King Herod spent part of the decades before Jesus was born supervising a construction project. Unlike us, he wasn’t putting a slate roof on or getting structural repairs made to an existing property – no, he was building a magnificent fortress retreat south of Jerusalem. Herod’s administration was known for huge building campaigns, actually, but this one beat them all. For starters, he installed a man-made mountain; he then followed it with a 7-story palace, a complete Roman bath, a massive penthouse guest suite, an outdoor theatre, and a swimming pool large enough for small-craft sailing.
Herod named the complex after himself – Herodium – and gave instructions that he was to be buried there. Which he eventually was, after a thirty-day funeral procession with a solid gold bier. Archeologists have been excavating the site, and they found King Herod’s sarcophagus in 2007. It’s pink.
Welcome to the 6th day of Christmas!
In my opinion one of the great blessings of the Episcopal Church is to celebrate all 12 days of this wonderful season. This gives us a chance to settle into the significance of the holiday. The pomp and circumstance is mostly over and with that the anxiety that is often partner to the pageantry. We have experienced beautiful poetry, beautiful music, beautiful flowers and beautiful colors. It has been a feast to delight all our senses. And now, we have these days of more relative peace and quiet to reflect on what meaning Jesus’ birth celebration has for us this year. A part of our reflection includes experiencing the familiar carols and biblical stories that tell of Jesus’ birth. And a part of our reflection includes remembering past Christmases and the joys and challenges they held. We each have our favorite ways to keep the season and so, our Christmas 2018 is blended with those memories of the past.
One of my best memories of Christmas is reading this morning’s gospel. It is probably my all-time favorite passage from the Bible and I am always grateful to be able to read it on this first Sunday of Christmas each year. On Christmas Eve, we heard Luke’s account with the animals and angels and today we hear from John. These verses, the prologue of John’s gospel, are poetry that is meant to be voiced aloud. What this poetry tells us is the essence of the story of Christmas. And in fact, I believe that this short passage contains the message of the entire New Testament. So, bear with me for a few minutes as I talk about it. If you prefer on this sixth day of Christmas to let your mind wander to your favorite memories of this season, go right ahead!
This passage begins by talking about the word of God. Words are a major way of communication. We are surrounded by words, both the written and spoken. There are books, newspapers, magazines, blogs, texts, tweets and all other sorts of electronic communication. Words are important and seem to be everywhere, at least in my world. In fact we all are surrounded by words in this day and time. We spend much of our time each day speaking and listening, reading and writing words. Words entertain us, teach us, and most importantly connect us to others in our world. We seek to make these connections and to develop our relationships with others primarily through communicating in words.
As a young girl my love of words and more specifically, reading them, was fostered most especially by my paternal grandmother, my granny. Granny read to me continually as a young child and for each gift occasion I would receive a book from her in addition to whatever else she might give. I learned from an early age the joy of words.
However, from my granny I also learned another way of communicating, without words. As a young child this was through hugs and special hand squeezes. When I was 12, my granny had a stroke that left her partially paralyzed and unable to speak for the rest of her life—for 18 more years. She had one spoken word and that word was No. Now that one word could mean a variety of things. If she said it loudly it meant no. However if she said it softly it meant yes. Her one word was “no” but her ability to communicate was much more. She spoke with her eyes, her hands, with her smiles and tears. Our connection was strong and remained so. Most often our communication was at a deep level without using any words.
I tell you this as a background to one of my own personal Christmas memories. For our oldest child’s first Christmas I took him to visit his great granny. He was almost one year old at the time.
She loved to see him and would play peek-a-boo while I held him. This time though she wanted to hold him herself and kept indicating to me to leave him to her. And so I did. I handed him over and began to do something else nearby. When I looked back at the two of them they were laughing together. The first letter of her one word “no” had transformed on that occasion to an “h” and she was saying Ho Ho HO as she hugged him tightly to wish him love and a merry first Christmas.
There is a communication of love that comes through with or without words and this communication of love is what this morning’s powerful gospel is about.
In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.
Before the existence of anything but God, God is already love. God is relationship. God’s very nature is giving and receiving, love that flows out and love that returns. God has been trying to communicate this truth with humans ever since we were created. God’s word came to us first through his prophets and his law. Yet we did not understand the message he was sending us. We either ignored or did not comprehend the words he gave to us through his messengers. And so God chose to send his message of love to us in a different way. He gets our attention by sending his Son. He sent his son not to bring the message but as the message himself. The message of God’s love comes to us as a living and breathing human being. A human who could smile and cry, who could touch and comfort, who could be physically present.
God wants to share himself with us. God wants us to experience and live the love that he is. So the birth of Jesus, the incarnation, is the climax of God’s continuous communication of love.
“The word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” Those nine words summarize the gospel.
If you were here on Christmas Eve you heard this gospel read by the celebrant and at this sentence the altar party genuflected. We went down on one knee to acknowledge the depth of meaning in this one sentence. Our Lord took on flesh and blood and came to us bringing in his being the love of God. The word was made flesh and dwelt among us. This is the essence of the good news, the entire gospel. And it is that God came among us, not only to be one of us but also to be one with us.
