Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Making room for Jesus

Steve Brown, a minister, remembers seeing a car one day while driving home that was the ugliest car he had ever seen. This car wasn't just ugly – it was ugly on top of ugly. The car’s side had a large gash; one of the doors was held together with wire; and several other body parts were almost completely rusted out. The car's muffler was so loose that with every bump, it hit the street, sending sparks flying. He couldn't tell the car’s original color. Rust had eaten away much of the paint, and so lots of the car had been painted over with so many different colors that any one of them (or none of them) could have been the original. Dirt and duct tape seemed to be holding the vehicle together. The most interesting thing about the car was a bumper sticker that read, in capital letters, "THIS IS NOT AN ABANDONED CAR."[1]

The meaning of Christmas, this year and every year, is that in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth God sent a message of hope to an ugly, broken, hurting world: This is not an abandoned world.

When I hear people speak of the magic of Christmas, I am both bemused and saddened because Christmas has no magic. There are no incantations or rituals by which a person, not even a priest or bishop, can summon angels or the Holy Spirit to set life right, heal the hurting and broken, or bring peace to the world.

Instead, Christmas points to a deep mystery. No matter how bad life gets, and some of you like me, know that our individual lives can become pretty awful, and many of us are deeply distraught because of social ills we face daily, including wars on five continents, Ebola, house-lessness, racism, misogyny – no matter how bad or ugly life gets, God never abandons us. In some mysterious way, God’s love causes life to triumph over death, never abandoning us or our world.

Peace Community Church in Rosaria, Argentina, is an intimate faith community. Their worship center, in a repurposed neighborhood house, accommodates only 60 people.

One year, Peace Community obtained permission to close off the street on which the church is located to produce an outdoor Christmas pageant. The congregation arranged the worship center chairs in the street, facing the church building. They placed a loud speaker on the roof, so people could hear recorded music and the children’s dialogue.

Late December is summer in the southern hemisphere, and the evening of the pageant was very pleasant and warm. Neighbors filled the seats and the street.

Youth and children from the church – dressed as shepherds or wise men or the innkeeper and, of course, as Mary and Joseph – were to reenact the events of Jesus’ birth. The babe was a doll dressed in swaddling clothes. A real donkey was to carry “Mary” to the church. The church’s front door served as the inn. Facundo, a 12-year-old boy, played the innkeeper. He was the sexton’s son and lived in the rear of the property. While tall for his age, he had a gentle spirit.

Joseph, following the script, led the donkey carrying Mary, stopped in front of the “inn,” and knocked. Facundo opened the door and stood in the doorway. Seeing the donkey and Mary sitting on it, his eyes grew big.

Joseph asked for a room. Facundo kept staring at Mary on the donkey said nothing. One could hear the audience’s soft, nervous laughter. A prompter behind the church door softly repeated Facundo’s line. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Facundo spoke his line, “There is no room in the inn.”

Joseph insisted. “But we have come from a long journey, and my wife is due to have a baby.”

Facundo looked at the donkey and he looked at Mary. The prompter whispered his line once again from the other side of the door. “There is no room in the inn,” repeated Facundo, this time with hesitancy. He stood in the doorway watching. Joseph insisted again. “We are so tired; do you know anywhere we can stay?”

This was Facundo’s cue to tell them they could stay in the stable. He looked at the donkey and at Mary and Joseph. The prompter softly said Facundo’s line. Again, the audience murmured nervously. Again, the prompter repeated the line.

Facundo stood still, staring at the couple. Then he blurted out, “You can have my room!” pointing to the rear of the church property. Shocked, cast and audience were silent. Joseph just looked at Facundo in bewilderment. It wasn’t supposed to have gone this way. He should have sent Mary and Joseph to the end of the sidewalk in front of the church, where a “stable” was prepared for them.

Finally, Mary broke the ice. “Okay,” she said. “That’s really nice of you.” She dismounted from the donkey. The caretaker led the donkey away, and Joseph and Mary entered the door of the inn to stay in Facundo’s room.

The audience burst into applause. The children took their bows. The pageant couldn’t have been scripted any better. Facundo stole the show and the hearts of the neighborhood. He had captured the meaning of Christmas, because he made room for the Christ Child in his life.[2]

What if the innkeeper had told the holy family that they could have his room?

What if we tell the Christ to fill our hearts?

Confident that God has not abandoned the world, may we, like Facundo, enter into the mystery of God’s loving, life-giving presence by welcoming the Christ Child into our hearts and homes. Amen.

Sermon preached Christmas Eve 2018, Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI

[1] Adapted from Overcoming Setbacks (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1992), p. 62.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Conflict, Advent and Change

A traveler arrived in a small village in the middle of winter to find an old man shivering in the cold outside the synagogue.” What are you doing here?” the traveler inquired.

“I'm waiting for the coming of the Messiah.”

“That must be an important job,” said the; traveler. “The community must pay you a lot of money.”

