Monday, December 24, 2007

'Tis A Gift To Receive

Christmas 2007

Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills

I Done It For Love

Imagine striking a match that night in the cave:

use the cracks in the floor to feel the cold.

Use crockery in order to feel the hunger.

And to feel the desert – but the desert is everywhere.

Imagine striking a match in that midnight cave,

the fire, the farm beasts in outline, the farm tools and stuff;

and imagine, as you towel your face in the towel’s folds,

the bundled up Infant. And Mary and Joseph.

Imagine the kings, the caravans’ stilted procession

as they make for the cave, or rather three beams closing in

and in on the star; the creaking of loads, the clink of a cowbell;

(but in the cerulean thickening over the Infant

no bell and no echo of bell: He hasn’t yet earned it.)

Imagine the Lord, for the first time, from darkness, and stranded

immensely in distance, recognizing Himself in the Son

of Man: homeless, going out to Himself in a homeless one.

1989 – Joseph Brodsky, translated by Seamus Heaney

As this poem by the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky reminds us, Christmas calls us to imagine: imagine what it may have been like in that stable or cave in the back streets of Bethlehem. Imagine what the caravan of the magi must have really been like traversing much of the ancient world. Imagine a God choosing to enter into the most mundane of settings in this world 2000 years ago – arriving homeless, naked, vulnerable, utterly dependent upon the creation and the creatures God’s own self had marked as his own so many thousands of millions of years before. Imagine that as Martin Luther reminds us, the wood of the crib is the hard wood of the cross. Imagine the darkness in that cave, and needing to strike a match to even see Mary and Joseph, and between them, the baby.

The mystery of the Incarnation – God choosing to become one of us, Emmanuel, God with us – is a mystery that calls upon the infinite depths of our imagination to reflect on the incredible Love that is God: A love so deep, so broad, so endless in God’s desire to be in communion with God’s own beloved people, you and me and all persons throughout the world and throughout all time.

The hymn we just sang (114), “’Twas in the moon of winter time…” is another kind of imagining ( It is the very first Christmas Carol written on the North American continent. It was written by a Saint, Father Jean de Brebeuf, a French Jesuit priest who lived among the Huron People in the early 1600’s. Brebeuf was both a missionary and linguist. He wrote the carol in the Huron language as a gift to the Huron people – wishing to make the story of the birth of Christ, the Incarnation of God, accessible for First Nation people, Fr. Brebeuf revisioned the song in such a way with cultural references to broken bark, rabbit skin and forest hunters, such that it still resonates with many First Nation people to this day. The Anglicized version we just sang, translated in 1926 by Jesse Edgar Middleton, continues to be a centerpiece of Christmas caroling among Canada’s leading aboriginal singers. Imagine what a gift Fr. Brebeuf gave to the now nearly extinct Huron tribe (extinguished by an Iroquois attack encouraged by the British who were after control of the French claimed territory) – Fr. Brebeuf gave them personal knowledge of God’s love for them in the Christ child in a telling of the story that would be very much be their own.

I recently ran across another story of another sort of Christmas gift.

“In 1980, the day before Christmas, Richard Ballinger’s mother in Anderson, South Carolina, was busy wrapping packages and asked her young son to shine her shoes. Soon, with the proud smile that only a seven-year-old can muster, he presented the shoes for inspection. His mother was so pleased, she gave him a quarter.

“On Christmas morning as she put on her shoes to go to church, she noticed a lump in one shoe. She took it off and found a quarter wrapped in paper. Written on the paper in a child’s scrawl were the words, “I done it for love.”

(Brennan Manning, Watch For The Light [Plough Publishing, Farmington, PA:2001] p. 202)

Imagine and remember for just a moment the very best Christmas gift you have ever received. Perhaps something you had wished for, but had never told a soul except Santa Claus in that letter you sent to the North Pole. And then it happened: there it was under the tree Christmas morning!

No doubt it was a morning of mixed emotions. First there is the stunned surprise. Is it really true? Is this wonderful gift mine? Then followed by a sort of embarrassment of not really knowing what to do next. And embarrassment because you know things are really tight, and have a fleeting suspicion of what the gift cost and that it really had not come from the North Pole.

