Enter In

A sermon preached on the Third Sunday of Advent at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rockland, ME. Lections: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11Psalm 1261 Thessalonians 5:16-24, and John 1:6-8,19-28.

The psalmist sings, “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed.”

Imagine the scene. You are downtown in one of the world’s great cities. You’re standing at the main entrance of a huge, opulent hotel, whose solid stone walls soar upward for many floors. The canopied entrance features a red carpet that crosses the sidewalk to the street, and brass fittings that gleam like gold. It’s a damp winter evening. Flurries dance through the air.

Presiding over this elegant space in front of the hotel is the doorman. A mountain of a man, he cuts quite a figure,

  • dressed in a knee-length blue topcoat
  • brightened by braid on the shoulders and the sleeves.
  • The stripes on his uniform pants lead down to his black, shiny shoes.
  • A serious hat rests on top of his head.
  • With utter dignity, he opens doors, orders cabs, greets people coming and going, and lends even more substance than it already has to the building behind him.

There you are at the main entrance. You’ve never been to this hotel before. In fact, in the small town you come from, there are only motels, and no doormen, especially not the sort who are grandly uniformed. But you have come to this metropolis for a convention, and the big banquet is tonight, here at this hotel.

The massive figure in the topcoat and braid now looms right in front of you. Never before have you seen the likes of him, except in old movies. What should you do?

  • One option is to question him.
    • Ask him whose army he is in,
    • or is he an admiral?
    • Ask him to count the brass buttons on his splendid coat.
    • Ask him to come in out of the cold.
  • A better option is simply to let him do his job. You’ve come for the banquet; his job is to open the door for you. A genial nod in his direction is all that he expects by way of recompense.

Which option do you choose?

Well, of course! Don’t bother the doorman. Let him open the door for you. Go inside, get out of the cold, enter the warm lobby, then find your way to the feast.

This is not how it happens, though, when priests and Levites are sent down from Jerusalem to ask John the Baptist some questions. He works as the doorman, the doorman to God’s hotel. But these priests and Levites and those who sent them simply refuse to have John open the door for them.

  • They have questions to ask him.
    • “Who are you?”
    • “Are you Elijah?”
    • “Are you the prophet like Moses?”
  • John grows more impatient as he answers each successive question.
    • “I am not the Messiah.”
    • “I am not Elijah.”
    • “I am not the prophet like Moses.”

Again they ask him, “Who are you?” He answers, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’“

This is what John, the evangelist, insists:

  • “I am only a voice;
  • I am not myself the message.
  • I am the doorman of God’s hotel;
  • I am not the host at the banquet.”

John the baptizer dresses as noticeably as any doorman, but differently. No topcoat or fancy hat for him. John is bare-chested, wearing a camel’s hair loincloth and dreadlocks for a hairstyle. He looks like a prophet from centuries before his time. He acts the part as well.

But there’s reason to believe that those priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem fail to get it. For all their fussing about John, they seem to miss his message. Standing outside on the sidewalk, chilled by the damp winter air, they don’t have sense enough to let this doorman usher them inside to the banquet that awaits them, an unforgettable feast.

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

A mistake of this sort happens to us often regarding life in general and religion in particular.

  • We get distracted by what is, at best, of secondary importance.
  • About such matters we think we have special awareness,
  • reason to be in control,
  • the right to take charge.

And so we do something foolish. It may not be as vulgar as mocking the doorman’s attire and his outdoor vigil, but it makes as much sense as that.

  • We want him to count his topcoat buttons,
  • while all the time there waits for us within the hotel the banquet of a lifetime.

We zero in on the inconsequential because we’re adept at small talk,

  • we know how to pass the time,
  • we can go through this routine in our sleep.But that’s the problem, don’t you see, and John the Baptist, doorman to God’s own hotel, would be the first to agree:
  • we spend much of our lives asleep.
  • We hesitate to wake up,
  • even to the splendor in front of our faces.

Sometimes we don’t go downtown ourselves. We dispatch our own priests and Levites to interview John instead. – Reality, mediated by somebody else.

  • We think it’s not real unless it’s on TV.

But John stands there on the sidewalk, doorman to the greatest of all hotels, while inside candles are burning, and the wait staff are at their places, and the kitchen crew bustle about preparing the splendid feast.

