Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Eve 2010

Tradition at All Saints' Episcopal Church, here in Littleton NH, is a 7PM Eucharist service for New Year's Eve.

Did I mention it was OUTSIDE???!!!

I didn't do it my first year, since it was only brought up in hadn't been done recently, and perhaps the congregation thought it might be too much, 2 weeks into a new ministry that included Christmas services, to have the new guy do an outdoor winter evening service in Northern New Hampshire...

(Perhaps they were afraid I'd pack my bags and move to Florida!)

Lat year, however, 19 of us gathered on a cold December 31st night, to have a short Eucharist service under the Gazebo at Remich Park, a few blocks up the street from the church.

It was REALLY cold...but I have to tell you...I found the occasion to be powerful in a simple and beautiful kind of way!

There was something really peaceful about being gathered there together in the darkness and cold. We used the special "An Order for Celebrating the Holy Eucharist" found in the Prayerbook. We all held candles (a tiny bit of warmth). We shared a Gospel verse about being light in the world and talked about it for a few minutes (fitting on the final day of the year and holding our candles). We prayed for the world, greeted one another in the name of peace, shared the common meal, and before we knew it, we were sent on our way to "be Christ's hands and heart in this world."

I have a different reading for tonight, but otherwise it's the same service. It's not supposed to be as cold, but we have to trudge through the 2 feet of snow to get to the Gazebo.

Actually, I'm looking forward to it....

Happy New Year!


Monday, December 27, 2010

Digital Christmas

A few creative ways to share the Christmas Story digitally!

Bravo to and

(and thanks to You Tube)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Joseph's Moment

(A Sermon on Matthew 1:18:25 for the 4th Sunday of Advent, preached at All Saints' Littleton, 12/19/2010)

A sermon does not always end up as it intended...

This morning, for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we get our only pre-Christmas Gospel story.

In the year of the Gospel of Matthew, the focus is on Joseph.

Only in the Gospel of Matthew tells us anything about Joseph. He is never mentioned in the Gospels of Mark or John. The Gospel of Luke places Joseph in three stories: in the traditional account of traveling to Bethlehem for the census, at the temple for the newborn ritual, and in the story of the young Jesus who stays behind in the temple for three days on his own. In all of these stories, Joseph is simply there, but almost as an afterthought. While we learn a little about what Mary is thinking in these stories, we are never told anything about Joseph except in statements like “and the child’s father and mother were amazed”. Joseph almost always remains unnamed. You can make the argument that, in Luke, only Joseph’s attendance matters...and just barely.

The Gospel of Matthew, in turn, barely mentions Mary outside of Joseph’s context. In fact, it is in this morning’s Gospel account where Mary is mentioned the most. Every other time, Mary is mentioned only as being with the child. Joseph is told in a few post-birth dreams, “Joseph, get up, take the child, and his mother, and go somewhere...” Mary matters little in the Gospel of Matthew.

Today, we consider Joseph’s moment.

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

Matthew makes two clear points to his audience: the child is not Joseph’s, and the child was not conceived in the usual matter. It should be noted that Matthew, having told us that Joseph and Mary were engaged, has to tell us additionally that this is “before they lived together.” In the first century Judaism, when a couple became engaged, they would then soon live together, before they were married. It was actually not uncommon for a woman to become pregnant after engagement, but before the formal marriage.

Now, here’s Joseph’s moment:

19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

In a single sentence, Matthew suggests a great deal about Joseph’s character. For a young Jewish man, after study of Scripture, there could be no greater focal point of one’s life than engagement and marriage (and you can imagine which parents were most likely to focus on with their sons). Joseph would have dreamed about the day when his wife-to-be would finally be given to him in formal engagement. He most certainly hoped that she would become the most treasured possession of his life. For a moment, suspend the problem our 21st century self should have with this reality, and try to focus on how devastating it must have been for Joseph to find Mary to be with child (remember, he does not know about the Holy Spirit’s role in all of this). For Joseph, this meant personal betrayal, public embarrassment, and a shattering of the dream and vision that he had for himself.

Now, Joseph had all of the power here: he could have had Mary charged with adultery: in other words, he likely could have pressed to have her executed. Even if he didn’t go that far, Mary’s value in 1st century life was based on her suitability for marriage...a few words from Joseph would have ruined her.

