Reverend Dr. E. Bevan Stanley
Rector, St. Michael's Parish, Litchfield
Rev. E. Bevan Stanley
December 24, 2016
“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.” In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Here we are gathered on Christmas Eve. We have just heard and seen the oh so familiar story once again. Let’s give it up for all those who gave so much of their time and energy to give us this gift.
Why does this story capture us? There are lots of stories about births. Often at family gatherings people share the adventures surrounding the births of their children. “It was the year of that enrollment thing, and we had to go back to Joe’s home town. The place was so full we couldn’t find a room anywhere. Wouldn’t you know it? That’s when Junior decided to be born. So we found this stable, and I went and had him right there. It was rather strange with all the animals watching, but it was kind of nice, too. And then we put him in a manger of all places.”
That part is interesting, but it could happen to anyone. Oddly, it is the shepherds who are the key to the whole thing. They are grubby lot. Nobody thinks much of shepherds. They are out on the hillside shivering in their thin cloaks. Suddenly an angel appears-- a bright, glittering presence. “Tonight your savior is born. Go and see. You can tell it is he because he will be the one lying in a manger.” That is crazy enough, but then the whole place was full of angels singing, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth.” It’s hardly a silent night. As suddenly as they had appeared, they were gone. The shepherds looked at each other and said, “Did you see what I saw? Did you hear what I heard?” Then they say, “What to you say? Let’s go down to the town and take a look.”
And sure enough, they find the baby in the manger. And they tell anyone who will listen about their encounter with the angels and what they said about this baby. And the mother, Mary, pondered their story in her heart.
And then a few days later there are the unexpected visitors from far off places bringing gifts and stories of following a star to this place.
This baby is destined to be the Savior not only of his people, but of the entire world. This baby, we will learn, is in fact God come among us. This is the place where heaven and earth converge. This small stable contains something bigger than the whole world. Here in this stall Divinity has taken on human flesh. In this stable “the hopes and fears of all the years have met …tonight.” This is how our world is changed. God enters our world, and the place has never been the same since. In this moment we begin a new story for ourselves. In this stable our quest for heaven begins.
We give gifts on Christmas because this baby is the gift God gave us. You can’t tell how big a gift is by the size of the package. In this small stable we receive the Gift of God in the baby. We receive Jesus, the Savior, the one who will break down every barrier that might keep us from coming to God or loving each other. We also receive the gift of God’s own self. God comes to us in this baby. This child is the gift that starts it all. Like all the best gifts, this gift invites us into a new future. By receiving this gift our lives are changed. God gives us what we need. God gives us hope. God gives us strength and fortitude to carry on. God gives us new gifts to begin new enterprises. God frees us from bonds of habit or fear. God gives us peace in the midst of our troubles. God gives us joy. God gives us the Savior. A baby. And although we don’t see how that vulnerable, helpless bit of humanity can do us any good, nevertheless, every baby is a promise of a new future.
And that is the message of Christmas. God calls us into the future. Already the days are growing longer. We ponder the angels and the shepherds and Mary and Joseph. And we know, or we choose to believe, that the world is going to change. And every one of us, young and old alike are called to be part of building this new world, what Jesus will call, when he is grown to be a man, the Kingdom of God.
The Third Sunday of Advent
Rev. E. Bevan Stanley
December 11, 2016
Year A, RCL
Jesus said, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Here is an example of a common experience: A friend was showing me a snapshot of a forest. There were a lot of different shades of brown and green. There were old leaves on the ground, trunks of trees, branches, and undergrowth. It was an attractive scene. I glanced at it and was about to hand it back. He said, “What do you see?” This told me that there might be more to see than I had seen yet. I looked again, but still all I saw were trees. “What should I be looking for?” I asked. “There is a deer in the picture,” my friend replied. Sure enough, now that I was looking for it, I could see the deer.
What we see is often affected by what we are looking for, what we expect. The photograph had not changed. I had not changed. The only thing that changed was my expectation.
There is a progression in the themes for this Advent season. First we began with the general theme of hope and expectation as dreamed of the Day of the Lord and the final triumph when Christ comes at the end of time. Last week we focused on what was coming, the Kingdom of God. Now we are confronted with the question of identity: Who is coming?
