Sunday, December 25, 2016

Sermon Christmas Day

Christmas Day 2016 – John 1:1-14

‘Full of grace and truth.’
Should not this description of the Father’s only Son,
the one who was born as a child so long ago,
fill us with awe and wonder?
Does it not resonate anew
as we reflect on the past year
and as we look forward to the time to come?

Full of grace.
Grace –
life itself as God’s sheer gift,
and not as something which must be taken;
reconciliation with God as God’s sheer gift,
and not as something which must be earned.
Grace is made tangible in the child who will grow to be man,
who will scatter grace as seed
and die to prove God’s grace to human beings.
Here is grace –
that God does not hold anything against us or anything from us.
Here is grace –
a child, born in pain into the world,
to become vulnerable to each and every one of us,
for to be in community with another is to be vulnerable to another.
Only those who wish to be in community
can become vulnerable to another person,
and so God himself must be born –
must be born and die in community with others.
Full of truth.
Truth cannot be simply equated with historical veracity,
although it is inseparable from seeking to speak in accordance with it.
To speak truth is to represent facts as they are,
feelings and emotions as they are,
God as he is,
without twisting words for personal gain or advantage.
Lies use truth as a cloak,
but truth uncovers itself,
presents itself in unvarnished form,
in flat prose or rhymed poetry.
This child in the manger is truth
because he speaks to us of who God is;
we know that his witness is true
because he did not use it for personal gain,
but gave up everything that his speech might be proved true.

Grace and truth.
How little we know of such things today!
How diseased the concepts have become!
So diseased that we cannot even begin to disentangle
grace and law, truth from lies.
And so we live in a state of perpetual doubt and desire.
In the ancient story,
when the evil one sought to come between us and our creator,
he sowed doubt in our hearts;
doubt that God’s word was truth,
that we could trust God’s word;

doubt that God was grace, sheer gift,
but instead that we should reach out and take
what we desired and what should be ours.

‘He was in the world,
and the world came into being through him,
but the world did not know him.’
This is not simply that people were ignorant
of the historical fact of Christmas,
but that the child whose birth we celebrate at Christmas
is antithetical to the world which builds itself upon the lies of the evil one.
He is antithesis to the world built upon half-truths and cynicism,
deconstruction of the creation,
cloaked power and secrecy and double-speak
and the devolution of language.
He is antithesis to the world which delights to tell young people
that they are only their test-scores and their physical desirability,
and that they must create their own reality to fit their dreams;
that delights to tell parents and parents-to-be
that they are only what they can afford to give their children;
that delights to tell old people that they are only their health
and what they have accomplished,
and that what they cannot control has meant that their life has failed.
He is antithesis to the brutality and violence
which hide under noble sentiments of every kind;
he is antithesis both to the march of progress
and the retreat to mindless tradition.

Instead, he is grace and truth.
To rediscover these things again for the first time
might mean a revolution in our thinking, in our acting, in our speaking.
To act with grace,
that one seeks to reflect God’s free giving in every encounter with others,
holding nothing against the other and forgiving the other.
To speak in truth,
that one seeks to be trustworthy in every word,
whether a hard or an easy one,
refusing to use our words as cloaks for violence or deceit.
In this time we must be known as people of grace and truth.

This can and must be our response to the revelation
that God himself is grace and truth;
for we approach the cradle and find there
nothing that we can use to our own advantage
but instead the grace and truth
that frees us to be gracious and truthful.

May this child capture you,
may he enrapture you;
for from the debt that would enslave you he redeems you;
from the foes which would ensnare you he rescues you;
from the death that would envelop you he restores you.

This is the grace and truth which we proclaim to you.

Merry Christmas!  

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Sermon Wednesday Advent 1: The Four Last Things

‘The Four Last Things:’ Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven,
have been traditional themes of meditation for Advent.
This reminds us that Advent is not simply a season in which we await a celebration of Jesus’ birth,
but instead a time when we await his coming into our lives,
and his coming at the end of all things,
to judge the living and the dead.
One of my colleagues in the Society of the Holy Trinity posted this gem on her Facebook wall,
written by a Salvatorian monk:

‘Advent is concerned with the future, not the past.
Christ has already been born and all of creation was changed
when Jesus was born of Mary so many centuries ago.
If our waiting is only about looking forward
to a celebration of Jesus ‘birthday’ on December 25,
then both Advent and even Christmas will have little purpose
beyond being just another anniversary on the calendar.