Joseph’s decision to “dismiss her quietly” meant that Mary’s family would have likely been able to find someone, likely a man of lower social class, to quickly marry her and claim the child as his own. So long as she was not publicly exposed, she could have still found a place in the culture. Joseph was willing to keep his sense of betrayal and hurt to himself, because, as the text says, “he was righteous man”.

While Matthew’s point is to come away with a positive view Joseph’s character, I think now is the time to admit that the story invokes great sadness and anger in me, on so many levels: how hard and unfair it must have been for women at this time! What makes it worse is that there are still plenty of places in the world where this is all still true, and even more where the mentality survives. I can also see other parallels, where the brokenness shown in this story still exists within our own culture towards people we have power over, and tend to either publicly disgrace or dismiss quietly because they do not meet our expectations.

Part of our charge as 21st century Bible readers is to both understand what the Bible is saying in its context AND not dismiss the limitations that the Bible illustrates of people at various moments in history. Taking this passage seriously should lead to both a positive understanding of Joseph’s character and empathy for the women of Joseph’s time. I think it also leads to a thirst for justice and change.

I didn’t intend for this to be the point of this morning’s sermon, but perhaps it’s not surprising that it has become so, amidst a flurry of Congressional activity this week, which included yesterday’s repealing of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and the failed vote on the Dream Act, concerning some legal status to benefit children who were brought illegally by their parents to either attend college or enlist in the military.

In both of these, we have multifaceted realities where mostly well intentioned people with power are directly determining the fates of those with status beneath them.

I could not escape the parallels with today’s Gospel...

I’ll still finish the story:

20But just when (Joseph) had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’

It is in a dream that Joseph comes to understand the truth: Mary has not betrayed him...instead, God is doing something wonderful through her. Joseph has a choice: he can dismiss Mary quietly, and pursue the vision that he has always had for himself. Or, he can go forward in God’s vision along with Mary, letting go of the way things have always been done to instead embrace the new thing that God is doing.

For a righteous man, there really only one choice to be made...

24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Pink Advent Candle

(A sermon given at All Saints' Littleton on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, 12/12/2010)

The General Ordination Exams of the Episcopal Church, the GOE’s, are taken in January of your final year of seminary. These are a series of essays over a week’s period of time. Some were open notes and sources, which meant you needed to cite your work and quickly provide concrete examples, while others were closed: only your brain (and sometimes a Bible or the Prayer Book) was allowed.

There use to be a section of the exam referred to as the “Coffee Hour Questions”: they were random questions, potentially on anything, that a parishioner might come up and ask you. Most of these questions, however, were not seeking a pastoral response, but a factual response: who is so and so, and what does such and such mean. Oh yeah, no notes or sources were allowed on this section. You were supposed to be ready for what people might ask you “after church”: in an unknown parish, potentially anywhere in the Episcopal Church, and at any time of the year. Well, only about 10,000 years of history and theology to potentially worry about. Even if you limited your cramming session for this exam to the time of Jesus, that’s still 2000 years of things to remember!

Now, in real life, when someone asks me a Church question I don’t know, I respond “I’m not really sure, but I know how to find out. Why don’t we meet in the office sometime this week and we can talk about it?” Or, since we’re wireless here at All Saints’, I can respond: “give me a moment to Google it…” That’s a reasonable response: after all, very few people really expect a priest to be a walking church encyclopedia (which is a really, really good thing…)

Answers like these, however, do not earn any credit on the GOE’s. So, on this exam, you’d have to fake your way though answers you didn’t completely know, hoping you’d get enough stuff right (and sound confident enough) to get some credit.

It’s my experience that clergy, even when they’re not sure, sometimes still give GOE answers to people, perhaps thinking something like: “I’m not sure, I think it might be this, but I’m going to tell you in a way that makes it sound like I really know, since you must be thinking that I should know…”

That is the way I answered a question a couple Sundays ago on the Pink Advent candle, as to whether it was to be lit. I said “Oh, that’s for later in Advent.” When it was clear that the person wanted a little more said, I responded, “It’s a tradition, and it, um, has connections to Mary.”

