Friday, November 30, 2007

The Cinnamon Bear

Yesterday we began our annual pre-Christmas tradition.  No, it's not the Advent wreath (though we'll light it up on Sunday).
No, it's not the Christmas tree (next week).
No, it's not even heading out to the mall.
Yesterday, we started listening to "The Cinnamon Bear."  It is one of our simple and secular Christmastime pleasures.
If you've never heard of this delightful little radio play, it's about two children (Jimmy and Judy), who are in search of their stolen silver star for their Christmas tree.  They meet a tiny stuffed bear who is alive and transports them to the magical "Maybe Land" and finally the North Pole to find the star.
This radio play was first aired in 1937 and has been playing more or less continuously on some radio station or other since then.  It comes in twenty-six  episodes (roughly 10 minutes each) that run every day from November 29 through Christmas Eve.  Wikipedia says it's most popular in the northwest, but I remember listening to it when I was a child -- and my parents listened to it when they were children.
A few years ago, my parents sent us the entire show on cassettes.  Now we listen to it on CDs.  Our older son is "too old," these days (he'll get over it), but our youngest is still into it, and as he sat excitedly with me listening to those dated voices, it felt like a blessed moment.
Now, as I said, this is totally secular and in general doesn't give a person any sense of what Christmas is about (don't you hate those shows that talk about the "Christmas Spirit" when what they mean is giving presents?).
But then, this country really celebrates two Christmases, doesn't it?  We have Christian Christmas where we celebrate the birth of Christ.  It's a beautiful feast in which we remember one crucial fact about Jesus -- he was incarnate -- one of us.  Which is probably why he understands us so well and loves us warts and all.
The OTHER Christmas is probably older.  It's that winter festival that attempts to bring some color and life into the otherwise drab winter months.  The OTHER Christmas was unknown in many warmer countries that simply didn't need it, but in colder lands....  Anyway, it's alive and well today.  The primary difference is that we have turned even that secular holiday into a more secular time by focussing on shopping and gift giving.  
But I digress.  If you think this sounds interesting, you can Google it and you'll find sites where you can listen to the episodes.  If you want to listen to episodes, try   or . 

Have fun and Happy Advent!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

King’s Cross – A Sermon

    The last line we read in Paul's letter to the Colossians says it all. "For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross."

    God's fullness was in Christ.

    Through Christ, God reconciles all things to himself.

    Whether on earth or in heaven.

    Through the blood of the cross.

    Sometimes, when we go through events like the death of a loved one, we think maybe the world is caving in on us. The idea of somebody we love not being here anymore seems incomprehensible. It seems life can't go on. All time telescopes in on us so that nothing else exists, and what we do see is not good.

    Most of us have gone through this. Some quite recently. And we ask ourselves, why would God allow such a thing? Why do good people die? Why do good people suffer?

    Remember the criminal hanging on the cross who said to Jesus, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!"? In a way, he was asking the same thing. He was crying out what so many of us want to know: If you're God, why do you allow us to die? Do something about it.

    What Jesus did from that cross was say, "Today you will be with me in paradise." Granted, he said it to the other criminal, but he left open the possibility for both. And then -- the Son of God in whom dwells the fullness of God -- died.

    When we go through traumatic times, all faith can fly out the window because we're so caught up in the pain. Fortunately, that's usually a temporary effect. We make it through that pain and understand that God has always been with us and always will be. We understand that we all have a finite amount of time on this earth but an endless life in heaven. And that Christ is our king wherever we are.

    If God's fullness is in Christ, and if Christ is king, and if Christ reconciles all things to God: What does that tell us, especially when we are in the valley of the shadow of death?

    Unlike other kings, who rule with pomp and power and often a show of military might -- this king leads his people from a cross. He leads us not to power over others but power to open ourselves to others. He shows us that the greatest victory is not over others but in reconciling with others. He guides us through the pain that is inevitable in life -- never around it -- and brings us home to the kingdom that has no end.

