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The First Sunday after Christmas   December 31, 2017

Isaiah 61:10–62:3
Psalm 147:13-21
Galatians 3:23-35; 4:4-7
John 1:1-18

Our readings today are filled with joy. In our opening reading from the prophet known as the Third Isaiah, we are with the people of God as they are returning home from their exile in Babylon. The mood is that of a wedding feast, and the images are of growth and faithfulness. Isaiah says, “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”

Righteousness means right relationship with God. The people are going to have a new and deeper and truer relationship with God and with each other. The radiance of this renewed relationship will cause God’s people to shine as a light to the world.

In our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, an impressive amount of theology is condensed into just a few words. Paul, a Pharisee, tells us that before faith came, God’s people were imprisoned in the law. The law was the disciplinarian—we could say the law was the warden of the prison. We were all stuck in this prison because, as Paul says elsewhere, the things we didn’t want to do, we did; and the things we wanted to do we did not do—and we felt miserable and asked God to free us from this bondage.

Then, faith came, or, more accurately, Christ came. Jesus was born just as Paul was born, just as all of us are born. He came among us as a baby. He was one of us. And because of him, we are all now God’s children in a new and deeper and more loving way than ever before. And the Spirit of Christ is in our hearts. God has come among us and has lived a human life. The wonder of this is absolutely amazing. Only a loving and caring God would do such a thing. And what a gift! We are not alone. Our Shepherd and Brother, Jesus, has come into the world just as we did and is now living among us. He is with us to lead us and guide us.

The law is no longer a prison. It is a helpful guide. And now we have the gift of grace to follow the law.

John the Evangelist tells the story in yet another way. “In the beginning was the Word.” The Word- the logos in Greek—the Plan, the Pattern for life. The Word, Wisdom, Christ, was with God at the very beginning. The Word was the one who called the creation into being. God imagined the creation, Christ and Wisdom called it into being.

We can imagine total darkness and the vastness of the universe but nothing else—a void. And then we can imagine stars and galaxies coming into being, and then this one solar system, this one star surrounded by these planets orbiting, and then this one beautiful gem of a planet, all blue and green and tan.

Then comes John the Baptist telling us that the ultimate light was coming into the world. And then Jesus, our light, came into the world. The people in his own hometown did not accept him, but to those who did see him as he really was, he gave new life and a deep, loving relationship with God.

As Isaiah has said, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Jesus is our Light. Here in Vermont during this very cold week, the light is increasing. The days are growing longer, and our Light is among us. As John says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

John says so much in so few words: “From his fullness,” John writes, “we have all received, grace upon grace.” It is like a waterfall of grace. Each of us has received so much from our Lord. Grace upon grace, overflowing love, forgiveness, and healing.

There is a beautiful hymn, number 84, that sums up the meaning of our readings.

Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine;
love was born at Christmas; star and angels gave the sign.
Worship we the godhead, love incarnate, love divine;
worship we our Jesus, but wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token; love be yours and love be mine, love to God and neighbor, love for plea and gift and sign.

Christina Rossetti

God has come among us as one of us. God has given us the gift of God’s very self, God’s loving presence. May we be ever thankful for this wondrous and amazing gift. Amen.

Advent 4B RCL December 24, 2017

Isaiah 11:1-1
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Romans 16:25-17
Luke 1:26-38

Today, because we are thinking about Mary, the Mother of Jesus, we are also going to think about giving birth to Jesus.

Meister Eckhart wrote, “What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the son of God fourteen hundred years ago and I do not also give birth to the son of God in my time and in my culture?”

Francis of Assisi wrote,
“We are the mother of Christ when we carry him in our heart and body by love and a pure and sincere conscience. And we give birth to him through our holy works which ought to shine on others by our example.”

Mechtild of Magdeburg wrote, “Mary, you birthed to earth your son. You birthed the son of God from heaven by breathing the Spirit of God.”

And, once again, Meister Eckhart: “We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.”

Here we are beholding a paradoxical, mysterious truth that takes us right into the heart of God—beyond the prison of logic, beyond our tendency to go to our frontal cortex and limit God’s truth.

We are all called to give birth to God. We have a wonderful example, a courageous, wise young woman named Mary. The angel Gabriel told her she was going to give birth to the Son of God. He also told her that her cousin Elizabeth was going to have a baby in her old age. And Mary had the wisdom and the presence of mind to go and visit Elizabeth. She went to offer and receive support on this life-changing, world-changing journey they were now making, a journey that would change millions of lives including ours.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And the Word was full of grace and truth, and the Word, the logos who called the creation into being, dwelt among us. Jesus was God walking the face of the earth. He taught, he healed, he loved everyone, and I mean everyone, even lepers, even tax collectors. And, of course, he is calling us to do the same thing. He is calling us to follow him and to be like him. He is calling us to give birth to him in our lives and to grow into the likeness of him.