The prophet Isaiah begins by announcing, ““Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.” What? Where? I find myself looking around the room. Almost comically, I think of looking under the sofa. No, this is too serious for such facetiousness. John the Baptist is sitting in Herod’s dungeon knowing that he is unlikely ever to see the sun or breathe fresh air again. This is a huge question for him. Since his birth his entire life was predetermined to be about preparing people for the arrival of the Messiah. Had he been successful? Was this Jesus the right one? Did he get it right, or had his whole life been a mistake or an illusion? He sends his disciples to Jesus to try to get a straight answer.
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see.” Jesus points to the evidence. Now that he has come things happen like those one would expect in the Kingdom of God. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” These are exactly what the prophets predicted. These things are happening now that Jesus has arrived. If the effects of the Kingdom show up when Jesus does, what does that make Jesus? What made John question himself is that he had been expecting a different kind of Messiah. He was expecting one who would drive the Romans out and the rich collaborators among the Jewish leaders. His Messiah would re-establish political independence for the Jewish nation as well as religious integrity. Instead, Jesus of Nazareth seemed to be interested in some other kind of Kingdom. John had trouble seeing who Jesus was because of his expectations. Jesus tells John that there is a deer in the picture, so that John could see more clearly.
Then Jesus turns to the crowds and asks them, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” Notice that Jesus changes the form of the question. First Jesus asks, “What did you go out to look at?” Perhaps we first came as spectators to be awed and amazed, even entertained by a phenomenon. Perhaps he means, “Why did you go to see John the Baptist? Did you come out for the entertainment? “Hey, Joe, let’s go and see this new preacher. They say he puts on quite a show. Dresses funny and everything.”
Then Jesus changes the question from “What did you go out to look at?” to “What did you go out to see?” What did you go out to perceive, to learn, to take into your life? He suggests that we are no longer an audience, but students, disciples. He invites us no longer to be simply passive onlookers, but engaged participants. Perhaps Jesus means the question a deeper level: “What was it you were looking for when you came to see John the Baptist? What were you hoping for? What longing or hunger did you bring? Or even more personally: What did you yourself hope to find? What do you need from this prophet? What ache in your heart do you need to soothe? What balm in Gilead do you seek? What great vision do you need to give purpose to your life?
These are questions for you and me today as well. Every week we leave our homes and our work to gather in this holy place. We come out to the place of meeting. What is our purpose here? Do we come to be entertained? Do we come to see what the preacher will offer us this week? Do we come here to look at something, or do we come to see? Or do we come to participate in something bigger than ourselves? Do we come searching for something? Do we come to perceive more clearly, to remove those things that hinder our sight? And will our desires and expectations affect what we are able to see of Jesus?
What we need will affect what we seek in Jesus. If we are hungry, we seek one who can feed thousands with a few fish and loaves of bread. If we are sick, we seek one who can heal us. If we are burdened with guilt, we seek one who can forgive. If we are embroiled in conflict or are suffering in a broken relationship, we seek one who can make peace and reconcile us. If we are enslaved by any form of addiction, we seek one who can break the bonds of slavery. And if we are dead or dying, we seek one who can raise us from the grave.
We do not come just to look; we come to see. We come to learn. We come to give ourselves to the King who comes among us. We come to the altar to offer ourselves to God and to receive God in the sacrament. We come to be changed.
This is why the very least of us is greater than John the Baptist. It is not because we are better than John. We are not more holy or more dedicated. We do not have more courage. What makes us greater is not what is in us or what we do, but what God does in us. John prepares the way, builds a road for the exiles to come home. John points to the Messiah and says, “There he is. That is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” But we are given a greater task. We are given a greater gift of which we are not worthy. We are given Christ himself to be the Body of Christ in this time and place. We bear God in our bodies from the altar to the streets, from this house to our homes, from this fellowship into our society.
The name for this great mystery is Holy Communion. This is the mystery that we will celebrate in fourteen more days. God came among us and dwells with us, among us, and in us. God takes on human flesh in the babe at Bethlehem, in Jesus Christ, and in us.
So there are three questions that Jesus asks us this morning. What did you come out to look at? What are you to see? And finally, what do you come out to become?
