Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"Good news of great joy for all y’all" - a Christmas sermon by Dean Mike Kinman

A sermon preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral at Midnight Mass, Christmas 2013

But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

If you ask anyone who grew up on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line, they will tell you as sure as the sun rises in the East … that God .. is a Southerner.

Mostly, it’s how we love and idealize wherever home is for us. That same enshrinement that leads even someone from Kansas to stare out over grain and flatness extending to the horizon and say with a straight face and absolute certainty … “Ah … this is God’s country.”

But though I am not a Southerner, I have to admit Southerners might have a point on this one. Not that God necessarily is a Southerner, but that God at least talks like one.

You see, one of the great gifts the South has continually tried to give American language and culture is something the rest of us desperately need … a second person plural pronoun.


When the rest of us say “you” – there’s no way of knowing whether we mean you singular or you plural. Unless you’re from New Jersey, and then at least you have “youse.” And especially when we are hearing the voice of God – you singular, you plural -- it’s kind of an important distinction. Especially when it is angels bringing good news of great joy about the birth of a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord, it’s kind of important to know … exactly how many people and who is this news for?

But even y’all doesn’t quite do it. Because when you say y’all, maybe there’s a little doubt still left … am I part of y’all, or is it y’all over there. So, as any Southerner will tell you, the only way to leave absolutely no doubt that this means everyone is not just to say y’all

.... but to say “all y’all.”

And I don’t think God wanted to leave any doubt that night. And so, I’m convinced the best translation into English of what the angel said that night is this:

But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing y’all good news of great joy for all y’all: for to all y’all is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

I’m convinced those angels said “all y’all” … because what happened this night long ago is so important that it needs to leave no doubt that this did not just happen for one person, or even some group of people but everyone throughout all time and space.

For as much as we Christians love to ask if you have made Jesus your personal savior, the truth is there is absolutely nothing personal, nothing individual about what we celebrate this night.

The birth of Jesus is not about some individual spiritual experience. It is God breaking through into all of history on a cosmic scale. It is good news of great joy not just for one person or a group of people but for all y’all … for all of us together. Because even though God loves each one of us passionately and without end, God did not create us to be individuals tending to our own individual needs and seeking our own individual glories. God created us for God and for each other.

We have understood this from the earliest stories we told of our own creation. Adam looking at Eve and exploding with joy: “this at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” Made in the image of God who is three in one, we are wired for relationship. We are made for each other. Not just as couples but as a human race.

And in the same way, God’s love affair is not with just one person. The Bible isn’t the letters of Robert Browning to Elizabeth Barrett or Kim’s tweets to Kanye. The story of scripture is God’s epic love affair with all humanity. From the beginning, God always speaks and loves in plural. From the beginning, God always says and loves all y’all.

And so on this night more than 2000 years ago, when that child was born in Bethlehem, it wasn’t your own personal Jesus. This night is so much bigger and deeper than that.

This is the night when God kisses humanity and reminds us who we really are. We are God’s beloved – together, all of us. And we – together, all of us, are holy. And we are so, so precious, yes, each one of us but even more all of us together -- all y’all!

And that news came in the form of a tiny refugee child born in a stable in an occupied land. Because God’s good news of great joy to us is that what makes us holy – not just some of us, but all y’all. What makes us holy is not our power but our fragility. That we are created in the image of God, capable of so much, yet at our best not when we put up walls to protect ourselves from one another or even when we emerge victorious over each other but at our best, most beautiful and most holy when we allow ourselves together to be vulnerable with one another.

I fear sometimes that we have lost this message. That the good news of great joy of which the angels sang that night has been usurped by the Gospel of individual accomplishment and competition. I fear sometimes we actually begin to believe that what divides us is stronger than our identity in God that binds us together. I fear that we have begun to believe that we really are actually just you and you and you and you and not all y’all. And that we think of Jesus as only a personal savior meant to aid in our personal spiritual growth – some first century self-help book and not the living Word of a God who so loved the whole world.

I fear that sometimes … and then every year we have this night. And like the angel sings, I am no longer afraid.

I am no longer afraid, because in this moment in time where we gather in the middle of the night together to sing of the birth of the holy child, any power that cynicism and selfishness might have held over us is rendered mute by the power of awe and wonder that still rests in our heart, the heart we share together.

For even though we are so aware of the divides between us, be they across Delmar or across the dinner table, we come together this night because we know we need to hear, we long to hear the message of those angels. That we do not need to fear. And that there is good news of great joy for all y’all. That to all y’all is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

From the beginning, God always speaks and loves in plural.

