24 December 2012


(a sermon for the Sunday before Christmas, 23 December 2012 -- and throughout the Christmas season. Merry Christmas to you!)

“In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting,
the child leaped in her womb.” –Luke 1:39-41

On this Sunday before Christmas, and in all these days before Christmas, I am touched by the miracle of relationship. I am touched by holy relationships, holy families, holy communities.

It starts with the touch of the gospels themselves. According to Matthew and Luke, the news of Jesus’s birth touches families first. The birth of Jesus is announced locally first.

For instance, today, when we hear the story according to Saint Luke, we hear who Mary visited when she learned she was pregnant. She went to visit someone in her extended family: her cousin, her relative, Elizabeth.

Like so many of us, cousin Elizabeth had had a hard time getting pregnant. That experience had been so wrenching for her, and for her husband, Zechariah, that Zechariah couldn’t even talk about it.  He would be struck speechless, until the day John was born. Then there would be some consternation about John’s name (surely many couples know that situation!); Zechariah would not be able to speak until he had named the child, John.

Such is just one example of the tangled difficulties of relationships. This is just one example, from scripture, but we all know others. Family homes can be difficult places. You have all heard my old joke about families; it’s actually from my own cousin, who returned from time with his own family one summer. And he asked, “Do you know the biggest oxymoron in the world? The biggest self-contradiction around?” Then he said, “It is the phrase, ‘family vacation.’”

Even this time of year, when the world plays out delightful images of happiness and delight, everywhere we turn, we see that times can be tough. Households are arguing, too; and pain and disappointment also raise their anxious heads among us.

This is why I am touched, every year by this day, the Sunday before Christmas. I see how Jesus appears, not just in the miracle of an angel’s announcement, but in the miracle of community – in the miracle of relationships – holy relationships.

Let’s start with Mary. Mary’s journey toward a holy birth is much like the journey of each of us. We are familiar with her demure and deep faith. When she learns that she is pregnant, she is afraid and perplexed. But she finds the faith to reply, “Let it be. Let it be to me according to your word.”

Her response is the response of so many women, generation after generation in this world, all over the world. Even unexpectedly, pregnancy happens; and it takes faith.

And this day is about Joseph, her husband. The gospel of Matthew tells the story completely from his point of view. In Matthew’s version of the story, the angel appears not to Mary but to Joseph. And talk about fear and perplexity! Joseph, too, ends up having to have faith in something beyond himself. He has to have faith in what is going on inside another person. That is a miracle, too, to have faith in what is going on in another person.

And this day is about still another person in Mary’s circle of family relationships: Elizabeth, the cousin of Mary. She is an extended family member; and she, too, is familiar with the miracle of childbirth. She adds her own story of patience and perplexity.

How does it happen? How does the miracle of life happen? Well, it happens in all sorts of ways. In dreams. With angels. In the daylight, in happiness. And at night, when we feel speechless and abandoned. But however conception occurs, however it occurs, it is usually a miracle. Mothers, fathers, lovers, know this. It’s a miracle.

The Sunday before Christmas, then, is about miracles. And these miracles always develop out of relationships, family relationships, community relationships. It is not just one woman who carries and bears the birth of Jesus. It is a household, a wider family, a broader community.  The incarnation occurs in community.

Each of us needs holy community. Today, what I want the world to know, is that each of us needs holy community. Holy community is where our husband or wife has faith in us. Holy community is where our lover has faith in us. Holy community is where our confused cousin greets us. Holy community is where someone we don’t even know, another baby in a womb, leaps for joy at our presence.

And holy community is where we go when the world seems violent and erratic. For instance, last weekend, after the horror of the school shooting in Connecticut, another amazing and dramatic thing happened. It was reported to some extent, but it would have been impossible to report on every detail.

Last weekend, after the shooting, millions of people across our country made their way to holy communities of faith. We journeyed to mosques on Friday, to temples on Saturday, to churches on Sunday. We went to these holy communities out of holy routine, for sure, but we also longed for some word, for some presence, for some holy miracle that would remind us of life even in the midst of death. We wanted to touch each other We needed to touch life-giving community.

