Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Light of the World

1 February 2009 / Candlemas * Luke 2: 22-40
To Be A Light
Candlemas is a time to remember, to recollect. To recollect oneself means to gather oneself up into meditation. We have here and now only a moment for this. But that is enough.

So when does this story begin? Forty days ago when the baby was born: the boy who was born to be a light: the Light, really – the Light of the World. Or, maybe it began when the angel first told Mary of her special calling. Or, during the reign of King David. Or, when our people were slaves in Egypt. Or, when our ancestor Abraham set out from his home town of Ur on the Chaldes to become the father of more than all the stars in the heavens and all the grains of sand on the seashore - to be a blessing to all the peoples of God’s creation. Whenever we choose to begin the story, it is one fraught with difficulties from the very beginning.

It was the custom to dedicate the first son to God forty days after his birth - to offer a sacrifice at the Temple to redeem the child. They did so to remind themselves that their children belonged to God. It was a reminder that God has a genuine claim on the very best we have to offer, our children.

The required sacrifice was a lamb, but those too poor to buy a lamb could offer a lesser sacrifice of the birds. The crowds in the Temple precincts would know who they were: bird people were poor people.

The consolation may have been that they were not alone. Many people were out of work. The land was occupied by Rome. Taxes were high. The government unstable. The economy had tanked. There was resistance throughout the land. Common folk had trouble making ends meet. The lines in front of the pigeon sellers can be assumed to have been very long.

The offering of these birds would be a memorial to all the first born males ordered killed by Pharaoh in that first Holocaust which only Moses survived. This custom binds them to their people and their past just as this Eucharist ties us to ours.

They had come to make a sacrifice and a commitment. Every commitment comes with a cost. Little did they know the offering they were making - not only to God, but for the whole world. Nor could they have been prepared for the old man.

Simeon had been praying and waiting, hoping and studying, waiting for God to reveal the light of the world. Simeon was an old man waiting to be released. Waiting for his people to be released. Waiting to see what we all hope to see but are too busy to remember to look for: a glimpse of the future. A glimpse of the truth. A glimpse of relief and release.

Simeon, we can imagine, like so many of us, had grown weary. Weary of the occupation. Weary of failed policies and failed programs. Weary of the failure of religious and political leaders. Weary of being weary. Everything and everyone who had promised life only yielded weariness and death. So he was waiting for death, and waiting to see if God really keeps promises.

The old man takes the child out of Mary’s arms. Imagine that! Who is he, she must wonder? What is he doing with my child, she thinks?

Suddenly, Simeon becomes a poet for the ages: announcing for all who care to listen and hear that this is not her child, but God’s very own. That this child was born to be light. Light for all peoples. Everywhere and throughout all time. Simeon has seen the light.

Can you see it, he cries out? Here is the light which will withstand all darkness, any darkness - even death upon a Roman cross!.

Then quietly he hands the child back to his mother, and he is gone. Released. God’s promise fulfilled. Simeon returns to God as the mother and father look on. Joseph with the birds in his hands. Mary with the child born to be a light. All the other mothers and fathers looking on.

Now we are here this morning. We are a part of that same crowd, straining to catch a glimpse of the light. Holding the light in our own hands, if only for a moment. As it was for Simeon, a moment will have to be long enough.

In Connecticut we lived next door to an old man - Em Tramposch. He had devoted his life to propagating life with his hands: he was a nurseryman. From his fingers new life seemingly would spring forth every day. He had a deep sense of where that life came from. You could see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice, but most of all you could see it in his hands.

We would spend days and nights in his greenhouse, watching his hands work: cutting, dipping and planting cuttings, listening to what he had to say about the economy, politics and Patsy Kline. For the last four years we were there Em had cancer. Some days were better than others, some not so good at all, but nearly every day he was in the greenhouse propagating life.

One summer he became bed ridden. Jane, his wife, found ways with her camcorder to let him see every day what was happening down in the greenhouse. Each day he waited and watched.