Look around you. All y’all. I mean it, look around you. Christ was not born for you and you and you and you. Christ was born for all y’all. Together. And that is our gift. And that is our power. And that is the good news of great joy we can take from this place and out into the streets of this city. That we do not need to be divided. That what makes us holy is not our individual power but our common fragility. That we are at our best and brightest and oh our most beautiful when we allow ourselves together to be vulnerable with one another. To see and treat one another as sisters and brothers, and to put our lives in each other’s hands just as God put God’s life in our hands that night in that stable.

From the beginning, God always speaks and loves in plural, and God speaks and loves in plural to this night. Because God’s love affair with us has not grown cold but burns brighter than ever. And God longs for us to love one another as God loves us in Jesus – with passion, and fragility, and vulnerability.

It will be scary at first, vulnerability always is. But if we live as the Body of Christ that we are. If we learn to let one another hold us as God’s holy children the way Mary cradled that child. If we can let our heart – the one we share together – if we can let our heart be filled with awe and wonder at the depth of God’s love for all of us not just this night but every night, we will realize that there truly is nothing to fear.

That the angels that night, and tonight, and every night are right when they sing:

"Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing y’all good news of great joy for all y’all: for to all y’all is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” AMEN.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

"Christ in the world -- never just an observer" -- A sermon for Advent IV

A sermon preached by the Ven. Robert Franken at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, December 22, 2013.

Please continue standing for a moment longer, if you are able, and close your eyes.

Hear the screaming roar of the junkyard crane as it picks up the twisted remains of old cars, bikes and refrigerators and smashes them into scrap.

Smell the diesel. Smell the garbage, and sewage.

Feel the crunching beneath your feet as you step on the jagged carpet of glass and crushed bits of metal and concrete.

Imagine the filthy, toxic mess all around you. Feel it on your skin.

Imagine eating here.

Please be seated.

Now let me open your eyes and glimpse the people who live here.

This back end of a junkyard, an acre or so of roughly cleared space, is home to about 50 Syrian refugees who could not find anywhere better to live. Even this garbage-strewn dump looks good compared with the war back home that has destroyed their houses and killed their families.

They have slapped together 10 crude tents from scrap wood and plastic.

As the Syrian refugee population swells to about a million in a country of just 4.4 million people, refugees are finding shelter wherever they can. Those with money rent apartments, those without seek out space in empty buildings.

But as Lebanon fills with more refugees every day, there are fewer places for them to go. So the poorest and the newest end up in places like this junkyard, where the landlord charges about $50 a month to live among the garbage.

Look around.

Off in one corner is a hand-dug latrine, just an open pit surrounded by a piece of blue plastic flapping in the wind. Everyone uses it.

The center of activity is a black plastic hose that comes out of the ground, connected to a spigot. It is the only source of water here.

“We don’t know where it comes from, but we drink it, we bathe in it and we cook with it,” one man says. “The kids have diarrhea most of the time.”

Kids play everywhere. Most of them are filthy. Almost everyone wears plastic sandals, though some are barefoot. Virtually everyone has cuts or scabs on their fingers and toes.

And in the last few weeks Snow, and nobody here has warm clothes or boots.

Over by the water hose, a woman stands holding her 3-year-old daughter in her arms. The little girl has ugly burn scars up and down her right arm from a bomb attack on their house in Homs.

The mother is now nine months pregnant, with a huge bump under her long purple robe. She says she has no idea where she will deliver the baby. She shrugs and says maybe she will just end up having the baby on the carpeted dirt floor of her tent.

(Edited from: Washington Post "The back end of a junkyard in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon is home to about 50 Syrian refugees", 15 Dec 2013)

It is easy to dismiss stories such as these since they are a half a world away but it has only been less than 60 years ago that Pruitt-Igoe was built in the shadow of this Cathedral and allowed to become one of the greatest urban housing sins in the history of this country.

Today the north side of St Louis continues to be filled with far too much poverty - with parts of it looking like bombs were dropped in the middle of a war zone.

Over 31 percent of the families with children living within the city of St Louis live below the federal poverty line - that's almost 1 in 3 families. Over 48 percent are on food stamps and the median household income is just over $33.000 per year. I wonder how many of us could live on that amount?

St Louis is still rated as the second most dangerous city in the US, even though, as CNN says: "it's a lot safer than it used to be". Two months ago, just north of here, a 16 year old young man was shot in a park, waiting for the school bus. A month later his friend was shot to death. And less than a month ago, a 17 year old boy was shot in the face walking to school. Learning can be hard enough without having to worry about getting shot.

Over 30,000 Missourians are in prison, one of the highest incarceration rates in the country and we incarcerate persons who are black over 5 times more frequently than persons who are white.

Especially in this season, there are tens of thousands of stories of significant need in the community - and and tens or hundreds of millions across our globe.

So what then do we do with the passage out of Mathew:

Come, you that are blessed ... for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.”

Or what do we do with the story of the Good Samaritan?