I was not scheduled to preach last Sunday, and I prayed for local pastors and priests and ministers last weekend all over the world. Most of their words will never be reported in the big time press. But their words were where the action was last weekend. Every faithful pastor and minister was leading and comforting a holy community. Personally, I was looking forward to hearing my colleagues; I was needing to hear them! And I was not disappointed; I was proud of them.

I salute every one of those unrecognized and faithful pastors – and preachers and rabbis and imams—who gathered local holy community last weekend. That kind of holy community takes time and patience and strength to develop, and it is a miracle.

Finally, this Sunday before Christmas is also fun for me, because today is a great example of our Cathedral holy community. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we will have all sorts of people here. We welcome visitors –and I so like to do that!

But on this Sunday, most of the people here are regular community members. This is like a homecoming Sunday. This is a bit like a family reunion, our household dinner before all the rest of the people show up, where we can hug each other. We’re missing some people, for sure, and we do like all the guests who will show up later. But I am touched by something holy and miraculous here now.

This is a holy day. This is a holy community. It began years ago when God dared to touch the world. God chose to be real, to touch us, to become incarnate. However, God did not touch only Mary. God touched, and became, community. God became family and household member.

God became not just your child, but also your mother and your father, your brother and your sister. God became your cousin and your forgotten friend. God became that stranger who will be sitting beside you in the next few days somewhere.

God is in those neighbors and strangers who are sitting beside you right now. God is touching you in holy community. Today is the Feast of Holy Community, and our souls magnify the Lord. Our spirits rejoice in God our Savior.


13 December 2012


Alan Light has written a book about my hero, Leonard Cohen, titled The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah.” Actually, the book is really about how the song “Hallelujah” (written by Leonard Cohen) became so powerful.

I have yet to read the book, but I will. In one way, I don’t need to read it, because I already know the song. The song is said to have been undiscovered until Jeff Buckley resurrected it; but I, and many other Leonard Cohen fans, sure knew it. We have heard Cohen himself sing it in different ways. He is said to have written some 80 verses of the song before deciding on the four that occur in his album, Various Positions (1985); he has sung others since. And whatever the number of verses, one of those verses will always be:

There's a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah!

Advent, and even Christmas, can be times for brokenness. Broken toys, for instance. There will be some broken toys this Christmastide, startling introductions for children to the way the rest of their lives will be.

Broken promises. Maybe it was a gift that you were promised last year. Maybe it was something you promised several months ago that you just cannot fulfill now. Broken plans. One family member wanted to visit one in-law, but the other family member had another in-law in mind. Maybe some illness prevented the perfect plan. “My water has broken,” she said. That means a birth is coming, doesn’t it? Advent is, indeed, about a birth coming, but something has to break first.

The season itself is broken, isn’t it? We don’t know whether we are supposed to be still lingering over Thanksgiving, or being joyful, or refraining from singing Christmas carols because it’s not really Christmas yet. Are we supposed to be happy now, or preparing for something else? We don’t know.

Well, in the midst of whatever has broken this December, let me assure you that something holy is here. In fact, the most holy pieces of our lives are often the most broken pieces. I mean our hearts, our lives, even our hopes and dreams. We’ve all lost things in our life’s journey. I believe that what makes a place holy is that we have lost something there; we have given up something. What makes a life holy is that it knows how to lose things. One reason graveyards are holy is because they represent lost lives. Churches are holy because we give up things there; I hope we give up our lives there.

The Hallelujah that emerges from brokenness is a holy Hallelujah; it is a genuine Hallelujah. That’s why the Book of Psalms is so full of Hallelujahs; those psalms are as much about sadness and loss as they are about hope and victory. They are holy.

So, don’t be afraid if something breaks this Advent, of even if you break something. That brokenness can be an occasion for holiness. It can be an occasion to sing Hallelujah. When Jesus came into the world so long ago, the world itself was overturned. Mary said “God has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” In fact, the power of sin was broken. The power of death was broken, simply in that miraculous birth. In the end, brokenness is the real reason we sing Hallelujah: the brokenness between God and humanity is healed! The division is made one. God is made flesh in Jesus Christ our Lord. Hallelujah!

(This article originally appeared at Episcopal Cafe on 12 December 2012. Check it out!)