That August, Cerny was born. Her first day out of the house, we wheeled her in the pram right into the living room, right up to the side of his hospital bed.

At the sight of the newborn baby, without a word, Em pulled together what little strength he had left, and held his arms up in the air. He wanted to hold her. We put her in his arms, and he held her by his side. For ten or fifteen minutes she slept cradled in his arms, Jane sitting beside him . He watched. He looked at the baby.

It was a picture of life coming in and life going out. But mostly it was a vision of life and light. As it turned out Em, like Simeon before him, was released, and died only a few days later.

We come together as what has been called “a gathering darkness” casts a shadow over the whole land. Like Mary and Joseph we come to remember our past and God’s saving actions, to renew our commitment to our God, and like Simeon and Em, to catch a glimpse of the light so we can tell others what we have seen. So that like the boy who was born to be a light, we too can become a light for others. So that we can be propagators of light and life for the whole world.

We have now only a moment to catch that glimpse and then live accordingly. If only for a moment, it is more than enough. Far more than enough to become the light that we carry.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Becoming A Christian

25 January 2009/Epiphany3B * Mark 1:14-20
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills

Becoming A Christian

As the events of this past Inaugural Week unfolded, I found myself reflecting on my growing up in Oak Park, a western suburb of Chicago. I can remember my father standing in the back of First Congregational Church as a deacon, in his mourning suit, beside Dr. Percy Julian, the man who first synthesized cortisone and progesterone, thus improving the health of millions of lives. As a young boy I had no idea his was the only African-American family in our village, and that there were those people in town who would resort to tactics like fire-bombing his house in an attempt to drive the Julians out. Yet, there he was in church with us every Sunday. This would be years before we ever heard Dr. King’s name.

I can remember riding the Lake Street El into the Loop, passing through the city’s west side, aware of the high rise projects and tumble down tenements signaling a life-style very different from ours in Oak Park. I remember what it felt like when after Dr. King was assassinated and the west side went up in flames and fury, right up to Austin Boulevard, the imaginary but very real line of demarcation between city and suburb.

It wasn’t until 1969, however, when I first read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings that I got any real sense of what it was like to grow up in America as an African-American. The chapter on what pride she and others in rural Arkansas felt when Joe Louis became the heavyweight champion of the world, and that it would not be a night for a black person to be found walking down the road that night, remains seared into my memory.

Her most recent book, Letter To My Daughter, concludes with a chapter titled Keep The Faith, about how the faith of the grandmother who raised her is what has kept her able to put one foot in front of the other all these years. Most interesting, however, are the opening and closing sentences, “Many things continue to amaze me, even well into my seventh decade. I’m startled or at least taken aback when people walk up to me and without being questioned inform me that they are Christians. My first response is the question, ‘Already?’ It seems to me that becoming a Christian is a lifelong endeavor. I believe that is also true for one wanting to become a Buddhist, or a Muslim, a Jew, Jainist, or a Taoist. The persons striving to live their religious beliefs know that the idyllic condition cannot be arrived at and held on to eternally. It is in the search itself that one finds the ecstasy…Whenever I begin to question whether God exists…all I have to do is continue trying to be a Christian.” (Random House, NY:2008)pp165-167.

Becoming a Christian. When one contemplates this short passage from Mark’s gospel what we find are some folks very much like us beginning a journey of becoming a Christian. One needs to truly spend time contemplating the kind of condensed narratives that Mark offers us, for when we do we discover that nearly every single word is carefully chosen and fully charged with depths, plural, of meaning.