In my defense, let me say that I was doing some multi-tasking at the time, and that technically I'm not that off the truth. However, it wasn’t a very good answer, and “I’ll have to get back to you to give a more compete answer” would have been a much better response.

Since I’ve had a few more people ask me about the Pink Candle, I decided to do some research.

I started online: Roman Catholic priest William Saunders writes that the Advent wreath is part of our long-standing Catholic tradition. However, the actual origins are uncertain. There is evidence of pre-Christian Germanic peoples using wreathes with lit candles during the cold and dark December days as a sign of hope in the future warm and extended-sunlight days of Spring. In Scandinavia during Winter, lighted candles were placed around a wheel, and prayers were offered to the god of light to turn “the wheel of the earth” back toward the sun to lengthen the days and restore warmth.

By the Middle Ages, the Christians adapted this tradition and used Advent wreathes as part of their spiritual preparation for Christmas. By 1600, both Catholics and Lutherans had more formal practices surrounding the Advent wreath

From a quick look at a few other websites, you can quickly discover that the Pink candle has been traditionally lit on the 3rd Sunday of Advent. It was called Gaudete Sunday. "Gaudete" means "Rejoice!" in Latin. Some Protestant churches light it on the 4th Sunday, where it is associated with the Nativity of Jesus, and the impending breaking of light into the world with his birth.

I wanted, however, a Episcopal definition, so I turned An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church: A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians (edited by Don Armentrout & Robert Boak Slocum).

There was no entry on “Pink Candle”

There was also nothing about the Pink candle, or the 3rd Sunday of Advent, under the entries for “Advent” or “Advent wreath. I had to look under "Gaudete Sunday" to finally find something:

The third Sunday of Advent in the Roman Catholic calendar of the church year. The term is derived from the Latin opening words of the introit antiphon, "Rejoice (Gaudete) in the Lord always." The theme of the day expresses the joy of anticipation at the approach of the Christmas celebration. This theme reflects a lightening of the tone of the traditional Advent observance. It was appropriate for the celebrant of the Mass to wear rose-colored vestments on this day instead of the deeper violet vestments that were typically used in Advent. This Sunday was also known as "Rose Sunday." This custom is not required by the Episcopal Church, but it is observed by some parishes with a traditional Anglo-Catholic piety. This custom is reflected by the practice of including a pink or rose-colored candle among the four candles of an Advent wreath.

Finally having an Episcopal definition, I returned to the internet to see what some Episcopal Clergy have said on the subject.

The Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton writes that a Choir member in her congregation told her that, as a child living in England, his aunt used to know when to start the Christmas Pudding because she'd listen to the collect prayer for the 3rd Sunday of Advent. The prayer begins, "Stir up your power, O Lord . . ." No wonder some call this "Stir up Sunday." It is also known as "Mothering Sunday " or "Refreshment Sunday." This has a long tradition in England, beginning in medieval times when servants were given this Sunday off to visit their mothers and family members. During the long season of Lent, the church adapted this tradition and it became customary in some places to visit the 'mother church' or the cathedral of one's diocese mid-Lent, or the fourth Sunday in Lent. It was a time of refreshment and relaxing the penitential discipline of Lent. Rose-pink vestments were allowed to take the place of the purple vestments of Lent.

(I know I said Lent over and over again here, I’m not misspeaking, but the explanation comes later…”

“Traditionally, the church invites us today, half way through Advent, to lighten up a little on our penitential practices. The pink candle on the Advent wreath, as well as the rose-colored vestments seen on this day in some churches, reminds us of the hope and joy to come in the Nativity of the Lord.”

Hegedus notes the irony of this in today’s world, noting that few “…need a break from fasting and prayer in the hectic final weeks before Christmas. Quite likely, just the opposite is true. Would that we were so earnest about our Advent observance that we needed a break from its rigors. Perhaps what we really need is to lighten up on last minute shopping and social engagements and allow the Lord to genuinely stir up our hearts in anticipation of what this season is really about: Emmanuel, God With Us.”