    These are all things you know already. God loves us. God is with us in good and bad but will not make bad things stop and will not keep us on this earth forever. God reconciles us to himself. God leads us -- through Christ.

    It's just that sometimes we need reminding because life can seem so overwhelming.

    It is our belief and our joy that life will never overwhelm Christ our King.

Friday, November 23, 2007

How Episcopalians Made Thanksgiving- A Community Sermon

I’d like to welcome you to St. James’ again.  It’s a joy when brothers and sisters worship together, and I have enjoyed the love and friendship of so many brothers and sisters from the many churches in Hyde Park for many years now.  Truly something to give thanks for.

Yet, I think it’s also appropriate to celebrate Thanksgiving in an Episcopal Church because, as we all know, it was the Episcopalians who are are responsible for it.

Now, I bet you’re thinking it was those Pilgrims, aren’t you?  Or maybe you heard rumors about Abraham Lincoln creating the official holiday by proclamation in 1863.  Well, there’s a little bit of truth to it.  But the REAL creator of this annual event called Thanksgiving is that great Episcopalian and Hyde Parker -- FDR.

That’s right.  Up till 1941, Thanksgiving kind of came and went depending on the whim of the sitting President -- it was a tradition that the President proclaimed the holiday, but not all did.

Fine, you might say, but it was Lincoln who proclaimed the national feast first.  That’s true -- October 3, 1863, not long after the Battle of Gettysburg.  Lincoln called for the Nation to observe a national day of thanks and dedication to caring for the widows and orphans.  But it was a one-shot deal.

Besides, he wasn’t the first president to call for a national day.  Another prominent Episcopalian did it first.  George Washington.  After the Revolution, he called for a day of thanks -- the First Thursday in November.  Again, it was a one-shot deal, and not many presidents followed suit.  But in 1789, the Episcopal Church called upon its members to observe a day of thanks on every first Thursday of November.

Which they did until Lincoln.

Never mind that the Pilgrims really gave heart and soul to their feast after that horrid winter and a successful harvest.  Never mind that the Pilgrims were actually fleeing the oppressive Church of England (which would become the Episcopal Church in this country).  

And never mind that people were observing feasts of Thanksgiving long before there were Pilgrims or the Church of England or even Christians.  

The fact is, we have an inborn need to give thanks.  That’s why you can see similar festivals around the world and throughout time.  

Erntedankfest in Germany, Thesmosphoria in ancient Greece, Cerelia for the ancient Romans, Chusok in Korea, Pongal in South India, and Yam Festival in Ghana. 

We give thanks because sometimes it amazes us that we have enough to eat and a roof over our heads.  We look in awe that we have survived another day despite faminies, floods, wars, and just plain bad luck.  We look around and think, “Only God could have gotten me this far.”  So we give thanks.  (And eat ourselves silly and watch football).

But there’s a catch.  In Abraham Lincoln’s proclmation in 1863, he asked the nation to not only give thanks but to care for the widowed or orphaned.  He called us to not only give thanks but to give.  

Churches and individuals around our community have been doing that with their Thanksgiving baskets to help families eat better -- but also on a daily basis with our own Hyde Park Food Pantry which is staffed by volunteers -- many of whom are probably here tonight. 

Tonight, you’ll have an opportunity to help that food pantry during the offering.  It’s a miracle that we are so blessed as to be able to help.  Give thanks.

And yet, there’s another catch: all the food in the world is not what really feeds us.  

Jesus told the people who went looking for him in the Gospel: “You seek me not because you saw signs but because you ate your fill of the loaves...  Do not labor for food that perishes but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give you...”

Which is to say, We love it when our bellies are full, and we have God to thank for it.  But even more, we have God to thank for feeding our souls.   We can go around like empty shells (okay, so very full shells after tomorrow) -- merely existing.  Or we can allow God’s love to fill us to overflowing.

From that love, Thanks just naturally flows.  So, while we Episcopalians can’t really claim to have started Thanksgiving, we can join with our brothers and sisters throughout the faith and time, and offer our humblest thanks.  Which is a blessing indeed.  Amen.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Missing in Action

Just so you know – I haven't been posting so much because I've had some serious internet problems.

