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Sunday, July 5
Independence in our Interdependence
Preacher: The Rev. Heather Erickson
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Independence in our Interdependence

 

Last week I was on the phone with my grandmother. She’s 93. She’s lived alone since my grandfather died a couple of years ago, and in the past 3 and a half months I’m pretty sure she’s only left her house once. I’m grateful she’s safe. I’m grateful for her friend who’s been bringing her groceries. I’m grateful for my family who have been by for physically distanced porch visits. My grandmother asked me, “When will this all end?” And I wanted to be there with her, to see her in real life and give her a hug. When will this all end?

It’s been 112 days, I think, since I left my office on a Monday afternoon for what I thought would be 3 weeks of working at home. Back in March I remember talking with a friend about how resilient human beings are, and that we can do anything for a short period of time. The next few months are kind of a blur of emails, zoom meetings, distance learning schedules, some complicated art and engineering projects, lots of hand-washing and a drive-through preschool graduation. Right now, in my household it feels like things are on hold – there are promises that playdates and birthday parties and piano lessons will happen at some point when it’s “safe” – when will this all end?

It seems like something has recently shifted, though. I’m still confident in our resilience. And now I’m even more grateful for our ability to adapt and endure. And I’m frustrated with our short-sightedness and inability to take responsibility, to work together. The work of endurance is hard, though, especially amidst the uncertainty and the absence of predictability.

We’re also in this constant process of letting go – of plans, of hopes, of assumptions and expectations, of the illusion of control, of a naïveté about the systems of dominance that have shaped our modern world and perpetuated horrendous oppression and injustice.

Yesterday was Independence Day, a 4th of July unlike any other, where many of us held the celebration of the Declaration of Independence and its promises of equality, and the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, alongside the hypocrisy and abomination of chattel slavery and its effects which continue to reverberate today.

Frederick Douglass’ gave an important speech in Corinthian Hall to white members of the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society on this day in 1852, 168 years ago, in which he says, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?  I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.” These words were offered about a decade before the Civil War, and as the Black Lives Matter Movement reminds us, are still relevant today.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, in an article published in The Atlantic last year, offers a lens through which to honor the 4th of July. He writes, “We should be celebrating our disobedience, turbulence, insolence and discontent about inequities and injustices in all forms.”

In her book, Disunity in Christ, Dr. Christena Cleveland writes about power and privilege and she offers an insightful reminder of “Christ’s cross-cultural, privilege-abdicating example in the incarnation.”

The incarnation. The Holy One, birthed into this world through Mary, the Theotokos, the God-bearer.

I keep thinking that we are in the midst of birthing something new. I have hope that we are in the process of shaping a new way of being a country, and a new way of understanding and sharing power. I believe the church is being transformed as we discover new ways of connecting with each other and expressing our life in Christ. Education is changing. For many the way in which we work is changing. Our world has fundamentally shifted, and – we’re not quite there yet. The future is not quite clear. The process of laboring a new creation into the world is not usually easy, either. From my experience, there’s an intensity to it, and uncertainty. Each labor unfolds in its own way and there’s an ease that comes with working with it, responding to it and following its rhythms. During my first experience of labor, I remember reaching a point and thinking – I can’t take much more. I’m not going to be able to sustain this. The intensity is too much, and it’s constant, and I need a break but there’s no way to pause this process. It was happening whether I was ready for it or not. And just when it felt like more than I could bear, it was over. And my life has never been the same since. During my second experience of labor I remember all of a sudden realizing that I was holding back, I was fighting against it and while the intensity didn’t diminish, once I chose to work with it, there was an ease, an acceptance of the unfolding experience and once again, my life has never been the same since.