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

In the Orthodox Church, the chancel or altar area is separated from the congregation by a wall pierced by several doors. The central ones, known as the royal doors, are opened at certain critical points in the service.Eugene Trubetskoy, a Russian prince and a religious philosopher, made reference to this in his dying words, when he cried out, “The royal doors are opening! The great Liturgy is about to begin.”

  • What he had seen so often in the church’s liturgy on earth was now apparent to him in the liturgy that takes place in heaven.
  • The royal doors were opening in a new and astounding way.
  • We might do well, all of us, especially in this time of Advent, to recognize how the death of a Christian is like that.
    • The royal doors open.
    • The great Liturgy is about to begin.

Yet what is so very true when we die holds true also as long as we live.

  • We can shift our attention from inconsequential routine,
    • predictable small talk,
    • and all things that seem safe because we think we can control them,
  • and notice instead that the doorman, John the Baptist, wants to usher us inside the greatest hotel of all.
  • We can discover that religion, like life itself, is not a matter of assessing the doorman; it is coming to accept – with humility – the hospitality of God.
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Behold Your God

A sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Advent at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rockland, ME. Lections: Isaiah 40:1-11Psalm 85:1-2, 8-132 Peter 3:8-15a, and Mark 1:1-8.

Today, on this 2nd Sunday in Advent, we are steeped in the prophets. The patron saint of eccentrics is front and center: John the Baptist, with his camel skins, locusts, honey and bad temper.  And just behind him that giant among prophets, Isaiah.

For the most part, and to oversimplify a little, the prophets tended to sing in two keys: a bright, sunny major key with visions of a more glorious future, visions of restoration, visions of a peaceable kingdom. And in a dark, stormy minor key: gloom and doom, lamentation, critique of the status quo.

These two modes of prophecy reflect a fundamental characteristic of human nature: to be discontent with things as they are and to imagine how they might be instead.  The prophets were discontent; and they dreamed of a more glorious future. What is enshrined in the prophets is ordinary human characteristic writ large.  If we are people of discontent and of dreams, they are people of BIG discontent and BIG dreams.

Let’s look at what they offer us this morning. These are, the prophets say, desert and wilderness times. And, Lord knows, we understand this. We know plenty about rough places, as Isaiah put it.

  • We know the low-grade uphill grind of an economy still struggling, and see and feel income inequality setting in deeper and deeper
  • We tremble at the deep canyons and cravasses of world events – girls kidnapped in Africa, terrorists ploughing people down with vans, or nuclear war-mongering in Asia.
  • And now, closer to home, we are witnessing #Me, too expressions of the pain and the related disbelieving or openly defiant backlash

At the same time, we are a people who have known tremendous human achievement:

  • medicine and public health here and abroad have eradicated or contained virulent diseases, remember Ebola?
  • drug therapies are turning some cancers into something closer to diabetes, a condition one can live with if managed carefully
  • the internet has changed how we access information: not sequentially from books but in a much faster and networked way

Life, for us, then, can feel contradictory:

  • great human achievement stands beside great human failure;
  • hope and fear mingle;
  • a sense of human unity struggles with the reality of great divisions.

That is a good description of a wilderness with uneven ground and with plenty of rough places. Heights and depths. And in the midst of this uneven ground wilderness both Isaiah and John urge us to prepare the way of the Lord.

How do we do that? Well, Isaiah advises we first cry out. “What shall I cry?” the prophet asks and we might ask the same. How about:

  • Not fair!
  • Not right!
  • Help us, Lord!
  • Come quickly, Lord, and help us!

Those are some starters. But Isaiah insists that is not enough. It may well be a necessary first step, but it’s not enough. And so he urges us spiritually to get ourselves to a high mountain. He urges us to lift up our voices with strength and not to fear. To cry out to all who will hear, “Behold your God!”

And I don’t think the prophet meant this ironically. He wasn’t joking. He meant it in a direct, straight-forward way. In the midst of pain and suffering, in the midst of wonders and achievements, in the midst of all of it, pay attention! God is here. Right here. Right now. Look for him! Behold her.

No wonder Handel chose the music he did to accompany this passage in his oratorio “Messiah”. Millions of people, who feel no other link to religious faith crowd great concert halls when this is sung. It is stirring. It is profound, unambiguous, powerful. Behold your God.

How will you recognize God in your midst? Well, if Isaiah and John are right: look for might wrapped in gentleness:

See, the Lord GOD comes with might…  He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom,and gently lead the mother sheep.

