**Sermon preached at the midnight mass Christmas Eve service at St. Julian’s**

And [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. ~Luke 2:7

 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.” ~Luke 9:58

It’s been said that Jesus’ shortest sermons ever can be boiled down to one word, “Go.” “Go, your faith has healed you” (Mark 10:52). “Go. Teach all nations. Baptize” (Matt 28:19). “Go. The harvest is plentiful, and the laborers, few” (Luke 10:2). At one point in Jesus’ ministry, he told his disciples, “I am going away. Where I am going you cannot come” (John 8:21). In tonight’s Gospel, the shepherds get a positive reinforcement of the command, “to go”. The angels persuaded them in this regard, and they replied, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” The scripture continues, “So they went with haste… and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.”

Tonight, we go. We travel, making haste with those shepherds the journey to see the Son of Man lying in the manger because there was no room in the inn…because the Son of Man had no place to lay his head. In this regard, the Son of Man slept underneath the stars like a lowly shepherd. No wonder the two related; and the scene of the manger foreshadowed it all for us:  The Son of Man would suffer, die, and be buried in a tomb that was not his own. It is a story of poverty as common as breathing, and as old as the wind; and yet this night shepherds and angels join in a chorus proclaiming holiness. In that manger scene was the man who would one day say to the poor, those that mourn, the meek, hungry, and merciful, “You are blessed, and you will be a blessing.” Not much nostalgia tonight, is there? No reminiscing here. In fact, there are two different reactions/responses we gain from the characters in our story this evening. The shepherds go again, making “known what had been told them about this child.” The scriptures continue, “and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” Put sequentially: The shepherds were doing the work they had always done. They stopped this work; discerned a word from the Lord; acted upon that word which transformed their lives; and then went and told others about it. This is the call of a convert and disciple – a classic call to repentance: To turn from something to something (all together new) by the power of God. This process of repentance is ongoing. It’s not one moment in time, but a lifetime of giving up oneself for the service of God and a chance to participate in His holy story.

The other reaction/response came from Mary. The scriptures read, “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” I think Mary needed something to hold onto. In the season of Advent, we learned that Mary’s very soul would be pierced. Pierced, possibly by despair as she kept giving more and more of herself, and eventually her son to the world that wanted nothing more than to destroy him. At that moment when lowly shepherds sang out the music of angels, she knew that Jesus was going to be bigger than her. She knew she would have to let go and let God time and time again. As a mother, these selfless acts would be piercing. As a follower of God, she understood them to be necessary. “Where I am going,” said Jesus, “you cannot come,” would later be directed at his disciples, but I wonder if he didn’t have his mother in the back of his mind while commanding this?

Tonight, you will leave. Go to the parking lot. Get in your vehicles, and go. Some of you will go home. Some of you will go to a place that welcomes you, be that another family’s home, or a hotel. In other words, you have a place to lay your head. But if you will, I’d like for you to do something. When you walk outside, and feel the cold brushed up against you, look up. If you don’t do it immediately after church, look to the sky on your drive home. This is the night where angels once gathered in those skies, but it is also the night where the one they proclaimed had no place to lay his head. When thinking on these things, I believe we carry with us the two responses mentioned earlier. We have the response of the shepherds who could relate to this holy family bundled up in a manger. Their response was one of repentance and praise. The other response is treasuring these things in our hearts. Not in some nostalgic, worldly way, but in a Godly way. That is, recognizing the holy in the mundane and being grateful. This Christmas why not be grateful? Return to the manger. Sing with the angels. This Christmas, join Mary, the shepherds, the disciples, and Jesus in his mission and ministry…
and “Go”.




Mary – Mother of God

Luke 1:26-38

An electric anticipation fills the air as we celebrate the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. We can guess what this afternoon, evening, and tomorrow may hold; yet this morning take a deep, collective breath before plunging into Christmas. May I suggest looking to Mary, and observing (with her) how the angelic messenger of God transformed her world from the ordinary into the extraordinary? For a moment, may we too give a loving ‘Yes’ to God, and with Mary stand perplexed and pondering, “What sort of Advent greeting this may be?”

