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.

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