Friday, December 26, 2014

Christmas at St John's

A Christmas Poem

Ring out, wild bells - Christmas Poem 
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be. 


My grandmother was a great storyteller. She was from Downeast, Maine and by godfrey, she knew how to spin a yarn. She loved her stories too, old time radio shows that I can still remember listening to often. And before we went to bed at night, my grandmother held court in her room. She had all the dramatic flair of a consummate Shakespearean actress. My brother and I would sit at her feet and listen to her voice as it came alive with characters and tales that brought amazing adventures to life. And before it was all over, she opened the old family bible and recounted yet more adventures of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, or Daniel and the Lion’s Den, or Jesus making the waters stand still in the midst of a storm. Her eyes held us as if in a spell because she knew these stories by heart and little needed the text of scripture to tell us what was next. Then, we said our prayers. We prayed for all the aunts and uncles and yes, the crazy cousins too, each by name and we concluded our prayers with the ever expansive love of Jesus; “And God bless everyone in the whole wide world. Amen”. And then we slept. 

And when it was my turn to be a father, this too became our bedtime ritual. I loved the accents of peoples from around the British Isles; the Irish brogue, the Oxford scholar and the dialect of London’s East End Cockney. Some of our most memorable stories are the ones the children still talk about even now that they are grown men. “The Tales from Fern Hollow and Trundleberry Manor”. They loved these stories much as many of us love the tales of Downton Abbey or Sherlock Holmes.

And when story time was over, I would light a candle, and then we’d pray for those we love near and far away, we’d pray for peace in the world, and we’d repeat a lovely and gracious sentence from the Book of Common Prayer; “Guide us waking, O Lord and guard us sleeping, that awake we may watch with Christ and asleep we may rest in Peace”. And with that I extinguished the candle, and the children slept in the arms of God.

And that brings us to this silent and holy night and to this sacred story. Because, I believe that it is in telling of the story that we find our rest and our peace in Christ, for our restless souls cannot come rest until they find themselves in the heart of Jesus.

When we were planning the Christmas pageant this year, we felt that we should let the children tell the story and we felt that, since we cannot improve upon the story itself, we would simply read the story from Luke’s Gospel. Yes, let the children proclaim the Gospel story of Jesus.

Those ringing words sound out like church bells across a Christmas landscape.

Words from Isaiah like “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given and the government shall be upon his shoulders and he shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

Oh my, that brings back memories. It was our first date, 36 years ago, December 8, 1978 and we sat side by side, hand in hand at Symphony Hall in Boston, and the Handel and Haydn Society sang out those magnificent words, put to such exquisite music. And as our hearts beat with the love of God so too they beat with love for one another, at least I dared hope they might!

And here tonight on this most holy night we sing with the angels a new song as the Psalmist sings. It is at the same time new as now and yet as ancient as the sacred hands of the one who first wrote them down. As a mother and a father might light a candle at bedtime for their children, so too we now sing our sacred Silent Night by candle light. And “we worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness”, just like the Psalmist taught us to do in ancient times.

As a child would ask a prayer of blessing on everyone in the whole wide world, so too Titus in tonight’s Epistle reminds us that “The Grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all.” Then he goes on to say that we are to “renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Much like St. John’s does by housing Toys for Tots, we spread much good cheer, and bring joy to the world. “God bless us, everyone” is the Dickensian turn of phrase. While recognizing the persistent reality of poverty and inequality, the story insists on hope and joy and merriment.

The power of this story has a very wide reach and broad appeal. In sending the Holy Child to us, God is seeking to remind us each and everyone of us that we are all born in innocence, we are all born vulnerable and that there is much of the world we’re born into that is cold, dark, poor, and very dangerous. There are kings and potentates that would breathe murderous threats against The Holy Child as well as all holy children.

We come back to the story year after year hoping and praying that this year we might hear the message of the angels and that the whole world might tune in to the message of Peace, and for God sake lay down those weapons.

I cannot help but think of families in places like Ferguson, Missouri who will be without their children this Christmas, or of those families in New York City who mourn the loss of their fathers cut down in a police cruiser, or fire fighters lost to a dreadful fire on Boston’s Beacon street or a thousand other Holy Innocents taken from us in rage, violence, by accident or in illness, or on the anniversary of those losses. All this tears at the heart of Christmas.

