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Christmas Journeys

Here is the recording of the sermon preached at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Pawtucket RI on Christmas Eve, 2017.  Text: Luke 2:1-20 and Titus 3:4-7

 

If you prefer to read. ….
Christmas is a time of journeys.
First there are the hectic journeys to shopping centers and malls to find the perfect gifts for loved ones—epic quests which can rival video games for their complexity and hazards. There are trips to the supermarket—when just getting into and out of the parking lot with your car intact is a major achievement.

Then there are journeys to the holiday gatherings and celebrations. Some of us have journeyed from our houses to be with family or friends here. Others of us are hosting those who have journeyed to us. Sometimes the journeys are short—from Seekonk to Darlington—but some may cross several bridges or even a state line, while others of us may make a simple journey to a friend’s house or a local restaurant.

Then there is the journey each of us has made here tonight. We have come from our home, or the home we’re visiting, to this place of worship. Why have we come here? Why have we travelled here, to the manger, to the altar? We have come seeking something. Bethlehem represents where God gathers things earthly and heavenly, where the divine shines forth. [+Jake Owensby, 12/19/2017]

We have each come here tonight on a journey to Bethlehem. We have come here longing to meet God.

We come by different pathways, propelled by different things.

Some of us, like the magi, or astronomers, whose story we will hear next Sunday, have been brought to the manger by our curiosity, our intellectual study, our wonder at the natural world, which has led us to want to praise the God who has set the stars in motion and to know that God more deeply.

Some of us, like the shepherds in Luke’s Gospel, have come to the manger because we have had a direct experience of God, in some way—maybe not as dramatic as the heavenly host bursting into song right in front of us, but we’ve had some direct personal experience of God acting in our life which we cannot deny, and which we want to deepen, or build on.

And then many of us have come to the manger tonight Simply because it is what our calendars say to do on December 24. Like Joseph and Mary needing to get to Bethlehem because they were required to by the Roman census-takers. They didn’t choose their itinerary in consultation with a travel agent—it was simply the next thing their life presented them to do. A woman more than nine months pregnant would not choose to go on a hundred-mile hike away from her home. But it was what the business of life required.

Maybe we’re here just to honor our parents’ wishes, or our partner’s, or because we’re on the Altar Guild, or just because it’s what we’ve always done before wrapping the presents on Christmas Eve. Or maybe we’re here almost in spite of ourselves, fighting against grief or loss or sadness, or discouragement, or illness. Mary surely was fighting an aching back and near-exhaustion and great fear and anxiety about what it would be like to give birth. But like Mary and Joseph, even though we have come here with other things on our mind, nevertheless we have journeyed to the manger.

Even though we have journeyed away from our physical homes to come to the manger, I believe each of us in fact comes to Christmas, comes to the manger, seeking home.

By home I mean that place where we know we belong, where we know we are loved unconditionally, and even exuberantly, even with all our flaws and shortcomings, in all our idiosyncrasies. We come looking for a place where we will be warmly welcomed even when we bring with us all the wounds we have suffered and the guilt from wounds we have inflicted on others. Perhaps we come together with family, people with whom we share some ties but also some torments. Or perhaps we come believing ourselves to be desperately alone.

When they were there, the time came for Mary to deliver her child …. and she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the guest lodgings. ….

And the shepherds went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this they made known what had been told to them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.

At that moment, Mary knew in her deepest self that of which she had perhaps had intimations ever since the angel Gabriel had visited her ten months earlier — that her journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem was not the main feature Nativity journey. Nor was the shepherd’s journey, nor the journey the Persian astronomers would soon complete. Nor are our journeys to this manger the central story, whether those we have made by car or in our souls.

The largest and longest journey made on the first Christmas was that God, who set the stars spinning in their courses and established the pillars of the earth, and envisioned the mad variety of the natural world, this God became human  The ruler of all creation took our flesh as a squalling baby, and made a divine home in the straw and muck of our humanity.

The immortal and all-powerful God does not shy away from ordinary, finite, and even mundane creatures like us, but rather draws near, eager to embrace us like a lover too long separated from the beloved. [David Lose, Dear Partners In Preaching blog, Christmas 2016]

Gazing at the baby in the manger, we see the immense dignity that we have—that we are indeed God’s treasured children.

And that is not just the case for those standing within sight of that animal feed-bin in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. Jesus was not born just for the shepherds, or for Mary and Joseph, or for the magi—Jesus was born for us. When God came to earth, it was so all of us could become, as Paul writes to Titus, heirs of the royal household.. We no longer have to go searching for a place where we are accepted, some physical location over there, which requires a journey, which we have to do on a certain schedule and following directions closely, and when we get there all is still dependent on other fallible human beings being able to welcome us. No—home has come to us, and abides with us.

