Saturday, December 21, 2013

God with Us; ALL of us

God With Us

Grace and Peace be unto your from God. Good morning to you all. It is like coming home again. I served at St. Andrew’s in Methuen from January 1991 to October of 1995 and am somewhat familiar with the greater Lawrence area. Now I come to St. Paul’s, my namesake saint. When I was confirmed in the Diocese of Toronto in 1958 an English bishop asked me my name. I told him and he said; “A good name. I hope you can live up to it!”
So now after 41 years of priesthood, I’m still working on that. I have served here in the Diocese of Massachusetts at St. Luke’s in Malden and Christ Church, Quincy concurrently from 1972-1975. From there I went to Christ Church, Hyde Park during the integration crisis from 1975-1983. My next call was in the Diocese of Ohio and I served at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid on the east side of Cleveland. Again I dealt with issues of race among a people of faith seeking a pathway to peace and reconciliation. It was then that I came to Methuen and because of its location on the Lawrence line the issues of race, language and class came to the fore. At Saint Mark’s Church in Saint Albans, West Virginia we dealt with poverty. We developed a soup kitchen, a food pantry and I became the lightning rod in the midst of controversy in our efforts to build a homeless shelter in the neighborhood. Race, class, poverty all converged upon us there, and we remained faithful to the Gospel. Then there was the matter of gender and orientation, now with two of my three boys gay; and a certain bishop in New Hampshire and again there was more controversy. After a cross burning and drug deals gone bad, we, the church, were there along with other churches to witness to the power of God in our midst. So after all that I retired and became the part time Priest in Charge of St Peter’s in Salem, for five years and after all that retired a second time. Not long afterward a church in the Diocese of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania asked me to serve there as interim, and after 15 months, I retired a third time. Now here we are, for the next few months walking together on the way to heaven. That heaven is within all along. God is with us all along. “Purify our conscience by thy daily visitation” as the collect of the day puts it; a daily visitation indeed!

That’s exactly it; God with Us, Emmanuel. That is the Gospel Proclamation for this time of year. For it is precisely in the whoop and warp of controversy and conflict that we discover the nature of God. The birthplace of Jesus is in that part of the world where conflict, violence, human bigotry and warfare are constant and never ending. It is an indication of where God wants to be born and born again throughout all of human history.
My wife loves those complete makeover shows on TV. Me, less so. But the point is that God is looking for a complete makeover in the human heart. And that is why Jesus was born to us. Jesus wanted to introduce us to the work of repentance, which does not mean sorrow for sin alone, but the complete makeover of the heart and soul of the human being. In Greek the word is “metanoia”. It is the same root as “metamorphosis”. You can see why the early Christians liked the image of the butterfly for the resurrection. For them as to us it is as if Jesus were inviting us to change from the grub of what is given in life, into the brilliant and beautiful butterfly God wants us to be for the glory and good of the world Jesus came to save. He invited us to learn the words repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation and ultimately love. For it is in those words that we learn to live large into the Kingdom of Heaven now in the time of this mortal life so that we can prepare ourselves to live that way in the life to come.

In the meantime there was this Ahaz we read of in the first lesson today. He was not a particularly good king by any measure God would use. He reintroduced human sacrifice for instance into the religious ritual of the day. If the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac means anything to us in the long chronicle of sacred history, it means no more of that! But, Ahaz looked around at the Assyrian religious practice of his time, he sold out to them with an enormous financial gift, and then in cahoots with the Assyrians laid waste to Damascus and Israel in order to keep Judah safe, and then tore down the altar of God in order to build one of the Assyrian type. 
That’s when the prophet spoke to the king to tell him what must come after. His prophecy of the young woman and her child has its historic context for that moment in time, but for us, the image of that Woman and her Child has come to mean so much more to us in the cosmic and universal context. 
For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God,
The Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
~Isaiah 9:6

The music of Handel’s Messiah sets these words into our hearts with great joy and considerable excitement that they set the tone of this entire season for those of us who love such music.

The prophet spoke to Ahaz at considerable personal risk. Jesus spoke to a dark world at considerable personal risk. You and I speak of God’s call to repentance, forgiveness, reconciling power, and love at considerable personal risk.

Imagine this if you will, becoming a church like the one we are. As a young man, I went to the National Cathedral with a youth group from Toronto. I lived in Canada with my folks from 1956 to 1967 and learned a great deal about both Canada and the United States by being there in those formative years.

Over the great west doors of the National Cathedral are these words; “A house of Prayer for all people.” That made perfect sense to me then. It still makes perfect sense to me now. But it is not as easy as it sounds. We’ve been working out the particulars of that great biblical statement. Jesus uses the expression at the cleansing of the Temple, a story that occurs in all four Gospels and the Prophet Isaiah said it before him when speaking to foreigners and eunuchs. They were wondering; “Where do we fit into God’s great salvation plan?”. It was their vision. It is our vision; to be and become “A House of Prayer for All People”.

Who knew that since the time I saw those words engraved over the great west doors of our National Cathedral that we had so much to contend with in the succeeding years. 

I went to seminary two years after Jonathan Daniels was killed defending a young black girl in Alabama. There was and is the struggle for civil rights. There was the business of gender equality. My mom worked at payroll in what was then The First National Bank of Boston. Men were paid at one rate, women at another and for doing the exact same job. It struck my mom as unfair then in the mid 1950’s. It strikes me unfair still that gender bias continues to exert itself into our current social circumstance. The church ended that bias with regard to ordination. There is more to be done. More recently there has been the issue of human sexuality and orientation. Two of my boys happen to be gay and so again the question arises; can we really be “A house of Prayer for all People”.

When we say that God is with us, when the prophet says, that his name is “Emmanuel”; God with us, there is the ethical challenge to the human heart; can we really effect a complete makeover? Can there be a metamorphosis a repentance that makes over the human heart in such a way that the whole world can be embraced not only by the arms of God but by the embrace of God’s people? 

For me the great proclamation of Christmas is Emmanuel; God with us. God with us all. In other words, or more specifically in Jesus’ words “Love one another.” This is Christmas, this is the new born baby who seeks to be born in every human heart; the complete makeover that delights the heart of God as heavenly angels sing “Peace on earth, goodwill toward all”. 

Peace and the Joy to Christmas to all,

Fr Paul

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