“No, not at all. They just let me sit here on this bench. Once in a while someone gives me a little food.”

“That must be hard. But even if they don't pay you, they must honor you for doing this; important work.”

“No, not at all they think that I'm crazy.”

“I don't understand. They don't pay you, they don't respect you. You sit in the cold, shivering and hungry. What kind of job is this?”

“Well, it's steady work.” (Source unknown)

In her 2012 Advent message, the Most Rev Katharine Jefferts Schori, who at the time was serving as Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, asked, "What do you desire most?"

Individuals will answer her question in a variety of ways. Among likely answers are: world peace, an environmentally healthy earth, and no more cancer or other horrific diseases. The very essence of “desire” entails something which does not now exist. Desire points to a disparity between what is and what is wanted.

To realize a desire, something or someone (or both) must change.

Change, however, inherently involves conflict. Without conflict, both creativity and change (including growth) are impossible. One of my favorite illustrations about conflict as a prerequisite for change involves watching a baby bird hatch from its shell. Breaking the shell for the chick is an act of misguided help that leaves the newly emerged chick too weak to face life’s demands. Pecking at the shell and then forcing its way through the opening ensure that the newly emerged chick will have enough strength to meet life’s early demands.

Christians who believe that Jesus was born to bring peace to the world tend to conveniently forget that the advent of peace inherently requires that they and others change.

Conflict need not be violent, e.g., the violence of war or terrorism. Conversely, avoiding conflict or attempting to resolve conflict by imposing a resolution never actually resolves conflict and frequently depends upon emotional violence (for example, the threat of coercion) to achieve its aim.

Thankfully, conflict does not always represent a win-lose situation, such as in a game of chess or competitive bidding to win a commercial contract awarded to the low bidder.

Conflict often hides a potential win-win situation. Most importantly, God desires a future for creation characterized by love, peace, and blessing. Such a future is good not only for God but for all of creation. Yet that future is impossible without conflict. People and systems mired in evil and brokenness must change, moving to freedom and health. Hatred must morph into love. And so forth.

Advent is a season of longing for the future that God desires for creation. Like the old man shivering outside the synagogue in the story with which this post begins, we metaphorically describe that longing as awaiting the Messiah. While we may not wait alone, the number of people who wait seems to be diminishing. Advent has become a season observed by few and Christmas has become synonymous with commerce. When you feel alone and wonder if the waiting is worthwhile (the old man shivering by himself in front of the synagogue), ponder these questions:

·       How is God acting in the presence to bring creation to the future that God desires for it?

·       What is the shape of your “waiting,” i.e., how are you collaborating with God to bring that future closer to the present?

·       How can you utilize conflict as a catalyst for change and creativity?

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Prayer Book revision and General Convention

Shortly after the Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention (GC) adjourned this past summer, an Ethical Musings’ reader sent me this opinion on the move by GC to initiate a process to revise the Book of Common Prayer:

The TFLPBR (Task Force for Liturgy and Prayer Book Revision) reminds me of the Task Force to Reimagine the Episcopal Church (TREC), which laid an egg and deservedly faded from sight. TFLPBR will take forever to get organized and the debate over its work will be endless. Even if you and I live long lives, there’s a significantly probability that 1979 will remain the official book when we will have passed on. Meanwhile, public worship in TEC is being balkanized across diocesan boundaries (and perhaps within individual dioceses) by experimentation, supplemental liturgies, etc. One has to ask whether GC and the other decision-making apparatus of TEC are utterly dysfunctional.

So far, the reader’s predictions seem on target.

Furthermore, congregations increasingly rely on having their full liturgy, sometimes with hymns, in a leaflet given to each attendee. Some congregations use the same leaflet for a season (e.g., Advent or Lent) while others print a new leaflet for each service. In a small but growing minority of places, the leaflet is available electronically on worshippers’ smartphones or tablets.

More importantly, the Episcopal Church continues to shrink. Membership and average Sunday attendance (ASA) are both declining. The percentage of Episcopal Congregations with an ASA of 100 or less has increased from 71% to 72%. Prayer Book revision will not reverse those trends.

We are a Church that prays together rather than believes together. The move away from a common liturgy, however, seems impossible to stop in an era of electronic resources and congregations increasingly utilizing a leaflet with the worship liturgy in lieu of direct dependence on the Book of Common Prayer. Ostrich like behavior that attempts to ignore the reality of widespread practices and growing reliance on electronic rather than printed resources is not helpful.

Eliminating printed leaflets and electronically available liturgies, forcing people to return to juggling the Prayer Book, hymnal(s), Scripture insert (or Bible), and a leaflet is at best ill-advised if not impossible. Over half of today’s Episcopalians are not cradle Episcopalians. Expecting worshippers to engage in a juggling act is off-putting for visitors and counterproductive in reversing years of declining attendance and membership. For better or worse, locally printed leaflets electronically available liturgies inherently invite local adaptations, authorized or otherwise.

