cerebral palsy, CP, and was bound to a wheelchair.

She suffered from painful muscle spasms that would contort her whole body.

But she had a smile that was wide and a laugh that was contagious.

She would sing boldly in the choir, and she would bring such joy.

When she would sing “Jesus loves me,” there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.

One Sunday, she rolled forward to receive the Eucharist.

I handed her the host,

“Molly, this is the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.

These are signs that God loves you very much.”

She looked back at me, “Oh, silly preacher, I know that.”

 

This is foundational to the Christian faith, and yet, not all of us are as lucky as Molly.

 

Some of us in this room grew up in churches that taught us something else.

Instead of beginning with the reality of God’s love,

We were taught to begin with words like sinful and broken —

We were taught a theology that uses words like depravity and disordered.

 

But, at Christmas, it is easy to see that that is a theological false start.

 

Let me say this as clearly as I can –

Any theology that does not begin with the reality of God’s burning love

Is unworthy of the name Christian

and doesn’t deserve to be spoken by the Christian people.

God loves the world and loves us.

“Oh, silly preacher, I know that.” I hope you do.

 

But it’s not just that some of us weren’t taught this;

some of us with more years than Molly have forgotten what she knew.

As life goes by, we take our hits. Relationships and jobs end.

The dream never becomes reality.

The church disappoints.

And somehow we project all of that back onto God.

We may even define it and describe it as God’s judgment.

A certain spiritual amnesia sets in and

We forget how loved we are.

 

The writer Galway Kinnell says it this way, “Sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness.”

 

That’s part of the point of this annual celebration of Christmas.

Whether we never learned it or forgot it along the way,

Tonight we hear it again:

You — me — God loves us.

God loves the world and us in it so very much.

 

How much, you ask?

The second part of the sentence. How much does God love?

Enough to risk it all. 

God loves the world and us enough to risk it all.

 

To be clear, if you were God, this is about the most foolish thing you could do.

If you were God, you could remain safely ensconced in Heaven, forever involved but removed.

You could stay at a safe distance, passionate and dispassionate simultaneously.

You could stay above the strife, suffering and sin,

You could stay sheltered from brokenness, bitterness and betrayal.

If you were God, to risk it all is about the most foolish

and most unnecessary thing you could ever do.

 

But, what is love at arm’s length?

What is love from a safe, self-protecting distance?

What is love that lacks the courage to be face-to-face? to be open and vulnerable?

It may be something, but it surely isn’t love.

It isn’t relationship. It isn’t really even friendship.

Love that is aloof and removed is an impossibility.

 

On Christmas, God does the thing that, sooner or later, all of us learn is required —

that love by its very nature necessitates risk, that love requires vulnerability.

that love sometimes requires the grand and glorious act with no promise of payoff.

 

And so,

When God throws God’s lot in with the world,

It means that God is vulnerable to the world’s pressures and prejudices,

It means that God is susceptible to the foibles and failures of human beings,

It means that God risks being murdered by the world’s judgments and injustices.

Sure, it is to be open to the greatest of joys, to the deepest pleasures, too. But it is risk nonetheless.

 

But where there is love, then while risky, it doesn’t feel risky.

It feels liberating, exhilarating.

It feels like the only thing you can do.

Where there is love, then it is okay to be foolish.

Where there is love, then there is nothing else to do but be foolish.

And God loves. The world. And us. Enough to risk it all.

 

And God does so

in the most humble of ways:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

For unto us a son is born, unto us a child is given.

It’s the third part of the sentence:

God loves the world and us enough to risk it all by becoming human.

 

We can’t talk about Christmas really without talking about bodies.

When God becomes human, then in a real way, God is subject to the limitations of the body.

When God the infinite becomes finite, when God the immortal becomes mortal

then God in Christ shares all the fragility of life.

Diapers can be and are soiled.

Knees can be scraped. Arms and hearts can be broken.

Blood can be shed. Life can be taken.

But, if you’re God, on Christmas, it’s the risk you take

Because you’re done loving at a distance.

 

There is a physicality to this Feast that is often tacitly acknowledged but never overtly celebrated.

There is a physical intimacy to Christmas that matches the emotional intensity of the holiday.

That is what it means to be incarnate,

that the yearnings of God for God’s people

that the desire God has for us —

will now be conveyed in sensory ways

in touch, in taste, in smell, in sight, in sound.