That’s why we must tell this sacred and holy story. We must tell it, it seems to me in the ancient words we know almost by heart;
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.”
There that sounds familiar. What can be more certain than death and taxes?

But the story goes on and then comes this glimmer of hope.
“And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; because he was of the house and lineage of David: To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.”

And then there is a smile as broad as the universe and as bright as the sun;
“And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”

Apparently there were shepherds biding their time keeping watch over their flocks by night, folks of a very ordinary sort, folks by the millions, not unlike you and me biding our time and keeping watch over our appointed responsibilities and that’s when it happened to us, in a thousand different kinds of ways; but it happened to us just the same; 
“The angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.”
God knows I’ve been afraid, terrified at times over one reality or another that we human beings must face.

But then it all changes. Everything changes. And all our hopes and all our fears are met in the Christ Child this night.
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

This is why I insist on telling the story exactly as it has been told again and again throughout the millennia. Empires come and Empires go. There are times of War and Peace, times of gentle kindliness and times of terror, times of deep faith, and deep doubt, but when we tell this story and tell it well, the human heart finally, finally, finally, melts like wax and opens to God.

My heart goes back to the great storytellers tonight; people like my grandmother and the Scripture she loved so much and of course to Jesus most of all; the one whose stories are making us who we are and who we are becoming; storytellers for God.

Merry Christmas friends and tell your stories well. Let them cheer us all on our way and may God bless us all, everyone!

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Fr Paul

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Word from God: Love

And Now a Word from God

Paul concludes his great Hymn to Love with these words; “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
~I Corinthians 13:13
Most of us know those words since they are so frequently used at weddings.

John says it even more succinctly; “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
         ~John 4:8

And the Psalmist breaks into song about the matter in today’s selection from the Psalter. “Your love, O LORD, for ever will I sing; For I am persuaded that your love is established for ever.”
        ~Psalm 89:1,2
We come now to the Fourth Sunday in Advent. In previous sermons this holy season, we have pondered these words in our heart; Great Gospel Words like
And now Love.

Last week we had a visit from our Bishop and you now may see why I use these words in this Advent. Our history with Bishops, Clergy and Laity are filled with a whole kaleidoscope of events and feelings and no one person can have a full view of the whole truth of the matter. Only God can do that. That is why, at least while I’m here with you, I will point you toward the Gospel.

For Saint John’s as well as for all Congregations, Bishops, Clergy and Laity alike, Gospel words are at the very center of our life as we seek to live out our lives in God. These three Great Gospel words were at the center of Jesus’ Ministry in our midst. They are at the very center of our own continuing ministry.

As we wait for the Birth of the Savior this Advent or as we wait for his Second Coming either for each human life or for all human life, I suggest to you that Advent waiting is not a passive waiting like waiting for a bus or a train; or as our new bishop, Alan Gates put it in his Advent Greeting to us; “Advent discipline is unlike our typical experiences of waiting.  We wait in line at the grocery store and in congested traffic.”  "Other times, as in the run-up to holidays or when waiting for a vacation to begin, we fill our waiting with a checklist of frantic preparation.” What a price we pay when our Advent waiting becomes so anxious as to often preoccupy the soul with anxiety, hurry, and frenzy. 

Advent waiting is certainly not like like a meaningless exercise such as we see in the Theatre of the Absurd. In the play “Waiting for Godot”, Samuel Becket suggested, in his brilliant commentary on modern life, that life is merely an absurd disconnected sequence of incongruous events.  Many historians call the time we live in “The Post Christian Era”. Life is to many of our contemporaries “a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more” as the Bard once put it. ~Macbeth; Act 5, Scene 5. 

More than once I have argued the case with pleasant pagans and devout atheists in our midst, many of whom, I’ve grown to know and love. In one of my more memorable encounters I spent a few days with the president of the local chapter of atheists from Oxford University in London. He toyed with me with his rapier wit on my quaint notions of faith. He asked me; if I believed in a loving God, how could I account for the suffering of the very people God supposedly so loving cares about. He asked me how I might explain religion’s violent predisposition in history. He noted that in the observable, measurable and predicable physical world, Science is in fact the only reliable explanation for the universe we must live our everyday lives in.