As we take that deep breath, and our lungs expand, and our hearts fill with the awareness of his presence, our lives open to embrace the vision of his shalom of wholeness and harmony. The creation is made whole. Lions and lambs and calves and wolves and everyone and everything else live in peace. Everyone and everything is one. Everything and everyone is nurtured.

Matthew Fox asks, “What would it mean to live in a nurturing world?”My answer would be, the shalom of God would be here, which brings us back to Advent.

Here we are, between the beginning and the completion of the Kingdom, the realm. the shalom of Christ. God is building that shalom, quietly and inexorably. And God is calling us to help.

As we look around, we can see the gap between the vision and the realization of the plan. Between the current situation and the ultimate hope. There seems to be a long way to go.

That’s where the giving birth comes in. We take a deep breath. We fill our lungs with God’s holy and whole-making oxygen. We fill ourselves with God’s presence. We recall that Jesus tells us, “My kingdom is within you.” We breathe out that peace into the world, We breathe out that harmony, that healing, that wholeness.

As Kenneth Kirk would say, We try, with God’s grace, to “cope from the presence of God” in everything that we do. In every action, we try to give birth to God. In every word, thought, everything we say or do or think, we give birth to God. It’s a work in process. We are not perfect, but we were created good, and the creation was created good. Jesus is right in the midst of us and even within us, and we’re following him. He is walking with us, and we are walking with him.

The shalom of God is full of peace and nurture. (Isaiah 11:6-9) The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

As we take that deep breath, every breath, and give birth to Christ, to God, and to the Spirit, we are giving birth to God’s realm of peace and wholeness. We are giving birth to God’s shalom. We live that wholeness and that harmony.

Matthew Fox asks, “What would it mean to live in a nurturing world?”

What would it be like to have “this fragile earth, our island home” wrapped in peace? What would it be like to have no war, no conflict of any kind, with all of us seeing the God in each other and with all of our energies devoted to things that are creative? Things such as nurturing our planet, raising and sharing food and all the other things that bring life? And none of the things that bring death.

What would it mean to live in a nurturing world? Each of us has a vision of that. Each of us has been given gifts to help God to bring that vision to fruition. As St. Francis says, “Each of us gives birth to him through our holy works.”

Right now, we are taking a deep breath in this most holy place, this thin place where God is so present. Here in Sheldon, where there are more farms per square mile than anywhere else in Vermont, we are close to the earth. We are close to God’s humus, God’s good nurturing earth. This is a good place to practice humility. Humility is not groveling or denying the gifts God has given us, Humility is openness, like the openness of a field that has been prepared for planting. Humility comes from humus, God’s good soil, earthiness. So, we are open, we are humble, we are ready for planting, for the planting of the Word, the planting of the new life, the planting of Christ’s shalom.

Here in Grace Church, where people of faith have prayed for years upon years, where we have met God over and over in new ways each time we visit. Here in Grace Church, here in Vermont, here on planet earth, in the presence of our loving God, we will grow more and more open to the new life God is planting in us. Our humility will grow. We will be more and more open to God’s gifts to us and God’s call to us.

And we will give birth. We will grow closer and closer to God and to each other. And God will continue to build community. And God will continue to build God’s shalom. And we will be transformed. “And the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.”  Amen.

Advent 3 Year B December 17, 2017

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Canticle 3
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me….” These are the stirring words of our first reading this morning. Herbert O’Driscoll writes, “Every time I read or hear these words, I have a strange sense of being in the immediate presence of Jesus.” O’Driscoll reminds us that these are the words Jesus read when he was handed the scroll in his home synagogue in Nazareth early in his ministry. As Christians, we feel that these words describe Jesus and his ministry.

Isaiah had returned from exile In Babylon, and God was speaking these inspiring words to the people as they prepared to begin the daunting task of rebuilding everything. God’s people then and God’s people now are called to “bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.” God assures the people that they will rebuild.

And God tells them and us what God’s values are. “For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing,” And God tells us, “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”

In other words, Advent is a time to think about God’s kingdom of peace, harmony, justice, and compassion. And Advent is a time to renew our commitment to help God to bring in hat kingdom, that shalom.

In our reading from Paul’s First letter to the Thessalonians, we receive good counsel: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”  We have so much to rejoice about, because we are following Jesus into his kingdom.

To pray without ceasing, to pray constantly, is a life’s journey. Not an easy thing to do.  The nineteenth century writer of The Way of a Pilgrim devoted an entire book to this. He had heard this passage and was trying to live this command from Paul.  This is the book that tells us about the Jesus Prayer. As we breathe in, we say or think, “Lord Jesus Christ,” and as we breathe out, we think, or say, “Have mercy upon me, a sinner.” This is a prayer much used in the Eastern Orthodox Church. It can be condensed, On the in breath say or think, “Jesus;” on the out breath, think “Mercy.”