The greeting named Mary “favored one.” This title was such an existential shock to Mary she had no words in that moment. She allowed the angel to proceed with his words while humbleness took over her disposition – Again, “She pondered.” Once the angel finished his divine proclamations, revelations, and prophesies it was Mary who did not let the truth found in these statements overwhelm her. Instead of being called into Heaven, she brought Heaven to Earth with her practicality –  “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Didn’t see that one coming, did you angel?) It’s quite possible the angel fumbled a bit, and tried to relate, taking a different approach with his next set of sentences. Perhaps he sat down, took at deep breath, and compared Mary’s miraculous birth with her relative, Elizabeth’s. It may have been a bit of a stretch, but being a good Jewish woman, Mary might have taken the angel’s counsel of her own pregnancy, and compared it to her ancestors Sarah and Hannah. Were impossible pregnancies just something that ran in her family? Again, the answer was ‘Yes’ and in perhaps the most beautiful poetic response to any angel’s musings, Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The scripture says that the angel simply went away (possibly relieved). The message was signed, sealed, and delivered. Mary, in that moment gave herself away to something greater than herself. She became a vessel of God – a vessel for God – a vessel to God.

Fun Fact: Mary and Pontius Pilot are the only historical persons besides Jesus who are mentioned in the Creeds of the Church. Where Pontius Pilot would later ask Jesus, “What is Truth,” not knowing that Truth was standing before him, it was Mary who held Divine Truth in her very being, birthing it into a world that desperately needed it. Perhaps this is our calling as well? Sunday after Sunday we gather here on the Lord’s Day proclaiming what we believe (credo).

“We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son…He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

What are we to do with this statement?

I think we are to ponder it in our hearts. I think we are to say ‘yes’. I think we are then called to be vessels of the truth. We are to imitate the great saint of Advent – Mary, the Mother of God. When we say Christ was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, we are reminding ourselves to purify our hearts, minds, and bodies so that God’s Spirit will be revealed through us, dare I say, birthed into being through us. Truth is able to make itself known when we say, “Let it be to me according to your word.” When we don’t do this, truth suffers under Pontius Pilate again and again and again. We hold the truth within us instead of giving it away. We allow States, Caesers, Emperors, Kings, Congress and Presidents to possess so called self-evident truths and realities, when the only reality I know of in Heaven and on Earth is Christ. Put Christ up alongside those brothers above, and they pale in comparison. They just don’t hold up. Mary knew this too. Today, choirs across the world sing her song:

He [Christ] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

No Pontius Pilot in history has ever sung that song!

It is only by the merciful rhythm of Christ that we can even begin to dance to this music, to experience its graceful melodies, to have the eternal laugh of Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, and Mary. What God calls us into during the seasons of Advent and Christmas is none other than history itself. God invites the credo of our hearts to be made manifest in his creation: Spirit with flesh, and flesh with Spirit. When this happens, new music is made. We get to play jazz because we have learned the truth, and the truth has set us free. This is Mary’s eternal song: Playing jazz with a people named Israel, its prophets, and its future apostles all the while Christ is being brought forth, truth is being brought forth, beauty is being brought forth, goodness is being brought forth and we are caught up in the moment, caught up in the history of it all.

As the music of Advent fades, and we turn up the volume on Christmas, may God’s truth reverberate throughout history. The true song is the song of Mary. The true reality is Christ. The true vessel is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We say, proclaim and believe these scandalous things each and every week (for some of us, each and every day). May we use the music of this season to wake us up to these gifts that we have been given so that we may share them with a worn and weary world crying out the eternal question of Pontius Pilate, “What is Truth?” God has an answer to this question. This afternoon, this evening, and for the next 12 days may we celebrate this eternal truth who has come into the world.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

Angels and Demons

Friday was The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. Below are some musings on the subject; but first, take a look at the exorcism portion of the liturgy in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. This section, found in the Book of Common Prayer is sometimes called the renunciations and affirmations section of the baptismal rite.

Q.  Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
A.  I renounce them.

Q.  Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
A.  I renounce them.

Q. Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
A.  I renounce them.

Q.  Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
A.  I do.

Q.  Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
A.  I do.

Q.  Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
A.  I do.

When a priest is ordained, he takes vows to be pastor, priest, and teacher. All three constructs aid the archetype of priest; however, I’ve come to believe there is one underlining metaphor that unites these offices. A priest is a journeyman – not in the sense of journeying alone – but rather, as someone who ‘journeys with’. A priest has been called (by Christ and His Church) to journey with others; and not as the hero, but as a companion along The Way. Put differently, and in the context of parish life, the priest accompanies his parishioners along the hero’s pathway.

I am at my best when I see the parishioners I serve as heroes. I can easily forgive in this mindset. I remember compassion. I do not forsake love. You might say a priest is more Sam Gamgee rather than Frodo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings. Sam was right there by his friend’s side every step of the way. He spoke as needed, but knew the supremacy of silence. He evoked the power of metaphor at times, heard confessions, and gently corrected his hero when necessary. In a variety of situations and quests evil was fought, spirits were restored, and persistence remained.