It's likely that the Priest and Levite had important business that prevented them for stopping, or knew the dangers of stopping, or were expected home, or had no way to carry the injured man to help. But it does not seem to matter to Jesus - it is the outcast, the Samaritan who is the neighbor.

It is important to look at the story of the rich man and Lazarus, remember:

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

You remember: they both die and the rich man goes to hell and Lazarus goes to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man begs for help from Abraham to no avail.

The Rich mans problem was not being rich but instead it was NOT doing something to give even basic help the need on his doorstep.

Unfortunately, with the digital age our world has shrunk - and now even Syria or Lui, Sudan are on my doorstep and on yours.

Listen again to Today's collect:

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

So what does it mean to "find in us a mansion prepared for himself". I wonder if it has something to do with that "when I was hungry ... thirsty ... a stranger ... naked ... in prison" comment?

Remember the rich young ruler who wanted to know what he had to do to be saved. Jesus says:

"You know the commandments, ....... And (the rich young ruler quickly) said, "All these things I have kept from my youth." (Then) when Jesus heard this, He said to him, "One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.

All those commandment that he kept were about himself - the giving away to the poor was about his neighbor.

It is clear - over and over again that Salvation - this life as Christian is not about us - it is far beyond us. It is about what we do beyond us.

"Love God with all your heart soul and mind AND love your neighbor as yourself self."

That is not an either or statement. And it's not a "Love God and hopefully you will..." statement. It is a both AND statement - the summary of all God asks us to do.

I was asked to preach on the importance of the dismissal as the conclusion of our 4 week Advent series.

In this ancient part of the service, from at least the 4th century - if not before, we give thanks for being fed, we are given a final blessing by the priest or bishop, and then a deacon sends us out to a hurting world.

In the ordination service of a Deacon, the Bishop instructs the one about to be ordained with these words:

As a deacon in the Church, ... you are to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example, to those among whom you live, and work, and worship. You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.

In the dismissal a Deacon executes a part of his or her function by calling the baptized back into hurting world to do what we promised in our baptismal covenant.

Remember that baptismal covenant where we promise:
- to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers
- to persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to The Lord
- to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ
- to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourself
- to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being

The first two of these promises are internal - they are what we promise do for ourselves in our relationship with GOD.

And the next three are external - what we promise to do for others in response to our relationship with God

We repeat this every week in our worship:

Three weeks ago Amy preached on the importance of the liturgy of the word and how "the story we declare aloud is the story of who we are and who we are moving into being – it is a remembering that is unavoidably and unmistakably seeped in the past – and oriented toward the future – and it is one that can only be fully understood through the crumbs of that broken bread."

Two weeks ago Mike preached on the importance of the "Confession. Repentance. Absolution. Peace. These are revolutionary acts we take together. Small acts which have the power to change our lives and change the world." - "Change your life! The beginning is near."

And last week Mike preached about the Eucharist as that "amazing gift ... that keeps on giving." The Eucharist "is taking our whole lives … all our joys and yes, all of our wounds, and laying them on the table. And that sacrifice of our lives is holy. And it is acceptable. It is how we worship God. We worship God by giving our lives to God. By laying our lives on this table."

All three of these part of the service are about us . But just like our baptismal covenant which starts about US and ends in our actions to others - every one of these previous parts of the service is preparing us for this final moment in the service - the moment when we are sent into a hurting world to be the ears - the hands - the feet of Jesus.

This week we celebrate the birth of that Jesus. For the three years before he is crucified he teaches us how to care for each other in those wonderful parables we just talked about; and in his actions day to day, from turning water into wine to feeding the hungry 5000 to helping a despised Roman Occupation Officer by healing his servant.

Jesus' example is one of being an active participant in the world around himself - sometimes being an irritant, sometimes the solution, and sometimes the teacher - but always involved NEVER just an observer.

Last weekend at a Christmas dinner in Dallas with colleagues from the firm I have worked with for the past 10 years providing leadership development, I was brought up short by Chasity. Chasity is one of our younger executive assistance, while we were talking about volunteering, over dinner, she suddenly reveled that she had become a widow in 2009. This was something I had never known, or even taken the time to find out. Chasity spends a part of her free time helping other young widows learn how to cope with this life challenge. Chasity, in that moment, showed me how she is Jesus to these young women. Chasity, serves Jesus himself, by serving these women ..... who are members of his family.

In one of Jesus' final acts before he ascends to heaven is his reconciliation with Peter after his public betrayal. Jesus simply asks Peter: do you love me? Peter answers: "Of course I love you". Jesus responds: Feed my sheep

So the Dismissal is that question asked to each one of us, each Sunday - Do you love me? Then "Feed my Sheep!"

Or in today's vernacular: "Just do it!" (With credit to Nike)


In my role of interpreter to the Church of the needs, concerns, and hopes of this world,
I share these words in the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.