But, because Advent is about looking within
and recognizing those places within us and in our world
where the darkness of sin, fear, hopelessness, and grief still flourish,
we need these blessed days
to pray and watch for the coming of the dawn of that day
when the Sun of Justice will drive the darkness away.
We watch and wait.
We light candles to remind us that the darkness is being conquered
by the One who is the Light of the World.
Above all, we hope.’
We human beings are not good at looking into the future,
especially when our present seems to be so attractive.
Perhaps some morbid people are plagued by the thoughts of their own death.
Most of us, however, have no interest in looking at death
until we have almost caught up with it,
or rather, until it has almost caught up with us.

Those who are Christians have the comfort of the passage
which we have just heard from John 11,
so often read at funerals for the benefit of a grieving family,
or pondered by those whose death draws near.
But to see this passage only as a reason to not grieve at a funeral,
or at least to grieve less,
is to miss out on the opportunity to meditate on death.
We fail to reap the rich harvest, as it were, of pondering our death.

We should meditate upon death for the simple reason that if we don’t,
death can have the power to subconsciously control our thoughts and actions,
Even if we believe that Christ has conquered death,
we are not immune to death’s spectre.
The threat of death makes us anxious
not simply about the threat of judgment and hell,
but about a life that is missing things.
‘I’ll die without really living.
Without really being in love,
or checking off everything on my bucket list,
or having corrected this and that in my life,
or seeing justice done in the world,
or having left a good enough legacy for others.’

The devil has been cheated, by the Resurrection of Christ,
of holding us in thrall to the power of death’s to destroy the soul,
but he instead uses the riches of the world
to increase the fear that we will die
without receiving all the world has to offer.

But if the real meaning of life is to be in union with God,
if death cannot threaten this,
then we are no longer in need of such thinking.
Indeed, to engage in such thinking is to give death back the power it does not have.
We see life as a process of accumulation instead of growing toward God.
In reflecting upon death, we cannot help but reflect
upon what we truly believe our life is all about,
and what we truly believe about God.

This is, of course, not the only thing we could say about death.
We might think about how death really is a gift to us,
in that death curbs the evil that human beings can do.
Can we imagine a world in which Fidel Castro, for example, was immortal?
Part of the plot in the Harry Potter series of books
is that Lord Voldemort has cheated death by splitting his soul into seven,
so that it makes him infinitely hard to kill.
The evil he may do is utterly unlimited,
unless the objects in which he has stored parts of his life are destroyed,
so that he finally may die, and his evil with him.
When he dies, then the spell of fear which he has cast over many is dispelled.
And for us who do not worship the darkness,
to realize that we will die is to embrace the faith
that there will come a time in which we can no longer sin,
in which our love for God will not be marred
by death-fearing inclinations and behavior.
Death becomes our liberation.

There are, of course, many more things to say or think about.
But perhaps it is good to end with that same passage which is read at funerals.
‘Those who believe in me, though they die, will live,
and those who live and believe in me will never die.’
It is through Christ that death becomes not an object of fear,
but an object of curiosity,
not a God, but a thing to be viewed in the light of God and his love.
We do not approach death by ourselves, but with Christ,
clothed in his life, robed in his love.
And we do not do battle with death,
but it is Christ who has battled death for us,
and who is victorious, so that when our death comes,
it is no longer the end of anything,
but, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in a poem he wrote in prison,
a ‘station on the way to freedom.’

‘Come now, highest of feasts on the way to freedom eternal,
Death, lay down your ponderous chains and earthen enclosures
walls that deceive our souls and fetter our mortal bodies,
that we might at last behold what here we are hindered from seeing.
Freedom, long have we sought you through discipline, actions and suffering.

Dying, now we discern in the countenance of God your own face.’