For instance, since we are told Jesus is in Galilee, we know he is far away from Judea and Jerusalem and all the political and religious authorities. That single word signals that he is in a region where Gentiles and Jews lived in close proximity. It is here, not the Holy City on a Hill, where he chooses to announce the Good News, the Gospel, of God. It is a call to Repent and Believe. Repent means to change one’s mind, one’s allegiance, but even more to turn away physically from all other ways of life. To believe means more than to accept some assertions or doctrines as true, but rather to allow one’s whole self be claimed by the reality of God’s rule which in Christ even now is breaking in. There is no time to wait. A relationship with God is essential to accept right now. God is already offering to embrace you, says Jesus. Are you willing to accept?

Then rather than setting about right away to challenge all other competing authorities, it is significant that his first act is to gather some disciples. In those days great teachers and leaders of movements generally waited for disciples to come to them. Jesus seeks us out. The details again are spare but telling. Peter and Andrew fish with a net from the shoreline. John and James work for their father as Zebedee and Sons Fishermen, from a boat with hired hands. That is, there is a significant difference in status between these pairs of brothers. There is work for everyone from every strata of society to do – and life in community with Jesus is central to Mark’s story and the Gospel of God.

The story suggests that Jesus sees something in us that we do not see ourselves. The One who can transform fisher of fish into fishers of people for the Kingdom will also make of us something new – something we might never imagine. So this is a story that asks if we are willing like Peter, Andrew, James and John, to allow Jesus to transform us? Are we ready to accept His call?

Then comes Mark’s favorite word – immediately. Immediately they leave the instruments and tools of their trade, and in James’ and John’s case all those hired servants as well. They will leave their boat for a new boat – the church -which is why this is called the Nave from the word from which we also get navy. From this new boat they will fish for people, have a new Father, and coworkers who will not be servants, but sisters and brothers in the Lord. Off they go immediately to embark on a journey to a future yet unclear!

This is, according to Mark, how one embarks on becoming a Christian-immediately following Jesus on a journey to a future yet unclear.

As one reads all of Mark’s gospel at least two themes emerge. 1) This business of becoming a Christian, the work of repentance and belief, is ongoing. There is to be no end point until that time when God will bring it all together. 2) There are things that must be left behind to make this journey of becoming a Christian.

As we embark on this journey of becoming Christians, we will do well to contemplate these two themes. One recalls the words of Emil Brunner, “The Revelation of God is not a book or a doctrine but a living person.” We are those people who believe this living person, Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, is present wherever two or three are gathered in his name. What will it mean to make our full commitment to Him? What will it mean to allow God in Christ to transform us according to His will, not ours? And finally, what must we leave behind to move forward with Him?

If we are to grow, individually or as a parish community, it will not be by holding on to “things as they are.” The promise, however, is that those who truly are willing to accept God’s invitation, let go and let God transform us and make us a new people, will enjoy the familial intimacy with God that is characteristic of the living person of Christ and of God’s Kingdom! Amen.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Let Your Heart Be Light

18 January 2008 * Epiphany 2B
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland

Let Your Heart Be Light

One never knows where one will find inspiration – which literally means breathing in, as in, “Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit.” Inspiration literally means to breathe in. So we are meant to breathe in the Holy Spirit.

Which I must have been doing during a quick run through Barnes and Noble looking for a book I had heard about but did not know the title, author or any other pertinent information! But there on the cut-out table, marked down 50% was a tiny little book – it was the illustrated lyrics of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, first preformed by Judy Garland in the film, Meet Me In St. Louis.

When I flipped this tiny book over, on the flyleaf were the lyric, “Let your heart be light.” Well, I thought, that is really what these seasons of Epiphany and Christmas are all about – letting our hearts be Light.

So much so that on the First Sunday after Christmas we prayed, “Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives.”

Just as today we pray, that “Christ is the Light of the World…Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory…”

Enkindle – to stir up, fire up, inspire, rouse, awaken, ignite, instill, incite! It is all a way of saying that the Incarnation in which the Word becomes flesh and moves into the neighborhood does so by taking up residence in our hearts – the Light that is the Life of all persons resides within us, at our center. He makes a home in our hearts.