Add to that the fact that I have now acquired an Apple computer – a MacBook – and I'm having lots of fun trying to fit it into what was up till now a Windows world. To be honest, I'm still using Windows for the blog because I haven't got that part figured out yet. But I'm in this for the long haul, so at some point before too long, I will have it all figured out.


The End of the World As We Know It – A Sermon

My kids love to listen to music, as most do. And as most parents, I'm interested in what they're listening to. Sometimes we listen together and discuss the songs. One song I've kind of liked because it has a catchy refrain is, "It's the end of the world as we know it," by REM. I know, it's an oldie, but it's getting a lot of air time these days, and my son's friends listen to it.

The other day I listened to it and was taken aback by the lyrics. Not that they are obscene – they're not – but that they make no sense. Here's a sample:


The other night I dreamt of knives, continental drift divide. Mountains sit in a line

Leonard Bernstein. Leonid Brezhnev. Lenny Bruce and Lester Bangs.

Birthday party, cheesecake, jelly bean, boom!

You symbiotic, patriotic, slam book neck, right? Right.


I turned to my son and said, "It makes no sense."

He said, "Well, duh, Dad. It's the end of the world. It's all chaos."


In reality, that's what we think of when we think of the end of the world – floods, earthquakes, armies of angels descending upon us. With global warming and the middle east and nuclear grade material missing and unaccounted for, it does often feel like the end is near.

On the other hand, most of these things are things that WE do – things that we have some control over and can mitigate at least. They are also things the earth can withstand even if humanity does itself in someday.

But when we think of the end of the world as we know it, most of us don't really want something we can fix. We want the big disaster. We want the chaos. We MUST because every time somebody shows up on television to tell us that Nostradamus has predicted the end of the earth for 2012, we eat it up. We buy the tabloids that tell us the end is near. We heed the words of preachers who give us dates for the apocalypse and ask us to send them the money we're not going to need anyway.

Why do we buzz with excitement for this chaos? Just guessing here, but I'd say it's because people want to feel they're in the middle of a huge thing – they are part of history even if nobody will be around to tell about it. We want to feel important – I've said it before.

It's nothing new. Prophets have been predicting the end of civilization or the end of the world for ever. And our lessons today address those very issues. Not that all ends are considered bad in the bible – or are they the end of life. In the Old Testament reading, there is a definite end to the world as they know it – but the world the prophet sees ending is not so great. In the NEW WORLD coming, the good guys (Israel) will be on top and in peace while the bad guys will be stubble.

It's like the LEFT BEHIND SERIES in reverse: The good stay and the bad are blown away.

On the other hand, the reality Paul was addressing in his letter to the Thessalonians was very different. He was talking about the actual end of the world – Jesus coming to take his elect home and to destroy the rest. But Paul had a problem with a lot of those Thessalonians. They thought, "Hey, if the world's ending anyway, why bother working? Why bother taking care of each other? Why bother helping anyone?" It's like a farmer who was interviewed several years ago and was asked why he used so many harmful chemicals. He said, "It's all going to burn in the second coming anyway, so what does it matter?"

Paul said it mattered a great deal. As long as God keeps us here on this earth, Paul says, we have work to do. Not only do we still need to work to feed ourselves, but we have the work of the Gospel to do. As long as we have one breath in us, we have a ministry to complete. Our lives matter and will continue to matter until either our very last breath or until humanity really does become extinct.

Jesus told his disciples pretty much the same thing. He told them to ignore all those who love to give specific dates about the end of the world or the second coming. They are merely sowing fear and chaos, inciting panic over things about which nobody can do anything. Actually, what he hinted to the disciples was that they would not be around long enough to witness the apocalypse – they would probably all have been killed by then. Yet, in serving the Gospel – in sharing the good news of God's endless love for us – they would find their purpose and their joy.