“Give thanks in all circumstances.” This advice is coming from someone who was able to give thanks even when he was in prison, which happened several times in his life. But there is always something to give thanks for. Paul encourages us to “Hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.” And Paul prays that our spirit and soul may be kept blameless until Jesus comes to complete the creation. A powerful reading from a person who had walked the journey of prayer and faithfulness.

In our gospel for today, we hear John’s account of John the Baptist. Last Sunday we heard the account from Mark. But John the Evangelist begins, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”

The days are so short and the nights so long, we yearn for the light, And our Light, Jesus Christ, is coming into the world. We will celebrate his presence on Christmas.

As in Mark’s gospel, John makes it very clear that he is not the Messiah. He says, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” John knows exactly who he is, He is the forerunner, the one who calls us to “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

Although he has a very large following and people are flowing out of Jerusalem to come out into the wilderness and hear him, none of this goes to his head. He is here to prepare the way, and that is his ministry.

The light is coming into the world. We are moving ever closer to Christmas. Yet we know that he has already come into the world and that his kingdom is growing even now. We are all doing as much we we can to help his shalom grow.

Yes, we are aware of the darkness; we are aware of our sin, and we are asking his help in growing more and more like him as we prepare to celebrate his first coming among us, his loving and healing presence among us, and his second coming to complete the work of creation.

Dear Lord, thank you for your light and love and healing. Give us grace to prepare room for you in our hearts and lives. In Your holy Name, Amen.

Advent 2B RCL December 10, 2017

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2,8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Our first reading for today comes from a point in history when the exiles were still in Babylon.They have been trying to go on with their lives, deepen their understanding of the scriptures, continue their prayer life as a community of faith. They have been in captivity for almost fifty years.

And now, they are receiving the news they have been hoping and praying to hear. At last, they will be going home. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” It is difficult for us to grasp how they must have felt to hear those words.

As we listen to these words, we cannot help calling to mind the beautiful music of Handel’s Messiah. The people are going home! It seems almost impossible, but it is true. Yes, we humans are like grass, here today, gone tomorrow, bending with every breeze. But God’s word will stand forever.  “He will feed his flock like a shepherd;  he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”

The power and gentleness of this passage touch our hearts so deeply. This is the love of our God. No, we are not living in exile in Babylon as God’s people did fifteen hundred years ago, but we are living in difficult times, times of division and hatred and violence that seem very far from God’s shalom. In this passage, we are reminded that God is eternal and faithful, and God will lead us into God’s kingdom of peace and harmony.

In our reading from the Second Letter of Peter, the theme of God’s eternal presence is sounded again.  In God’s sight, a thousand years are like one day. God is patient with us, and God is building God’s shalom and calling us to help in that work. Christ will come again to complete the work of creation. The letter calls us to remain faithful to our Lord and to be ready for his coming again.

Our gospel for today focuses on John the Baptist, who appears in the wilderness calling us to “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.” John offered a baptism of repentance. He called people to sincerely ask God’s forgiveness for their sins and turn their lives around. He invites us to turn to God and ask God’s help in our process of transformation, in Greek, metanoia.

John definitely did not follow the current fashion. He had a coat of camel’s hair, lived very simply, and when he said something, you knew he meant it. He was a great prophet and religious leader, but he did not base his ministry in the city of Jerusalem where all the power was centered. His home base was the wilderness, where there is no sky glow. Out there, you can see God’s stars and planets very clearly and gain a divine perspective on things. It is also quiet out there—no distractions, no human power struggles, just you and God.

For all these reasons, John had a completely clear idea of who he was and what he was about. He knew he was the messenger foretold in the prophets who had gone before him. He knew he was called to let people know that they needed to prepare for the Savior.

Thousands of people were attracted to John. He was the equivalent of a rock star in his time. People followed him everywhere. They left the big city to go out into the wilderness and be with him, so powerful was his message. But it never went to his head. He knew exactly who he was. He said, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John is a shining example of singleness of heart, the ability to focus on Jesus with every part of his being—spirit, heart, mind, intuition, everything. This Advent and every day, we can learn so much from John the Baptist.

Here we are, on the Second Sunday in Advent, in the year of our Lord 2017. What are these readings telling us?

Among many other things, our lesson from Isaiah tells us there is always hope. Just when we think it’s over, those little flickering fingers of a new dawn appear and the thing we had hoped and prayed for finally comes to be. And God will shepherd us every step of the way on the journey home, or closer to God, or wherever it is that God is calling us to be.

One thing our epistle tells us is that God is patient with us and with everything else, which is a great blessing because we can all can try God’s patience at times. And God is eternal. God takes the long view. But when the time finally arrives, God is going to build new heavens and a new earth. The creation will be made whole.

