Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Once in Royal David's City

It was when I was serving in Augusta, Ga. as Assistant Rector for the Church of the Good Shepherd that I first coined the phrase, "taking Halloween back from Wal-Mart."  It was in response to our having adopted the outline from Gretchen Wolff Pritchard's Offering the Gospel to Children of an All Saints' Day event.  Tricia Dodge, Infant and Childrens' Minister needed the youth which were in the program for which I had oversight to help. 

It was an incredible adaptation away from a "theologically sanitized" and more typical halloween carnival to a rich telling the story of how we could better understand sainthood as biblical people and by way of that understanding re-adopt Halloween -- All Hallow's Eve -- and "take it back" from the over-commercialized gluttonous affair it had become. 

We managed a couple of years of doing it here with the help of students from the Episcopal Center @ UGA.  I remember when someone's hayride trailer stopped and unloaded 20+ unexpected young guests we were going to run out of our more modest treats.  It was worth it. The lessons we taught and learned were invaluable. 

Advent presents a similar opportunity to teach and learn an alternative understanding of God at work in the world through a child born in Bethlehem that in many ways begins taking back Christmas from it's own over-commercialization. 

Our readings on the Sundays of Advent: prophets forecasting a vision of Israel's return and restoration, Paul, exuberant and glowing as he thanks God for the faith of the Thessalonians, Corinthians, Philippians. And mostly Luke's songs and narrative of those months before Mary gives birth. 

They are all preparatory, all about the work of redemption and Judgement that Jesus, the Christ WILL accomplish, about what God WILL do as the early church grows, how God WILL keep his covenant and continue to choose the jewish people to be his blessing of the world. 

We do our own preparation by the way we withhold gratification, not yet singing the songs and carols that radios and streaming devices have already made present, at least ambient is one the toughest lessons to learn. 

But . . . , I confess.  I need help!  Whenever we are planning our service of Lessons & Carols I always slip ahead and give into the impulse to sing at least one of those dreamy, pastorally sedative standards.  This year we will sing Once in Royal David's City.  That's the piece that traditionally begins the Christmas Eve -- no longer Advent -- service from King's College Chapel aired by BBC and NPR Every year! 

So please forgive me.  I'm still teaching and still learning and I love this hymn!

Once in royal Davids city,
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby,
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ, her little Child.

He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall:
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.

For He is our childhood's pattern;
Day by day, like us, He grew;
He was little, weak, and helpless,
Tears and smiles, like us He knew;
And He cares when we are sad,
And he shares when we are glad.

And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love;
For that Child so dear and gentle,
Is our Lord in heaven above:
And He leads His children on,
To the place where He is gone.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Song of Luke's Gospel

There so many songs associated with our Advent observance.  The human response to God's presence as Redeemer and Judge elicits praise, thanksgiving, relief, confidence, commitment, and hope.  Even what we read in scripture in the story of God's coming into our world and the difference that makes is rendered in song after song.

This Sunday we'll substitute the Song of Zechariah for the psalm at the Gradual.  Zechariah's song was unique and was so by his being made mute until his son, John -- the baptizer -- was born.  He and his wife Elizabeth were like Abraham and Sarah, advanced in age and without a son.  When he questioned the angel Gabriel's announcing Elizabeth's pregnancy this is what happened:
Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” Luke 1:18-20
So when John is born, Zechariah's voice is restored and he gets to sing his song. "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them! . . . "

There's lots of other singing in Luke's gospel.  Elizabeth, Mary, Anna, Simeon each take a turn rejoicing, praising, giving thanks, sighing relief, stirring confidence, making commitments, and proclaiming hope.

Off of the bad news that the world is falling apart at the seams -- remember what Jesus said last Sunday -- this good news that God is coming into our world totally releases so much that is muted within us; things we're afraid to mention, things about which we have little if any confidence, things of sadness, pain, and separation.

The songs -- some are carols -- of this season are honest about the darkness but without fail call forth the light.  There's lots of singing in Luke's gospel.  There's lots of Luke's gospel in our world, today.  We too can sing!

Hark a thrilling voice is sounding:
"Christ is nigh," it seems to say; 
"Cast away the works of darkness, 
O ye children of the day!"

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Veni, veni Emmanuel!

There's is no Advent carol I love more than Veni, veni, Emmanuel, O come, o come, Emmanuel!

It calls for the coming of our redeemer and judge but it is moreso meant to be used so that we are moved day after day through history -- heilsgeschichte -- a holy history of God's salvation of the world.