Our redemption is philos, agape and eros:

There is brotherly love and self-giving love and burning passionate love here.

All of God’s love, all of God’s longing,

which has spanned and shaped millennia,

is now embodied in a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes

and laid in a manger

because there was no room in the inn.

Divine love is now as fragile as an infant.

The Love that formed and fashioned the universe,

The Desire that called and claimed Israel,

The Longing that encompasses you and me,

Is in the manger now.

Here. With us. Like us. For us.

 

The point is simple. It’s meaning infinitely complex.

God loves the world and us enough to risk it all by becoming human.

It’s a mystery that we only begin to grasp, but it’s Good News.

Merry Christmas.

 

 

 

 

The Annunciation and the Blessed Virgin Mary. A Sermon by the Vicar

Year B – Advent IV

December 21, 2013

@TheAdvcateChurch

The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck

 

Bartolomé_Esteban_Perez_Murillo_023Identify yourself publically as a Christian,

and at some point you are likely to hear it.

“But…. you don’t really believe in the Virgin Birth, do you?”

or

“I think Jesus was a good teacher, but I just don’t go for all that doctrine.

Like the Virgin Birth!”

or may even say it yourself:

“There’s just so much in the Nicene Creed that I can’t say or that I don’t believe.

Like, Jesus was ‘born of a Virgin’.”

And, of course, if a bishop, priest or deacon were to say anything like that publically,

they’d risk being charged with heresy,

even today.

Just ask Jack Spong.

 

So I’m not about to say it!

 

But I am going to use this Sunday,

this Sunday in which we hear the Gospel story of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary,

as a time for us to consider who and what Mary is for us.

and who and what Mary is for Jesus.

 

First the story.

[In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High…..” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.]

 

It is known as the Annunciation,

because Gabriel makes an announcement to Mary.

It is not to be confused with The Visitation.

That comes later, when the pregnant Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth who is also pregnant,

pregnant with the baby John the Baptist.

 

Neither is the Annunciation to be confused with The Immaculate Conception.

The Immaculate Conception in a non-biblical teaching made doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church in the 19th century.

It claims that Mary herself had to be immaculately conceived in order to be a clean and pure vessel into which Jesus could be poured.

And certainly, this is not the Assumption.

that’s another non-biblical story that is said to cover what happened to Mary at the end of her life.

Jesus ascended, you see,

but the Assumption declares that Mary was “assumed” into heaven.

It’s a story featured inside the dome of the church in Parma, Italy,

which is also the birthplace of parmesan cheese.

I digress.

 

Today we are talking about the Annunciation:

This is the story that tells us how Jesus was conceived.

And it makes plain:

–       Mary is young

–       Mary is not yet married

–       Mary is a virgin. Which probably means that she has not yet had sex with a man.

–       Mary has somehow been chosen to be the one to bear the baby who is Jesus, who will be called the Son of God.

 

Now, it is not uncommon for stories to be told about the miraculous beginnings of famous and honored people.

The gods of ancient mythology are often said to have been conceived in unusual ways

or to have unusual circumstances surrounding their birth or early childhood.

Moses certainly has quite a birth narrative.

Here in the USA, we have stories about the boy George Washington.

How he chopped down a cherry tree and did not lie about it.

How he threw a coin across a river.

 

So, we could explain away Jesus’ birth narrative as being just that.

You know, it’s just a story that the ancients came up with in order to set Jesus apart as really, really special.

 

But, if we do,

If we dismiss the story of the Annunciation in that way,

I really hope we don’t throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

 

Because in order for Jesus to be fully human,

he had to be born of a human mother.

And in order for Jesus to be fully God,

he had to have a different kind of conception.

 

Can you come up with a better birth narrative for him then?

 

**************

In my late 20s, I set out on a pilgrimage from Rome to Geneva to Canterbury,

seeking discernment about Christian faith and the feminine and God.

Women’s ordination was new in those days,

and matters of the feminine divine were very controversial.

I scheduled appointments with clerics and scholars along the way.

I had plenty of time for prayer and reflection, too.

 

But no single conversation or event clarified my thinking more that spotting a simple mosaic over a door to a restaurant in Florence.

The mosaic probably pre-dated the restaurant,

but there it was over the door of a secular, commercial establishment, none-the-less.