Through this ultimate expression of God’s word in human flesh, we are drawn into dialogue with God both receiving and responding to his love. God’s very being is relational love. And the love that he pours out into the world is to bring us into that relationship of love. This is the core of the incarnation.
Now admittedly this mystery of God coming to us might be more than a bit frightening or overwhelming or difficult to comprehend. So let’s think for a moment about how God came to us. Was it with a lot of fanfare and flashing lightening or loud thunder?
No, it was not. God entered into the world in the same way as all human beings. God came as a baby, a vulnerable baby who, as all babies do, needed care and tending. Jesus needed to be fed and changed and washed and nurtured as do all babies. God’s most important message of love came to us as a tiny child. Each of us has some understanding of holding and smiling and making sounds and keeping a young one comfortable to allow the love and the child to grow. And this is how God chose to send us his word. Think of my Granny and her wat if communicating with her great grandson. We can do this. We can recognize the life God offers to each one of us. We can approach God’s love in a gentle way and allow it to grow in us. We are invited into relationship with God through the incarnation.
John also tells us in the passage this morning that God does not force a response from us to his gift of ultimate Love. We have to choose. We can turn away from this great gift, from this light. We can choose darkness, darkness that represents evil and hopelessness and ultimately spiritual death. We can choose that or we can accept the gift that God sends us and live in His love as one of his children. It is given to us and it is for each of us to decide to accept or not.
God’s unchanging nature is love. God desires us, you and me and all of his creation to be part of His love. He beckons us; he invites us to enter into conversation with him, to enter into his love. My prayer for each of us in the year ahead is that we continue to accept and nurture God’s gift of loving relationship with him.
“In the beginning was the word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us. And we have seen his glory the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
What for you is the message of Christmas? We certainly hear a lot of messages this time of year. I was on YouTube a few days ago looking at some recent Christmas commercials, and many of them have messages and slogans designed for the season. Some are pretty much what you’d expect: The auto manufacturer Honda targets the Generation X market with an ad suggesting that if as a child, unwrapping a plastic Six Million Dollar Man action figure on Christmas morning made you feel good, you’ll feel way better now if you buy yourself a $30,000 car. In a spot set aboard the International Space Station, Macy’s tells us to Believe in the Wonder of Giving. Apple hits a similar tone with a Pixar-inspired story that urges us: Share Your Gifts.
Amazon shows us an ever-growing army of sentient Prime packages spreading all over the world, singing over and over “Can you feel it? Can you feel it?” The main thing I feel there is a little threatened by the reach of the Amazon Industrial Complex. If you saw the satirical version of the ad that replaced the holiday soundtrack with the ominous theme to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, maybe you do too. Can you feel it?
“It was a real wake-up call.” In my years as a priest, countless people have spoken that sentence to me. Sometimes it was in reference to a personal health scare, or the unexpected death of a loved one. In 2008 it was people watching their retirement accounts tumble during the financial crisis; in 2001 it was the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Whatever it was, it made people see things differently – they started to read the Bible, or began exercising regularly, or started learning how to pray, or called their friends more frequently – and they all referred to it the same way: a real wake-up call.
The prophet Malachi, whose words from the very end of the Old Testament we read this morning, is an example of a person who is living after a real wake-up call. Broadly speaking, the whole spiritual history of the people Israel falls into two parts, before everything fell apart and after everything fell apart. The crisis came in 587 BC, when the country they had thought God gave them forever was conquered and plundered by an army from Babylon. The Temple they had seen as a permanent guarantee of God’s approval was razed to the ground, the routines and values they had taken as God’s eternal instructions were robbed from them, and they were carted away as prisoners, leaving the ruins of their beloved holy city to be re-colonized by foreigners.
Last Easter Sunday, NBC aired a staged concert version of the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.” It was broadcast live, and while John Legend wasn’t really up to the role of Jesus in my opinion, Brandon Victor Dixon was an amazing Judas. And you need a great Judas for “Jesus Christ Superstar,” since that musical is essentially told through the eyes of Judas -- although it depicts very memorably the encounter between Jesus and Pilate that’s recorded in the Gospel of John, and from which our Gospel reading today, as we observe Christ the King, comes.
The story of Jesus’ passion as written by the apostle John is an astonishing piece of literature, and so important that we hear it every Good Friday in full: two whole chapters of Scripture! And this encounter is a key part of the conflict. In this corner, Pilate, the Governor of Judea, the political appointee from south of Rome, lording it over a bunch of hick towns, representing the kingdom of this world. And in that one, Jesus, an ethnic minority, beaten bloody and under arrest, but nevertheless God incarnate, representing the kingdom of God. It’s no wonder Andrew Lloyd Webber’s presentation of this epic face-off in "Jesus Christ Superstar” is so memorable, as of course are those of other artistic presenters of John’s passion text like J.S. Bach.