Check our Hymnal 1982, hymn # 56 and you'll see in the left-hand margin a succession of dates beginning on December 17 that take us to December 23.  Each stanza re-calls God's saving acts that include Wisdom's accompaniment at creation to protect us from chaos, God's commandments on Sinai, the reign of David, and finally our being united in peace with our King.

December 17 - O come, O come, Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

refrain Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.

December 18 - O come, O Wisdom from on high,
who ordered all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show
and teach us in its ways to go. Refrain

December 19 - O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to your tribes on Sinai's height
in ancient times did give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe. Refrain

December 20 - O come, O Branch of Jesse's stem,
unto your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save,
and give them victory o'er the grave. Refrain

December 21 - O come, O Key of David, come
and open wide our heavenly home.
Make safe for us the heavenward road
and bar the way to death's abode. Refrain

December 22 - O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light. Refrain

December 23 - -O come, O King of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind.
Bid all our sad divisions cease
and be yourself our King of Peace. Refrain 

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Poppy Lady

Moina Belle Michael (August 15, 1869 – May 10, 1944) was an professor and humanitarian who conceived the idea of using poppies as a symbol of remembrance for those who served in World War I.  Her home was nearby in Good Hope and she was educated at Braswell Academy in Morgan County, and the Martin Institute in Jefferson, Georgia.

She became a teacher in 1885, initially in Good Hope and then in Monroe, Georgia. She taught at the Lucy Cobb Institute and Normal School, both located in Athens, Georgia. She studied at Columbia University in New York City in 1912-13.

She was a professor at the University of Georgia when the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917. She took a leave of absence from her work and volunteered to assist in the New York-based training headquarters for overseas YWCA workers.

On 9 November 1918, inspired by the Canadian John McCrae battlefront-theme poem "In Flanders Fields", she wrote a poem in response called "We Shall Keep the Faith".[2] In tribute to the opening lines of McCrae's poem – "In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses row on row," – Michael vowed to always wear a red poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those who served in the war.

Her bust, sculpted in 1937 by beloved Steffan Thomas is displayed on the third floor of the Georgia State Capitol Building. 

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet - to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw 
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We'll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

By Moina Michael,1918

PS. Thanks Janet Mason and Wikipedia

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

How Jesus Voted

We all know this story of Jesus saying "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and unto God the things which are God's. The accounts in Matthew 22:15–22 and Mark 12:13–17 say that the questioners were Pharisees and Herodians, while Luke 20:20–26 says only that they were "spies" sent by "teachers of the law and the chief priests".

Political concerns and troubles with government were not the first things on Jesus' mind.  This situation was thrust on him.  But his answer digs into a wisdom that exposes the pettiness and short sightedness of his questioners.  They wanted a "gotcha," so that they could maintain their place of privilege.  Let's trick him and take his proverbial head to the authorities.  Little Jack Horner visits Jerusalem circa 33AD. 

The advantage of their position was that it required no discernment, no real decision, no effort but it allowed them to claim a position of power over others.   It was easy to go along with the status quo. That's how privilege works.  Especially for those near the top.

Oddly these were the same people who yearned for rescue from the very empire with whom they colluded. That was the other part of their challenge to Jesus.  They wanted the benefit of a messianic rescue without having to fight for it.  "Son of David, get rid of the Romans for us!"

Their picture of the messiah's coming was more guarantee than call to arms, more off the hook than on.  So when Jesus doesn't take the bait they double down on their entrapment attempts.  Jesus doesn't let up either.

Jesus' answer to them about marriage and divorce in heaven was just as convicting as his answer about taxes.  This is yours to do, but you have to change your mind and understand the consequences of your actions in a new way. 

God's not waiting for you to perfect your earthly existence to be present with you.  Your categories especially the ones that create privileged and under privileged classes are not the standards God defends.  God will not save you because you are clean or righteous or properly aligned with power.  God is God and with you on God's terms.  God expects your gratitude not taxes.  God wants you to help lift everyone up to the privilege of grace and mercy. 

Jesus didn't look for this trouble.  He didn't shy away from it.  He doesn't want us to shy away from it either. His response was to call them to turn their eyes toward God.  Seek ye first the kingdom.  Not because it's easier, or good insurance or more comfortable.  Seek so that the world will know more of grace and mercy, of justice and prosperity.

The Pharisees wouldn't let up and Jesus had to close this session with the jewel of his teaching about turning our eyes to God and living as if we've actually seen something of heaven on earth. 
 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Jesus: First "saint of brokenness"

Again I'm remembering the voices of students at the Episcopal Center @ UGA singing another hymn in a manner only they could sing.  It was the Lesbia Scott hymn, #293 "I sing a song of the saints."