The problem of proliferating liturgies and locally adapted or developed resources is observable in many Anglican Communion provinces including both Canterbury and York.

Instead of engaging in a futile rearguard action to recapture what once was, the TFLPBR should begin a conversation about to preserve our tradition of common prayer in the twenty-first century. I’ve yet to see any constructive suggestions to move the Episcopal Church or Anglican Communion in that direction. The longer we collectively postpone that conversation, the greater the chance that whatever solutions are identified will be too little, too late, and our valued tradition of common prayer will be lost.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Advent Preparations that Can Transform Your Life

In 1942, a group of football fans who were U.S. military personnel stationed in Newfoundland took a day of liberty and went fishing off the coast. As they fished, they listened to a radio broadcast of the annual Army/Navy game. Suddenly, they heard a cannon shot and turned to see a German submarine only a few hundred yards away. A German officer and several armed sailors boarded the fishing boat. The officer accused them of searching for subs and angrily declared that the Germans were going to sink the boat. Things had reached a pretty tight impasse when unexpectedly, from the radio, came the excited voice of a sports announcer: "The moment has come! The Navy is taking to the air. The Navy receivers are coming out." That was all the Germans heard. Mistaking a sports broadcast for a Navy transmission, they scurried off the fishing boat, quickly returned to their sub, and submerged.

That delightful story is almost certainly apocryphal. A submarine’s best protection is remaining undetected. If the Germans had really thought that the fishing boat was an anti-submarine picket boat, they probably would have sunk it without boarding. My brief internet search uncovered no source, credible or otherwise, for this unattributed story that I first saw in a print publication some years ago.

Today is the first day of Advent, one of the four Sundays in Advent, and the first day of the new church year. For centuries, Advent was a penitential season of preparation. People confessed their sins to prepare for the annual celebration of Jesus’ birth and to make themselves ready for his glorious and imminent return. Confession, accompanied by genuine remorse for one’s offenses and the repentance of turning away from sin is one path to spiritual transformation. In this parish and in many places, penitential preparation makes little sense because few if any of us commit terrible, life-defining sins.

Instead of perpetuating the charade of a penitential Advent or proclaiming “fake news” about when or how the end of the world might occur – hopes now most often linked to wildfires, earthquakes, and flooding, Advent’s emphasis is shifting to preparation in a more general sense. Hence, we use the color blue, the color associated with the House of David, instead of purple.

Today’s gospel identifies three problems – worries about this life, drunkenness, and dissipation – that may inhibit our ability to discern God’s activity in the world and God’s presence in our lives. Addressing each problem constitutes a practical step for both clearing your spiritual vision and transforming your life. The gospel, like the rest of the Bible, is not merely a collection of charming, apocryphal stories but a compilation of insightful life changing wisdom, variously offered in story, direct teachings, or other literary forms.

“Worries about life” connotes stress. For too many of us, the holidays bring excess stress. The best way to manage stress is to avoid it. Develop the power to say “no” and to maintain good boundaries. Illustratively, set firm dollar limits on gift giving. Limit your commitment of time and money to work, church, and non-profits. Jesus instructed his disciples to love their neighbors AS they love themselves. Jesus knew that love for others begins with self-love and self-care. A physically exhausted, emotionally depleted, spiritually empty person cannot give the most precious gift of all – the gift of love incarnated in self – to spouse or partner, children, parents, or anyone else.

If drunkenness – a word connoting self-medication, addiction, or any other form of escapism – is a problem, reach out to a member of the clergy, attend a twelve-step group that meets here or somewhere else, or contact your physician or another health care provider. Nobody has to be alone. You can defeat your demon or demons. Trustworthy, competent help is available. Part of God’s message to us in our annual celebration of Jesus’ nativity is that God loves each and every person, regardless of identity, thoughts, feelings or past actions. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can distance you from God’s loving presence.

If dissipation – an overwhelming preoccupation with material pleasures and possessions – is a problem, seize the opportunity to take a step or two away from it this Advent. For example, prioritize caring for creation over more traditional forms of celebrating Christmas. You probably saw news reports about a dead whale in Indonesia where an autopsy discovered over one thousand pieces of plastic in the whale’s stomach. Images of the pile of plastic in the whale’s stomach are indelibly etched in my mind. Use less plastic by reusing plastic containers, refusing plastic straws and plastic bags in restaurants and stores, and recycling whenever possible. Send ecards instead of paper cards. Replace wrapping papers with reusable gift bags. Turn off lights in empty rooms.

A grass roots Christian organization, Advent Conspiracy, promotes Advent as a time to worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all.[1] Those goals, incidentally, closely align with the marks of growing congregations: attention to call, spirituality, community, and openness to change. This Advent, having put aside worries about this life, drunkenness and dissipation, may our waiting and watching be blessed with seeing and hearing the signs of God at work in our midst. Amen.

Sermon preached First Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2018,
at the Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI

[1] Advent Conspiracy website,, accessed November 29, 2018.