Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

The First Sunday of Advent, which is the very first Sunday of the liturgical year, picks up where we left off last weekend. New beginnings often come from old endings. I told my spiritual director once that I was in a time of transition and he said, “Rich, all of life is transition, just one transition after another…” 

It’s true, but we do well to be reminded. Some of us tend to carry around in our heads an image of what life is supposed to be like and along with all those sugarplums dancing around our heads, I think that is especially true in these weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We carry around no small number of “shoulds” that we lay on ourselves and sometimes on others. Sometimes in the midst of a transition, big or small, we think the goal is to get “back” to normal. But we need to be open, in the midst of seasons of transition, to the “new normals” that come on the other side of every transition we face.  

When you get married (or divorced) life is changed. When a child, or a grandchild is born; life is changed. And when that same child goes off to kindergarten or college or gets married herself, life is changed. When the nest is emptied, or a loved one dies, again life is changed. When a bishop retires or an associate rector moves into a new position, life changes. Transitions. Beginnings and endings; endings and beginnings. As we have come to the end of the church year, we now begin again. With signs of endings all around us, we are a people of new beginnings. And so we begin this Advent season looking back to the first coming of baby Jesus, even as we await the second coming of the King of kings.  

As we begin again today, I want to have a second listen to those words we heard from the opening chapter of Paul’s First Letter to the Church in Corinth. 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Corinthians 1:3-9)

This is good advice, I think, on how to live in the midst of transition. In fact, I want to make it even simpler on this weekend, when the tryptophan may still be working its way through our bodies. I’m going to take a red pen to Holy Scripture and give Paul what he always needed: a good editor! Some punctuation! Verses 4-7 is one long run-on sentence; but I am going to insert a period after verse four—just for today: I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus. 

In just a few days we’ll be turning the page of the calendar to December. And you all know what that means. Fighting for a parking place at the mall and even at the Big Y. Perhaps some snow and ice thrown in for good measure. Maybe too much egg nog. And for too many of us, too many old losses kicked up; too much pain in those memories of loved ones not here. We can talk ourselves into crisis mode pretty quickly by playing old tapes. And we can get ourselves stuck there. 

Or we can decide this Advent to make a new beginning, toward a new normal. We can let go of at least some of that old stuff, and begin anew, with gratitude. We can count our blessings and give thanks—not for what we wish would be but for what is. The thing about counting your blessings is that it grounds you in the present tense. 

Don’t worry about who has been naughty and who has been nice! Make a different kind of list: focus on those things in your life for which you are grateful and the people in your life who make you smile. Make that list and check it twice. Write them down and offer them to God in prayer: I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus.

What is really interesting about that line, if you remember what the Letter to the Corinthians is all about, is that the church in Corinth was a total mess. Paul could have said, “you guys are driving me crazy!” Because they were, and in fact he will say that at various points in this letter. He could have said, and does say, “you all need to get your act together.” They were a pretty gifted lot actually; maybe too talented. They tended to be a little bit too proud and arrogant. So Paul will remind them in chapter thirteen that love is not arrogant or rude.

But he begins with gratitude. As a pastor, I don’t think Paul is just buttering them up; just telling them he’s thankful for them when he’d really like to wring their necks. In fact I don’t think he tells them that for their sakes so much as for his own. I’ve been there. The longer one is in the same place, as a pastor, the more specific our thanksgivings become. We are not generically thankful for a generic congregation: we are thankful for the unique, particular “characters” who make St. Francis what it is, in all of it’s glory.

I still think my all-time favorite December movie is “It’s A Wonderful Life.” I love that scene when George Bailey comes back home and starts seeing everything through new eyes: and now he’s thankful even for his bloody lip, and that old Savings and Loan and his house and the piano playing and of course ZuZu’s petals. Same stuff of his life, but transformed by gratitude.

Gratitude doesn’t make everything perfect; it just means we see it through the eyes of love. Same life, same people, same stuff: but it is gratitude that makes it all wonderful. It doesn’t mean there aren’t ever conflicts. But you can be thankful in the midst of it all, thankful for what is—not for what you wish would be if everyone got their act together. Thankful in the midst of all of life’s transitions. So I think Paul really means it: the Corinthians drive him into vertigo sometimes. But he loves them. And I imagine they loved him back.

If we begin Advent with gratitude and thanksgiving, then I believe it will make us better givers. The gifts we give may actually be more creative, and more thoughtful; not necessarily more expensive. If we begin with thanksgiving and focus on the particular people in our lives for whom we are grateful, those people whom God has given us as companions along the way, then we might find ways of expressing our genuine thanks to them. Can you imagine a better Christmas present than getting a letter from a former student, for example, who tells you why you changed her life in second grade? 
I want us, as we begin Advent, to listen to Paul and to do what he did: give thanks to God for the people who mean something to us: family, friends, teachers, a neighbor who shovels our walks because they worry that we are too old to be doing that anymore; a co-worker who makes the workplace more humane or the baker who hangs a little pumpkin bread on your door every Thanksgiving, or the beekeeper who drops some local honey off at your house, or the brewer who passes along an imperial stout.  

It’s up to you what you do with this, but here, and now, I want to invite you to take just two minutes of silent prayer before we say the Creed today: just to reflect, to consider, to pray. To give God thanks for those people in our lives who make it real, and make it meaningful, those who give us hope.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


We light the first Advent candle to mark the beginning of our Christmas preparations and to remind ourselves that we are a people of Hope. It’s a word sometimes cheapened by everyday usage. We may hope that the Patriots win tomorrow’s game, or that it isn’t raining when we take our vacation to Disney World.

But hope is a bigger word in our vocabulary of faith than that.“Faith, Hope, and Love,” at least according to St. Paul, comprise the big three. While love may well be “the greatest of these,” the implication is that the three are somehow connected. I’ve always thought that the journey begins with faith, which isn’t primarily about saying a creed or about memorizing a catechism, but about trust. More specifically, it is about well-placed (rather than misplaced) trust. And faith leads us to hope, and hope teaches us how to love one another. To say this another way, it is difficult (if not impossible) to love (particularly the unlovely) unless we have faith, and hope...

Between our house and our neighbor’s there are a whole lot of maple trees. From time to time I try to clip back or hack down all of the little maple trees that sprout up. But they seem to come back even stronger in the spring with new shoots. That happens, as I understand it, because the root system already there makes new life come about more quickly, even though at ground level it appears that life has been cut off.

On a practical level this is annoying, but it’s also a Biblical image of hope. An important Advent image to ponder is the “stump of Jesse” that gives way to a “new branch of David.” Jesse was King David’s father. What this metaphor suggests is that even though it appeared as if the Davidic dynasty came to an end–that it was only a stump—nevertheless from that stump new growth will and does appear. For us as Christians that is language we cannot help but to connect to Jesus, the Son of David who is our hope and our salvation. 

Advent is a time to contemplate new beginnings, new possibilities. It’s a season of hope. And so even though Advent begins with talk about endings about the end of the world we know, it, is about the hope that in the midst of it all that God is doing a new thing: God is bringing forth a branch of David out of the old stump of Jesse. God is birthing a new creation: new heavens, and a new earth.

Hope isn’t naivete, or blind cockeyed optimism. It is the conviction that sin and death never get the last word. It is the conviction that love is stronger than hate, that the truth is stronger than lies, that trust is stronger than fear. Hope is the knowledge that God is in the healing business and that health is God’s plan for us: personally, socially, and cosmically. As people of hope, we choose not to let our fears dictate our behaviors; instead acting and living and moving from that place of hope that leads us to a manger in Bethlehem.

During this Advent Season, the people of St. Francis Church will be offering daily reflections that can be found at: for anyone who may be interested.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Look, Consider, Seek

 The Mount of the Beatitudes, Photo by Rich Simpson 
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you--you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.           (Matthew 6:25-33)         

Have you ever tried to tell a worrier (even when that worrier is yourself) not to worry? It really doesn’t work! I think some of us are born to worry and others of us are born to let others do the worrying, and there’s not a whole lot we can do about that. But to all of us, I think Jesus offers three words in these verses from "The Sermon on the Mount:" look, consider, seek.

Look at the birds. To look at the birds is to see—really see—God’s good creation. To watch an eagle soar or a cardinal feeding at your bird feeder or a flock of geese headed south in formation is to remember that we are a part of that creation, that we are connected to it. We are stewards of it but that doesn’t make us the center of it. Birds (and fish and lions and tigers and bears and cats and dogs) can all remind us of that. 

Consider the flowers. This time of year in New England, one might think, “well, we have to wait on that one.” But maybe not. To consider them right now is to know that already they slumber in the earth. They are ready for winter, for the snows to fly. And then spring will come again as it always does, and the warm earth and April showers will bring new life and new possibilities. Even now, then there is much to ponder. And eventually we will again consider their beauty. I’m married to a person who sees the beauty even in dandelions. I have to confess I’m not quite there, yet. But her attitude is that the difference between a weed and a flower is all in the eye of the beholder. In our natural lawn, "flowers” are not limited to the garden: they pop up all over the place, little reminders of  beauty and of the fragility of life. 

Finally, seek the Kingdom of God. First. That’s important. When we seek God first, then the rest really does fall into place. There’s an old camp object lesson about this. You take a big pot and you pour into it all the little things of your life: the details of soccer and dance and the countless events that fill our days. You pour those in as sand. And then you add in some pebbles: the bigger stuff like family and friendship. Guess what? Already the pot is too full. These things won’t fit—not to mention the largest commitment of all—the rock that is meant to represent God in our lives. 

That simple object lesson reminds us all how easy it is to fill our lives up and have no room left for God. But if you reverse the order, and put the first things first, starting with the big things and then the medium sized ones and then pour the sand in, guess what? It all fits. The small things find enough room. First things first—and all the rest follows.

Look. Consider. Seek. I believe that when we live our lives in that way, we begin to model an alternative way to be in the world. We cannot help but to be more thankful and generous people. And maybe even the worriers among us get some perspective. 

What is tomorrow really about?  God is the big thing—the center—the giver of all good gifts. Family and friends are the next biggest thing, simply being together. Few people enjoy food as much as I do—but here is the thing: if the turkey is overcooked or the cranberry sauce is dropped on the floor or the pies burn, it really is okay. More likely, for those who keep things in the right order, the food will be just fine. But if there is love around the table it really doesn’t matter. On the other hand, I guarantee you that there are tables where the food is perfect—but the people gathered around it can barely stand one another. The food cannot fix any of that. As the Scriptures say, "better a small serving of vegetables with love than a fattened calf with hatred." (Proverbs 15:17, NIV)

Look, consider and seek. I do think that when we keep these things first, we actually find that we have a whole lot less to worry about. Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Reign of Christ

Below is a slightly edited version of the sermon I preached this weekend at St. Francis Church. (RMS)
It has been twenty-three weeks since the Feast of Pentecost: almost six months now of what is sometimes called “ordinary time.” This last Sunday after Pentecost—this last Sunday of the liturgical year—has been called “Christ the King Sunday” or "The Reign of Christ.”

We proclaim as central to the mystery of faith that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. If you look at the rhythm of the liturgical calendar, then you have to go back even further than 23 weeks ago, to Friday, April 22—Good Friday. We remembered on that day that Christ really died on a cross outside of Jerusalem. That event, foolish and scandalous to many, takes us to the heart of the wisdom of God and to the core of the Christian faith. 

And then on the third day we lit the holy fire and sang our alleluias again as we celebrated the Paschal mystery: Christ is risen. Not once-upon-a-time in a land far away, where Jesus was raised and showed his hands and side to a few frightened disciples. We sang on Easter morning those great words of Brian Wren's, that Christ is alive—“no longer bound to distant years in Palestine…He comes to claim the here and now…” Christ is present in the Eucharist and present in the world, disguised especially as poor, and thirsty, and naked, and in prison. 

Christ has died. Christ is risen… and Christ will come again.

If you can read a newspaper, or if you watch the news on television, or if you have feeds on your homepage from CNN or The New York Times then you don’t need me to tell you that it feels like we are a long way from this Reign of Christ. And maybe even that it feels like we’re heading in the wrong direction. Tea partiers and Occupy Wall Streeters agree on nothing, it seems, except for one thing: the system is utterly broken. And the poor pay the heaviest price for that…

The number of people in poverty in this country in 2010 was 46.2 million, the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty estimates have been published. Fifteen million of those are children. The poverty level in this country is defined as a family of four with an income of less than $22,500 a year. And there are a whole lot more, the near poor, who are barely making ends meet and in danger of slipping deeper into poverty. 

Every time we seem to make some progress in the Middle East, it seems that there is a setback. We still live in a dangerous world, and even when we choose not to live in fear or set foreign policies rooted in anxiety, we must never confuse Christian hope with wishful thinking. We cannot wish dictators away, cruel men who oppress and hurt and destroy their own people, God’s own people. 

It is a violent world we live in, and the evils perpetrated against our children can give us nightmares. In churches, in schools and on college campuses from Penn State to the Citidel—no place, it seems, is immune from predators who would hurt and seek to destroy the young and vulnerable. We pray at Holy Baptism that every child of God will know the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works. Yet a few broken and sick adults can do so much serious damage to that joy and wonder. 

There is so much violence and degradation in the world we live in. Why then do we come to a church like this one to pray? So we can forget? In order to escape? 

No…we come here to remember. We come here to listen to God’s Word, and to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest it until by God’s grace we are empowered and equipped and encouraged to act as instruments of God’s peace: to do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with God. We come here to be awakened to the reality of what it means to be the Church in the face of so much pain. We come here to be awakened to the dream of God for a better world. 

Twenty-three weeks after the Feast of Pentecost, we gather to consider the Reign of Christ, that day when the mustard seed of God’s reign comes to full fruition and there are new heavens and a new earth and God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. We pause to imagine a day of justice and peace, a time when every tear is wiped away, a time when those who have caused pain and violence are held accountable for their actions. This day, like every day for us who bear the name of Christ, is about Jesus who suffered and died on a cross; the risen Christ who brings healing in his wings and new possibilities; the king of kings who will separate the sheep from the goats. 

In today’s gospel reading, from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, the criteria for judgment is not about who claims Jesus as lord. That proclamation is rightly made by those who bear his name, his disciples--the Church. We should own that and share that good news with all the world. That faith claim defines us as Christians and holds us together. 

But in this particular text, on this particular day, the words from Matthew’s gospel are addressed to the nations, not just to Jesus’ disciples. And the criteria by which the nations are judged as either “sheep” or “goat” is not about a theological claim, but about ethics. And quite specifically: about how the poor and vulnerable are treated in any given society. 

So it isn’t about whether a nation is, or claims to be, a Christian nation. (Many will say, “Lord, Lord.”) In fact, Jesus’ parable seems to presume a good bit of confusion among the sheep and goats about which they are. Some say, “Lord, Lord…we love you Jesus” but they are in truth goats masquerading as sheep—because they have ignored the poor. And some may say, “Praise be to Allah” or “Namaste”—but if they do justice and love mercy and care for the hungry and the sick and those in prison, they discover in the end that they were really sheep: that even if they didn’t do these things in the name of Jesus, they still did them to Jesus himself. That is what the text says, after all. It is what Jesus says. (Or at least what Matthew records Jesus as having said!)

In any event, our work is not to be the King—the Judge; that job is taken. We don’t get to decide who is a sheep or who is a goat: the Son of Man does. But as people who do claim Jesus as Lord, we have an even greater obligation to listen to his words and to act according to his command. We have an obligation to behave like sheep in the meantime. 

For that is where we live…in the meantime. We are called to respect the dignity of every human being. We are called to work for justice. We are called to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and visit those in prison. 

That can feel pretty paralyzing because when we awaken to the pain and suffering of this world—whether it be in Africa, or in Central America, or in Worcester County--the problems seem so big. There are just too many who are hungry and sick and naked and in prison. It can feel like we could work to the point of burnout and it would still not be nearly enough. 

But the truth is, we do not do this work alone. It is among the many, many reasons, why we need each other: why we need community. Not just in this parish church but as part of a community that is connected to a Diocese, and to a national Church, and to a global Communion. And it is why even the Anglican Communion—cannot do this work alone. We need ecumenical and interfaith partnerships with all who are willing to do justice and love mercy, whatever their faith tradition may be (or may not be!) 

This text reminds us that it is the work that matters, and that work (along with our confession of Jesus as Lord) defines who we are, and invites us to get clearer about being sheep who know the Good Shepherd rather than goats who simply mouth the words. 

Today’s gospel reading can leave us feeling paralyzed and guilty. But by God’s grace, it can awaken us to our true vocation as followers of Jesus: 

`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 least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Happy 98th Birthday!

Jan Dorsey, shown above in pink, celebrated her 98th birthday this past week. She is one of the founding members of the parish I serve and most Sundays she is still in church. Today we sang "Happy Birthday" and shared some cake at coffee hour. Add this to the (long) list of  reasons I love parish ministry...

(Thanks to Dave Faford for snapping the photo!)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Cloud of Witnesses

I have not been a very active blogger of late. Work and family obligations these past two months have been somewhat overwhelming. A pre-Halloween winter storm this weekend which resulted in a loss of our power and internet access for twenty-four hours didn't even come as a welcome Sabbath rest for me: instead, I was climbing the walls and thinking about all the work that I was not getting done!

If there is a day to blog, however, it is this one for me. I know that Christmas and Easter are the two great Christian Feast Days, and rightly so. But give me Ash Wednesday and All Saints, and I'd be happy. The former reminds us that we are dust, that we don't have all the time in the world and so we better live in the time we have. It reminds us that we are creatures, not Creator; that we play a role but are not "in charge."

The latter, as I see it, reminds us that nothing in all of that creation can separate us from the love of God--not even death. We are creatures and we will indeed return to the dust. But that is not the last word and we will sing again. More importantly, we are not alone. All of us can sing when we are joining the song of a heavenly chorus. And all of us can believe, when we know that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who sing with us and for us: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. It is a thin space indeed that separates the saints triumphant and the saints militant (surely we need new language here)...and never is that space thinner than when we break the bread and share the cup. Truly "a mystic sweet communion...a fellowship divine."

As pastor, I sometimes tell people when they lose a loved one that while the person is gone, the relationship is not ended. For me this is no pious cliche; I believe it to my core, based on my own life-experience. My father died at the age of 37, when I was just 18 years old. I have now "outlived him" by 11 years. But only if he remains frozen in time. In truth, over the past thirty years, I have come to better understand, forgive, and love him. And as I watch my oldest son navigate his way through college, and my younger son not very far behind, I am aware of the circle of life that this day affirms. And I believe that my dad is somehow part of it all. My memories on this Feast of All Saints are therefore not so much nostalgic as present-tense; and that makes my heart glad, not sad.

For all the saints, who from their labors rest, who thee, by faith, before the world confessed, thy name, O Jesus, be forever blessed. Allelulia, Alleluia.