Like so many of those elements obviously indicating or meant at least to appeal to children in our worship this hymn exudes a charm as well.  Wikipedia has a fine article, here.

The hymn means to be generous in imagining who our saints might be by saying "you can meet them" . . . anywhere!  And we always had fun with the verse that goes:
And one was a soldier, and one was a priest,
and one was slain by a fierce wild beast:
and there’s not any reason, no, not the least,
why I shouldn’t be one too.
We learned instead to sing "and one was a beast, and one was slain by a fierce wild priest:"   It was fun.  It became a distraction.  As charming as the hymn is there is more going on than light hearted imagination.  Clearly the intent is to get us to consider the presence of sainthood.  Instead of it being ascribed to "those who have gone before us in the faith" we are to consider our pew partners, our Mah-Jong partners, our Rotary partners, our brothers and sisters as saints.

Several of St. Paul's letters begin with calling the members of the congregations receiving his instruction "saints."  So the concept of a present sainthood is not new to Christian thinking.

Then how do we move from the proper observance in thanksgiving and mourning of our "saints" to a proper observance to us as saints? For sure we delay and count on God to bring us to perfection in resurrection.  But in so doing could we be avoiding the harder task of seeing sainthood as made really present in brokenness?

The potential ubiquity of sainthood must meet that condition, not avoid it.  Thanks be to God that is exactly how sainthood works.  If perfection were the first qualifier then no saint would be known as:
patient and brave and true,
who toiled and fought and lived and died
for the Lord they loved and knew.
Yes there are "those who have gone before us."  Jesus was the first.  But his brokenness paves the way for all to follow as much as his always being perfect.  We are being perfected, then fully in resurrection but for now some of us will need patience, others will toil, all will die. I'm pretty sure none will be slain by this fierce wild priest.   

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Jesus: The clear sun of righteousness

Our modern culture is spoiled by light. So spoiled that we are surprised by the stars in the sky when we are away from the glare of the city at night.  It takes an effort to get to where we can see the Milky Way.  The trouble that our constant use of electricity and that the convenience of 24 hours of illumination causes is caught up in the term "light pollution."

Pollution in all the other ways we describe it's impact is more dark than light.  Oil spills in the Gulf, coal ash ponds pushed into flooded waterways, smog, sewage pipes broken and over-flowing are all images of a kind of darkness.

So there must be more to make the term light pollution make sense.  It must have something to do with clarity, something to do with the binary contrast between the two.  Light pollution keeps us from seeing the stars by diluting the darkness between them.

When we look out at night and the precision and clarity we should expect is undone by our invention, bit by bit we settle for what is available, smile at and wish on the stars we can see and eventually forget how much we are missing . . . until.

My camping this past summer found such gifts on more than one night: Ponca State Park in Nebraska, Trail Creek Campground in Idaho and Arches National Park in Utah.  But as I returned through Austin and Houston, Texas I also was reminded that our southeastern humidity does some hazing over, too.  Even without human intervention the sky is not usually as clear for us.

Still we know the difference between clear and stained, between clean and muddy, between light and dark.  We crave the clarity as much as the light itself but we also crave light to see the difference, to know the precision, to show us the contrast.

That's what the Gospel of John tells us early on about the Word made flesh.  "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." (John 1:5 NRSV)  With Jesus what was distant and alluring was now proximate and definitive.

When the students at the Episcopal Center @ UGA sang hymn #490, "I want to walk as a child of the light," it was missing the smooth lyrical flow and was instead syncopatingly punctuated and profoundly so at that one beat after the chorus phrase "the Lamb is the light of the city of God!" Slap!

When our pianist graduated we lost the rhythm that made the moment work but at least during her years there was this sharp, clear demarcation in our lives.  We want to walk in the light! Pow!  We want to follow Jesus! Smack!  I've never felt a hymn so profoundly and now have missed it so much.

The more sublime way we sing this hymn and we will Sunday, assumes we will walk in the light, rest in the light, bath in it.  But there is more to that light that meets us in the contrast and shock as it compares to a world darkened and foggy.  Those UGA singers craved clarity.  Sometimes we should, too.

I want to walk as a child of the light
I want to follow Jesus
God sent the stars to give light to the world
The star of my life is Jesus
In Him there is no darkness at all
The night and the day are both alike
The Lamb is the light of the city of God *
Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus
I want to see the brightness of God
I want to look at Jesus
Clear sun of righteousness, shine on my path
And show me the way to the Father
In Him there is no darkness at all
The night and the day are both alike
The Lamb is the light of the city of God *
Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus