Monday, December 25, 2006

Before the paling of the stars

Notes for a Christmas homily....

This Christmas I got something unexpected in the mail – a shoebox, for women’s pumps, black, size 7-1/2 B. Inside the box were three half-pound packages of Old Bisbee Roasters’ coffee.

There was a note. My friend Colleen made sure to tell me that the roaster ‘wants to have a personal relationship’—with me.

There was also a Christmas card. The outside had a cartoon of a little boy, presumably in a Christmas pageant, with a blanket on his head. It was captioned “What Christmas is really about.” Linus, Charlie Brown’s little brother, was reciting from the 2nd chapter of the Gospel of Luke:

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them… And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste…

The shepherds are not passive viewers; they take an active part in the story. And this is their action moment, when they speak, “Let us go down to Bethlehem…” and move toward the promised Child.

What did they go into the City of David to see?

Was the Child a nascent hero, like Hercules? Children’s books say that when Hercules was a baby he was already a super-hero. He strangled snakes in his cradle. And who knows what he got up to when he began to walk – but:

The Christ Child was not Superbaby—he was a real baby. He was vulnerable and soft. His surroundings, warm and fragrant from the animals, were none of his choosing. He was dependent on those around him. Joseph and Mary looked after him. But as we know from the story of the shepherds, he was already drawing toward him those who sought the peace of God. He was the promised Child, the shepherd-king of Isaiah 40:

Comfort, oh comfort My people, Says your God.

Like a shepherd He pastures His flock: He gathers the lambs in His arms
And carries them in His bosom; Gently He drives the mother sheep.
(Isaiah 40:1,11 JPS)

Long ago and far, far away another shepherd abiding in the fields was keeping watch over the flocks by night: Cuthbert, an eighteen-year-old man of 9th century Northumbria. He used to sing the psalms to the sheep at night. And then one night he had a vision, or perhaps a dream, and the next morning he went down the hills to Melrose, where he became a monk. The story goes that that was the very night when Aidan, founder of Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island, had died.

After some years as a monk, Cuthbert was sent to take Aidan’s place. And so he traveled on Cuthbert’s Way, over the hills again, to the Holy Island. There he found behind the priory a beach and across a small inlet of the North Sea a very small rocky islet. At night when the tide was low he would wade out to it, gaze back across the water to the priory where the monks were sleeping, and as they slept he would sing the psalms. “Like a shepherd he pastures his flock…”

The call to Melrose and the call to the priory were moments of decision for Cuthbert. He took action, and got involved in the story. He became a shepherd of men. In doing so, he recalled to mind the Lord that he served – that we serve: Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

The shepherds of Bethlehem went into town to see if Jesus really was the Messiah they’d been waiting for. And they found him:

The Shepherd King,
Who calls each of us by name,
Who watches over his flock,
And sings to them of Paradise.

A Christmas Carol

Before the paling of the stars
Before the winter morn
Before the earliest cockcrow
Jesus Christ was born:
Born in a stable
Cradled in a manger,
In the world His Hands had made
Born a Stranger.

Priest and King lay fast asleep
In Jerusalem,
Young and Old lay fast asleep
In crowded Bethlehem:
Saint and Angel, Ox and Ass
Kept a watch together
Before the Christmas daybreak
In the winter weather.

Jesus on His Mother’s breast
In the stable cold,
Spotless Lamb of God was He,
Shepherd of the Fold:
Let us kneel with Mary Maid
With Joseph bent and hoary
With Saint and Angel, Ox and Ass
To hail the King of Glory.

Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems (2001) 564-565.

Christmas Eve 2006 10pm Holy Trinity, Willows
Christmas Day 2006 10am Trinity Cathedral, Sacramento

Luke 1:39-49 (50-56)
Luke 2:1-20 The Nativity of Our Lord
John 1:1-14 (15-18)

Christmas 2006

Thursday, December 21, 2006

one good big fish

Doubting Thomas

The human one is like a wise fisherman who cast his net into the sea and drew it up from the sea full of little fish. Among them the wise fisherman discovered a fine large fish. He threw all the little fish back into the sea, and easily chose the large fish. Anyone here with two good ears had better listen!

—The Gospel of Thomas, 8:1-4, Scholars Version translation, in Robert W. Funk et al., eds., The Five Gospels (Polebridge Press/Macmillan, 1993), p. 477

A fisherman drew in the dragnet he had cast only a short time before. As luck would have it, it was filled with all kinds . The small fish made for the bottom of the net and escaped through its porous mesh. The large fish were trapped and lay stretched out in the boat. —Aesop, The Five Gospels, p. 478.


The skeptics at the Jesus Seminar doubt that Jesus really said that – maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. It sounds more like Aesop than Jesus. Probably someone added it later – to the apocryphal gospel of Thomas.

About all that they are sure Jesus said, that is recorded in the gospel of Thomas, is this:

The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us what Heaven’s imperial rule is like.” He said to them, It’s like a mustard seed. the smallest of all seeds, but when it falls on prepared soil, it produces a large plant and becomes a shelter for birds of the sky.

—The Gospel of Thomas, 20:1-4.


Jesus said, “Congratulations to the poor, for to you belongs Heaven’s domain.”

—The Gospel of Thomas, 54:1

And, last:

They showed Jesus a gold coin and said to him, “The Roman emperor’s people demand taxes from us.” He said to them, “Give the emperor what belongs to the emperor, give God what belongs to God, and give me what is mine.”

—The Gospel of Thomas, 100:1-4

What we know about Thomas – and what we think we know – are two different things.

We think he doubted – but we know he made the astonishing faith statement, affirming the divinity of Christ, the first apostle to so openly declare it, “My Lord and My God!”

We think of him as a skeptic, a dour, sober disciple; we know he was willing to go up to Jerusalem with Jesus, if only to be crucified with him. Is this a statement of doubt – or of faith? Even if Jesus is marching to his death, Thomas will walk alongside his Master.

We think of Thomas as the first of a long line of people who needed tangible proof, a scientific demonstration, in order to believe in the resurrection. We know he was so sure the resurrection would be a physical reality that he demanded to see with his own eyes, and to put his hand into the wound in Jesus’ side. If it were Jesus in the resurrected body, it would be the same person he knew in the flesh.

We think of Thomas as a doubter, in short. We know he was a person of faith.

We think of him as an apostle, one of the twelve. We know he traveled to bring the faith. Faraway lands claim him. The Mar Thoma Christians of southern India can point you to his grave.

What we have from Thomas, finally, is not a dead-letter Jesus but a living Christ. And we know that Christ is calling us, too, to be people of faith, to think, to know, and to live the Gospel.

The journey can be perilous. How do you think the imperial powers would react to “render unto Caesar”? What does it mean to be blessed, to be one to whom the kingdom of God belongs?

It doesn’t take much to start. Faith is, after all, like a mustard seed.

A Franciscan Benediction:

May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts.

May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of all people, so that we may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and turn their pain to joy.

May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done.

December 21, 2006.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

waiting for the delivery truck

C Advent 3 Gaudate Sunday 2006

Yesterday I observed a familiar holiday ritual: waiting for the delivery truck.

Today I want to read you a story about a group of people who were the recipients of a delivery they did not expect, from a person they never thought they'd see.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Chapter Ten:
"always winter and never Christmas"
"Aslan is on the move!"
"Merry Christmas! Long live the true King!"

They were expecting not a delivery but deliverance, and they were on their way to meet their deliverer, when unexpectedly they met his fore-runner.

Like John the Baptist, he called the people to repent, to change direction, that is, and he called them to rejoice.

They are preparing for their meeting with the true King, and their preparation involves receiving gifts - not toys but tools - that they will need for their part in ushering in (or restoring) the real Kingdom.

Like these beavers and boys and girls in Narnia, we must prepare to meet the one true King.

Let every heart prepare him room!

We are given gifts - tools - to wield or wear as we prepare. We are given strange gifts - that seem curious or merely pleasant, until the time is ripe to use them.

John the Baptist preached a gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He gave practical, radical advice to each group that came to him. They wanted to get on the right side of God. Anticipating the wrath to come, they asked, "What shall we do?"

Produce fruits that give evidence of repentance, he said to them. He told them each to do something that showed indelibly that they were IN the Kingdom, that they were living as citizens of the real kingdom, and leaving the claims of Rome - of the earthly powers - as merely conditional, temporal, a means to an un-earthly end.

And John the Baptist warned the Baptized. He gave them the familiar washing, cleansing ritual, a sign that they were turning from their sins, reorienting their lives toward God.

But - after him is coming one who would change everything, just as fire transforms what it burns. The whole created order would be made new.

The fruits of the earth will be gathered - to be stored in heavenly barns.

He - he who is coming - will separate the wheat from the chaff.

We are asked to do no less in our own lives: to winnow out, with fan or fork, what we bring forth as the product of our turning, turning home - to God...

To leave aside, leave behind, everything that does not matter, not really: and, cleanse our hearts, make ready our homes,

-- Maybe even put out some cookies and a glass of milk -

For the unexpected visitor
We somehow still expect to arrive, in our hearts, this Christmas Eve.


Sunday 17 December 2006
St. Paul's Church, Benicia, California.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Saint Nicholas and the sailor suit

Not much is known about the historical Saint Nicholas, except that he brought me
a sailor suit when I was four. This gift, albeit made through the proxy of my
great-aunt Carol, bore two of the marks of the saint's generosity. It showed his
love of children, and his patronage of sailors. The gifts of the saint himself,
however, bore two more marks: they aided a person in getting clear of a place of
personal distress or difficulty, and they guided the receiver toward holiness.

I am thinking particularly of the legends surrounding his rescue of sailors in
danger of shipwreck, where he came to them during a storm at sea, and of the
stories of his gifts that enabled poor children, and young women, to gain their
freedom instead of becoming victims of human trafficking. In the case of the
young women, at least, there was the further effort to rescue them for a life of
holiness - as opposed to the debauchery to which they were otherwise to be

What we really know about Nicholas, bishop of Myra (in Asia Minor) in the fourth
century, is very little. His service in holy orders began under the persecution
of the church, and he survived into the period of toleration. So he is a bridge
between the church of the martyrs and the church of the Caesars.

Nicholas is known, most of all, for his generosity and charity - and for his
concern for the welfare of the poor, the oppressed and forgotten. And in his
day, the most forgotten were the children - all but ignored, the odds against
them surviving childhood, even infancy.

Jesus said, "Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will
never enter it." It is as if Jesus were telling us that we must be as dependent
on others, on the grace of God surely, as a helpless infant must be.

Confronted with this helplessness of childhood, the pagan world turned an
indifferent, stoic face. The church, led by saints like Nicholas, saw in each
child the face of God. Mortality - which worldly society could not abide - the
church took in as its own. To be able to accept, even embrace, suffering and
death, as its Lord and Savior had, was a gift that the Church, for all its own
human weakness, began to give to the world.

Of course we recognize we are not adequate to care for, or embrace, or
comprehend, the suffering of others on our own. We know we must rely on God's

God, whom prophets and mystics hailed as Mother.

"Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of
her womb? Even these may forget, yet I - God assures us - will not forget you."
(Isaiah 49:15)

Indeed, as the lady Julian of Norwich said, "This fair lovely word 'mother' is
so sweet and so kind in itself that it cannot truly be said of anyone or to
anyone except of him and to him who is the true mother of life and of all
things." (Showings, 60)

And so, as we proceed into the season when we prepare to welcome the Christ
Child into the world, let us also pray to God, as the Rosh Hashanah liturgy
prompts us, "If you regard us as your children, have mercy on us as a father to
his child."

And may we welcome each child in this, God's world, with the generosity and
compassion of Saint Nicholas, as we would welcome its infant King.

Mark 10 13-16
Saint Nicholas 2006 Trinity Cathedral Sacramento