Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas 1C: "In the beginning was the Word"

Preached by the Rev. Canon Renee Fenner at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, December 27, 2009.

They say it was a ‘silent night, a holy night, all was calm, all was bright’ when He was born. The Babe lay sleeping in a manger all nestled in hay with animals round about. They say that there were ‘certain poor shepherds in the fields’ watching their flocks when angels broke the silence of the night announcing the birth a newborn King. The angels lit the night sky as they sang their ‘Glorias’ and then they beckoned the lowly shepherds to “go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere”. They say that three kings or magi came bearing gifts. They came having traveled ‘field and fountain, moor and mountain’ following ‘a star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright.’

The hymns and carols of Christmas so wonderfully familiar to many of us flesh out the story of Christ’s birth. They are beautiful- reflecting the traditional stories given to us in both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Yet those are not the stories of a humble birth that we heard on this first Sunday after Christmas. In John’s poetic gospel there is no story of Mary’s ‘yes’ to the angel Gabriel. There is no telling of the journey to Bethlehem or of visitors coming from far and near to worship the Child. But John’s story is still a Christmas story. And in this story we are taken to another place. “In the beginning.” In the beginning before there was time or space, a time before the heavens were created and the earth was formed. John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” All things came into being through the Word. The logos, Word that John speaks of is the Christ whom we worship this day and everyday.

Throughout John’s entire Gospel he urges us to see Jesus as the Divine One or as theologian Sandra Schneiders says, “the personal manifestation of God in this world.”* “The Word became flesh and lived among us” wrote John. Yes, God chose to live with humanity-in the midst of human weakness, suffering, confusion, and pain. God chose to live with humanity-in the midst of poverty and hunger, injustice and selfishness. God’s most precious gift, the Babe of Bethlehem was no ordinary human being as we know for He, Jesus of Nazareth, was and is the light that shines throughout the darkness, who brought with him grace and truth, hope and love. It is He, Immanuel-‘God with us’, who came and walked among us and who showed us how to live in this world. It is He, the Son of God, who suffered, died and rose again in order that we may have life abundantly. “God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

We hold on to that truth this day, on this day in particular as we gather together for Eucharist once again and as we remember a man dear to many of our hearts. Many of you have heard by now that our brother and friend, Corporal Dennis Englehard of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, was killed on Christmas morning. Dennis died in the line of duty as he was assisting a motorist along the highway. We are indeed saddened, many of us still in shock by his sudden passing, but we reminded this morning that Christ walks with us, with Kelly, and with the rest of Dennis’ family and friends, in the midst of this darkness. And we as people of faith, as a resurrection people, an Easter people, know that death is NOT the end but only the beginning of everlasting life.

The society and the world in which Jesus lived were so much different than ours and yet the world is still pretty much the same. It is still a world in need of transformation and in need of God’s love and God’s most precious Gift is one that keeps on giving even in today’s world. The Word, Christ is with us still even in the midst of hunger and injustice, in the midst of sin and despair, in the midst of suffering and pain, of loss and uncertainty-even death. And it is through the Word made flesh, Jesus that we come to know our God and know God’s will in our lives.

This morning, I invite you not only to come to the Word. I invite you to be the Word to each other, to those you know and those you don’t know. I love what our Provost Mike Kinman says whenever he presides at this Table. When presenting to us the Bread and Wine, the Body and Blood of Christ, he never fails to remind us of the words of St. Augustine to “be what you see-receive who you are.” In others words, we are to be Christ’s hands and feet in this world. We are also to be God’s heart.

Perhaps some of us went over our Christmas budgets or maybe had to cut our giving by half but you know what? There is something we can give all year round. To your family and friends, to guests and strangers alike, be the light of Christ. Bring with you God’s grace and truth. Bring with you a message of hope and God’s unconditional love. In fact, “go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere”-on your job and at school, on the playground, here at church, and wherever God’s people are gathered. There is no greater gift that we can give.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” May the love of God Incarnate in Jesus empower us, as God’s sons and daughters, to make Him know again and again in this world for only then will the true spirit of Christmas last the whole year long.
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness,
And wonders of his love,
And wonders of his love,
And wonders, wonders of his love.

* Sandra Schneiders, Written That You May Believe, page 13

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve: "That's What Christmas is All About, Charlie Brown"

Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Thursday, December 24, 2009.