Imagine this new creation. What does it look like to you? Jesus saw a world where the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. Imagine a world where everyone has enough food to eat and a bed to sleep in every night. Imagine a world where we recognize our interdependence and put our neighbors’ needs ahead of our own. Imagine a world where everyone has enough. Imagine a world where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

We have a responsibility to each other, and we’re in this for the long-haul. Leaning into the discomfort, renewing our minds, opening our hearts, taking action that makes our interconnectedness – our interdependence – visible, this work is tremendous and important. It is holy. And I believe that this work will change us, it will transform us, and we will become a new creation, a beloved community. This work will also exhaust us and deplete us if we approach it alone. Jesus invites us: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Years ago, when I first started paying attention to this invitation, I imagined picking up a harness of sorts that I expected to be heavy, only to discover it became lighter as I lifted it up onto my shoulders. Then at some point, I began imagining a yoke built for two, with Jesus shouldering one side as I took my place next to him, teammates working together side by side, knowing that when I grew tired, he would be there to support the weight and carry me through. Recently I’ve been imagining a different kind of yoke – one that doesn’t make any sense or seem in the least bit practical – it extends out in every direction connecting person to person – a bit like how I’ve been envisioning church during these last few months of virtual gathering –  a network of sorts, each of us connected to each other. An interdependent chosen family of people linked together. There are so many of us, connected in all directions, the yoke stretching beyond the limits of our vision. It’s massive and yet there’s a lightness, an ease and flexibility to it, because it’s the body of Christ. The church – where together, with Christ moving in us and through us and among us, we can do far more than we could imagine.

Sunday, June 28
Pride Sunday
Preacher: The Rev. Altagracia Perez-Bullard, PhD
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From today’s Psalm:

1  I will sing of your steadfast love, My God [O Lord], forever;

with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.

2  I declare that your steadfast love is established forever;

your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.  AMEN.

 

Good Morning and Happy Pride Day!

If this were any other Pride Day, this would be the point where we would have hooting and hollering, we’d be cheering with the festiveness this day has come to represent for the community of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, and other sexual minorities, also known as the LGBTQIA+ community.  I trust some of you are shouting in your homes, and I know that my heart is filled with memories of Pride Days gone by…especially my first Pride March: the beauty and the spectacle, the empowerment and of course, the music and dancing.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first Pride March, the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, held on the first anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising in New York City. And although for all of our well-beings, we are not having Pride Marches, we are indeed witnessing, and some of us participating in various ways, in the ongoing struggle, the ongoing movement for human rights, as people march in the streets across the nation and the world, demanding that black and brown bodies be treated with the dignity and respect that is the right of every person.

And for those who know history, we understand that the demand for equal rights and protection under the law being made today is another manifestation of that demand made in the Village 51 years ago. The Stonewall Inn catered to the most marginalized in the gay community, a description that sounds painfully familiar: people of color, gender non-conforming folks, homeless youth and transgender people, who survived on the streets hustling what they could, even their own bodies. Faced with yet another violent police raid, where the primary transgression was their very existence as LGBTQ persons, the queens rose up, as others before them sat-in, and fought back, leading to three days of rioting, which galvanized and organized LGBT societies into activists. Today we remember and celebrate Marsha P. Johnson, who was part of the Stonewall Riots, an advocate for justice and equal rights, and Sylvia Rivera who together with Marsha established STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) to help homeless young drag queens, gay youth and trans women.

They represent a prophetic move embodying God’s truth, a self-evident truth declared although not yet realized in this nation’s founding documents, that all “are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  And as Jeremiah attests to, and we ourselves have witnessed, a prophetic word is not welcome when it calls us to account for our transgressions against each other, when it calls out injustice and unfaithfulness to God’s word and will for us. False prophets may declare prosperity and peace, but while God’s children, and especially the least of these, the marginalized and the oppressed, are crushed with reckless disregard for the sanctity of their lives, we will know no peace. No justice, no peace.

For those of us who believe, who know and understand the wisdom and the power of Jesus, who seek to live in a Kin-dom of abundant and everlasting life, where justice and righteousness are the watch words and peace and love are enjoyed, we have our marching orders here in the 10th chapter of Matthew. I invite you to read it to understand the times in which we are living and the call of God to live as faithful disciples, students of the Good News.

In today’s gospel reading we are both encouraged and challenged. Jesus after describing the hard road that awaits those who follow him, encourages them, reminding them that as they seek to speak and practice justice, heal and care for the wounded, be and learn from the marginalized, they will be a blessing and they will be blessed. They will be blessed by those who welcome them, providing hospitality, however basic, even offering them a drink of water, which in the desert is no small thing.