The early English church historian known as the Venerable Bede put it best:

“[Jesus] was born not in the house of his parents but at the inn, by the wayside, because through the mystery of the incarnation he is become the Way by which he guides us to our home, where we shall also enjoy the Truth and the Life.” [Bede, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 2.7]

Yes, we have all made journeys to be here tonight, and we are all seeking an experience of God, that most profound experience of home, of our true belovedness.

But the amazing wonderful mystery of God becoming human is that God has journeyed to us. And by taking on our flesh, God has made our belovedness something we bear in our very bodies, wherever we are.

As the 20th-century Anglican poet T. S. Eliot wrote,

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

So tonight, we come in praise and wonder and awe.

In closing, I offer the words of a contemporary English priest, Rosalind Brown:

Ponder long the glorious mystery
breathe, in awe, that God draws near;
hear again the angels’ message,
see the Lamb of God appear.
God’s own Word assumes our nature:
Son of God in swaddling bands;
Light of light, and God eternal
held in Mary’s gentle hands.

— Rosalind Brown

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Christmas Journeys

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Feast of the Transfiguration 2017

Luke 9: 28-36
Church of the Good Shepherd, Pawtucket

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration. One of the feasts on the Church calendar deemed important enough that if it falls on a Sunday it replaces the usual readings.  So we take a detour out of our trip through the Gospel of Matthew and Jesus’s teaching over to the middle of Luke.

In this morning’s Gospel we join with Peter, James and John as they accompany Jesus up a mountain for a time of prayer.  And while there they have a profound Kingdom of God moment.  While praying Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah, in a moment removed from normal time and space, as Moses and Elijah had each died centuries before. All three are shining with divine glory.  A cloud, a traditional sign of God’s appearing, encompasses them and God speaks, Peter, James, and John have been ushered into the transcendent realm of God, dwelling for a few moments more in heaven than on earth.

They see Jesus in his full divinity, shining like the sun, and God, in an echo of the words uttered at his Baptism, describing him as his Son, with more authority than Moses or Elijah, greater than the Law and the Prophets.

They had had intimations of his divinity before—as he healed the sick, cast out demons, and fed thousands—and if you read back just before today’s passage in Luke you realize that Peter has just said that Jesus is the Messiah.  But on the mountain they don’t get just a hint, or a growing suspicion, or a partial understanding, of Jesus as holy.  They see him in his full glory, and hear him discussing the events which will usher in his glory permanently: his crucifixion.  And when that crucifixion happens, the veil in the Temple is torn—the veil that separated fallen humanity from God is torn in two.  The human and the divine are once again able to be in close relationship.

When the disciples go with Jesus up the mountain, they see the man they had been traveling with for months—the one they’d probably slept under the stars with and traded corny jokes with, the one they’d seen be hot and sweaty and hungry and tired, as well as tender and compassionate—they saw this man they knew to be fully human—they see him alight with the whole glory of God, fully divine.

This complete mixing, one man totally human and yet fully divine, the prayerful miracle worker who goes willingly to his death as an innocent man, this man is God’s Chosen. In this moment Peter, James and John get a true glimpse of the kingdom.

Linda McMillan, an Episcopal lay woman who writes essays about the weekly scripture on the blog Episcopal Café, writes about the Transfiguration:

“Holiness is out there, sort of free-range and unsupervised. It might show up anywhere. On someone’s face, in nature … or the exhilaration of a deep and pure breath.  This week most of us will seek God in a holy place. But the wise among us will be on the lookout, because wild and untamed holiness is out there beyond the walls and beyond the symbols. Where, exactly? I don’t know, but I’m on the look out!”

This summer here at Good Shepherd we’ve all been on the lookout for kingdom stories, kingdom moments, when love and compassion break through into the ordinary. Not ones which come with clouds and shining glory, but more everyday moments in which God’s more subtle presence is revealed to those who have eyes to see. I’ve promised I’d give you regular opportunities to share the kingdom moments you’ve seen

What are some of the kingdom moments you have seen recently?

(Go out into congregation and have them share any recent recent kingdom moments)

I have two to share myself.

A friend of mine is always careful to engage w/ the people around him, counter helpers and the like—addressing them by name and making it clear he sees them as real people.  Sometimes it takes them (and me) aback, as it is so not a part of our American culture to engage w/ strangers in that way, but sometimes it is clearly a blessing to them, to realize that they are seen as individuals, not automatons.