The Second Sunday of Advent
Rev. E. Bevan Stanley
December 4, 2016
John the Baptist said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” These are the same words with which Jesus will begin his ministry as well. Today in this season of Advent, this is the word of God to us as well. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” What is this Kingdom of Heaven, or Kingdom of God? We can try out different words and synonyms. It is the realm of God, where God’s will is done. It is the commonwealth of God, in which all God’s creatures find their fulfillment and are rightly related to each other. In the first reading today Isaiah describes it in two ways. First he says of the one who is to come, the Messiah: “with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” The Kingdom will be place where the powerful use their power not to make the rich richer, or the powerful more powerful, but rather power will be used to provide justice especially for the poor and the oppressed. The little guy will not be run over by the powerful.
Isaiah also describes the Kingdom like this: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
This is the vision that inspires such art as the famous painting Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks. The idea that we could relate to all animals without danger or fear is an appealing one. There will be no eating of one another. No citizen of God’s kingdom will harm another. This seems like a really fine idea.
The trouble is what it will cost. For these peaceable relationships are between creatures that are by nature enemies. The wolf lives by eating prey such as lambs. Lions live by devouring fatlings. For God’s reign to come into being will require that those who prey on others stop, and that those who have been preyed upon learn to trust their erstwhile enemies.
Most of us have, at one time or another, been both victims and villains. We have harmed and been harmed. We have been members of groups that have harmed or been harmed. That issues of race are still a huge problem in this country is but one example. Similar problems surface in both interpersonal relationships and societal ones as well. How can we learn to trust those who have harmed us? How can I give up my instinct for self-preservation and my identity in order to make peace with some else?
“Repent,” says John the Baptist. The word means to re-think. I need to change my thinking, the way I see the world, my assumptions about the way the universe is. If I am one of those who cause harm or have caused harm, intentional or not, I need to stop, make amends, and find new ways of behaving. If I see myself as a victim, I need to forgive, find ways to take control of some parts of my life, and find new ways of behaving.
This Kingdom of God, for which we pray every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, does not and will not, simply descend upon us out of the sky. The Prophets offer it as a vision to which we can aspire. We are called to help build it. John the Baptist calls us to this work. Jesus calls us to this work and shows us how. The Holy Spirit empowers us to do it. Repentance is more than simply rethinking, it means reorienting our lives, changing our values, and then acting in new ways as result of those changes.
This time of preparation for both the religious and secular celebrations of Christmas is a wonderful opportunity to practice some of the choices that will help bring the Kingdom of God to earth. We can be charitable to the poor. We can mend relationships among our families as we gather for the holidays. We can pray for those whom we fear or who have harmed us. We can make amends to those whom we have harmed. We can repair or improve our relationships with Jesus.
Sometimes this can be very frightening. We are setting out on new ventures for which we may not feel well prepared. We are asked to try trusting or believing when our experience has not given us much faith, perhaps has even taught us the cost of trust. Sometimes we are asked to let go of something that is very precious to us—a long held opinion, or a grudge, or some understanding of the way the world is or my place in it. Sometimes there is feeling, though, or memory that has particularly poisoned our lives that must be destroyed. Like Frodo in the Lord of the Rings, we may be called to say, “I will take the ring, though I do not know the way.” As it turns out, Frodo does not travel alone but has help along the way. So too we will find all sorts of surprising help as we try to rethink and change ourselves so that the Kingdom of God can come among us.
The African-American scholar, Cornell West contrasts the secular ways of power to this vision. “To be a Christian- a follower of Jesus Christ- is to love wisdom, love justice, and love freedom. This is the radical love in Christian freedom and the radical freedom in Christian love … To be a Christian is to live dangerously, honestly, freely- to step in the name of love as if you may land on nothing, yet to keep stepping because the something that sustains you no empire can give you and no empire can take away. This is the kind of vision and courage required to enable the renewal of prophetic, democratic Christian identity in the age of the American empire.”Parker Palmer, the Quaker writer and lecturer, says, “Every movement begins with someone deciding to live divided no more.” One of those heroes who made the choice was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Every time I reread his “I have a Dream” speech, I am stirred to work for the building of a society that will be like the Kingdom of God. Another is Nelson Mandela, who, when his incredible life ended, left all the world a legacy and unfinished work to carry on.
Whether we are the wolf or the lamb, leopard or the kid, God calls us to make peace. Whether we are the powerful or the weak, God calls us to work for justice. We are invited to join in the adventure of building this kingdom, brick by brick, relationship by relationship, word by word, deed by deed, choice by choice. Whatever it takes. And we are led into this new community by the little child, who will come among us at last in a manger in Bethlehem. Amen.
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