The gospel lists this triad: the prophets, the righteous and the little ones, and they can describe different members of the community, but they also describe the interrelated aspects of our discipleship. One scholar describes them this way: the prophets bring “proclamation and miraculous demonstrations of divine power,” the righteous demonstrate an “enduring pursuit of justice and of the healing and restoration of relationships,” and the little ones, the vulnerable, discounted, devalued, show that this whole enterprise is God’s mission, we are “wholly dependent on God’s power and presence.” (Saunders)

That last group, the little ones, might come as a surprise. We might have expected “the wise ones,” or “the holy ones,” (Saunders) but instead it reflects reality, how God’s mission is lived out in the world: change does not, and never has come from some hero, some eloquent speaker, some person in power. What was true in 1857 is true in 2020, in the words of Frederick Douglass: “Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow.” Or in the words of June Jordan, “we are the ones we have been waiting for.”

Here lies the encouragement and the challenge. Reading this gospel in today’s context, we are invited to understand that this is about us coming and going. That we are to live into our call to be prophets, speak truth, show miraculous power, what God can do through us; to be righteous and give ourselves to the enduring pursuit of justice and healing; to be the little ones, vulnerable, learning, growing. And that although it will not be easy we will be welcomed and refreshed, those who will minister to us will be blessed as we are blessed by their ministrations.

But we are also invited to understand that we are called to welcome and minister to the prophets, the righteous and the little ones. Those who have felt the movement of the Spirit and are encouraged and bold, demanding their humanity be recognized and accorded the dignity and justice that are their inalienable right as the children of God.

Welcome those involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, who seek justice from the systems that are sworn to serve and protect, welcome those involved in the Poor People’s Movement, who seek to unite us across lines of difference as we demand good and just salaries, health care, education, environmental care from institutions created to serve the common good, welcome those who continue the fight for LGBTQ rights, because the right to marry, and now, thank God, the right to work without suffering discrimination, is only the beginning of insuring equal rights.

We are to welcome these prophets, these righteous, these little ones:  Not tolerate, and not suspect, or judge, or fear, but welcome, because we who seek to live into God’s will understand that by welcoming these strangers, we may be entertaining angels unaware. (Hebrews 13:2)

In these welcoming and refreshing encounters we, “us and them,” we, will be blessed and we will be a blessing. These relationships will strengthen us, feed us, and help us to grow. Together we will learn to live more fully into God’s call for us, that we would be fully human, humane in our treatment of one another and of all God’s creation, that we might have life and have it more abundantly. (John 10:10).

So today we remember and celebrate those who have gone before us and all those who journey with us in seeking justice. Let us remember and celebrate our call to be righteous and prophetic little ones, relying on the power of God to transform us and through us the world. Let us welcome one another, and keep the feast. May the party begin!

Sermons from the last six months are available below. You can also listen to our sermons as a podcast, Sermons from Grace, wherever you get your podcasts!

 

Sunday, January 17
Justice, Marriage and the Wedding at Cana
Preacher: The Rev. Tyrone Fowlkes
Sermon from the Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Sermon from the Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist

Sunday, January 10
What Is Blessing?
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
"Do not fear... When you pass through the waters, I will be with you" (Isa. 43).
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The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.

“Do not fear… When you pass through the waters, I will be with you” (Isa. 43).

What does it mean to be blessed or to bless?

Beth, of my old neighbors, left her job as a law professor to work for the Obama administration in the State Department as a human rights expert. She once told me how much energy it takes to establish and maintain the rule of law. Since 1789 the average life expectancy of national constitutions is only 17 years. In human history our 218-year-old national constitution represents a remarkable accomplishment. [1]

What makes this kind of social stability possible? I know that it has something to do with resources, economics and good luck, but it also concerns a kind of underlying philosophy. Behind a society’s outward way of doing things lies an idea of what it means to be human, how we are connected to others. A system of values, myths and symbols fund every social interaction.