The most memorable explanation of the pink candle, however, was given by the Rt. Rev'd Cate Waynick, Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of Southern Indiana, who set the record straight her very first Advent Season as bishop. When asked why the third candle on the Advent wreath was pink, she responded:

“I'll tell you the truth no one else dares tell you. The third candle on the Advent Wreath is pink because," intoned the new bishop, with great authority and certainty, "Mary really wanted a girl." (cited in Rev. Kaeton's 2005 sermon)

It was, however, The House Church Network Association, which provides one of the most complete answers on the web:

In the earliest years of the church the only church season was Lent, the seven weeks prior to Easter. Lent was a season of fasting and prayer as the church commemorated the crucifixion of Jesus. The traditional color of banners in the church during this time was a deep purple, signifying royalty, repentance, and suffering. During Lent the church lit seven candles, one for each week of the solemn season. However solemn the season, the story of Lent also has a twinge of hope and joy since the death of Christ prefigured the resurrection. So, on the (fourth) Sunday of Lent, the church was encouraged not to fast, but to feast. In ancient times on this particular Sunday the Pope would honor a citizen with a pink rose, and as time passed the priests wore pink vestments on this day as a reminder of the coming joy.

When the season of Advent was instituted the church viewed it as a mini-Lent, a time for reflection and repentance (thus the purple). In so doing, the church adopted the first four candles of Lent and changed the third candle of Advent to pink in honor of the Lenten tradition. This is why we have a pink candle in our Advent Wreaths.

To further heighten the sense of anticipation of Christ's coming during Advent, the church named each candle in the wreath -- the first being hope, the second peace, the third joy, and the fourth love: there are a number of other traditional names as well, though these are some of the most ancient. (The author concludes) It has always seemed fitting to me that the pink candle is the candle of joy, the one that speaks to us with its twinge of color.

So there you have it. The pink candle, ultimately, is about joy to be found in the season of Advent: the joy to be remembered during periods of reflection, the joy promised in the hope of new birth, the joy found in the life of Jesus, and even the joy to be found of God’s stirring in the world.

This morning, hear Jesus’ joyous news: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (from this morning's Gospel, Matthew 11:2-11)


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Focused on Advent

(A sermon preached on The First Sunday of Advent at All Saints' Episcopal Littleton)

The tension between Christmas and the period of time that leads up to it is nothing new to our society. People claim that it has gotten worse in recent times, and perhaps they are right: after all, those who wait until October 30th to get their Halloween costumes are more likely to find Christmas decorations in stores. But the tension of the season goes back to at least before 1920.

While it has been overshadowed by the Macy’s Day Parade, the oldest of the Thanksgiving’s parades was in Philadelphia: The Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade.

I found on Wikipedia that Ellis Gimbel, one of the founders of Gimbels Department Stores, wanted his toyland to be the destination of holiday shoppers everywhere. He dressed up over 50 store employees and sent them out on their first Thanksgiving Day parade: with Santa Claus arriving at the end of the parade.

The idea was picked up by a number of other stores, including Macy’s, whose New York City parade began in 1927. The culture of it all, the association with Christmas and sales, was now a strong force.

It would be wrong to place blame for the commercialization of Christmas solely on Department Stores: after all, Gimbel’s decision to have a parade to drive sales was built on the reality that people were already buying more things leading up to Christmas. There’s actually a great deal of fascinating history to the whole development of Christmas as an American Holiday. The point I wish to make, however, is that the struggle to keep the religious tradition of the period before Christmas has long been a difficult one.

This morning, I wish to share with you one attempt to re-frame the season of Advent.

In 2006, 5 pastors looked to refocus the time before Christmas by started what they called Advent Conspiracy. They wrote:

The story of Christ's birth is a story of promise, hope, and a revolutionary love.

So, what happened? What was once a time to celebrate the birth of a savior has somehow turned into a season of stress, traffic jams, and shopping lists.

And when it's all over, many of us are left with presents to return, looming debt that will take months to pay off, and this empty feeling of missed purpose. Is this what we really want out of Christmas?

What if Christmas became a world-changing event again?

Advent Conspiracy’s starts with the commitment to buy ONE LESS CHRISTMAS GIFT. America spends an average of $450 billion a year every Christmas, and many of the gifts are either in excess, or out of obligation. When Advent Conspiracy first began four churches challenged this simple concept to its congregations. The result raised more than a half million dollars to aid those in need. One less gift. One unbelievable present in the name of Christ.