The reality is, whatever you believe about global warming – and I believe it is real and that we have a responsibility to become better stewards of the earth – we are all probably going to meet our own personal ends before the mass extinction. Either way, however, as long as we are on this earth, we have work to do – love God and love our neighbors, care for each other and for the earth over which God has given us stewardship. It is a lot to do, and no rumors of wars or death can put us off.

But whether we die one at a time or in "the big one," Christ assures us that our end goal is the same – eternal life in God's loving presence. It overcomes fear and chaos. And therein lies our hope and our joy.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Golden Compass

Once again, I got an e-mail from a parishioner who got an e-mail warning them against the evils of a movie.

I'm glad the parishioner sent me the note because when you have a spiritual question, you need someone to turn to. And I'm glad this parishioner didn't take the e-mail warning they got at face value.

The movie in question? The Golden Compass. Just like Harry Potter, it has a lot of fundamentalists in an uproar. Unlike Harry Potter, I won't defend it so readily. Not that I would ever tell folks to boycott it. If the movie is anything like the book – and I admit I haven't seen the movie yet, but I have read the books – then it should be a pretty good show. And if the books and movies have anything in common, there probably won't be that much theologically objectionable or significant in this movie. It's just an adventure story.

Having said that, the entire series (three books – who knows what sequence of movies), does feature the death of God – or really a god pretending to be the real God – as a focal point. And a pretty weak one, at that. Now, it's been several years since I've read the books at the request of one of our youth group kids, but it seems the story of a brave young girl fighting against evil forces culminates in her finding a pathetic God imprisoned and dying.

This is really poor theology, if you could even call it theology, and it became instantly clear to me that The Golden Compass trilogy is no threat to anybody's religion.

So why freak out about it? Why send out boycott e-mails? Sometimes, I wonder if these e-mails aren't really advertising ploys by the movie makers themselves because they know that controversy sells.

Or, is it because the people who freak out are really insecure in their faith? Could it be that their rock-solid belief is in reality brittle? Could it be that watching, listening to, or discussing a different point of view is downright threatening? That's a far bigger question to me than whether or not The Golden Compass is the work of Satan.

And if you really want to boycott movies that harm the children of God, you'd do better to go after all those shows that glorify becoming "Number 1" or teach our kids that the only way to do good is by killing the "bad guys." That hardly squares with Jesus' example, teaching, or commandments to his disciples.

So if you like the pseudo-fantasy / pseudo-science fiction type of story, go ahead and watch The Golden Compass. But parents, if you're concerned about your kids getting the wrong message or becoming confused spiritually, do what I'm planning on doing. Watch it with your kids. That way you can ask intelligent questions about the story and help them see your point of view.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

We the Saints – A Sermon

The other day on the radio I heard a story about how the Roman Catholic Church is fast-tracking the late Pope John Paul II for sainthood. The story was all about how much it costs to make a saint these days. What with tracking down witnesses of miracles, double checking them, then doing extensive background checks – it's in the millions.

With all due respect to our Roman brothers and sisters, I think they missed the boat on this one. He's already a saint.

A saint is, after all, NOT merely a dead Christian whose life was exemplary and whose death is filled with miracles. A saint is US. WE are the saints. Living and giving to the glory of God right now.

The apostle Paul got this right. He talks of the saints as the people of God who have accepted God's invitation to participate in the Kingdom. That's US. He says the saints live for the praise of God's glory. That's us. He says the saints are marked by the seal of the Holy Spirit. That's us. He says the saints inherit the greatness of God's power. That is us if we want it. WE are the saints of God right here and right now – and no multi-million dollar canonization process will change that.

What DOES change is us. To be a saint, in fact, is to be a changed person. After all, God's power residing in us? It HAS to change a person. And it does.

On All Saints Day which we observe today, we renew our baptismal vows – vows that we have made many times but which remind us – our old lives and homeless individuals is dead. We are born anew into the Kingdom of God. We are now members of the Body of Christ. Our lives matter. We are accepted for the people we are. We are home.