I spent a sleepless night thinking about that all he had to say. Like Jacob wrestling with God I tossed and turned, but then came the next night when it was my turn to pose the questions and his turn to provide the answers.

I asked him primarily what he thought of the Meaning of Life with a capital “M”. He replied that he thought life was Absurd with a capital “A”. Using a strong word from my own Baptismal covenant I said that I renounce that with a capital “R”. I also asked him what we would place in the human heart as a check and balance to the violent predisposition that our nature seems to lead toward. He said we will need good police and strong armies. I said, well, that explains British Imperialism and American hegemony. And finally I said to him, the Church has given this world her best Universities including Oxford, the greatest hospitals, the most beautiful art, music and architecture that history has ever seen. Where is that creativity to come from if it doesn’t come from the genius of our spirituality. That one got to him a bit, particularly when I suggested that we merely bulldoze our great cathedrals since they are merely harboring human superstition.  

Poor man believes his destiny is to be born, “to strut and fret his hour upon the stage, and then be heard from no more”. Is that the sum and total of or days; the ultimate Absurdity of Life.

No my friends, I Renounce that with a capital “R”!

And so says the Archangel Gabriel to Mary in today’s Gospel. “Don’t be afraid because you have found favor with God”. This is more to the point of human life. There is a reason for you to be here. You are not merely an unwed mother. Joseph considered having her put away quietly to save everyone the embarrassment of yet another child in the world born out of wedlock. Not so this child. Not so any child. And the Archangel spoke to her and said; “And the Child to be born to you will be holy.” The Archangel speak to every human life. “Your life is holy to God”.

Advent waiting is a very active kind of waiting where we make room for a new baby. We nest as all of nature does when a newborn approaches. There are so many twigs to thatch into the kind of cradle that will give warmth and security to our young.

Many of us here are mothers and fathers to children. And when it comes time for us to wait for them to be born we do not sit motionless, inactive and inert as we waited their birth. Nor do we sit idly by as they grow and waxed strong in God. We are active agents with them as they discoverer what it means to be loved by us and as we discover what it meant for them to love us in return.

I remember the months before our firstborn son David’s birth. I was a bit bewildered by the whole thing. Not so Cindy. There was painting and decorating to be done, furniture and diapers to buy, and an whole panoply of equipment to make sure we had, as we made our active Advent preparations for David’s birth. We transformed our home in preparation for what we certainly felt was a holy moment and a holy child in our lives. True enough it sent my head to spinning and our pediatrician, Dr. Mary, her name was, said with great wisdom and a knowing and broad smile; “Ah, your life will never be the same again”.

And it wasn’t. Before long there was more love, and Joshua, more love and Michael and the love continued to multiply in our household as the children grew and we taught them right from wrong, told them stories, prayed with them often and brought them into Church for their Baptism and eventually for their Confirmation. 

They are all grown now. They are all churchmen of a sort. David is really into it. Joshua loves to take photographs of the holy places of our church, and Michael loves to sing the songs of God in church.

We now come to this Advent at St John’s Church in Sandwich, Massachusetts on Old Cape Cod. What a pleasure it is for us to be with you. And your new Rector is coming to you and it may take the better part of a year for that gestation period to occur. But your waiting is an active kind of waiting.

Active, not busy. Please do not fill your lives with busy-ness.

Rather make room in your hearts for God. Advent waiting is a movement of the soul in which we make room in our hearts for God and one another. The words Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Love set us on a steady path toward receiving the Christ Child this Advent and this Christmas. This is the steady and true path; where we forgive ourselves and others, reconcile those spirits at odds with one another, and above all fill our lives with Joy and Wonder in all God’s Works because we are filled with the Love of God. And that Child will faithfully bring to fruition the life of this church to its new priest.

If there is room in our hearts for God there is room then for the Spirit of God to to heal and guide us. And that’s what God wants of this dark old angry world. There is much for us to learn in a world where darkness leads so often to such dreadful acts of violence. 