05 December 2012


He was one of my early piano heroes, and I continue to envy his powerful hands. Take five, Dave, take a break. You were Resurrection and Life to me, and you have earned eternal life now.

Here is the song that always fascinated me, Blue Rondo a la Turk. I was delighted to take the AP music exam in high school (1974!) and realize that this very song was on the exam that year -- something about its time signature (9/8). Since I knew the song so well, I did well on the exam. Thanks again!

03 December 2012


(my sermon from the First Sunday of Advent, 2 December 2012)

Luke 21:25-36

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:25-28)

Every year about this time, I feel I owe an explanation to people who are new to the Church. I don’t mean new to just any church – but to the classical Christian Church, the old one, the one that has been steadily struggling in this world for almost two thousand years. I mean churches in the orthodox, classical tradition, who say the Nicene Creed and who follow an established seasonal pattern of bible readings every week. I mean our church, The Episcopal Church.

I know it seems different in here this morning. I know that, just last week, we were lazily observing Thanksgiving and the warm occasions of family and food. I know that many of us are now getting ready for Christmas, and our houses are decorated, and we have trees and mistletoe up. I know that many of us are still recovering from the dramatic SEC championship football game yesterday.

During this crowded season of family expectations, and of all manner of attempts to be happy and fruitful, and of all kinds of over-served parties and preparations, I am honored that you are in church today! Maybe you are hoping that church will have something cozy and heartwarming to help you in this pre-Christmas season journey.

Instead, you get this: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting from fear and foreboding” (Luke 21:25-26). In here, in the Church, it’s the First Sunday of Advent, one of the most countercultural of our Christian seasons.

Yes, countercultural. The culture around us, quite obviously, wants us to be happy and gay, to buy presents and decorations this way and that. And we like doing that, most of us do. It’s a fun season. I kind of wish I had my Christmas Tree already up!

But, like she always does, the Church in her wisdom advises preparation before celebration. The Church counsels reflection before mayhem. Like many sports, the Church advises a preseason before the regular season.

Advent is the preseason. The season of Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas Day, is the time for self-reflection, for a renewal of strength and identity, which will make Christmas all the merrier. Essentially, that’s all I need to say today, especially to those who are new to the classical Christian church. We are in preseason mode here; we have learned, over time, that preseasons help. Prayer and preparation ahead of celebration make for healthy people. It keeps us alert and astute.

Thus, our gospel lessons during these four Sundays ahead of Christmas always show us how other people have imagined the coming of God. Obviously, at Christmas, we will observe the birth of Jesus  -the coming of God! – into our world. It helps us, therefore, to consider how people before us have imagined how that coming might occur.

And on this First Sunday of Advent, we remind ourselves that for a lot of human history and time, people have imagined the coming of God in some dramatic, and scary ways, even some violent and crazy ways.  “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory,” says Saint Luke (Luke 21:25-27).

Many of the ways that our ancestors imagined the coming of God turned out to be wrong. In fact, in every generation, there are those who believe they are living in the last days, right then and there, that Jesus is returning on such and such a particular date; and the coming of God will soon overturn everything. So far, they have been wrong every time.

Or have they?

It may be that, in some mysterious way, we are always living in the last days. After all, Jesus did say, “This generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” I believe he meant that each of us, in every generation, undergoes the experience of things passing away, and of the earth being reborn, and of ourselves being reborn, by the coming of God.

The season of Advent reminds us that things are always being shaken and distressed and overturned. Yet, Jesus says that those times are also times of redemption.  The kingdom of God is near, he says. So, the kingdom of God does not appear just in a lovely little stable manger of nostalgia. The kingdom of God is near when things are being shaken and overturned, too. It takes some preparation and some history to see this; it takes some sturdy preseason practice.

The Church is here to provide that sturdy preseason practice. We say our prayers and sing our preseason songs like football players do their calisthenics and practice their snaps before the actual game. We know the plays in our heads (most of us do), but we need those plays to become habits in our souls, something like muscle memory in our souls.

And what is the game? What is it that we Christians are actually preparing for? Amidst all this other hoopla and decoration and cultural drama, what is it that we hope for? What do we want to see?