Maybe more than any other time of year, Christmas is a time that comes to us in sounds and smells. Think for a second what they are for you. Is it the piney smell of the greens … or of a mother or grandmother’s baking. Is it, as it was in my house growing up, the sound of the BBC broadcast of Lessons and Carols at Kings College, Cambridge … or maybe even the barely distinguishable sound of snow landing on snow on a still winter’s night.

Smells and sounds do for us what our oldest stories do – they bring the past living into the present so strongly we feel like we could almost reach out and touch it. And Christmas smells and sounds are some of the most powerful of all.

But for me, there is one sound in particular that it wouldn’t be Christmas without. For most of my life, it hasn’t truly been Christmas until I heard one thing. And I’ll bet for many of you, it was true too. I want to share it with you, so close your eyes for just a minute.

How many of you are like me? For how many of you is Linus’ monologue from a Charlie Brown Christmas one of the most powerful and enduring sounds of Christmas in your life?

I don’t know how many people who have told me that they’re just like me … that it’s not Christmas until they’ve heard Linus say, “Behold” or “and they were sore afraid.” Linus’ voice telling the story is like a warm and cozy blanket to snuggle underneath. But it’s more than that. Linus’ voice is more than just another familiar sound of childhood. Linus’ voice is the perfect voice to tell this story. Because Linus is at once the voice of childlike wonder and absolute certainty. He paints a wondrous picture of angels singing and God reaching down to kiss the earth and then walks over to his friend and says as if it was the most self-evident thing in the world, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

But this Christmas as I heard this story, what resonated in my heart wasn’t so much Linus’ words as it was Charlie Brown’s cry that brought it all on.

Charles Schulz once said that the reason so many people connected with Peanuts was that everyone wishes they were Snoopy but most of the time we feel like Charlie Brown. And there may be no words that resonate more deeply with us than Charlie Brown’s cry tonight: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

There is an exasparation to Charlie Brown’s cry. A weary hopelessness. The story of a Charlie Brown Christmas isn’t just a rant against commercialization – that’s way too simple – it’s a quest for deep meaning. Charlie Brown is who we are so often – someone who gets so wrapped up in trying to do everything right, and often feels like he just keeps coming up short, and wonders if this is all there is? And his cry is not just our cry, it is a cry as old as the ages.

It was the cry that Shakespeare put on the lips of Macbeth when he mourned that life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It is the cry of Bono when he sings, “I have climbed highest mountain, I have run through the fields, only to be with you. Only to be with you. But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

What does it all mean? Can someone help me? Does any of this really mean anything?

Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?

This week, Robin and I were talking about our son, Schroedter, and how Christmas is tough for a fifth grader. You see, by fifth grade, you really have reached that point where there’s a loss of innocence about things like Christmas. But around that time, more than that all too often we lose something even more precious. We begin lose our sense of wonder. Our sense of the world as an amazing, magical place where if reindeer can fly then anything is possible. And like nothing else, the loss of wonder leaves us thirsting in the desert. We crave wonder. And perhaps more than anything in all creation right now, wonder is what we and this world most desperately need.

It’s not that wonder isn’t out there. It’s just that we treat it like some kind of high-carb food we’ve convinced ourselves is hazardous to our health. That it’s OK for kids but not for grownups.

We listen not to the Gospel that tells us to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves but to one that tells us to be wise as serpents instead of innocent as doves. A world that tells us that dreamers are impractical, seeing is believing and conventional wisdom is king.

And we’ve done it to ourselves. We have successfully divided everything into two categories – the rational and the irrational. That which can be logically proven and everything else, with thoughtful, grown-up people being on the rational side and everyone else labeled either superstitious, naive or just plain nuts.

And the biggest casualty in all this is wonder. Our openness to the glorious unexplainable, unprovable and impossible. The questions that are so deep that reason alone cannot provide an answer to satisfy not just our mind but our heart and our spirit. The answers that are so profound precisely because they cannot be expressed and explained but only felt and experienced like chords resonating deep in our souls.

And so while Charlie Brown asks a child’s question, his question is not a childish one. It is the question that draws us here to this table every time we gather, but especially this night where we long to hear and taste and smell again the wonder we once felt not only those Christmas nights and morns of years past where magic and wonder were still in the air, but with all those experiences of our lives that used to fill us with wonder but have somehow become routine.

It's that tentative first kiss that set our hearts on fire that has turned into the quick smooch on the way out the door. Love you. Love you, too. Bye! Bye! The first grasping of our child’s tiny fingers at birth that has turned into the wave as they drive away or the tap of the fingers to keep in touch in an email. The package under the tree on Christmas morning that just might hold our heart’s desire that has turned into the list of people we have to buy for before our Christmas work is done. The cloudless night where we lay on our backs and gazed at the infinite heavens that somewhere along the way has turned into a life where we can’t remember the last time we drew the big dipper in the sky with our finger and wondered if there was anyone out there looking down at us?

