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Sermon: 12/18/2016

Posted 4:50 PM by
Sermon, Advent 4A                                        Jeffrey B. MacKnight
18 December 2016                                          St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

A kindergarten teacher announces to her class, "Tomorrow, we will have show and tell. I would like everyone to bring in a symbol of his or her religious faith." The next day, a little boy steps forward. "Hi, my name is David. I'm Jewish, and this is a star of David." Another little boy comes forward. "Hi, my name is Kevin. I'm a Catholic, and this is a crucifix." Finally, a little girl steps to the front. "Hi, my name is Susie. I'm a Baptist, and this is a casserole." 

We might well ask ourselves what an Episcopal kid would bring to show and tell!

Signs are important. 

Signs.  Isaiah – a child would be born as a sign – that war and conflict would soon cease.  This happened in Isaiah’s time – 8 centuries before Jesus. 

Yet we see Jesus as a similar sign from God – a sign of how life is, and what our destiny is.  A sign of hope, even when things are clearly not as they should be.  A sign of God being a part of our human journey.  The crucifix – the cross with a suffering Jesus upon it – is a fitting sign of this life, although it does not tell the whole story…the story of final resurrection, vindication, redemption of all that we hold dear.            

Although there is much beautiful Advent music, I do listen to Christmas carols in December.  The ones that tug at my heartstrings most are the ones that include the whole sweep of human experience – from birth and fresh new life and possibilities, through the real struggles of human life, the pain, the losses, and finally confronting death itself.  One of these has stayed in my mind this season.  It’s a beautiful old Basque carol.

1. Sing lullaby!
Lullaby baby, now reclining,
Sing lullaby!
Hush, do not wake the Infant King.
Angels are watching, stars are shining
Over the place where he is lying.
Sing lullaby!


2. Sing lullaby!
Lullaby baby, now a-sleeping,
Sing lullaby!
Hush, do not wake the Infant King.
Soon will come sorrow with the morning,
Soon will come bitter grief and weeping:
Sing lullaby!


3. Sing lullaby!
Lullaby baby, now a-dozing,
Sing lullaby!
Hush, do not wake the Infant King.
Soon comes the cross, the nails, the piercing,
Then in the grave at last reposing:
Sing lullaby!


4. Sing lullaby!
Lullaby! is the babe a-waking?
Sing lullaby!
Hush, do not stir the Infant King.
Dreaming of Easter, gladsome morning,
Conquering Death, its bondage breaking:
Sing lullaby!
 

The sign that is Jesus  points to that whole sweep of human experience: life, death, and new life again.  We say it in the liturgy:

Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again. 

We remember his death.  We proclaim his resurrection.  We await his coming again. 

We Anglicans love Christmas, perhaps even more than Easter.  The story of a wondrous birth, with a bright star overhead – that is a great sign indeed.  We should love it, celebrate it, sing about it, treasure it.  And so we do. 

And that sign is all the deeper because we know what will come – the human life, full of moments of laughter and elation, times of worry and darkness, and yes, dark valleys of almost unbearable sadness, pain, and loss.  It’s all part of the package.  Every child is born into this uncertain world.  Jesus is the sign that God is with us through it all, and that redemption comes in the end:

Hush, do not stir the Infant King.

Dreaming of Easter, gladsome morning,
Conquering Death, its bondage breaking:
Sing lullaby!

So if I were asked about the symbol of our Anglican/Episcopal faith, I’d be hard-pressed to choose just one, because our faith is a journey.  We are on the trail together, starting with our Hebrew Scriptures and heritage, leading to the revelation of Jesus’ life and death on the cross, and on into resurrection and whatever new thing God has for us.  And I’m sure our journey includes lots of casseroles too.  As we turn now to the joys of Christmas, find a quiet moment and thank God for the journey of your life, what was, what is, and what is to come…dreaming of Easter, gladsome morning, conquering death, its bondage breaking.  


 

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Sermon: 12/11/2016

Posted 4:46 PM by
Sermon, Advent IIIA                                      Jeffrey B. MacKnight
11 December 2016                                          St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

When John the Baptist asked Jesus if he was indeed the Messiah of God, Jesus replied: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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.  And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 

My brother-in-law Andre visited over Thanksgiving and told this joke –
 “What did the blind man say when he walked into the bar?  Ouch!” 