The current film The Big Short tells the story of investors who predicted the 2008 global financial meltdown. It heavy-handedly repeats that values like honesty, integrity, fair play, reasonable reward for socially productive work, refraining from exploiting poor or ignorant people, even acting against one’s own interest when justice requires it – these are all that stand between us and terrible human suffering.

Still it can happen. Through cataclysmic disaster, through plagues, environmental collapse, enemy invasion or just the erosion of values like love and justice, the stories about how to be human can cease to make sense to us. They can die.

The prophet Isaiah faced exactly this situation. After his people had been utterly defeated, the leaders had been exported as slaves to the enemy’s capital, after the crops failed because no one was left to tend them – the people came home. After they had lost everything Isaiah tries to give life to an ancient idea that had been forgotten. The idea is that God has called us by name and redeemed us. When we pass through the waters and through the fire, God will be with us. Nothing shall overwhelm us. The word for this is “blessing.”

I want the idea of blessing to fully belong to you. I want it to become part of your inner emotional landscape, to be a word that you speak out loud and use to understand what the philosopher William James calls, the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of reality.

Blessing is the assurance that we exist as God’s beloved children. The Old Testament word for it is b’rah-chah (berek). It was originally connected to the fertility of crops, livestock and human beings. Blessing refers to the bridge between human life and the mysterious beauty that lies beyond it. It is God’s voice that says to every faithful person, “You are my child, my beloved.” Through baptism we recognize that our identity comes from our relation to others. Baptism is central to the Christian experience of God’s blessing and how we become a blessing to others.

So my message this morning has three parts: Finding Blessing, Being Blessed and Becoming a Blessing.

1. Finding Blessing. We have to find blessing because quite often we cannot see it. Luke’s account of Jesus baptism differs most starkly in two ways from the others. First, unlike Mathew, Mark and John, the spirit does not descend on Jesus while he is being baptized but afterwards as he is praying. Setting aside time and space matters when it comes to experiencing the holy. You can make yourself too busy to see almost anything of consequence.

Second, Luke differs from the others when he writes that the Holy Spirit came down “somtatiko eidei” or, “in bodily form like a dove” (Lk. 3). Luke writes this because although in some very rare occasions human beings unequivocally hear God or see Christ, we usually experience the spirit in more subtle ways.

Most people have difficulty hearing God. Why is this? The former Episcopal priest and philosopher Alan Watts says that each one of us is like a hole in a vast sheet of fabric through which the light of God shines. [2] Despite this we do not often experience much of our life as a blessing. This morning I brought with me a cowry shell. Its smooth curves and the color and spacing of its spots could not be more beautiful. You might even say it is perfect.

Do you think that the creature living in it looks at its cowry neighbors and thinks to itself, “I have way too many dark spots” or “I wonder if this shell make me look fat?” A beautiful creature worrying about being uglier than the others sounds ludicrous but this is what human beings do this all the time. An enormous amount of our conscious life is dedicated to feeling anxious about how we look – gaining weight, losing hair, turning gray, getting wrinkles, growing into a different body shape. This is not restricted just to our appearance. We want others to think we’re successful, confident, attractive, capable, thoughtful, kind, strong, a winner…. We have strong feelings about how others perceive us.

But you are even more beautiful, more intricately constructed, more wonderfully fashioned than the most exceptional shell. Realizing this is the beginning of experiencing blessing.

This morning I want you to ask yourself, how much pain in your life is caused by self-criticism or worse by those self-judging thoughts that have been directed outwardly and surface as criticism of other people.

Last week someone asked me to respond to a Facebook post from The Pew Research Group about why according to many measures millennials are not as religious as their forbears. So many people wrote that people are too smart for religion these days. Perhaps in order to understand religion people like this need to have blessing be more a part of their life. Maybe they just have unrealistic expectations about what it feels like to encounter the Living God.

Sometimes you might experience the Holy “in bodily form” but more often than not it happens through the words of a hymn, the smile of a child, the smell of incense, the Cathedral bells, a friend’s story, the unexpected smoothness of the Bay at sunrise, a connection between what you love and the world that you had never noticed before. On the outside, the discipline of church may seem empty: coming here faithfully in the rain even when you don’t feel like it, attending long meetings, giving money, volunteering to help people who make us uncomfortable. Someone on the outside may not recognize it, they may not see God obviously there, but these ordinary things, this bread, wine, smoke, light and water create the path of perfect blessing that transforms us.