This light of each person is not meant for themselves, but meant for all, that all might see better the other gifts of creation. It is what Jesus talks about when he urges us not to hide this light, not to put it under a bushel, but to put it on a lamp-stand so it will give light to the whole household – which in Biblical terms is always meant “the Household of God.”

It is oiko in the Greek – from which we get words like economy (oiko-nomos, law of the household), and ecology (oiko-logie, study of the household, understood as the environment in which we live).

The idea is that we have all been given the gift of Light which is the Life of the world, Jesus. And that in giving it away, letting go of what we already have, is what gives us eternal life in return. It is the Light of Life. This Light is what unites us with God in Christ. And it is meant to give Light and Life to the whole world, everyone, all people.

To hold onto this Light, to hold onto our gifts, results in a world that is upside down from God’s view of things. So God came to us as Jesus to turn us right-side up again!

We have difficulties with all this. We find it difficult to believe God would give us a gift at all – so we hold onto it for dear life lest God stop giving us his Word, his Sacraments, his Light, and his Life.

Little do we suspect what difficulties this causes for others in the household. So much so that others begin to find it difficult to see the Light that shines within them. This causes the entire household to slip into darkness, a return to the darkness that covered the whole of the face of the world - before God spoke and there was Light.

Yet, we are those people who believe and pray that this Light is already enkindled, instilled, stirred up within all hearts everywhere. We need to believe what we pray and what God’s Word and Sacraments mean to instill and enkindle in our own hearts.

The story is told of the Preacher who went about town preaching, “Put God into your life. Put God into your life!” But the Holy Rabbi of the town said, “Our task is not to put God into our lives. God is already there. Our task is simply to realize that!”

God is the ground of our being. The relationship between God and creature is such that, by sheer grace, separation is not possible. God does not know how to be absent. God is always at home. We are the ones who are not at home. We are not at home, even within ourselves.

Centering Prayer is one way we begin to see the Light that is already enkindled in our hearts. Centering Prayer is one way of coming home to God – the God who is Light and Life, the God who is always at home. The first language of God is silence – the silence of Centering Prayer.

Know, my sisters, my brothers, little by little – it takes time – Jesus will reveal to you how much he is with you all the time.

He calls you to follow him
So that you may do something beautiful with your life and bear much fruit.
The world needs you, the Church needs you, Jesus needs you.
They need your love and your Light.
There is a hidden place in your heart where Jesus lives.
This is a deep secret you are called to live.
Let Jesus live in you.
Go forward with him!

Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas,
Let your Heart be Light.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Coming To The Light

4 January 2008/Christmas 2 * Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23/Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland
Welcoming The Light
We have shifted for a short time into the Gospel landscape of Matthew. It is a story of angelic messages delivered in dreams. It is a story without shepherds, without a manger, with no mention of other animals. It is a story that features three strangers, undocumented aliens from Persia or thereabouts – Magi, whatever such a word might conjure in our imaginations: astronomers, magicians, inquirers, maybe even the first century equivalent of scientists! They come following and seeking The Light, the Word, the logos, and they say it, “the Christ.”

And it is a story of a gathering darkness and danger featuring the irritability and selfishness of all human tyrants in the person of Herod. For Israel, Herod and his family represent the failures of the last attempt to convert gentiles into the world of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is easy to understand that the Jewish people from the time of Herod forward cease all attempts at proselytizing and conversion!

Those familiar with the Biblical narrative will see in Herod all the negative attributes of that earlier tyrant, Pharaoh, and the tell-tale signs of all future tyrants with names like Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Amin, Hussein, Mugabe – the list is sadly endless. They will also see the child, Jesus, connected to three formative events in the history of Israel – born in Bethlehem, home to the shepherd King David; time in Egypt, the place from which the Exodus/Passover event occurred; and a reference to the Babylonian Exile.