That’s why God needs this church to be strong. God needs a place to teach the world that Forgiveness, Reconciliation and Love is the Way and the Truth and the Life. That’s who Jesus is; the Way, the Truth and the Life.

And that’s who is Coming to Us this Advent. That's who we are actively waiting for!

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Fr Paul

Sunday, December 07, 2014

A Word from God "Reconciliation"

A Word from God

And now a word from God: “Reconciliation”

This Advent we “Prepare the Way of God” within our hearts, and as we do, we consider three Great Gospel Words that really help make room for God; Forgiveness, Reconciliation and Love. Last week I shared with you some thoughts on Forgiveness. Today I do the same using a different word; Reconciliation. 

We begin with a story.

It was a cold and wintry night when the storm set in. The winds blew beneath the St Albans/Nitro Bridge over the Kanawha River among the hills of West Virginia not far from Charleston, and the Capitol district.  Just a few blocks away from the bridge was St Mark’s Church where I served as Rector. Unbeknownst to us a small gathering of homeless folk improvised a cardboard lean to against the elements and then, to warm themselves, they lit a fire. The ensuing events left three of them dead from asphyxiation and burns. Our church housed a soup kitchen and the deceased were numbered among our clientele. The press came to the church to report the tragedy.

A reporter and I went over to the scene to investigate. There we saw the remains of the burned out lead to and charred shopping carriages with a clutter of clothing and other items collected by the homeless over time. In what was one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen, one of the most mean spirited things I’ve ever witnessed was the appearance of a DPW truck and a few men who gathered up all the worldly belongings of these folks. Everything was tossed into the truck and carted away. The police scattered the homeless while they looked to me and said; “This is all we have in the world.” The reporter and I took names and pictures and got a few badge numbers. 

The next day, to further exaggerate the tragic events now to almost grotesque dimensions, the police handed out tickets for loitering, littering, and vagrancy. I no more referred to these folk as the homeless. To me, they had become my friends. I told them to give me their tickets. I called all three networks and both newspapers and held a news conference on the front steps of the church. I brandished the tickets in front of the camera. By the way, one photographer gave me a wonderful power shot angled upward with the cross at the peak of the belfry slightly offset over my head. I told the cameras; “I am responsible for these tickets. If you want payment you will have to come to me. I will not pay them. If you want to arrest anybody, you will have to arrest me. I  vow that the homeless will have a warm dry place to live beginning today.”

Immediately, money poured in. I had to create a special fund and our poor treasurer’s work multiplied many fold. I began to put the homeless up in local motels, and that presented a whole new set of problems. More than once, I had to box their ears with corrective directions as to acceptable behavior in motels.

The reaction from City Council was swift and unpleasant. I arrived at the office one morning to find my secretary in tears. I asked her the problem and she said; “Oh Fr Paul, the President of the City Council just called and he was in a state of outrage. He referred to you in most uncomplimentary terms and said that the only thing the Irish ever did for this country was to bring whiskey and red headed women here.” No, he really said that!

The press got hold of that statement and called me up for a quote; “I’ll have one of each”, I quipped. Money continued to pour in as more and more support for a shelter continued to swell throughout the Kanawha Valley.

The executive director of Habitat for Humanity called me and we began a search for a suitable shelter. We found several possible locations. At each point along the way we were met, of course with the NIMBY syndrome; “Not is my back yard!” In one particularly memorable meeting, hundreds of folks crammed into an inadequate space at city hall and heaped insult upon injury. I relented and said, “I withdraw my request for a shelter in this location on condition that you help find a more suitable place for the homeless somewhere else in this city”. 

At last we did find a place; in an old abandoned upholstery shop along the main street. The City gave us the necessary variance to rehab the building. Then all we needed was the money to buy the place. Honest to God, that very day, an elderly woman called my house to ask me if I was the priest who was trying to build a homeless shelter. I told her I was and then she asked me if she could send $25,000 for the down payment. The cost of the building was $110,000. All in all we raised over $85,000 in free will offerings and made significant strides in preparing the building for occupancy. 