But there was also a welling up of unutterable joy and gratitude – which appears to have lasted because here and now that Christmas morning is swirling up out of unconscious memory so many many years later.

Each of us can test that same experience tomorrow – surprise, embarrassment, joy and gratitude. The special gift you receive will be a surprise. You will gasp. You will draw in your breath. You will look with awe as you open the diamond just like the one in the DeBeers advertisement, the scarf carefully knitted by a six-year-old, a message of gratitude from someone who had found strength and spiritual help here at St. Peter’s and no longer lives here.

Then, is it embarrassment or a sense of humble unworthiness? Why me? How much effort and secrecy and skill went into that six-year-old’s green and red and orange knitted scarf? How many hours of research went into finding that out-of-print first edition of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Poetry? Why all this, for me?

But finally, joy and gratitude! It is as if those tight bands about the heart (which most of us know) are unloosed. There may even be a tear or two. I hope there will be at least a hug, of genuine, warming, bear-type quality. And a final deep sigh of utter completion. It will be the kind of fulfillment which allows for a new beginning, facing the afternoon of Christmas Day or even the twelve months ahead with newly invigorated spirit and life!

We too often emphasize Christmas as a season of giving. Too many Christmas cards underline those words of Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Words that come from the Book of Acts, not any of the four Gospels. And this is true – we must never forget.

Yet, more than anything at all, Christmas is also a time to receive a gift, a wonderful truth.

We will each of us receive some special gift tomorrow/today from someone who loves us. More wonderful even, we will each of us, singly and together, receive a gift from someone who loves us even more, from God.

In any of our lives there is a manger, now doubtless empty, cold, malodorous, surrounded by beasts – the heartbreaks, tragedies and disappointments of our lives. But it is there that you will find the child, newborn, if you will look on him and be open to receive God’s gift.

It can come to you this Christmas, that gift, that birth within you of the Christ child, when you become aware of and touch, perhaps only fleetingly, the whole and complete person God intended you to be, that God intends you to be. It can happen when you are alone, or it can happen when you are in company. It can happen right here, at this present Bethlehem, at this Holy Table, when and where you receive tangible evidence, bread and wine, God’s Body and God’s Blood, God’s own life given to you and for you.

As in receiving any real gift, your response will be astonishment, humility, and a deep restorative joy. To which we can only say, Gracias, Gratia, Thank you, Eucharistia, Grace!

If you find yourself asking God, “Why me? Why us? Why for all the world” know that the answer will be and has always been, “I done it for love.”

Be open tonight/today to receive that gift, open-handed, with an open heart unbound, offering nothing but your need, your empty manger. Centuries of experience assure you that God’s gift is being offered: God’s Son, born within you.

Arise like the shepherds and go out into the world with astonishment, humility and joy! Respond in whatever language you may know – Thank you, Gratia, Eucharistia! Your Gratitude will show forth as a light for all the world to see, God is love – God’s Son is Love incarnate.

Merry Christmas! God bless us every one!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Man Who Was A Lamp

16 December 2007 – Advent 3A : James 5:7-10 – Matthew 11:2-11

The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills

Stir Up Sunday

“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”

This is our prayer every Third Sunday of Advent. It sounds hopeful, even a bit defiant. We desire a God, our God, to come into this world of darkness, disappointment and seemingly unending woes to shake things up and shape things up. To take a world that appears to be upside down and turn it back right-side up – that is, the way God intends it to be from the day God said, “Let there be….”

Surely this is what is on John the Baptist’s mind. Surely he has been waiting for the “the one to come,” the messiah, God’s anointed. And just as surely if Jesus were God’s anointed, the incredibly evil and traitorous Herod would be overcome, the shackles would come off, the prison doors flung open, and John would be vindicated. So he sends his disciples to find out, “Are you the One?”

We may as well face it, for those of a true and honest faith, it is a question we ask everyday. Now capable of receiving reports from every inch of this earth, our fragile, island home, instantaneously by digitized zeroes and ones in High Definition 24/7, one cannot help but wonder, from time to time, is Jesus the one?