Yesterday I saw Dunkirk.  A marvelous, if hard to watch, movie.  Tells the story of ordinary Britons who sacrificed, to save others.  One of the plotlines was about a British civilian gentlemen who answered the Navy’s call to take his small sailing yacht to Dunkirk to rescue soldiers—accompanied by his teenage son and his friend as crew.  They pick up a shipwrecked sailor from a torpedoed ship in the middle of the Channel and the sailor insists they must turn back to England—that to go on to Dunkirk, where he had just been, is certain death.  But they continue onwards, compelled by duty and compassion to risk their lives to save the trapped soldiers. I saw such nobility, and even a glimpse of holiness, in their willingness to sacrifice themselves as civilian volunteers for people they did not know.

The human shining forth with a bit of the divine.

What do we look like after we’ve seen God?  How does our appearance change?

I see it every Sunday at the altar rail, when I distribute communion, placing the bread in your palms with the words, “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.”

When I am on the receiving side of those words, with my palms outstretched, I’ve always heard “the body of Christ” as referring to the wafer in my hands, which I’m about to ingest. And so it is.

But when I stand on the inside of the rail now as a priest, and am the one placing it into your hands, I experience it totally differently.  Each time I say, “The Body of Christ”, I am looking at one of you, in the face.  You, individually.  You are one part of the body of Christ, and I am handing you the bread of heaven. That is my prayer as I distribute communion, that I truly see each one of you as a part the Body of Christ, and that you see yourself that way, more and more each Sunday.

Brother Geoffrey Tristam SSJE has a wonderful prayer he offers for Transfiguration: “So today, as on the day of your baptism, allow God to re-clothe you, to transform you, to transfigure you, that like Christ, you too may shine forth “in raiments dazzling white.”  Amen.

 

 

 

 

Seeking the lost: September 11, 2016

Sunday, September 11, 2016 (Proper 16 ,RCL Yr C Track 2)
Luke 15:1-10 (click to read passage)

Welcome!  And welcome back!

It is “welcome back” to each of you, even if you’ve been in church every Sunday all summer, because we are finally back here in the church itself after six weeks of being “away,” worshiping in the parish hall during the renovation.  We were on a wandering journey of sorts.  Not lost, but not at home, either. But now, thanks to the hard work of our friends at Houyston’s Remodeling and our Junior Warden, Dennis Tripodi, we are back in the church.

But each of us has had times when we have felt lost.

Perhaps we have lost a job.

Or we have lost out to someone in a competition of some sort—at work, or in school, or on the athletic field, or in our romantic life—we found ourselves coming in second, or fifth–

Or we have found ourselves losing out in popularity—whether in office politics or in the middle school lunchroom–

Or we have lost someone we love—to illness, or conflict within the family, or death–

Or we have lost hope, due to current events, or due to our brain chemicals miring us in depression–

Or we have lost touch with someone, due to a move, or a disagreement—

Or we have lost touch with ourselves. Perhaps we have lost control over a situation we thought we had in hand, lost our balance, our equilibrium–

Or we have lost our way at some point on the journey of becoming who we imagined we could be.

And when we feel lost, we begin to feel invisible, unseen.

When we feel that—lost, and invisible, and rejected— the very human instinct is to separate ourselves, to believe that we really are lost and not worth seeing, not worth belonging.  And so we turn in on ourselves, and often cut ourselves off from those to whom we do actually belong.

In the story from the Gospel of Luke that Deacon Mary Ann just read, Jesus tells two parables to describe God.

In the image of the shepherd who searches for his sheep and the woman who searches for her coin, Jesus depicts a God who searches relentlessly for the lost.

The shepherd has 100 sheep, and yet amidst the noise and bustle of that big flock being all sheep-y on the hillside, notices that one, just one, sheep is lost.  He leaves the 99 up to their own devices while he goes and searches for the one.

The fairly wealthy woman in the second parable has 10 silver coins.  But she notices that one is missing, and sets aside all of her household duties and searches for it until she finds it.

And when the shepherd finds his one sheep, and the woman her one coin, they rejoice.

It’s like when you’ve lost a child in a large crowd—or if your pet has gone on an unscheduled walkabout around the neighborhood—when you find them, the first emotion you feel is an overwhelming joy just bubbling up.  You may feel other things later—anger, relief—but the first feeling is just that flood of joy.

These stories remind us, that when we felt lost, we were not truly lost—not in God’s eyes.  God was always seeking us, looking for us, trying to get our attention and reestablish contact.

And that is one of the reasons we come here each Sunday—to give thanks that we are not ever truly lost, truly alone, that we are always held in God’s sight and in God’s love—and to rejoice.

And we are also meant to do the same as the shepherd and the woman.