Although priests are as much flesh and blood as the next person, scripture and tradition teach that there are also spiritual companions to help guide and protect along The Way. Actually, that’s putting it nicely. Angels (who we are celebrating this feast day) are better described as warriors, or maybe even secret-service agents that shield and defend us from the powers and principalities that corrupt our world. Humanity has always had a fascination with good and evil. Judeo-Christian thought has classically personified it. Roman Catholic Bishop, Robert Barron says this about evil incarnate:

“What are his usual effects? We can answer that question quite well by examining the names that the Bible gives to this figure. He is often called diabolos in the Greek of the New Testament, a word derived from dia-balein, to throw apart, to scatter. God is a great gathering force, for by his very nature [God] is love; but the devil’s work is to sunder, to set one against the other. Whenever communities, families, nations, churches are divided, we sniff out the diabolic. The other great New Testament name for the devil is ho Satanas, which means “the accuser.” Perform a little experiment: gauge how often in the course of the day you accuse another person of something or find yourself accused. It’s easy enough to notice how often dysfunctional families and societies finally collapse into an orgy of mutual blaming. That’s satanic work. Another great biblical name for the devil is “the father of lies.” Because God is Truth, truthfulness—about oneself, about others, about the way things really are—is the key to smooth human relations. But how often we suffer because of untruth!””[1]

St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans suggested that nothing, neither death, nor life, nor angels [fallen or otherwise] nor rulers…nor powers…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:38-39). In other words, evil (like death) has lost its sting; yet, that’s not the end of the story. As Christians, we remember his death. We proclaim his resurrection. We await his coming in glory (BCP, 368). We’re still living in the midst of the first two statements, and until Christ comes again [whatever that looks like], those powers of evil (which paradoxically have no power at their root) still persist to tear us (and our world) apart.

These days, a preacher (especially in The Episcopal Church) may get a scoff or two preaching a sermon on angels and demons. “How silly”, they might say. “Fr., haven’t you heard of myth and metaphor?” But I say unto you, “Haven’t you heard of Holy Eucharist, Confession, prayer, the Bible, and spiritual direction, to name a few?” Classically, these have been the tools of spiritual warfare within the world of the Christian. These gifts of the Church not only open us up to God’s love, grace, and goodness; they also protect us from evil like a devouring lion scattering and tearing our souls, communities, and families apart. We have Christ. We have His Church. We have the Angels. We can call on God’s Spirit to help us discern. We can use the sacraments and spiritual tools of the Church to strengthen us. We can call on St. Michael and his army to defend us. All of this is orthodox. It’s nothing new, but modernity casually puts it aside.

As I look around the catholic church today, I often wonder if we have forgotten how to see. Are we invested in too much of the modern spirit that we forget the Spirit of God? Are we so set on ‘not offending’ that we mirror the culture instead countering it? Are we so immersed in the ideology of inclusion and tolerance that we have forgotten Love? Love in the sense that not every idea, behavior, or thought should be given equal value or consideration. Put Biblically, we must practice discerning the spirits. We cannot do this on our own. We need the sacraments. We need prayer. We need study. We need God’s help.

In the story of Jacob’s ladder, we find Jacob wrestling with the angel. Afterwards he proclaims, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.” That may be postmodernity’s mantra. God isn’t in the sacraments. What you need is additional counseling. God isn’t in nature. You only need to study biology. God isn’t real. Mankind created Him. But aren’t these classic temptations from the ‘father of lies’…who desires to violently divorce, separate, dis-order, to set one against the other and God?

Let me go on record and say: Good is real. Sin and evil are real. They reside in us, and in the world. To give into the modern religion of relativism is to claim that there is no Truth, and taking this ideology to its final argument will show that there is no meaning to life. This leaves one in a state of perpetual nihilism that is very hard to overcome. As Christians we claim that these dualities (good and evil; black and white) are finally reconciled in and by and through Christ. We are made one in His Love. In the end, we are not separated because of His Love. Remembering this oneness, and living into this Truth gives us (and the world) hope. It may be an audacious hope, but our faith tells us it’s there.

I started out this blog by musing on the metaphor of a priest as journeyman. Together, let us journey with one another with God in our hearts, and all the angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven forever defending us, protecting us, and fighting always for the Good.

[1] Bishop Robert Barron, Word on Fire Ministries, https://www.wordonfire.org/resources/article/revisiting-the-spiritual-warfare/448/