Caring, sensitivity to others, concern are not signs of weakness but of God’s own self-giving power and might. Isaiah’s images of gathering lambs and gently leading them is a lovely image of God. It means we can behold God especially when you see concern for the most vulnerable in our midst.

  • among those who need to fear not just the criminal but also the cop
  • among those who wield little political power or authority
  • among those who care for the hungry or sick or suffering – as I know this church family does for one another

Behold your God.

At the same time one of the functions of a shepherd is to make demands of his flock as a whole, to stretch them sometimes in ways that can be uncomfortable. Responding to the demands of our society takes true moral strength. Responding to church being done differently takes strength.

And I have enough experience with other parishes to be impressed with the courage it takes to do church differently. You are a wonderful, risk-taking new community. God is with you and you are not alone but I believe you are being invited to stretch:

  • to reach out to folks in other congregations more
  • to reach out to seekers who don’t know, trust, or like church
  • and to learn to think of all of them less as “them” and more as “us”

We are all of us minor prophets. God’s vision, God’s dream of the new heaven and new earth actually needs the engine of our discontent, our dissatisfaction.  Putting our dissatisfactions, our lack of fulfillment, even our suffering into this broader transformation is one way of trusting in Christ’s will to redeem it. We are all minor prophets. Here, among you, “Behold your God.”

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Advent: A Practical Guide

Advent is one of the shortest seasons in the church year, a time of hope, preparation, and waiting. Today most of us experience Advent as a busy season. We rush around getting ready for Christmas. But in the ancient church Advent was a time for slowing down. This season, could you take a break from the bustle, the consumerism, the pre-Christmas insanity? Could this season be one of prayer, breathing, and slowing down?

Maybe this year, more than most, we could use a good Advent. In the calendar of Bible readings we encounter stories and poems from a people in exile. The words of the prophets, even the words of Jesus’ mother Mary in the Magnificat, all of whom long for a country and a world where justice reigns and powerful rulers are put down from their thrones. These stories help us to know that God is there with us in our longing for a different reality. This year, I think, we could use reassurance, some camaraderie of hope and longing with the saints.

What follows are a few practical ways to engage this short season of waiting and hope.

TRY A PRAYER PRACTICE

Many people think of Lent as a time for a new prayer practice, but I would argue Advent can work even better. Lent is a long haul. Advent is less than a month. If you are looking for a suggestion, here are just two — ok, three:

THE DAILY OFFICE

The services of morning and evening prayer in the Anglican tradition are a simplification of the early morning services and the later evening services of monastic communities. Such a simplification brings the rhythm of prayer out of specialized communities and into the daily lives of ordinary people. The Daily Offices, can really be seen as a guide to praying our way through Scripture.

You can access the daily office through Josh Thomas’ site Daily Office or from Mission St. Clare.  They both pre-load the readings and canticles for you.  They each have apps for IOS or Android.  Or, you can go analog and use The Book of Common Prayer, either online or in book form.

Or, during the season of Advent, I invite you to join me for Morning Prayer at St. Peter’s.  I will be there on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday mornings at 7:00am.  What a great way to start your day!

CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER

All the words of Morning or Evening prayer can seem like a lot in a season of slowing down. So, why not try silence as a gateway to prayer? The Trappist Monk, Thomas Keating, has re-introduced the ancient practice of centering prayer. Centering prayer is deceptively simple. You sit in silence for 20 minutes. When you find yourself engaging a thought process, you use a “sacred word” (a simple word, associated with God, that doesn’t lead to images and further thoughts). The sacred word helps you gently let go of your thoughts. Centering Prayer helps us to rest in God.

At St. Peter’s we have a Centering Prayer Group that meets on the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of the month at 8:00am in the Columbarium area of the sanctuary.  Or, there’s a 4-session workshop, led by Judy Mullins, on contemplative prayer this Advent Season.  See our Website for more information about that.

QUIET DAY

Every Advent we select a Saturday to step away from the busy-ness of our lives to spend a morning in guided contemplation.  This year on Saturday, December 16th I’ll lead a guided Quiet Day from 9:00 to 1:00.  Each hour begins with a short meditation on Scripture, followed by an invitation to find a quiet spot to meditate on that, to journal or draw, or to just rest in quiet.  There will be coffee, tea, and snacks provided throughout the morning.  At noon, we conclude our silence with Eucharist and a lunch, provided by the Pastoral Care Committee at St. Peter’s.