2. Being Blessed. When you believe, or at least are open enough to the possibility, you become a seeker of blessing. You will find it in the most surprising ways. Late on Monday night I was turning off the lamp in my study when my sixteen-year-old son hugged me from the side in the way that you might tackle a quarterback just after he released the ball. He had had such a hard day and he was seeking comfort and I felt this incredible depth of emotion, a huge shot of the feeling that I remembered from when I first became a father.

By Thursday night I thought that I had forgotten it. At Evensong the fading light outside shined so faintly and the stained glass window became an impossibly dark shade of blue. The choir sang right into my soul. Concentrating on that magnificent color I began to imagine myself sinking into sleep for the last time, into my own death. In that moment I felt so grateful for my life, all of this, all of you. It felt as if God were embracing me in precisely the way that I had held my son. The strength and presence and love of God overwhelmed me.

Being blessed is that simple and that profound. It arises out of an ordinary moment and it is the purpose of our life.

3. Becoming a Blessing. My last point is that we also are given the power to bless. We bless each other and we bless God. No matter how you may have come up short in the past, whatever terrible things you have done, how badly you think you compare with someone else – you can be someone who goes through life pronouncing blessings on what you experience. The theologian Martin Israel writes that there is nothing in the world that is unholy, only that which has not yet been blessed.” [3] You can be that blessing.

This does not apply merely to the bright, shiny, happy parts of your life. You can also be a blessing because of what you have suffered. The tragic things that we have gone through can actually open new paths of grace for the people we encounter. This week I talked to a friend who as a priest went through a terrible time of conflict with his congregation. I don’t know if they fired him or if he just went off quietly into the night. But it was enough for me to feel like he would have been justified in quitting the church. Rather than just trying to forget about the whole thing he got a PhD in the study of conflict and has dedicated his life to helping people in similar circumstances.

My question for you this morning is this. Can the word blessing become such a deep part of your vocabulary that it comes to order your whole life? Can you receive these words: that you are a blessing to God? It is your essence to be a channel for the blessing of God’s light and love? [4]

This week I offer you an optional homework assignment. It might be more challenging for some than others. First, try using the word blessing in public one time, that is, you might try telling someone that they are a blessing or sharing an experience of blessing that you have had. Second, do something just to be the kind of blessing that God loves.

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you…” Amen.
[1] Joyce Shin, “Living By the Word,” The Christian Century, 6 January 2015, 20.

[2] This paragraph and the next come from Alan Watts, Out of Your Mind: Essential Listening from the Alan Watts Audio Archives (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2004).

[3] Curtis G. Almquist, The Twelve Days of Christmas: Unwrapping the Gifts (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 2008), 94.

[4] Ibid., 95.

Sunday, December 27
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Elizabeth Grundy
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Sermon from Sunday’s 11 a.m. Eucharist

Friday, December 25
Christmas Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Jude Harmon
Sermon from the Christmas morning Eucharist
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Sermon from the Christmas morning Eucharist.

Thursday, December 24
Christmas Eve 7:30 Sermon
Preacher: The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus
Sermon From the Christmas Eve 7:30 Eucharist
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Sermon From the Christmas Eve 7:30 Eucharist.

Thursday, December 24
When Do You Say, “I Love You”?
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined..." (Isa. 9).
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The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined…” (Isa. 9).

Sometimes it is hard to say “I love you.” Perhaps this is because walking in darkness may seem like the most obvious thing about us as human beings. Darkness means that no one can see really well – either themselves or each other. It is why we do not really know where we are going, or what will happen to us, or for that matter were we stand right now. We experience darkness in every kind and level of conflict. [1]

Because understanding this darkness matters to me, this fall I read a book called Tiny Beautiful Things. It is a collection of advice columns by Cheryl Strayed whose pen name is simply “Sugar.” People who usually write this kind of thing for newspapers sound official. They seem detached and in full control. They speak with a definitive, often judgmental voice. They call in expert advisors, use civil language and say almost nothing about themselves.