A mosaic of the Virgin Mary.

Clad in blue, as always.

 

I took a picture of her.

Because there over the door to the restaurant,

she was proof of what I was beginning then to understand:

Human beings need a feminine image of the Divine.

 

Human beings need a feminine image of the Divine.

This makes a lot of sense.

Because male and female we were created in the image of God.

As we relate to God, therefore,

we need images that are male and images that are female.

And, since God the Father and God the Son are traditionally both very male,

Mary necessarily emerged as a feminine balance.

 

Of course, Mary is never said to be divine, per se.

But in the Eastern Church her humanity is pretty much indistinguishable from divinity.

In tradition and icon, she is the Theotokos,

the God bearer.

And is ju-ss-st under God in many ways.

 

In the west, particularly in the Roman Catholic and the Anglican traditions,

she is “Mother of our Lord”.

Which is pretty high up there.

Not quite divine,

But she sure is said to be ultra holy and pure.

The Anglican hymn goes:

Sing of Mary, pure and holy

Virgin mother undefiled.

 

Though accounted as human,

her humanity is, in effect, inimitable.

 

Through the millennia,

MAry has been lifted up as exemplary, and the bar, of sorts,

that the faithful,

especially faithful women

are to aspire to.

Blowing past Mary’s incredulous initial response:

“How can this be?”

Mary is presented in art and story as

Submissive and obedient to the masculine God’s wishes.

“Be it unto me according to thy word.” she says.

 

And while the church acknowledges the quirkiness or sinfulness, even,

of other saints,

not so with Mary.

It is as though her holiness holds an edge over her humanity.

 

It is ironic, then

that Jesus,

whom, we believe,

is fully human and fully divine all at once,

gets his humanity bit,

his human genome, if you will,

by being born of Mary.

Mary’s humanity is essential to the equation.

 

Sure, it makes sense that the Church’s theology of Jesus,

also known as Christology,

has swung back and forth between over-emphasizing either his divinity or his humanity.

Because it is, quite frankly, hard to get your head around this fully-divine- fully-human-all-at-once concept.

 

But it doesn’t make sense that Mary should swing along with him.

Mary is human.

She’s got to be.

And the story of Mary, and the story of Jesus,

are both improved,

by the more gritty Mary,

not the more pure.

 

imagesPerhaps that’s why I’m drawn to this image of Mary more than so many others.

The original is a life-sized fresco at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in West Jefferson, North Carolina.

When it was unveiled in the 1970s,

it was widely criticized for it’s earthiness:

– Mary is visibly pregnant.

– Her robes are red, not blue,

– and her feet are not only bare, they are kind of dirty.

 

Seen this way, the virginity of Mary is not about her purity.

It is, rather something that makes plain that her pregnancy was not by the usual means.

It also makes her story as a human being all the more compelling.

Because we can only imagine what this bizarre story of conception meant for her.

 

It is this very human Mary who can be a comfort and a guide to us.

And not just as a mother with a child who has a will of his own, either.

 

Mary also knew all to well what it was like to feel overwhelmed by the demands of life and the demands of faith.

She endured hardship, mockery, discomfort, shame.

 

When we do not understand the ways and mind of God,

we can know that Mary knows that exasperation.

“How can this be?” she says.

 

When we are perplexed or stuck,

Mary nods at us from her two dimensional images,

knowingly,

reassuringly.

“Yeah,” she says, “it’s hard, I know.”

 

And when we feel helpless before the evil powers of this world,

which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God,

Mary shakes her head solemnly and says,

“I’ve seen those powers at work.

They are wicked

They are cruel.”

 

Mary gained wisdom through her hardship, that’s for sure.

I suspect it took her a while to realize the truth,

the truths,

of her own song.

 

It just doesn’t work to have her all dressed in immaculate blue robes,

ever calm, ever benignly smiling.

She’s got to have some dirt, some strain.

Her acceptance of God’s call is more valuable if it is hard-won.

Her “How can this be?” is huge.

 

So if, as human creatures,

we need for God to be imaged and described in ways both feminine and masculine,

let’s find ways to do that.

Let’s wrestle with the theology and understand the Church’s diverse points of view and find our own.

 

But let’s let Mary be human.

And take her at her word.

AMEN.