We know there is more to life than bottom lines and to-do lists, than rational explanations and sensible plans. And we know it not because we can prove it but because at the most important, meaningful and wonder-filled times in our lives, we have felt it. We have felt our hearts soar and sing. We have been amazed and astounded. Deep inside we know we remember what it’s like to have our eyes as wide as saucers and a smile so huge with surprise it felt like we could inhale the whole world.

But sometimes we feel so far away from that. Sometimes, as we live in our world of unemployment, home foreclosures and family stresses that would drive the Cleavers and the Huxtables into family counseling, wonder seems like a na├»ve and fleeting dream no matter how much we crave it, and so we cry from the depths of our heart with Charlie Brown, “isn’t there anyone … who knows what this is all about?”

… and then, this night, with that cry still echoing in the gathering stillness, the voice of a child gives us the answer. Not in a formula or a rule or an explanation that makes good sense, but in a love story.
“And there were in that same country shepherds, abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And Lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not. For behooold, I bring you tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, ‘tis Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men.”
What’s it all about? It’s about a love story. And what is more wondrous than that? It’s the story of a God who loved us so much that he could not bear to be separated from us. A God for whom no mere embrace was close enough. No this is a God who had to become one of us. A God who reached down and kissed the earth with all the tenativeness and wonder of that first kiss, the divine heart at once both soaring and breaking.

What’s it all about? It’s about a story of a long time ago in a place far, far away … and yet like all wondrous stories it is a story that cannot be bound by time and space. It is a love story … the story of God and us.

What’s it all about? It’s about a story that holds in its hands an invitation for each of us and all of us. An invitation for us to be people of wonder once more, because being filled with wonder is what we were created for.

It’s an invitation for us to kiss and be kissed like it’s the very first time. To touch each other’s fingertips and be touched like with each handshake we are witnessing the miracle of new life reaching out to us. To see each person we meet as a wondrous Christmas present with the gift of a unique life and a unique story inside just waiting to be unwrapped and embraced. To lay on our backs and gaze at the heavens knowing that there are not only saints and angels looking down on us but that even as we cry out “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” we are being loved and held by a God who is still not content to just look down on us from above but remains Emmanuel, God with us, closer than the air around us, in this very room this holy night.

This holy night we are invited to be people of wonder once more. Invited by a God in Jesus Christ who even as we sit here is whispering love in our ear, kissing us tentatively, gently and with soaring and breaking heart hoping that we will kiss God back.

That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Advent 2C: "Speaking the Word of God"

Preached by the Rev. John Good at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, December 6, 2009.

Let me introduce you to the cast of characters listed at the beginning of today’s story from Luke’s gospel. We begin, as we must, with the Emperor, Tiberius Caesar, who ruled from Rome. He had succeeded his step father, the great Caesar Augustus, 15 years earlier in September of 14 A.D. Tiberius appointed Pontius Pilate governor of Judea on the advice of his anti-Semitic counselor, Sejanus, who knew Pilate was cruel enough to keep the Jews in line. The Emperor also installed the Hebrew potentate, Herod Antipas, as the ruler of Galilee. Antipas was the son of Herod the Great, who had built the great Temple in Jerusalem and slaughtered the innocents in Bethlehem. He also made Herod Antipas’ half-brother, Phillip, the ruler of what is now Syria. Phillip was the offspring of Herod the Great and the infamous Cleopatra. We don’t know very much about Lysanius, who ruled the Bekka Valley within Syria, but he owed his positions to the Romans, as well. The Romans also controlled Jewish religious life. In 6 A.D the Roman governor appointed Annas to be High Priest and chairman of the Jewish council that ruled Jerusalem. In 15 A.D. the same Roman governor deposed Annas. Eventually his son-in-law, Caiaphus, succeeded him in 18 A.D.

You may wonder why I took so much time to tell you some of the facts about each of the men mentioned by Luke. I want to put some flesh on the bare bones of Luke’s story to confirm the interpretation of a a commentator who wrote, "Luke…seems to be saying that when ‘the Word of God came [to John the Baptizer],’ it really came. It came all the way down to this world; it came into our world, the world of political, economic, and religious power, the world of the Caesars."1 Not only did the Word of God come to that world, it came to speak to that world, because God cares about our political and economic life.