Jesus talked with his disciples about what it meant to be a saint – a changed person. He helped them understand that being part of the kingdom doesn't take away the pains of the world. The poor – quite often remain poor. The hungry still long for food. Those who weep or are abused – still suffer. But the poverty is changed – real as it is, there is a sense of a greater poverty – an awareness that without God's power, all else is meaningless. Our hunger is real, but now the greater hunger is for every Word God speaks to us. Our weeping may continue, but it is no longer hopeless – it is filled with hope.

Jesus told his disciples that we the saints can embrace his power and learn to love enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, pray for those who abuse us, give to those who beg from us. WE are the saints, and we have that power. We are changed.

Yes, on All Saints Day we honor those who have gone before us, those whose lives were good examples of witness, loving and giving self-sacrifice.

But we also remember that All the Saints includes US. Because the Holy Spirit is at work in this place – at work in you and you and you and me.

That's what this whole Stewardship time has been about. It is all about inviting you to be part of this Body of Christ, this Kingdom of Heaven on earth – it is all about inviting you to pick up your mantel of sainthood and run with it. Stewardship is nothing if it is not a chance for each of us to recommit ourselves to being active participants in this wonderful mystery God invites us to.

In that spirit of invitation, I now invite you to take a few minutes and fill out your commitment cards if you haven't done so already. We have plenty of extras in case you forgot yours (people always do). When everyone's done, I will ask you to come forward and place your card in one of these baskets at the altar rail. We will then offer them up to God as pledges of our commitment to live lives in praise of His glory.

A quick word for those of you who have had a crazy week and who in all honesty have not been able to give your stewardship commitment proper thought and prayer. It is better for you to fill out a card now anyway, even if all you write down is “We WILL pledge – working on amount” – than to fill out nothing at all.

But first let us pray over these cards and our own lives of witness.

The Lord be with you. Let us pray: Heavenly Father, you bless us this day with your presence. Fill us now with your Holy Spirit so that we may see you at work in all we do. Bless these commitment cards and bless us who fill them out. Grant us the grace to commit our lives anew to the new lives you offer us as your saints. Amen.


My brothers and sisters, we register our commitment to Christ each Sunday when we come forward to receive Communion. His Body and Blood are signs to us that we are active members of his Body. I am asking everyone here to come forward and place their commitment card in the baskets at the front of the church. Your commitment card will be a sign of your choice to accept Christ's invitation. When you are ready, please come forward now.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

All Saints

Now that we're all filled with Halloween chocolate and trying to figure out what to do with all the decorations and the rotting pumpkins, let's look at the real reason we even bother having Halloween. No, it's not to sell chocolate.

The reason we have Halloween as it now exists isn't even because of the pagan holiday co-opted by Christians. Well, okay, that does have a lot to do with why it looks the way it does and why it's on that particular day. But still, there was an All Hallows Eve of sorts from the earliest days of Christianity. Because Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, was a vigil held on the eve of a major feast day. The feast day is, of course, All Saints Day (or All Hallows).

The church, in a rather spotty and episodic fashion, started celebrating the saints who went before as early as the third century CE (what we used to call AD, but that's another column). The early Christians felt they should do a couple of things. 1) honor the lives of the many Christians who had died already (Remember that many of the earliest Christians thought the end of the world was fast approaching, so they had to get used to the idea of fellow Christians dying before the big day), especially the martyrs who preferred to die rather than give up sharing their faith. 2) reaffirm the Christian hope in the Communion of Saints and the life everlasting. That is, to remind ourselves that when we die, we are really going to a new and more wonderful life with God. It reaffirms the idea that those in heaven and those still on earth form a continuous family dedicated to glorifying God.

Folks used to celebrate All Saints at various times, depending on where they lived and when. But by the middle ages, it was firmly established at October 31 – and yes, it did co-opt a pagan feast day. Just like Easter and Christmas. And yes, the skeletons and ghosts and witches have the older European traditions to thank for their continued popularity. The 31st was supposed to be a day when the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest, so people dressed in ways to comfort and communicate with dead loved ones – and to keep evil spirits at bay.

Well, I'm celebrating the saints – but I'm still going to eat my kid's chocolate.