Andre’s one of the most active, hard-driving, yet gracious people I know.  Due to a rare congenital condition, he lost his eyesight a few years ago in his late 50s, first in one eye, then in the other.  He is now legally blind.  He has had to live with his blindness since – not an easy change to accept, much less adapt to.  He was cast into the wilderness.  He also got fired from his job because of his blindness.  Oh, and he happened to contract cancer too. 

Andre set out to reorder his life.  Andre and his wife Nancy moved to a house closer to public transit in Denver, where they live, so Andre can get around town on his own. Andre has gotten a service dog Pelham – a smart and gentle yellow lab who serves as his eyes. 

One of Andre’s greatest loves is bicycling – the heavy duty, long distance kind.  Without his sight, he has had to learn to ride tandem: in the back, not in the driver’s seat. He said that’s required learning humility.

Andre has learned to be amazingly independent – still an excellent chef, he’s also astute with technology.  But he’s also learned to ask for help when he needs it – something most of us need to work on. 

Jesus’ message of healing at first seems like welcome news for all of us, and at a deep level, it is.  But there is a catch: in order to receive Jesus’ healing, we must first accept our blindness, our deafness, our state of utter need.  We have to admit that we are not in control, we are not sufficient unto ourselves, we are wandering in the dark, in the wilderness.  We have to be humbled.  We need help.  That’s why Jesus added, at the end, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  Blessed is anyone who can admit his state of need, blessed is she who can ask for help. 

Franciscan spiritual writer Richard Rohr observes that the Christian life is a process – of traveling from our original order, through a state of disorder, and finally into a third state: reorder.  My brother-in-law Andre has certainly traveled this difficult path.  He had no choice.  It’s been hard.  Rohr says: 

We dare not get rid of our pain before we have learned what it has to teach us. Most of religion gives answers too quickly, dismisses pain too easily, and seeks to be distracted—to maintain some ideal order. So we must resist the instant fix and acknowledge ourselves as beginners to be open to true transformation. In the great spiritual traditions, the wounds to our ego are our teachers to be welcomed. They should be paid attention to, not litigated or even perfectly resolved. How can a Christian look at the Crucified One and not get this essential point?  The Resurrected Christ is the icon of the third [state], or reorder.

Once we can learn to live in this third spacious place, neither fighting nor fleeing reality but holding the creative tension itself, we are in the spacious place of grace out of which all newness comes.

There is no direct flight from order to reorder, you must go through disorder, which is surely why Jesus dramatically and shockingly endured it on the cross.  He knew we would all want to deny disorder unless he made it clear. But we denied it anyway.

Richard Rohr’s words are wise.  In other words, we’ve been blind, often on purpose.  Blind because we don’t want to see – see our failings, our sins, our disordered lives, our deep emptiness. 

I think the darkness of Advent is a symbol of this kind of blindness.  The church is wise to keep insisting that we pause in the dark place before we experience the brightness of Christmas.  There’s no shortcut.  We need time to journey through the wilderness, the darkness, the disorder, before God can bring something new into being in us, a new and marvelous order. 

I just got a new set of tires on my car.  That’s pretty easy to do on a car, but not in our spiritual lives.  As I get older, I realize that Advent is a season that makes more sense to those of us who have a lot of miles on us.  We get battered a good bit by life, even when life is good.  We may wish we could just get a new set of treads, but we can’t – not that easily.  We have to wait for God to do that…to allow us to wake up one day after a long time of clouds and thick darkness, and realize that we are being renewed.  There is a new light shining in the world, and in our hearts. 

That’s what Advent represents: that journey through hardship toward  peace, through darkness into a new light.  We can’t rush it; it has to happen in God’s time.  I don’t think children can get this, but we older folks do.  I’ve come to love Advent and its darkness…maybe even more than Christmas.  The light and joy of Christmas are lovely, but the darkness and quiet of Advent have much to teach us.  Let’s dwell here expectantly these next two weeks.  AMEN.  

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