SHOP WITH PURPOSE

We can always try to buy less, to live more minimally, but this time of year consumption is unavoidable. There are folks we love who might be hurt if we don’t buy them a gift. So what if we shopped more intentionally? What if we paid attention not to the quantity of gifts, but the quality of life of the people producing the goods, food, and services we purchase this season?

For example: Kathy and I are planning to get most of our family members gifts from Thistle Farms, a social enterprise that was conceived by and for survivors of human trafficking, prostitution, and addiction.  We also choose gifts from MOFGA, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association to support and encourage sustainable, organic farming in Maine.

You can shop at Thistle Farms HERE

 

You can shop at MOFGA HERE.

EAT DIFFERENTLY

Advent was traditionally a season of fasting. In our time it can be anything but a fast! Cookies, candy canes, eggnog, and peppermint lattes abound. In the midst of all the temptations, could you choose to engage differently?

A fast is different from a diet. Fasting is not about body image. Fasting is knowing that you could eat something, and choosing to abstain. Fasting helps us remember that this is a season with a direction. We look forward to the Feast of Christmas by making the simple decision to eat less before the feast.

Maybe your fast could involve abstaining from meat, alcohol, or sweets. Or maybe you can choose just to have one cookie a day instead of indulging every time someone shows up with a plate. However you practice fasting, it will help you be intentional about food in a season of over-indulgence, and help you to look forward to the feast to come.

LET GO OF WORRY

In her book “Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening,” The Episcopal Priest and teacher Cynthia Borgeault points out that Contemplative Prayer helps us to let go. We try to let go of the noise that crowds our world. What we do in our prayer practice can also affect how we live our life. How can we let go of worry? How can we turn down the news, the rush, the busy? Are there ways you can practice intentional disengagement? Could you make space for quiet, for waiting, for hope?

This year, perhaps more than most, we could use a little creative spiritual disengagement. By unplugging from the rapid cycle of news, work, and consumption, Advent invites us to encounter this time differently.

Advent is a season to acknowledge the “world as it is” is not “the world as it should be.” This season encourages us to rest in the hope that another world is on the way. If we are ready, we might help midwife God’s new creation in the smallest and subtlest ways. To be ready we need to slow down. We need to practice silence, patience, and hope.

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Keep Awake

LONDON, ENGLAND – AUGUST 04: Usain Bolt acknowledges the crowd during the IAAF World Athletics Championships at the London Stadium on August 4, 2017 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage)

A sermon preached on the First Sunday of Advent at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rockland, ME. Lections: Isaiah 64:1-9Psalm 80:1-7, 16-181 Corinthians 1:3-9, and Mark 13:24-37.

Keep awake. Keep awake.

These December day are short; it’s dark. This morning the sun rose at 6:54 and will set at 3:59 p.m. The darkness can be metaphorical, too, for periods of loss or trouble or worry that can grip our lives. In Mark’s telling, Jesus was speaking to a people who lived in the deep darkness of an oppressive and violent empire.

For those dark days, Jesus advised, “Keep awake.” Now, that might sound like Jesus being a drill sergeant, or a parent on a school day, or your spouse at the opera who has just nudged you back into consciousness, but I think Jesus was giving the people who lived in those dark, desperate days back then… AND us who live in our own dark, desperate days, a genuinely helpful strategy for living hopefully – even in the midst of the darkness.

The first part of the strategy Jesus was passing on here is what author Amy Cuddy calls “faking it until you become it.” In her research she’s found that when we practice physical postures associated with positive things, our brains chemically become more positive… more confident… more awake!

You know how when you win something, you feel incredible and your arms automatically shoot up? It turns out it works the other way too! Even before a race begins, if you put our arms up in that Victorious V shape, our brains release the same chemicals as if we’ve already won! We get those same feelings of accomplishment up front. And with that confidence we can run the race, believing from the start that we can win!

When Jesus says, “Stay Awake” he’s telling us, “fake living in the light until you live in the light!” It’s easy to do God’s work in the world when we feel God is with us. Feeding the hungry, challenging hurtful systems, bringing calm to chaos, and loving one another all flow naturally from that secure feeling we have when God is with us.