Sunday, December 15, 2013

"Some wounds we can't hide. Some wounds we learn to hide really well." -- a sermon for Advent 3

A sermon preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, December 15, 2013.

Some wounds we can’t hide.

Mary is 12. She likes climbing trees almost as much as she likes teasing her younger brother. She’s great at math and hates to clean her room. Mary is also bald. The treatment for her leukemia made all her hair fall out.

Steve is 58. He can make the keys of a piano sing and tell jokes that would make Chris Rock blush. But people don’t like to be around him because he doesn’t smell too good. But there’s not much he can do about that because since he got kicked out of his apartment, he doesn’t have a place to sleep much less take a shower.

Some wounds we can’t hide.

Some wounds we learn to hide really well.

There’s 9-year old Lauren, who is being sexually abused by her stepfather for the past 3 years but has learned never to tell anyone because he said she’ll get taken away from her mom if anyone finds out.

There’s Kris and Rebecca, whose marriage has turned from passionate partners to disengaged roommates even though everyone thinks they’re the perfect couple.

There’s Dave, who at 45 finds himself in a job he hates with no idea what else to do with his life. He’s perfected the smile he flashes when he says “Things are great!”

Some wounds we learn to hide really well.

Some wounds we can’t hide, and some wounds we learn to hide. But all our wounds have two things in common.

First, we all have them. Every one of us has some wound, some pain, some brokenness in our lives.

And second, one of the worst things about each of these wounds – seen and unseen – is how they can divide us from each other.

The wounds we can see make us conscious of our differences. We don’t know what to say to Mary or her parents so we treat them differently or smile and walk away. Steve makes some of us feel uncomfortable – not just because of his odor, but because we feel guilty and don’t know how to help.

But the wounds we don’t see separate us from each other, too. Silence isolates. Silence is the lonely killer The more we hide those wounds, the more we distance ourselves from others, the more we believe we have to put up a front and the more we end up living a lie and pretending to be someone we’re not.

Some wounds we can’t hide, and some wounds we do. We all have them and they can tear us apart.

And then there’s Jesus.

In this morning’s Gospel, John the Baptist is asking about Jesus, and Jesus says,

"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.”

Jesus says … John wants to know if I am the one you’ve been waiting for. Check this out. Wounds are being healed.

We spend this season of Advent preparing for what we experience every week when we gather together – the transforming, healing presence of Jesus Christ. God in the flesh. God with us. Emmanuel.

God come to take all of our wounds and bind them, all of our brokenness and make it whole.

We’re used to hearing these words of Jesus “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers cleansed, deaf hear, dead raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” We’re used to hearing them and thinking that Jesus is talking about someone else. That what we do as Christians is to go help “those people” in Jesus’ name.

But deep inside, in those places we don’t talk about, we know different. We know “those people” are us. That we are blind, lame, sick, deaf, poor and even dying or afraid we are already dead.

We are all broken and wounded. And most of us spend 167 of the 168 hours in a week either trying to pretend we’re fine or trying to pretend the obvious ways we’re not fine don’t need to matter that much.

And then we come here. And for one hour … OK, a little more than one hour … we have a chance to be different. We have a chance to hold our heads high and take all our wounds – the ones we can’t hide and the ones we have gotten so good at hiding. To take them and give them to Jesus, and have him make us whole.

The Eucharist is an amazing gift. It is the ultimate gift that keeps on giving. During the first week of Advent, we heard about how we begin our service with the liturgy of the Word … catching glimpses of God’s epic love affair with humanity and seeing us as God dreams us, as one people, together united and turned toward God.

Last week, we talked about the confession, the absolution and the peace. How after hearing that story, we realize all the ways we have fallen short. We name all the ways we have misused creation and broken relationship with God, creation and one another. And then in the absolution and the peace we proclaim that there is no us and them, only we. And that we are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord and we dedicate our lives to being that one people, together united and turned toward God.

And the peace ends with a sentence. When I preside at the Eucharist, I stand in front of you and say

“I appeal to you sisters and brothers, by the mercies of God, to present yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

That sentence describes perfectly what happens next. The bread, the wine and whatever we put in those baskets that gets brought up to the altar is a mere placeholder. What we are really laying on the table is ourselves, our souls and bodies. The sacrifice God wants is our lives – we are a living sacrifice. But it is not a sacrifice of appeasement to a vengeful or angry God. It is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to a God who adores us so much God was born as one of us and died rather than stop loving us.

It is taking our whole lives … all our joys and yes, all of our wounds, and laying them on the table. And that sacrifice of our lives is holy. And it is acceptable. It is how we worship God. We worship God by giving our lives to God. By laying our lives on this table.