Additionally, Advent Conspiracy suggests a shift in the tenor towards gifts in general.

“God’s gift to us was a relationship built on love. So it’s no wonder why we’re drawn to the idea that Christmas should be a time to love our friends and family in the most memorable ways possible. Time is the real gift Christmas offers us, and no matter how hard we look, it can’t be found at the mall. Time to make a gift that turns into the next family heirloom. Time to write mom a letter. Time to take the kids sledding. Time to bake really good cookies and sing really bad Christmas carols. Time to make love visible through relational giving. “

What the Advent Conspiracy accomplishes is both a change in focus and a common mission project not unlike our MDG work. Overall, I really like it. And I think it can be successful in challenging our outlook towards Christmas.

Advent Conspiracy says:

This is the holistic approach God had in mind for Christmas. It’s a season where we are called to put down our burdens and lift a song up to our God. It’s a season where love wins, peace reigns, and a king is celebrated with each breath. It’s the party of the year.

There’s one thing that still bothers me a little: Advent Conspiracy defines Advent solely in terms of preparation for Christmas.

I was talking with Alison (from our church) the other day, and she told me that Advent church services are such a drag. We’re supposed to be part of this joyful preparation, and then we sing dreary things like O Come O Come Emmanuel.

I think I know what she means: we think of Advent as the season that builds up the joyful spirit, to be fully released at Christmas. A little more focus on joy in the Advent services would then be a good thing.

Maybe that’s what Advent should be. Perhaps it would make more sense.

However, for better or for worse, the Church season of Advent is more than just preparing for Christmas.

Every first Sunday of Advent, the first day of the new church year, we get an adult Jesus telling us in dramatic and somewhat scary fashion about the coming fulfillment of God. That’s clearly not just about preparing for Christmas.

I don’t think it’s necessary to analyze this morning’s Gospel passage (Matthew 24:36-44) beyond its tone of urgency: this is after all part of the apocalyptical section of the Gospel of Matthew, and any apocalyptical text needs to be considered as a whole, not as an excerpt. (Although perhaps it’s worth remembering that Jesus will finish this whole section of readiness by saying that the righteous will be those who served Jesus by giving others what they need: food, drink, clothing, care & concern.)

As far as the tone of urgency, this passage captures an important part of what I call the Advent moment.

I would metaphorically describe the Advent moment as the darkness before the dawn: before the sky bursts into radiant hues of reds, pinks, oranges and finally brilliant sunshine...before the light breaks the darkness…it is really, really dark.

That darkness isn’t’s not where we want to stay, but it does serve a purpose.

The Advent moment is the time to pause, and turn around with open ears, an open mind, and an open heart. Advent refocuses the question. We are redirected from wherever the world and our lives have taken us, and called to turn our attention back on Jesus and the Kingdom of God: holding on to what each of us believes, while at the same time considering what’s still to be seen.

Kate Huey sees it this way:

“For so many reasons, we live with a powerful undertow of anxiety; isn't it understandable, then, that we'd rather think about shopping, and decorations, and carols, and a sweet baby in a stable long ago and far away? What does the church have to say about all of that? The church turns our attention toward the future, and the present, not just the past, although that past helps us to remember who God is, and how God works in the world, in our lives, so we can get a much better sense of where we are headed, and what the promises of God will bring. And that's why Advent is such a beautiful season: it remembers and re-tells the story of people who, like us, were waiting for the promises of God to be fulfilled, and striving to live faithfully as they waited.”

Huey’s commentary finishes with words from Barbara Brown Taylor to help inspire and move us on this first day of a new church year, as we look towards Christmas, as we long for a new heaven and a new earth, to seek to live our lives right here, right now, in ways that are pleasing to God and utterly trusting in God's goodness:

"Every morning when you wake up, decide to live the life God has given you to live right now. Refuse to live yesterday over and over again. Resist the temptation to save your best self for tomorrow." (From "On the Clouds of Heaven" in The Seeds of Heaven)

Peace be with you in this season of Advent.