When Jesus says “Keep Awake” he’s telling us it works the other way too! When you do the Master’s work… even in the most challenging of times, the work itself the acts of generosity, compassion, of healing and justice open us up to the truth that God is still with us.

The other thing I think Jesus’ command to “Keep Awake” is meant to do, is to train our minds and spirits to see the smallest bits of light around us, even in the darkness. Jesus knew we would be tempted in times of darkness to simply put our heads down, grit our teeth, clench our muscles, and wait for the world to lighten up again.

But Jesus also knew that hunched over, tensed up, with our eyes closed, we’d likely miss even the light of stars falling from the sky!

Jesus asks us to begin now to train ourselves to notice the big things, like moons going dark and the Son of Man coming in the clouds, by practicing noticing the little things. Start by noticing things we often miss… like spicy smell of evergreens. Advent is a season set in darkness and it’s a season calling us to Wake Up even in that darkness.

Our Advent offerings are all designed to help you stay awake or, if necessary, give you a nudge to “Wake Up!”

  • Judy Mullins is leading another 4 part session on contemplative prayer. I urge you to do this, but – wake up! – it starts this Tuesday.
  • Next week, we begin a series of luncheon workshops on “Spirituality for the Second Half of Life”. We’ll provide the lunch and often bring in a speaker or facilitator to touch on matters that are near to the hearts of older adults.
  • On the 16th we’ll again have a guided Quiet Day — to de-numb yourself from pre-Christmas craziness.

Finally, I want to say a word about our liturgy. You know, liturgy (the form and shape, the movement and structure that gives our worship flow) is ancient, predating even Rite One by centuries, and is designed to help us be awake to the presence of God. It is designed to lead us into an encounter with the Holy.

One of my favorite liturgics scholars, Aidan Kavanagh, once said liturgy is like this: we are standing on the edge of a cliff where we are on solid ground and are comfortable, but there’s something of the divine within us that calls us into mystery, into something larger, something less well known, which is the Divine itself. Liturgy is the thing that invites you to step off the cliff and into mystery.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that that’s not a scary thing. Annie Dillard once famously said we all ought to be issued crash helmets for worship.

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? …. It is madness [for ladies] to wear … straw … and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For … God may draw us out to where we can never return.”

We are beginning a new liturgical year and a new church season and I want to invite you to be open to where this service – with its older language, more sung parts, and glorious renaissance music – will take you. Be open to how it leads you into mystery.

  • Notice the differences in language (thee’s and thy’s, please – or the repeated poetry about mutual indwelling that is one of my favorite parts of the Rite One Eucharistic Prayer),
  • Notice how we hold our bodies differently, kneeling rather than standing if we are able (do not strain yourself ).
  • Notice what it feels like to sing more of the service (creed and Lord’s Prayer)
  • Notice what the mood of the music does for you. It is not meant to be easy. But, arms up, you will learn it and be so enriched by it.
  • Notice, you are stepping off the cliff and into mystery.

This is the season when long ago Wise men began to notice stars moving across the sky, women noticed babies leaping in their wombs, and it ended with shepherds noticing angels appearing in the sky.

What would happen, if every morning this Advent, as you lie there in the darkness, you asked God to help you notice. Notice the small things. Notice the birds, the smells when you bake this week, the name of the person who bags your groceries, the colors of the sunrise.

The promise of Advent is that as we practice noticing, as we seek to be awake, we will be able more fully to see the possibilities right there in front of us, lying in a manger, when he comes.


References:
Amy Cuddy, “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are,” TED Global 2012, available from https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are.

Aidan Kavanaugh, OSB, On Liturgical Theology: Hale Memorial Lectures of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, 1981, (Collegeville, MN: Order of St. Benedict, Inc. reprint of Pueblo Publications, 1984), 1991.

Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 40-41.

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New Service Music for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany

During Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany we will be using new service music — and I use the word “new” advisedly.  Most of our music is derived from the English Renaissance.  The Nicene Creed and Sanctus are composed by Thomas Tallis for his Dorian Service, probably shortly after the 1552 Book of Common Prayer was published.  The Lord’s Prayer is by 17th century William Smith, who was a minor canon (lesser clergy) at Durham Cathedral.  He is known for his choral anthems and organ pieces, but obviously composed service music, too.

Here is a sample from the Chapelle du Roi doing the Nicene Creed.

 

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