We only get a small section of the confrontation today, but even these five verses show us worldly power – its delusions, its hypocrisy, its pathetic limitations, both in the person of a Gentile, Pilate, and by implication of the Jewish leaders who have handed Jesus over to him. And they make a deep contrast between that worldly power, and the effortlessly true power of Jesus the real king, to whom all authority and heaven on earth has been given, who came to testify to the truth, meeting us in the face of a man condemned to die.
Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen
Many of our most beloved stories from childhood share some common themes. There are often two worlds in the story: for instance, one that’s dull, mundane, and usually harsh; the other magical and full of life. The two worlds are then linked together by the protagonist who often starts out in the “real world” of drudgery, but through some fantastical happenstance, finds him or herself transported into the other realm. This other realm is usually where the protagonist finds true self-discovery at last -- his or her “destiny.”
Tonight at Evensong we’ll be reading nearly the whole beautiful chapter of Revelation 21. We heard a snippet of it as our second lesson this morning: And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes."
That’s where we’re going, at least if we know and take seriously the Christian account of the universe. We are going to a place where heaven and earth will be married, where the wounds of this age will be healed by the mercy of the next, where love for every human being will be at home in every human being, where we no longer dread what we’re going to see when we turn to the day’s news because we and the world will have been made whole by Jesus Christ. If we know and take seriously the Christian account, that’s where we’re going.
The past few weeks have taken us through what we’re calling the Cycle of Gratitude. But while that’s the title of this year’s stewardship theme, the main point of the Cycle of Gratitude is that it is ongoing and never ceasing. We happen to be taking the time to notice it more this month, but it’s not in fact confined to a single season. The point is to sustain our attention to what is always the case, that is, what we say every week at the Offertory: that all things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.
So far, we’ve meditated on this cycle as it pertains specifically to the people that we are grateful for in our lives, the things we take for granted, and even those hardships which we can now see as the source of growth. This week, the final week, we are turning to this parish to consider those things about Emmanuel itself, this particular space, this particular congregation, that cause us to give thanks to God for his good gifts. We’ve got purple slips this week, a color that represents the last color of paper available in the supply closet for me to chop up. And as with the previous weeks, I want you all to begin thinking through those things about Emmanuel Memorial which lift your hearts in thanksgiving. It could be something large-scale, such as our privilege to worship in a beautiful Gothic Revival sanctuary, a space that speaks to a lasting history inextricably tied to downtown Champaign. Maybe it’s our established liturgy that you know will always be here for you, even on those days when the most you can do is pray on auto-pilot. But it could also be that as you look around the room, what you see are the faces of a congregation without which you could not have made it through a hardship in your life.
Today is the third week in our focus on the Cycle of Gratitude at Emmanuel. If you came in through the Great Hall you may have noticed the chain that we are making is growing. It is hanging over the edge of the balcony and now has two colors of loops in it. The first week we used blue strips listing names of people for whom we are grateful. Then last week the salmon colored strips were for naming things we had taken for granted but now realize our thanks. In case you were not here, or did not have time to fill out those slips, there are extras on the tables in the Great Hall and you may still do those.
Today we will be doing an exercise that might require a bit more reflection. On the yellow strips in your pew write something that was difficult when it happened, but now for which you are grateful. Something that was difficult that now I am grateful for.
This morning fellow parishioner, Nancy Suchomski will speak to this topic, giving us her reflections on gratitude that comes over time and through reflection. Nancy.
Thank you, Nancy.
Remember, it is ok to write while I speak, so pick up one of the yellow papers and jot down your gratitude for something that was difficult but now upon reflection has brought you growth, or understanding or peace.
Perhaps your something was failing out of a certain university and then you chose a new major that brought a fulfilling career.
Perhaps your something was finding you no longer could do a hobby that brought you much joy but then you found a new interest that you had not had time for before.
Perhaps your something was the end of a particular relationship or even a divorce but now you have found a new person with whom you experience much joy, or perhaps decided being single is ok.
Perhaps it was a political candidate you supported who lost and now you have realized the importance of getting more involved in government.
Perhaps it was a stage of life when you were too busy to spend time with your own child and now are grateful for the chance of time with your grandchildren.
Perhaps your something is an illness that prevents you from doing all that you once did and now you are grateful for the time to reflect and pray.
Perhaps… use the yellow papers to write your own answer.
Today, I want to talk about what baptism demands of the Church, as we’ll soon be baptizing little Rylie into the Body of Christ. But I also want to talk about the Gospel passage appointed for today, as is our responsibility every Sunday as preachers governed by a lectionary. We don’t get to pick the readings -- clearly, considering today’s Gospel -- but it is nevertheless our job to receive it with humility and sincerity and preach the truth contained therein. What does the Spirit have to tell us in this Gospel, for this situation in which we find ourselves as this particular parish? That was one of the main questions asked by one of the lecturers at the conference I attended last weekend in Dallas and it’s stuck with me since. Today is the momentous occasion of a baptism, and while our Gospel may not initially appear to harmonize with it, we’re going to dive in anyway! God’s truth always coheres in Scripture, so here we go!