Sugar does just the opposite of this. Most shockingly she writes vividly about absolutely awful things that have happened in her life including her experience of sexual abuse, addiction, infidelity, divorce, stealing and promiscuity. Like the waitresses I used to know at Denny’s Restaurant she expresses her affection for these desperate letter writers and calls them “sweat pea,” “darling,” and “honey bunch.”

Let me read a quick example of a question that Johnny asked her. He writes, “Dear Sugar, My twenty-year marriage fell apart. Whose fault? Mine? My wife’s? Society’s? I don’t know. We were both too immature to get married… and we both worked hard to avoid dealing with the unhappiness that was hanging over us.”

Since the divorce and after dating a few other women Johnny has found someone whom he “click[s] with very nicely.” But he goes on, “I’m afraid to say it out loud, as my experience shows that the word “love” comes loaded with promises and commitments that are highly fragile and easily broken. My question to you is, when is it right to take that big step and say I love you?” [2] Yes, Johnny knows about darkness. [3]

I do not know where and from what directions you face darkness in your life right now. But let me share a summary of Sugar’s advice to all those who contact her in case it might be useful. First, seek out that friend who shows you some affection and sympathy – you may find that just being called “sweat pea” changes the whole picture. Next, recognize that a sense of entitlement, and the implied superiority behind it, makes us weak and dependent. It cuts us off from the resources that could help us to weather the storm. Chief among these is an extraordinary inner strength that most of us fail to see in ourselves. Finally, recognize that you cannot change other people. The best you can do is to set up healthy boundaries that show you love yourself too.

Sugar points out that two kinds of people write to her: those who have the answer already and those who are genuinely lost. Incidentally, most of us fall into the first category although we do not realize it or are afraid to act on what we do know.

You may be wondering why I am bringing this up on one of the holiest nights of the year. The reason is that in your hearts I want you to touch something real tonight and this doesn’t happen when we deny the dark parts in our life, or only bring our best selves to church.

After the emperor’s decree, after the journey to Bethlehem, after the baby, the angels, the shepherds, the fear, exhaustion, amazement, and joy – there is a quiet moment I especially appreciate. Luke writes, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Lk. 2). Although I love this translation it conceals something that you might not otherwise notice. More literally one might say instead, “Mary preserved these words.” Then for the word ponder the Greek is sumballousa. It means meeting, comparing, considering, bringing together. Mary brought these things together in her heart.”

Sumballousa is also the Greek word for symbol. Mary is the only adult from the stories of Jesus’ birth to have a role in the rest of his life. She puts things together. Most importantly she possesses the special gift of holding on to the meaning of things as others just go back to business as usual.

The linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson have a particular interest in symbol and language. They point out that we live according to expressions, symbols and ideas that lie beneath our conscious awareness. This is the reason we act (to use their words) automatically in so many situations. [4] Our feelings and emotional life are so much more powerful in relation to our rationality than we recognize. We are metaphors that we have not always consciously chosen.

The biggest problem with this is that the meanings of these symbols will not stay fixed. I remember first hearing Adele sing “Chasing Pavements.” Her voice sounded so fresh and different. It seemed like I would never get tired of those songs, but I did. When my mother was in college she listened to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony so many times that it completely lost its magic.

This is the same problem that we have with Christmas and Christianity in general. We are creatures in time, and meaning will not stay still. Perhaps that’s part of Johnny’s problem with saying, “I love you” to someone he cares so much about. I do not want you to miss Christmas so let me tell you about two symbols in particular that have lost their meaning and make this sacred night confusing to us.

1. Sin. Today when you see the word sin it almost always refers to something like chocolate. For us, sin means indulgence in a harmless pleasure – lingerie or ice cream or a cocktail. The only dimly remembered ancient associations of Adam and Eve, the idea that we are doing something that we shouldn’t, only makes it more fun. This is what sin means in our consumer society. That is why normal people find it impossible to understand why Christians would care much at all about sin.