Some folks think that those who speak for God should not speak to the economic and political power structures of our world. To give you an example: two weeks ago our Provost addressed those structures on "Facebook," the internet networking contraption that can become addictive if you’re not careful. He urged Christians to speak out for justice in reforming the way we pay for health care in this country. One respondent replied that church people should stay out of that debate and stick to reforming what they know— their own institution—the church.

But John the Baptizer did not come to speak the Word of God primarily to the faith community of his time. He came to speak it to the principalities and powers of the everyday world we live in. To be sure, those included the power structure of the religious establishment, but the Word was meant mostly for the powers behind the power structure—the Roman officials, the tax collectors, the soldiers, and the like, as we shall see in next week’s gospel.

John’s purpose in speaking the Word of God was to prepare the world—the real, week day world of political oppression and economic exploitation—for God’s even more intense intervention into the life of that world. He pointed to the idols that were leading the people of his time away from a right relationship with God. He knew the people could not appreciate God’s intervention in Jesus of Nazareth if they did not understand how idols were leading them astray.

The most important idol was the Emperor, who, by law, was worshiped as a god. He was declared god because of the peace—the "Pax Romana"—he had brought to such a large part of the world. This peace was obtained by the victories of the Roman legions that allowed them to impose Rome’s will on the territories surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. It was maintained by those same legions who supported the rulers the Romans put in charge. In Palestine that included all of those mentioned by Luke at the beginning of this story. They all worshiped the power who gave them their power. Power itself became an idol that made them feel equal to God, and, therefore, made God irrelevant to them. John came to speak God’s Word to that reality of that real world.

If John were speaking the Word of God today, I think he would identify the "Pax Americana," maintained by American soldiers and economic power as our major idol. After the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1989, the United States became the only nation that could impose its will on any of the weaker nations of the world. That led a cabal of scholars and politicians to believe that America should impose its will on irascible countries, such as Afghanistan and Iraq. While that cabal has lost its influence, the idol still controls the thinking of our political leaders. President Obama’s recently announced policy on Afghanistan assumes that we must maintain "Pax Americana" with military intervention. Our idolatry assumes that the only way to secure peace is to depend on America’s power to wage war. So we continue to worship that idol with the sacrifices of tens of thousands of soldiers and hundreds of billions of dollars.

We need to remember that the Word of God came to John to prepare the way of the one we call "the Prince of Peace." But his peace was not won and maintained by violence. Rather it was won by nonviolent resistance to injustice and maintained by the establishment of justice in which all human beings, regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation are valued equally and preciously as gifts of God. When economic and political authorities make it their goal to establish peace by first establishing justice through nonviolent means, they are responding to the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. The Word of God will have been spoken to power and converted it.

Who will speak the Word of God to power today, pointing out the idols that prevent us from having a right relationship with God? Who will use peaceful means to prepare the way of the Lord, turning us from idol worship to making God’s desires the focus of our political and economic thinking? Are we the ones God is waiting for? If we are, then we will be but a small voice crying in the wilderness against the chorus of media that will not only overwhelm us, but probably condemn us. But if our voice is truly speaking the Word of God to power, God will give it power to be heard.


1 James F. Kay in The Christian Century, (Nov. 19-26, 1997) quoted in Synthesis for December 7, 2003 (Published by The School of Theology of the University of the South) Italics in original.

Monday, December 7, 2009

World AIDS Day sermon -- Barbi Click

“If God is for us, who is against us?...It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?

The answer to that first question must seem simple to many. The World AIDS Day theme for 2009 is 'Universal Access and Human Rights'. The very idea that there must be a theme to focus an awareness campaign on universal access for life saving drugs and the issue of human rights shows that there are indeed many who are against those who live with HIV/AIDS. God may justify in the end but in the mean time, far too many seem to condemn.

Stigma and discrimination are major factors in HIV/AIDS awareness. Few diseases can cause a person to become a social outcast as quickly as HIV/AIDS. Family, friends, neighbors, church communities, fellow workers – we all know the stories of people diagnosed who have suddenly been alienated from all they knew and love. We all know stories of those who have died alone and forsaken.

And what is the fear? What is the difference between the AIDS pandemic and any other pandemic? Why the particular onus on this one? Would the AIDS pandemic have ever achieved the high level of notoriety it did were it not for the number of gay people affected?

My mom had a friend from high school who had a son that was just a month of so older than me. He and I used to play together when we were little. My mom and she lost touch as we grew up but in the late 80s, they had occasion to meet again. Her friend told my mom that her son had died. She wouldn’t tell my mom how or why but she did say that they burned his belongings, even his mattress. At the time, Mom was shocked that someone would do that. It only occurred to her later as she learned about AIDS that his death might have been AIDS related.