We are supposed to notice when one person is missing—whether it is a long-time member or someone in the neighborhood we’ve never met who feels lost and unseen by God and by others.

We are to search for them, to make sure they know they are not lost and invisible, but seen and loved.

Think of the military commitment to leave no soldier behind, and the dedication to POWs and MIAs to continue searching and bring them home.

Think of the civilians and first responders on 9/11 who went back into the towers again and again to bring people down to safety, and lost their own lives as a result.  Think of the flyers posted by family members of the missing—showing a picture, “Missing since 9/11, Floor 105, South Tower.”   Hoping that they would be found.  And think of the searchers or who combed through the pile of rubble for days, months, to recover as many remains as possible, so that no one would be totally lost.

We are to be just as diligent in searching, making sure no one is lost.

Because, just like the shepherd knew that his flock was incomplete when just one sheep was missing, and the woman couldn’t rest while one coin was misplaced, the Body of Christ is incomplete if everyone is not here.

We are to notice the lost, search for them, find them, welcome them into community—this community which is love with flesh on– so they no longer feel lost or unseen.

That’s what’s behind some of the changes we’ve made this summer.  The wall repairs, and the new floor, they just had to be done.  But the air-conditioning?

We didn’t put that in out of a desire for luxury.  After all, all of us grew up without air conditioning.  Some of us have lived in places further south, where it’s hotter. But we’ve learned that because, of health and or age, in the really hot months, there are some people who cannot be here because of the heat, even though they want to be.  So that is why we’ve finally put in air-conditioning. Not out of a desire for luxury, but because without it, some are excluded.  Without it, the body of Christ in this place cannot be complete.

That’s also why we’re rebooting our Sunday School, with some new energy and enthusiasm.  Because we want the children of this congregation to know that they are seen, and a beloved part of the body.  That there is a place for them here—in worship, if they want to be in the entire worship service—but also in Sunday School, if they want a place where they can encounter the Word in a way particularly accessible to them.

Both these changes are so that everyone feels known, seen, sought out, a part of the Body of Christ.

So, welcome back!

Let us rejoice!


The Rev. Gillian R. Barr
Church of the Good Shepherd, Pawtucket RI

 

Good Friday 2016

a meditation preached at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Pawtucket, RI

March 25, 2016

The Rev. Gillian R. Barr

Today is not only Good Friday, it is also March 25th.  Which on the church calendar is the Feast of the Annunciation, the date on which we remember the angel Gabriel telling the young girl Mary that she would bear a child, and he would be named Jesus, for he would save his people from their sins.  And she replied, “Let it be according to your word.”   These two observances coincide on the calendar only once every century or two, although church Tradition claims that they coincided on the first Good Friday—that Jesus died on the anniversary of his conception.  And this juxtaposition of Annunciation and Good Friday has frequently been the subject of poetry and art.  Here is one such image, which I find particularly evocative.

[1]GF 16 illustration annunc cruci in color Continue reading

Who is blind?

Proper 25 B, Oct. 25, 2015

Mark 10:46-52

The Church of the Good Shepherd, Pawtucket, RI

The Rev. Gillian R. Barr


This morning’s Gospel lesson is about someone blind receiving sight. Who in the story is blind?  On the surface, that’s a really easy question.  The beggar by the side of the road.  We even know his name, which we don’t usually for people healed by Jesus.  Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus.

But is he really blind?  He seems to actually see quite well.  He calls out to Jesus, calling him Son of David—giving him a title usually reserved for the Messiah.  Over the past few weeks we’ve heard several stories about Jesus’s disciples and followers just not getting it and basically being blockheads—James and John bickering to see who is the most important, other disciples turning children away, Peter denying what Jesus says about the Messiah’s future including suffering and death.  But this beggar by the side of the road understands who Jesus is. He calls him by a Messianic title, and he also insists that God’s vision, God’s healing, includes those on the margins, people like a blind beggar.  He sees with God’s vision.  He understands that when God looks at him, God sees someone worthy. He claims that he, even though blind, is someone worthy of Jesus’s “mercifying,” as one commentator suggests the Greek actually reads.

The people in the crowd, however, don’t get it. They don’t see Bartimaeus as a human being worthy of healing.  They see only a distraction, someone in their way. Someone taking Jesus’ attention away from them and their focus on getting to the next place on their itinerary.  They are looking at the man’s demands with a zero-sum mentality. They tell him to be quiet.

But we know better, right?  We wouldn’t do that. We wouldn’t ever tell someone asking for Jesus’ mercy, someone seeking healing and wholeness, to be quiet, would we?

Or would we? Continue reading