I believe, at heart, each of us wants to see the coming of God. We don’t call it that, usually. But we do call it love, and we do call it peace. We want something of God’s love and peace to be so very present to us.

Advent, and the First Sunday of Advent, reminds us that sometimes we are prevented from noticing the coming of God because of our own fear and anxiety. We see all the signs –in the sun, the moon, the stars, the earth—that look a lot like chaos and confusion; but we fail to notice that redemption is always drawing near even in those events.

What we miss, so often this time of year, is the ability to notice: the ability to be alert, the ability to stand strong.

In each of the gospel accounts which discuss the dramatic second coming of Jesus, whenever that is supposed to be, the key admonition of Jesus is something like: “Be alert.” Or be watchful. Stay awake. It is the “being alert” that leads to strength.

Be alert! And you will see the coming of God in all sorts of ways, even now, before Christmas, and even during times that look like chaos and confusion. The rest of the world will be fainting from fear and foreboding; but Advent Christians are awake and alert.

I smile when I hear that phrase, “fainting from fear and foreboding.” It reminds me of a wonderful story, told by one of the great story tellers of our time. Sadly, he died about twenty years ago, way too soon. He was a Jewish rabbi and a family systems therapist, and I believe he knew more about fear and anxiety than almost anyone I have ever met.

His name was Edwin Friedman; and, often, he taught by using parables – just like Jesus did, actually. In stories, he was able to teach us how to be alert, how to maintain strong identity in a world of fear and anxiety.

Listen to this story, my abbreviated version of his parable on the falling dominoes:

Once upon a time (Friedman writes), there was a long line of dominoes, standing close to one another, and circling back finally upon itself. Every now and then, one would shake, but generally they stood, careful not to start any dreaded, unstoppable chain reaction.

But then one day it happened. A single domino teetered, shook, and fell flat upon his neighbor. The dreaded process began. Confusion and chaos. Hundreds of dominoes began to fall, all on top of each other. Friedman writes that the anxiety became so great that some even fell before the wave arrived. Their fear and foreboding made them fall before the wave even hit them! (That’s where I apply Luke 21:26 – “people will faint from fear and foreboding!”)

Well, each domino pondered and calculated how he might hold up, or push back, his neighbor when the wave would finally come! But inevitability prevailed. Hopelessness reigned.

When suddenly… suddenly things stopped. They stopped with such resounding force, that at first the cumulative energy pushed backwards and created a ricochet. Then the wave went backward, all the way back around the system until the last one fell against the other side of the one domino that did not go down. Still again, the process reversed itself, this time milder, so that the dominos ended up straight back up again!

The entire episode happened quickly. “What happened?” they all asked. They turned to the one domino who had not fallen. “How did you do it? What formula did you use? How did you calculate the proper measure?”

“I’m not sure what the difference was,” said the domino that had not been dominoed. “All I can say is that while each of you kept trying to hold your neighbor up, my concern was that I did not go down.” (for the exact parable, see Edwin Friedman, Friedman’s Fables, New York: The Guilford Press, 1990, pp. 175-178).

That’s the end of the parable. Ed Friedman later wrote down the moral of this parable. What is the moral? He said: “Put your own oxygen mask on first.”

What do you do when someone in your family panics? What do you do when someone in your own family complains too much? When someone is causing trouble? What do you do when the whole world around you seems out of control with fear and foreboding, and falling and fainting all over each other?

Ed Friedman’s parable reminds us to say our own prayers, put our own oxygen masks on first, practice in the preseason of Advent, learn to be alert at all times. Then, the waves of negativism and defeat actually stop with you. The wave of anxiety stops with you. You do not need to fall down in despondency.

In those moments, the kingdom of God has come very near to you. The kingdom of God does not arrive when we act just as despondently and carelessly and drunkenly as the rest of the world, falling all over each other in our anxiety. The kingdom of God arrives when we have the courage and alertness to stand up strong.

Listen again to this gospel for today, and its final words:

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:34–36).

“Be alert,” says Jesus, “Stand,” and this preseason of Advent will be an occasion to see the coming of God.


01 December 2012


Generation after generation, we all think our personal anxieties imply the end of the entire world. This article from The New York Times ought to be required reading for the First Sunday of Advent.