But we do not lay our lives on this table alone. Because someone else’s life is on this table, too … the life of Jesus the Christ. And our lives get mixed up with one another’s and with Christ’s. And the job of the priest is not a zap. It is not a presto-chango, hey look over there … voila! The job of the priest is to lead the people in laying their lives on the table with Christ, in telling the story of how in the same way Christ laid down his life for us, and then to direct our attention to all those lives lying mixed up together – my life, your life, Christ’s life … and to say “do you see that?” Something new is happening!

You know those wounds that you have? They’re still there. But they aren’t just yours now, they’re ours. Maybe when you walked in it was Mary with cancer and Steve who needed a shower and Lauren who was being abused and Kris and Rebecca whose marriage is dying and Dave who feels like he is slowly dying too … but now we all carry those wounds. Because we’re not just individuals anymore. We’re the Body of Christ. And as Thomas helped Jesus teach us in that upper room after the resurrection, the way you know it’s Jesus is “show me the wounds. “ No wounds. No Jesus.

And so when we come forward to receive the Eucharist, what we receive isn’t just a piece of bread, and it isn’t even just a “piece of Jesus.” It’s a piece of all of us. We offer our lives on the table – wounds and all – and we receive new life in return. And the new life we receive is a piece of each of our lives and a piece of Christ’s.

And why I say at the presentation of the gifts each week “be what you see, receive who you are” is because it’s true. What we are receiving in the Eucharist is the Body of Christ we become. We become the living embodiment of the love of Christ that destroys the “us and them,” leaving only the we.

We become the Body of Christ, wounded but not separate. Together in all our pain and together in all our joy.

We become the body of Christ, the living enfleshment of the healing power of love, the most powerful force this universe has ever and will ever know.

And of course the wounds don’t magically disappear in the Eucharist because this isn’t magic. This is love. And yes, love heals like no other power in the universe, but we all know that love takes time. Jesus said “Lo, I am with you always” because sometimes the healing power of love takes a long, long time.

But love does heal. Love heals absolutely. And when we take that bread and when we drink that wine, we are proclaiming that we are in it together and that Christ is in it with us for as long as it takes for the healing power of love to do its thing.

That’s why as former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says, when we come to the table together, we need to have excellent peripheral vision. We need to not just concentrate on us being fed but see the person on our right and on our left being fed and ask ourselves, how can I be a part of the healing power of Christ’s love in their life. After all. There is no us and them. There is only we.

And that is the best news ever. And if you want to know the attitude we should have when we approach the table, all you ever have to do is watch some of our youngest members of Christ’s Body. A couple weeks ago, I was standing behind the rail and Lorne Trolard practically jumped out of his dad’s arms with a grin so big I thought it was going to explode off the sides of his face, hand outstretched unable to contain himself he wanted the Body of Christ so bad. And I said to Anne and Perry … THAT KID GETS IT! He was reaching for that bread like it was the best thing in the word and like his life depended on it. And you know what? It is and it does!

Some wounds we can’t hide. Some wounds we learn to hide really well. But in here. At this table. We don’t have to hide any wounds.

In here, at this table, there is no such thing as your wound or my wound.

In here. At this table, we are all blind, lame, lepers, deaf, dead and poor – each of us and all of us together.

And we offer ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.

We lay our lives down and just like in the stillness of that Bethlehem night for which we wait, the true Christ enters in.

And the angels sing.

And love heals.

And we are bound together in Christ forever.


Sunday, December 8, 2013

"Change your life! The beginning is near!" - the Very Rev. Mike Kinman

A sermon preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, December 8, 2013.

“Change your life! The beginning is near!”

Great new beginnings, great movements of change start small. A connection between two people. A small gathering. A moment in time where the Spirit of God that can alter the course of history breaks through in small ways to show us what is possible.

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in Robben Island prison because he believed the sin of racism that divided his nation was not inevitable or intractable but that a new beginning was at hand. But that new beginning wouldn’t have happened without 27 years of conversations and small gatherings within those walls – building relationships with guards he could have seen as enemies but instead chose to embrace as friends. 27 years of looking each other in the eye day after day, learning to speak each other’s languages, uncovering and discovering their common humanity, until finally they stopped demonizing each other, until they became not an us and a them, but a we.

As Desmond Tutu preaches, there is “no future without forgiveness.” That’s because our future is in letting God build a world through us that is made not in our image but God’s. And God’s image is Trinity – not just one God but three in one: Parent, Child, Holy Spirit. Each distinct. Each different. All one.

Our greatest charge, our greatest joy is to live as people the same way God lives as Trinity. Distinct. Different. One. It is why as a church we claim a mission of “restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” It’s why as a Cathedral, we are committed to the hard work of “embracing diversity joyfully.” And we cannot do this without forgiveness, without doing the hard but ultimately transforming work Mandela did in that prison cell: Seeking out those with whom we are in conflict, learning each other’s languages, confessing where we have wounded one another and seeking God’s forgiveness and each other’s.