Recall, only last Sunday John was predicting the “wrath to come,” and instead Jesus shows up and says to one and all, righteous and sinner alike, “Let’s eat!”

John expected an axe laid to the tree, and instead comes a gardener hoeing the ground around it.

John dreams of a man with a winnowing fork separating the wheat from the chaff and burning the chaff in unquenchable fire, and along comes a singing seed scatterer.

Truly when John spoke of there being one among us whom we do not know, he spoke from experience. We would do well to remember this, and to remember John’s questioning heart, for we stand with him day and night, looking out from behind whatever bars or shackles hold us back from embracing all that Jesus invites us to be, to live, the work he begins and calls us to continue.

John lived in the desert, waiting. Though his demeanor, dress and actions do not convey a man of patience, he does have something to teach us about waiting – like the farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and late rains.

In the emptiness of John’s desert we find our selves waiting,

“like a bowl that waits for wine,

like a flute that waits for breath,

like a sentinel that waits for the dawn,

You are a highway ready for traffic,

and here comes One

who seems also to be waiting,

waiting for the construction to be complete.

The more is arriving,

and there is only one question,

‘Are you the One Who Is To Come?’

Jesus answered,

‘Go and tell John

what you see and hear.’

So they did.” - John Shea, The Man Who Was A Lamp (Starlight[Crossroads, NY:1992])

What do we see and hear? An anointed man of God restoring lepers to a life of community; giving those who are blind new vision, new hope; those who could not hear suddenly hear the voice of God that says, “You are my beloved;” the poor hear of good news, of old promises coming to pass.

We come here week after week so that we might “open our eyes to see God’s hand at work in the world about us!” This is hard work. To first open our eyes, eyes which reflexively avert themselves from the news of the world. And then to look for the good news amongst the bad, the flowers amongst the weeds.

John was expecting the fall of Rome. Jesus says, “There are more important things to which we must attend ourselves first. Kicking out the Romans is the least of what we are about!

The last enemy to be defeated, says Paul in the First Letter to the Corinthians, is death. Jesus says that’s just next on the list. Do not be offended, he says, by how I choose to go about my Father’s business. All shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.

When John heard what his disciples had seen and heard, we can imagine he was not offended or disappointed, but rather fulfilled. He was the cleanser of eyes, but not the sight that fills them. He was the opener of ears, but not the word that thrills them. A prophet, says Jesus, but more. John is a friend of the Bridegroom – the man who was a lamp, the man who shows us the way to find Jesus. He brings us, at our own pace, to the entrance of the cave.

We must be patient, for the coming of the Lord is near. “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors!” Open our doors, let him in, know the joy of John. Become a friend of the Bridegroom, and more. In knowing Him we shall know ourselves – Beloved of God, sisters and brothers in Christ, the Body of Christ in this world and the next! Amen.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

First, Second and Third Advents

9 December 2007 * Advent 2A – Isaiah 11:1-10/Matthew 3:1-12

The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland

Watch It, Seek It, Become It

Advent is a season that gets lost somewhere between Halloween and Christmas. Advent, of course, means “coming.” What is coming is variously understood, as well as what our posture is meant to be in the mean time. Although “waiting” is often associated with Advent, something slightly more active like “watching” might better capture the spirit of things. So what might we be watching for?

It is often said there are two Advents: Waiting and Watching for the Coming of Christ in the Manger; and Watching and Waiting for Christ to Come Again to Judge the peoples of the Earth. Since this “Second Coming” makes us uneasy for obvious reasons (who wants to be judged?), Advent tends to collapse into The First Coming in the Manger. Cuddly babies are more to our liking than a Judge who is sorting us out into groups of sheep and goats. Baaaaaaaaaa!

The keen observer has noticed that the Green hangings on the altar and the vestments have given away to Advent Blue – the customary seasonal color in the Sarum Rite. And for those of us here at Saint Peter’s, we have on the altar perhaps the most mysterious of all altar frontals I have ever seen – a several hundred years-old embroidery of Jesus hanging on a palm tree. This may seem more apt for a time like Holy Week what with a cruciform Jesus and palms and all. We might, however, consider two observations about the incarnation of God in baby Jesus.