The last, alas, obscured by the lectionary’s curious editorial choice to omit verses 16-18:
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

To edit out these verses renders the story meaningless. Rachel, of course, was one of Jacob’s wives, believed to be buried in Bethlehem; and Ramah was the place of mourning for the Exile. It seems the lectionary is a bit squeamish about presenting the genocidal slaughter of so many innocent children in the Christmas Season.

Lest we draw any wrong conclusions, Matthew offers a subtle distinction easily overlooked by the casual reader. Instead of suggesting that God in any way caused this unmitigated evil to occur, Matthew has changed his usual language to introduce Old Testament prophecy, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet…,” to “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet….” A subtle change, but a change nonetheless. As Thomas Long observes in his commentary Matthew (Westminster, John Knox Press, Louisville: 1997), this change suggests that “The message is not that God summons evil to accomplish divine purposes, but that the scripture knows the tragic human destruction written into the fabric of history, and that not even evil in its most catastrophic form, evil as cold and merciless as the murder of innocent children, can destroy God’s ability to save.” p.22

Rather than look for a silver lining, we are to join with Rachel, who represents all mothers everywhere who lose their children to such senseless tryanny, and weep over this tragic loss of life, and that the Son of God, the Light and Life of the world, is sent into exile. The terrible rage of Herod proves his helplessness, and the helplessness of all tyrants like Herod past, present and future. The child survives, returns, and lives on to this day!

We also learn something about the strategy of the Light in its unending battle to transform all darkness into Light. The light cannot be destroyed, but it can be forced to withdraw; it can be hidden; worse still it can be shut out. Surrounded as we are by great and little Herods in our day, it is easy to overlook that we must also contend with the Herod who resides in our own souls. We are all too capable of shutting out the Light that lives inside of us, and refuse to see the Light that lives inside others – all others. So often the Light remains hidden, and we too busy to stop, look and listen for its presence in our midst.

The growing number of us who come to experience Centering Prayer each Thursday evening are beginning to learn about the barriers we construct that shut us off from the God within, from others, and from our true selves. Together we sit in silence to let go of the busyness of our lives and the barriers we believe necessary to carry on such busyness, and listen quietly for the presence of the Light, the Word – the Word which becomes flesh to dwell among us.

Paul describes it in the words, “Christ lives in me.” (Gal 2: 20) Meister Eckhardt calls it, “the birth of the Son in the castle of our soul.” The Quakers call it “The Light Within.” All of them agree that this light appears “by grace.” The human soul, as it were, is its mother; the father is the eternal Spirit. At Christmas we are to celebrate this coming of the Light, this virgin birth of Christianity within each one of us.

The Holy Innocents, the victims of Herod’s holocaust, died for the Light, the Christ, though they did not know it. Their parents, like Rachel, mourned the death of these first martyrs of our faith. “The Christ child makes of those as yet unable to speak for themselves fit witnesses to himself,” wrote Quodvultdeus, Bishop of Carthage in the fifth century.

“See the kind of kingdom that is his, coming as he did in order to be this kind of king. See how the deliverer is already working deliverance, the Saviour already working salvation. But you, Herod, do not know this and are disturbed, and furious. While you vent your fury against the child, you are already paying him homage, and do not know it. How great a gift of grace is here! To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory? They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ. They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear off the palm of victory.” Quodvultdeus, Sermo 2 de Symbolo. Text: PL 40, col 655, as found in For All The Saints (Anglican Books, Toronto: 1997) p. 400.

This Second Sunday of Christmas means to ask us, Will we allow the birth of this Son in the castle of our souls? Will be let down a draw bridge across whatever moats we construct to keep Him at some distance from us? Can we join with those Holy Innocents in whatever way possible to bear witness against the Herods of our own time and place? How might we console Rachel to know that her children and all innocent victims of tyranny in fact live on in, with and through Christ throughout all generations?

Paul prays that the “eyes of your heart” be enlightened so that you may “know the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.” Ephesians 1:18-19

May Paul’s prayer and the lives of all those innocent children come alive in us this day! Amen.