There is no future without forgiveness because before we can receive the power of Christ, we have to break down the walls that separate us from God and one another. It’s why the baptism of John comes before the call of Christ.

This morning, John stands at the Jordan River and bids the people to come and “repent?” Why? Because “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Christ is coming, and we need to prepare to receive him. It is that Advent work of preparation, but really, it is the work we are about all year round, and certainly every time we gather together for the Eucharist.

John cries out to the gathering crowd: “Repent!” Now, we hear John’s voice and maybe our first thought is that he is calling us to fall on our faces and wail. We picture the wild-eyed man on the street corner crying, “Repent, the end is near!”

But the word we read as “repent” is metanoia, which means a transformation or conversion. John isn’t saying “Repent, the end is near!” John is saying “Change your life, the beginning is near!” And it’s not to individuals, John is saying you – plural – change your life -- your common life, together – the beginning is near. Turn – all of you – turn to a new direction, a new way of living. Get ready to receive new life.

People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.

And the people do just this. They don’t fall to their knees and wail or individually mumble a few pious words. The word Matthew uses for confess is ἐξομολογέω (ex-om-ol-og-eh'-o), which means “together, acknowledging openly and joyfully.” This is loud, communal, joyful confession.

In order to be ready to receive Jesus, the people have to turn from being individuals with all the things that separate them to being one body. No them and us. Only we. And because this is an act of liberation. Because when we do this, we become so much greater and richer than we are by ourselves, the people actually confessed their sins out loud and with joy.

The time and setting was different, but it was the same action, the same power as in that prison on Robben Island nearly 2,000 years later. Very different people. People who were separated by belief and language, by race and class, coming together, owning and confessing where their relationship was broken. Eventually letting go of the hatred and mistrust that separated them and forgiving one another so they could embrace a much greater vision for them all.

On that riverbank. In that prison cell. The people through their actions and the grace of God became not an “us and a them,” but a “we.”

On that riverbank. In that prison cell. In this Cathedral.

Each Sunday this Advent, we are looking at how our worship leads us each week to prepare to receive Christ in our life. Last Sunday, Amy talked about how we start with the Bible because

“it is scripture that provokes the essential self-awareness that leads us to see the truth of our lives and to seek God’s renewal, repentance and amendment of life, the turning of our hearts to God alone. We can peek inside those pages to see what our renewed selves and self – as a church – might be!”

In the Liturgy of the Word, we glimpse God’s dream for us, and see where we have fallen short of the Trinitarian life of God. Distinct. Diverse. Yet One. This Cathedral is like the Jordan River, and we are the people streaming to it from all directions and walks of life and hearing a word of new life that is our destiny but that seems so far from reality.

That new life, that receiving of Christ so we can become the Body of Christ, that is the Eucharist. Not just the bread and the wine we receive but who we become and the new life we live out there in the world because of it. But that’s for the next two weeks. Today, we stand together at the river with John and hear and respond to his words: “Change your life! The beginning is near!”

And the way we do that is this next part of the liturgy. The Confession. The Absolution. The Peace. And like those people on Jordan’s bank, the attitude with which we approach this is joy.

It begins … in silence.

After the deacon bids the confession, there is silence. With God’s dream for us from scripture still fresh in our minds, we search our memory for where we have fallen short of that dream.

Confession is not a time to work through guilt – that’s what therapists are for. Confession is a time for discernment. The 7th-century monastic Maximus the Confessor calls sin “the misuse of creation.” How have we misused creation? How can we become more translucent to the divine presence? What is my part in us falling short of God’s dream for us. What actions of my own or actions of others from which I benefit, what thoughts words and deeds, things done and left undone are causing me, causing us to live in disharmony? Where am I not reconciled to my sister or brother, to creation, to God?

Where do I, where do we need God to come and heal, to come and reconcile, to come and help me, help us change our lives because the beginning is near?

Gathering up those things in silence, we then offer them up. Not mumbling piously or wailing plaintively but together proclaiming joyfully. Because the confession is liberation. We’re not telling God anything God doesn’t already know. Together we are unburdening ourselves of everywhere we have fallen short. And the language we use is always plural.

Open your red prayer books to page 360 and lets take a look at what we say:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart (Notice that it is all of us together talking about one heart – OUR WHOLE HEART – Many people. One heart.) We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

And then the transition. We have named it all. It’s out there for God and everyone to see. And here comes the hinge. “We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent.” Do you see all this, God? We know it’s not what you dream for us. Our falling short makes us weep, and we know our tears do not bring you joy. So with humility, knowing our deep need of you, we repent. We commit to change our life because we know the beginning is near.

But we know that we cannot do this alone. And so we continue “for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ” … for the sake of the one who loved us unto death, “have mercy on us and forgive us.” Receive this burden of our own brokenness we offer to you.