The Koran depicts the birth of Jesus as taking place beneath a palm tree. There are several variations on this story, but my favorite is that the wind (the Holy Spirit?) blows through the fronds of the palm tree, and baby Jesus falls into the lap of the Virgin Mary who happens (by arrangement of the same Holy Spirit) to be sitting under that very tree. This makes our frontal a potential bridge between Christians and our sisters and brothers who are Muslim.

The second observation was made by an old priest in a rural church far far away, many many years ago. He began preaching in such a soft voice that Christmas Eve that people in the pews had to lean forward to hear what he was saying. The quieter they got, the more clearly they could hear him saying, “The wood of the crib is the wood of the cross, the wood of the crib is the wood of the cross.” That is, Christmas and Good Friday really mean to celebrate the same truths about the incarnation.

Take your pick. For reflecting on the impossible truth of what Christmas is all about, it is hard to get any better starting place than looking at our Jesus in the palm trees for the next few weeks.

As to the Second Coming, alas, all too much is said on TV, in books, on websites all claiming to know just when and how it will all come down. Whole series of books and movies have been made. All, I am sure to our Lord’s own personal amusement. Since it was he who said, “Of that time and that hour only the Father knows, not me.” It might help to think of it all this way. Whether it is the First Coming or the Second, Advent proclaims a God who does not stay distant from creation, or impassive in the face of creation’s need for redemption, prosperity and peace. God answers the cries of his people, says Mary Hinkle Shore (Ass. Prof. of NT at Luther Seminary, St. Paul) and God will, in Christ, come to lead them home! Judgment means that the notion that might makes right will be replaced by love makes all things right. Only those who subscribe to the first notion have anything to fear in the Second Coming.

But at last, we might do well to consider what Professor Shore proposes as a Third Advent, or Third Coming – the daily coming of Christ into our individual and communal lives with a vision for how we might live in such a way that our lives bear witness to the hope we have for the future and to the justice God will establish for all peoples!

Having experienced this Third Advent, I would like to share with you an example so you too might keep an eye out for the daily coming of Christ into our lives. I was in Syracuse at a Stewardship Conference. I was in a room of about 100 people. In the front was a table of about six deaf persons, with an interpreter signing what was being said and sung. It was beautiful to watch the interpreter doing her best to communicate with her hands what the rest of us were saying and hearing. As we sang hymn 711, Seek Ye First The Kingdom of God, all six of the persons at that table were signing the song. It was extraordinarily beautiful and powerful. Soon I put down my guitar and joined them on the “Alleluias” while my partner Wiley Beveridge kept playing the piano.

Then it happened. One by one everyone in the room began to sign the “Alleluias” along with the people in the front of the room. Our collective signing became a sign of the kingdom breaking in right then and there. We had left our world and entered into their world. Of course, they were in front and facing forward and could not see that. The interpreter motioned for them to turn around and look. The looks on their faces, smiles, tears, looks of being accepted, seeing a roomful of people enter their world for just a few minutes, said it all. The look on their faces was the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven in Christ. We all saw it. We all felt it. We will never forget it.

Isaiah offers a vision of what the kingdom will look like – predators and prey all sitting down together, a weaned child near the den of the asp. John the Baptist announces the Kingdom is at hand. It is here every day if we just look at it. It is here in our midst for those who are watching and joining in with those who are announcing it. We are not called to Wait for the kingdom, we are sent to Seek it. Seek ye, first, the Kingdom of God….Allelu, Alleluia! As we take the time to enter into the world of “others,” those who live lives completely differently from ours, the closer the kingdom will look.

This Advent Seek and Watch. It might mean reflecting on the mysterious truths of the incarnation and nature of God as depicted on our Advent frontal with Jesus in the Palm Trees. It might mean watching for signs of the kingdom here and now. It may be as simple as singing and signing Alleluia. For as John says, the kingdom of heaven has come near – it is at hand, here and now. Watch it, seek it, become it. Amen.