We organized a 501c3 non profit, and put a board of directors together. I met with federal officials from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. A grantsman offered to write up a proposal to operate what is known in the law as a “Safe Haven” for the chronically homeless. I worked with the main Homeless Shelter in Charleston West Virginia and offered to give the place to them as a satellite operation. After all, what do I know about operating a homeless shelter? I’m just a simple parish priest. We drafted an agreement and then we received a grant from HUD for $250,000 for the first year’s operating funds. 

It wasn’t easy. In fact as we approached the completion of our efforts, Cindy received an anonymous phone call with death threats against her husband’s life. “We’re going to kill your husband!” In her best Boston accent she replied; “Take a numbah, I want to kill him too sometimes.” They did not call back. They must have found my wife’s words somewhat disarming.

I tell you this story as a way of looking at the second of our three Great Gospel Words; Reconciliation.

We begin with tragedy. The homeless, helpless and harassed beleaguered with catastrophe are met by a priest and a reporter who sing with the words of Scripture; “Comfort Ye, Comfort Ye My people, Speak ye tenderly to Jerusalem and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished”. It was thus that I spoke to the homeless. But to the Powers and Principalities, I spoke words of some direct forthrightness. I had no choice but to speak up for the “least of these”. After all, that’s written in my job description. There was confrontation and a great and long way forward to effect reconciliation. 

We all knew that. It was the role of the priest to do his work, the police to do theirs, and the city council to do what it had to do. Then comes the work of reconciliation. As we know from our reading of scripture in the Old Testament, there is both a Sin Offering and a Peace Offering. Knowing that, I would frequently bring doughnuts over to the break room for the police. The first time I did that, I was not exactly welcomed with open arms. But I swallowed my pride and did it again and again and again, and eventually I was welcomed. 

One day a K-9 was killed in the line of duty and the Chaplain of the Police Department refused to bury the dog saying that animals had no souls according to his theology. The police knew where to turn. They knew me. After all Fr Paul would bless anybody and anything. Maybe he would bury the dog. And of course I did. The animals were there at the creation, God saw to it that they were included in the salvation plan on the Ark by Noah two by two, and our Lord was born one dark and chilly night with the barnyard animals looking on. Of course, I will bury the dog. After all, that dog, as the police will tell you, would give his life for his partner and so we commended him to God’s keeping.

There is so much work to do to effect reconciliation among those at odds. As John the Baptizer says in today's Gospel, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his pathways straight” or elsewhere as those wonderful words set to the music of the Messiah; “Every Valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.”

Reconciliation is an ongoing work in history. Just because we have a Civil Rights act does not mean that racism or ethnic tension is going to disappear as if by some magic. God knows that there is much work to do in the wake of Ferguson and urban violence in this country day after day. The Good Friday accords in Northern Ireland, as encouraging as that was, does not mean that strong feelings do not fester and stew beneath the surface. The work of Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela in South Africa is a monument to reconciliation but the work is nowhere near completed.

Advent is a season for wakefulness and repentance; a time for a complete makeover of the soul. We are called to make room for God within our hearts. In the words of Cynthia Bourgeault, one of the Church’s finest contemporary thinkers, we are called in Advent to cultivate “an inner spaciousness and quiet heart that prepares us to receive this new birth.”

The work of reconciliation between ourselves and God requires of us to continue also in the work of reconciliation amongst one another.

John calls us to live a Baptized life in which something of the old self dies away, and then to live into Christ, the one whose focus is not on self will but on the will of God. Today we hear a voice crying in the wilderness of our dark world, one who bears witness to the Light.

In today’s Epistle are these words; “we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” As the Baptized of God we are among those who are making that new heaven and that new earth not just within our hearts but among the hearts of all we meet. 

This is urgent work. The business of reconciliation is a matter of urgent necessity. We live in a very dangerous world. Without the practice of Forgiveness, Reconciliation and Love there is not much hope. But with us becoming more and more the Church, making room for the new born Child in our hearts, we can be Baptized into him and live a new life and make a new heaven and a new earth. 

When we make room in our hearts for God’s Great Words we live as the Psalmist prays; we live in a world where
“Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”
   ~Book of Common Prayer, Psalm 85, verse 10

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Fr Paul