And why do we ask God to take this burden? So we can go back living as before? No! So “that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways to the glory of your Name. Amen.” So we can be what we are about to receive in the Eucharist. So we can be the Body of Christ given for the life of the world.

The confession is us proclaiming with great joy and with one voice: “God, change our life! The beginning is near!” And the shortest time in the entire liturgy should be the space between that Amen and the absolution. We should never doubt for a nanosecond that God’s answer is YES! That God has mercy on us, has forgiven us all our sins, strengthened us in all goodness and by the power of the Holy Spirit will keep us in that eternally deep and rich life of Christ.

At this moment, we are one. We have gone from individuals searching our memories to a people joined together by the Spirit. And this is the moment of the peace.

The peace is a sign, a recognition that at this moment, before we approach the table to lay our lives on it and to receive our new life in Christ, that there is no more us and them, there is only we.

And so it is right that here at Christ Church Cathedral, the peace is this nuclear chain reaction of joy that this space can scarcely contain! But hear this: The peace is not just a friendly greeting, but a sacred bond of deep love and reconciliation. When we say, ‘The peace of Christ be with you,” we are gazing deep into each other and saying whatever has come between us that is unloving – whatever we have just offered up in the confession – we renounce that and we claim one another as sisters and brothers in Christ. That’s why in the peace, we should seek first those with whom we have the most conflict, look them deeply in the eye and pledge once more together to love one another as Christ loves us.

In fact, Jesus tells us not just to seek the people we have problems with but to be so aware of the Body that we know and can seek out those who have problems with us. Jesus says later in Matthew: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” That’s the degree to which we are called to be reconciled to one another. That’s what is happening when we exchange the peace of Christ.

Confession. Repentance. Absolution. Peace. These are revolutionary acts we take together. Small acts which have the power to change our lives and change the world,. And we know this because we have seen it happen before.

John stood on the banks of the Jordan proclaiming, “Change your life! The beginning is near,” and heralded the coming of the Christ of God who would change the world.

Nelson Mandela sat in his prison cell and with a vision of unity none could imagine proclaimed to guard and prisoner alike: “Change your life! The beginning is near,” and within a generation, the prisoner was the president, the guard was standing beside him as a friend as he was sworn in, and an entire political system based on racism was being dismantled

We come together each week at Christ Church Cathedral and hear these words, too. “Change your life! The beginning is near.”

Great new beginnings, great movements of change start small. A connection between two people. A small gathering. A moment in time where the Spirit of God that can alter the course of history breaks through in small ways to show us what is possible.

Each moment we gather in this space can be that moment. If we can come together and heed John’s call to confess and to change, to be reconciled and prepare to receive our new life in Christ. If we can come together and truly live the Trinitarian life of the divine – distinct, different, yet one.

If we can come together and be not us and them but we, imagine what our legacy might be.

Imagine what God might accomplish through us!

Change your life! The beginning is near!

Monday, December 2, 2013

"The Gift of the Word" -- A Sermon for Advent 1 by the Rev. Canon Amy Chambers Cortright

A sermon preached by the Rev. Canon Amy Chambers Cortright at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, December 1, 2013.

You’re in church, sitting in your seat, when all of a sudden you hear the lector, who is reading one of the lessons at the front say ”Amen”. And you sit up a little taller in your seat -- and just squeeze out the last bit of “men”, wondering in a flash of a moment how you missed your cue –as a slow, awkward ripple of “Amen” rolls through the congregation.

The word “Amen” has appeared in one of the readings for the day, in some kind of prayer or declaratory statement within the reading (Amen meaning, “so be it” or “yes”). Take, for example a line from the Gospel of Luke: And they were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God. Amen. Or from 1 John: Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.

These “Amens" are not part of any call and response for the congregation. In these contexts we just listen. But as many who have been formed in the liturgical tradition simply hear the word read aloud, we shift into autopilot, joining in this chorus of conclusion. It is a knee-jerk reaction, a cue that has so often signaled us to conclude a prayer, that we chime right in. And believe me. You are not alone. I have done it plenty of times!

In the moment, it’s a bit startling, perhaps a bit embarrassing as we realize that particular “Amen” was not the end of a prayer we were praying together, but something to which, rather, we have been asked to listen. I have found myself wondering, as one in the awkward chorus, was I really listening?

We have wiped the corners of our mouths with its bits of turkey and stuffing, and have rounded into Advent blue -- the days of dark, illuminated slowly toward that sacred birth in Bethlehem.

The Gospel reading that moves us toward Christ among us begins the season by casting a dark shadow into this reflective time. We are told in words of one syllable to be on high alert and to be ready for Christ’s coming at any moment. This seems to contradict the whole Advent message of Wait and Watch with Patience and Longing, the Christ Hope on its way into being once more.