And our gospel? It tells us more than we can absorb. But we can say this. Here is this fellow, dressed as the great prophet Elijah was dressed, out in the wilderness attracting hordes of people. But there is no glitz, there are no lights or cameras. There is just this man, John, who absolutely tells the truth straight from God and who is here to lead us to the One we have waited for all our lives, the One who loves us so much that we are willing to follow him on the hard and joyful journey of transformation, the journey to his shalom.  Amen.

Advent 1B RCL December 3, 2017

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

Advent is here. This is the New Year’s season of the Church. We change from Lectionary A to B. For Morning and Evening Prayer, we change from Lectionary 1 to 2. From the green of the Pentecost season and the white for Christ the King this past Sunday, we move to purple, symbolizing penitence and also the royalty of Christ our King.

Advent is that paradoxical time of penitence, preparation, and joy. We look back to the first coming of our Lord as a baby, and at the same time we look forward to his coming again to complete the work of creation and bring in his kingdom of peace, harmony, and wholeness.

His kingdom has begun but it is not yet complete. As we look around our world, we can see clear evidence of that sad fact. Walter Brueggemann writes, “Contrary to the manner in which it is often celebrated in the churches, Advent begins not on a note of joy, but of despair. Humankind has reached the end of its rope. All our schemes for self-improvement, for extricating ourselves from the traps we have set for ourselves, have come to nothing. We have now realized at the deepest level of our being that we cannot save ourselves and that, apart from the intervention of God, we are totally and irretrievably lost.” (Texts for Preaching Year A, p. 1.)

Our opening reading from Isaiah sounds that note of despair. How often do we wish that God would come down from the heavens and help us set things right, clean up the messes we make. Scholars tell us that this passage was probably written when Isaiah and the other exiles returned from Babylon. They had prayed for the coming of this day. Yet, when they arrived home and found the temple completely destroyed and so much work to do, they began to lose hope.

At this low point, Isaiah wishes that God would tear open the heavens and come down to earth. Isaiah praises God for all the ways in which God has guided and helped the people. Then he confesses that he and all God’s people have sinned. They felt God was hiding from them when the Babylonian Empire conquered Jerusalem, and they drifted farther and farther away from God. In fact, some of the people felt that the military conquest by Babylon was a punishment for their lack of faith.

It is important to note that many of the people kept the faith during the Exile. They studied the scriptures; they increased their sense of worship and community. Isaiah is one of those people, and he is addressing God as a member of that community of the faithful.

Following the confession, Isaiah prays to God as the father of the people. He says that we humans are the clay and God is the potter. He asks God to have mercy on the people. Following this process of acknowledging God’s care for the people, then confessing his and their sinfulness, Isaiah is able to realize that God still cares and that God is a God of mercy.

Most of us have had low points like this in life. There just seem to be too many challenges. We feel as though God is far away. But we know that we really need God’s help. As we look around our world and see all the brokenness, the wholeness of God’s shalom seems impossibly far away. This makes us doubly aware that we need to turn to God.

As someone once said, when we fall far away from God, we need to ask, who moved? Not God. God has been right here all the time. Back in the time of Isaiah, the people realized that God was faithful, God had never left them. They began the mammoth task of rebuilding, but they also focused on rebuilding their sense of community and deepening their faith.

In our epistle for today, Paul thanks God for the life of the congregation in Corinth. God has given them many gifts, and they will be exercising those gifts as they wait for Christ to come again.

In our gospel, Jesus is describing the day of judgment as it is pictured by some of the prophets. But his main message is, “Stay awake. Be ready.”

Walter Brueggemann’s comments strike a wonderful Advent note. As we proceed with self-examination, we come to a screeching halt and realize that indeed, as he puts it, “all our schemes for self improvement… have come to nothing.” Without the intervention of God, all is lost.

Isaiah wanted God to “open the heavens and come down.” As Christians we know that God has done exactly that. God has come to be with us. After his baptism in the River Jordan, Jesus began building his Kingdom. We see it in every event in his ministry. He showed us how to do it. Love God and love people.

During Advent, we are called especially to make room for Jesus in our hearts and lives. This is a season for giving generously to organizations such as UTO and ERD, and other groups which help people in so many ways. It is also a time to take stock of our spiritual lives, to make or update wills, to set things in order.

But, most of all, it is a season to make even more room for Jesus. For each of us that may look different. For some of us, it means taking more quiet time. For others of us, it might mean more time with family and friends. For many of us, it is a both-and.

God did respond to Isaiah, and the rebuilding happened. How blessed and fortunate we are that God has come to be with us. We can walk with the risen Christ. How blessed that we can go and visit him in the manger. How blessed that we can be with him here and every day because he is among us. God has come to be with us, and God’s kingdom is growing even now. And God invites us every day and every moment to help to build that kingdom, that shalom. And he calls us to be ready to meet him again when he comes to complete the creation. Amen.