When Christians use the word sin it means to screw things up, to break what we really care about, often for the sake of some far less important and more temporary feeling. It might mean anything from saying something clever at the expense of someone’s feelings to Johnny’s experience with his twenty year marriage. We are the people who walk in darkness. Sin is another word for that darkness, that world of addiction, abuse, broken relationships, hurt feelings, self-defeating behaviors, thoughtless remarks. Self-reflective adults recognize the way that we come up short, that contradictions lie at the very heart of our thoughts and behavior. But we no longer have as rich a vocabulary for recognizing this darkness.

2. Another word that we do not understand today is Christianity. I think that those who never moved beyond a child’s faith and those who never had it at all regard Christianity as a kind of theory about the universe, a child’s story of something that could never happen. Christians might seem like a club of self-righteous people forcing themselves to believe something that is obviously unbelievable.

Francis Spufford in his book Unapologetic writes about a sign that atheists put on London buses a few years ago. It read, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” [5] You see what the problem with this is don’t you? Think of how that sign sounds to my friend whose barely surviving as he takes care of his mentally ill wife, or my other friend who never knows where her homeless and addicted son is sleeping that night, or yet another friend whose partners summarily fired him and took his shares after he put years of his life into the company. Really – just enjoy yourself. What that bus sign says is that if you are in darkness there is no hope.

My point is that the normal state of things is not peace but a surprising amount of darkness. This is why John Lennon’s song “Imagine” has always bugged me. You remember the song, “Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try…” He makes it sound as if without religions and countries and possessions everything would be perfectly peaceful. Nothing in my experience confirms this. Living together in peace is not our default condition. Peace is an achievement attained when people are at their wisest and inspired by something great.

For me, church is a bunch of people just like this. We are the ones who screw up. We gather together try to repair what is broken. We depend for help on something beautiful and mysterious lying beyond ourselves. This is what gets us through the darkness. This is the light of Christ, the one whose birth we celebrate tonight.

Luke constantly describes Jesus as a kind of alternative to the Roman emperor, as someone who would risk everything for the sake of love, who would change what it means for all of us to be human.

You may be wondering how Sugar responded to Johnny’s question about when to tell someone that you love them. Sugar said that “love” was the last word that her mother had said to her before dying. She writes, “Love is the feeling we have for those we care deeply about… It can be light as the hug we give a friend or heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children. It can be romantic, platonic, fleeting, everlasting, conditional, unconditional, imbued with sorrow, stoked by sex, sullied by abuse, amplified by kindness, twisted by betrayal, deepened by time, darkened by difficulty, leavened by generosity, nourished by humor, and “loaded with promises and commitments” that we may or may not want to keep.” [6]

In short Sugar tells Johnny to say, “I love you” and then talk about what it means. Don’t try to protect yourself from the junk that comes with love by withholding or avoiding.

This is my first Christmas at Grace Cathedral and it has been magical, like the most extraordinary dream. Today the baby Jesus was fussing in her manger and so I got to hold her for the whole Christmas pageant. She called me off the script and that little baby made time stand completely still. And there I was with light streaming through these stained glass windows, with thousand of others standing simply in the presence of holiness. It was the perfect symbol for how Jesus has interrupted my life.

In the darkness of this night as the symbols around you constantly change, as you mess things up and then try to set the world right, remember Mary’s gift of holding on to meaning over time. Hold on to the hope that Jesus is always with you, then say it, say I love you with your life.
[1] If you are a person who prays, darkness is what you pray about. If you are a person who does not pray, you probably stopped for that same reason. This paragraph is a paraphrases from Frederick Buechner, “Come and See,” The Hungering Dark (NY: Harper, 1969) 50.

[2] Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (NY: Vintage, 2012), 13-18.

[3] Others write to her with agonizing questions: Should I break up with my spouse? What do I do about my “icky” sexual fantasies? Should I continue to support the adult children who live with me? How do I handle parents who reject me because of my sexual orientation? How can I ever by okay after the death of my child?

[4] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980).

[5] Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (NY: HarperCollins, 2013), 7.

[6] Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (NY: Vintage, 2012), 15.

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