Matthew’s Gospel for today is intended not so much to back us into a corner or to frighten us or put us on guard, but to disrupt our complacency, a state of being that covers us like a big blanket we forget is draped over us on the comfy couch of indifference and self-satisfaction. Through Scripture God asks: are we paying attention?

A question for this community as we enter Advent together is whether or not we are paying attention as we gather together to do the most important work of the church: worshipping God. During these four weeks we will take some time to consider our relationship with liturgy by delving into the different parts of our worship service together from the pulpit and in our Christian Formation classes for adults --- seeing and asking how we might advance towards God as God comes to us.

The first part of the service, and the part we will spend some time on this morning is the Word of God --- primarily the reading of Holy Scripture in church, though this part of the service includes a few other things as well including a gathering, a collect or special prayer identifying the theological themes for the day –--- our creed (a historical statement of faith) – and of course our prayers of the people. There is what feels like an infinite amount to share – yet as my mother used to say, the sermon saves no souls after the first five minutes, so I’ll zero in on the bit I find most compelling.

First. We tend to read little snippets of the Bible in church, forget them, and then do it all over again. We’re sort of famous for it, actually. Church historian Diana Butler Bass notes that Episcopalians are the best educated (in the classical sense) of the more than 20,000 Christian groups in the United States, but rank almost last in terms of biblical literacy. “Trying to comprehend the Bible by reading a few verses aloud in church each Sunday is like trying to listen to eight measures of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony once a week for 52 Sundays,” she writes. It’s impossible to comprehend any big picture – the fullness of beauty --- or coherence. And that is in a best case scenario. “Regular” church attendance now averages about twice a month for most people.

We get so much more out of the entire worship experience and in fact our whole practice of faith when we have dug into Scripture. Both studies and anecdotal evidence reveal that the number one factor by far in church growth and spiritual development is regular engagement with Scripture. The Bible is like the most amazing gift we have ever been given. And yet it continues to sit mostly unwrapped and out of sight. One Episcopal priest goes so far as to say that: “Our denominational allergy to the scriptures is closely related to our continued shrinkage.” Why is that? I’m sure that there are many different answers to that question in this room alone. And there are a few pretty common ones that many people share.

Scripture feels like a set of disconnected stories about a faraway and long-ago people. But through faith we understand that it is our story, the story of us, the story that enables us to see who we have been and who we are and to receive God’s wisdom. Christianity is a great shared memory, shared experience, shared life, shared story. It is scripture that provokes the essential self-awareness that lead us to see the truth of our lives and to seek God’s renewal: repentance and amendment of life, the turning of our hearts to God alone. We can peek inside those pages to see what our renewed selves and self – as a church - might be!

The Bible is not an almanac. It’s not a chapter book or book of fairy tales or self-help or even rules. It is the activity that opens our eyes to who we are in the scheme of the purposes of God. And though we may enter with suitcases, we are not called to tourism: our engagement is to be the beginning of a journey of transformation – for as former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has said, we will have an impoverished view of the Bible if we do not believe that this is true. And so not only is reading the Bible an agreed-upon most effective spiritual practice, but knowing the Bible can save our faith.

And second: we can do well to understand that our reading of scripture and the Holy Eucharist that follows are inseparably linked – a two-way street of the most intense variety. The liturgy of the word and the liturgy of the table are not two separate parts of the service which can be understood independently, but are completely and absolutely dependent on one another.

The story we declare aloud is the story of who we are and who we are moving into being – it is a remembering that is unavoidably and unmistakably seeped in the past – and oriented toward the future – and it is one that can only be fully understood through the crumbs of that broken bread. Only through reception of the gifts of bread and wine can we fully glean our place as a people chosen, sinful, sanctified, healed, and forgiven. God’s word, sacrament in and of itself, is completed only through the breaking of this bread wherein God’s love and acceptance and demands of love from us is heaped upon us with a plenteousness we can barely comprehend.

There is a great debate out there about whether or not Advent is to be observed as a penitential season, especially in – or maybe even in contrast to the secular sales frenzy and impetuous dash to joy -- complete skip to Christmas. You decide. What is God putting on your heart? Where are you meant to be? What do you need to prepare for Emmanuel? What is God asking of you? And are you paying attention?

I love Anne Lamott’s outlook and attitude which seems always to be asking this question ---- but still encouraging confident comeback from us when we fall even drastically short of where God might call us to be. “I called God Phil for a long time,” she said in an interview. “After a Mexican bracelet maker promised to write "Phil 4:4–7" on my bracelet, [short for] Philippians 4:4–7 being my favorite passage of Scripture [Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.]” The bracelet maker only got as far as "Phil" before the authorities showed up on his doorstep and he had to dismantle his booth. Phil is a great name for God.”

There is more to everything than meets the eye. How will you use the gifts of life and praise in all of its presentation - to prepare your heart for God’s truth and life? Amen.