I remember when I was first touched by an AIDS story. As is often the case, the news stories didn’t affect me until it affected someone I knew. The rector at our parish spent his sermon time telling us about his son, Stephen. Actually, I didn’t even know he had a son until that moment. He told us that they had been estranged for some time because Stephen was gay. The problem was not because Stephen was gay, he admitted, but because he, as Stephen’s father, had a problem with Stephen being gay. Having no idea where he was going with the information, we all sat spellbound as he told us how they had only reconnected when he found out that Stephen was dying from AIDS. He then went on to tell us about Stephen’s partner, John and how special he was because John loved Stephen when even his own father could not. There was not a dry eye in the church by the end of the story. I don’t know how many minds our rector changed that day but I do know that he touched every one of us. I do know that out of that story was born an AIDS outreach from that parish to the local AIDS Outreach Center that ran a food pantry and cared for those dealing with end of life issues. The outreach is ongoing today.

Strangely enough, AIDS opened a path from Stephen to his father. Prior to Stephen’s sickness, ignorance clouded his father’s mind. His love for his son could not overcome the disappointment he felt at Stephen being gay. It was in the knowledge of death that the ignorance was lifted and love overcame the fear. Through John’s love and tender care for Stephen, our rector learned true love, that unconditional, steadfast kind.

So many names… So many dead…. So many more dying… What opportunities for learning lie in wait for us as the veil of ignorance and fear is lifted? What unconditional love might be learned as the knowledge of death touches us? What gifts have those who have died left for us? There is still so much to learn…so much to do.

The drugs needed to combat HIV/AIDS are now available for many. As is always the case, the more one can afford, the more one will receive. Those who suffer from poverty and lack of insurance also lack the ability to receive the needed care. Many of the ones dying today are the ones who simply cannot afford to live.

Ignorance that HIV/AIDS is a “gay” disease hinders proper funding to make the anti-retro-viral treatments available to many who live with HIV.

Fear of condoning or even promoting promiscuous sex in our youth and teens prohibits funding for sex education in our schools so that at risk behavior might be lessened.

Major theological battles are in the process within our largest denominations and religions about the right or wrong of being gay.

In the extreme, the government of Uganda is promoting a resolution to not only increase the punishment for being gay but to make it a crime for anyone to help someone who is gay. That means medical workers and pastoral care givers will be at risk of imprisonment when they try to help.

We cannot allow HIV/AIDS to continue being viewed through the eyes of fear and ignorance.
THAT is what this day is all about – raising awareness.. Awareness that the number of people living with HIV has risen from approximately 8 million in 1990 to an estimated 33.4 million people worldwide today and that 2.5 million of those are children;

THAT 25 million people have died of AIDS since 1981,

THAT there were 2 million deaths in 2008 alone;

THAT by the end of 2008, women accounted for 50% of all adults living with HIV worldwide
and In North America alone, there are 1.5 million adults and children living with HIV/AIDS.

In addition to all of that, in developing and transitional countries, 9.5 million people are in immediate need of life-saving AIDS drugs but only 42 % of those are actually receiving the drugs.

This is not a “gay” disease… regardless of how it has devastated so many lives of those who happen to be gay.

It is a disease that threatens all people. It is especially a threat to the “least of these” among us – our children and those who live in poverty. One of the fastest growing groups of people in the US living with AIDS is heterosexual women, in particular, teenage girls.

In its short 28 year history, HIV/AIDS has proven to us that it breeds very well in ignorance. It thrives in systems of fear.

HIV/AIDS has shown us that it will not go away on its own. In fact, if we continue on the course we are on, it will only continue to grow.

It is up to us to break the bonds of ignorance and fear.

Whether we do that by urging our national government and church leaders to speak out against the resolution in Uganda,

…Or work to end discriminatory laws at home,

…Or work for the passage of a national health care bill or

…Or medically and pastorally tend to those who have been cast aside due to the stigma of AIDS; regardless of what we do, we must do something.

To ignore the problem is to be a part of the problem.

We know that “creation waits with eager longing…to be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory for the children of God.” Creation is groaning for us to awaken from our slumber.

This is not about being gay. It is about living in love, not in fear. It is about taking care of one another; not condemning that which we do not understand. It is about standing up against that condemnation.

We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper; we have a great amount of work to do.

Let us get on with it.

( statistics come from