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Advent 4   Leave a comment

The following is a homily I gave at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, on the morning of 24 December 2017.
Scripture: Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38
Canticle: Luke 1:46-55

Today’s Gospel lesson, known in the Church as The Annunciation of Gabriel to Mary, or simply The Annunciation, is my favorite Bible story. And it’s one of the most influential stories in terms of art; I would encourage you when you go home this afternoon to do a Google image search on The Annunciation. You’ll find hundreds of paintings over the centuries, from ancient murals and icons to John Collier’s very modern take. Even if you can’t call to mind any images of the Annunciation at this moment, some of the pictures you find will undoubtedly be familiar to you. (Your search may reveal a few early images in which Mary is wearing a chasuble and stole—the vestments of a priest).

The story has inspired hymns and spiritual songs, perhaps most notably Hymn #265, which we often sing at this time of year as well as on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25th. And three words of Mary’s response inspired Paul McCartney to write one of the Beatles’ most celebrated songs.

If you pray the Rosary, or grew up praying it, you know that the first line of the Hail Mary, “Hail Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee,” comes from Gabriel’s greeting here.

All this familiarity with The Annunciation can desensitize us to its revolutionary nature: this is one of the most subversive stories in the Bible.

Let’s quickly address Mary’s virginity: the Church and our culture have developed an unfortunate fixation over the centuries on Mary’s sex life, and it has had an unhealthy effect on our broader conversations around sexuality, with some devastating consequences, particularly for young women.

Mary’s sexual innocence is not the point, and the message is definitely not that virgins have found favor with God and those who aren’t virgins are out of God’s favor.

The point—as Gabriel explicitly says—is that God can do what should be biologically impossible. This is God saying, “I know the parameters of human reproduction; I created those parameters; and I can transcend those parameters.”

Because what’s about to happen will change everything.

Mary accepts the strange news that follows the strange greeting, and says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” That “Here am I, the servant of the Lord” echoes the response of God’s faithful servants over generations to God’s call; look through the Bible and you will see those words again and again. They’re good words to have in mind if God should ever call you to anything.

And when Mary says, “Let it be with me according to your word,” Mary becomes three things: one, she becomes a mother.

Two, she becomes in essence the first Christian priest, consecrating with her word the body and blood of Christ—a fact curiously overlooked or excused by two millennia of male church leaders opposed to the ordination of women, despite Mary being depicted in priestly vestments in liturgical art for nearly that whole time.

Three, she becomes Theotokos: the Mother of God. Now, I recognize that may be a controversial term for some of you. Calling Mary the Mother of God isn’t to worship Mary, or to say that Mary is greater than or equal to God or Jesus; it is acknowledging and showing reverence for her special role and place—as Gabriel clearly acknowledges in the text—as the mother of the incarnate God, the one who was chosen for and accepted this role—risking her impending marriage, her reputation, and in a time of both high childbirth mortality and the stoning of unmarried mothers, risking even her life—and gave birth to Jesus and raised him.

So Mary is special. And yet, very much human, and very much an example for all of us: for each one of us is called to echo her response: Here am I; let it be with me according to your word.

Every day, in every moment, God calls you and me and The Church to do as Mary did, and give birth to the incarnation of God in the world.

Most of you know that Erica and I are expecting our first child in April. And we have had countless friends and relatives telling us, “Your lives are about to completely change forever. You can’t even imagine how much everything is about to change.” And it’s something I don’t mind hearing over and over, because I know it’s true: I know that no matter how much I can intellectually grasp how profound an experience becoming a parent is, I won’t really know until I experience it first hand. Neither books nor movies, nor having nieces and nephews and the children of close friends in my life can prepare me: the experience is beyond my comprehension.

So is this true of the Incarnation. What we will celebrate tonight, what St. Paul calls “the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed,” was foretold for generations as the coming of a king and liberator of a great kingdom—and yet turns out to be not a king and kingdom in an earthly sense, but a helpless baby born to a family of marginalized ethnicity in a time of occupation and oppression, and a spiritual kingdom whose citizens strive to live in marked distinction from the values of the kingdom they physically inhabit. Even the Prophets couldn’t grasp the astonishing thing they were foretelling. But they knew that everything would change.

Shortly after the Annunciation, Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is unexpectedly pregnant with John who will become the Baptist, and Mary sings the canticle we call The Magnificat, which took the place of a Psalm for us in today’s liturgy. This Song of Mary hearkens back to the Song of Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel—another unexpected pregnancy—and it is perhaps even more subversive and insurgent than The Annunciation.

Mary begins, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” (in Latin: Magnificat anima mea Dominum, my soul magnifies the Lord) and then she tells us why; she paints a picture of a world turned upside down, a world in which God has scattered the proud in their conceit, has cast down the mighty from their thrones, has lifted up the lowly, has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty; God has come to the help of God’s servant, for God has remembered God’s promise of mercy.

The Magnificat is what love, justice, and power look like in God’s kingdom. It is the polar opposite of what love, justice, and power look like in our wounded world. It is the polar opposite of the greedy, heartless tax bill passed into law this week. It is the antithesis of the justice and power structures we see in our nation today. It is a world in which Mary’s consent is an essential element of the Incarnation, as is Joseph believing her story.

This song of subversion is part of the Church’s daily liturgy: it’s optional at morning prayer, but always part of evening prayer. If you’ve ever thought about memorizing a piece of poetry to calm yourself at stressful times, consider memorizing this canticle, and reciting it—praying it—regularly.

Note that Mary uses the past tense; these are the things that God has done. Even though Jesus is not yet born, and we may not see how justice is prevailing on Earth, it is already done, and cannot be undone. The powerful, the unjust, and the unloving just don’t know it yet.

Tonight Christmas begins. God is coming into the world through unlikely means: an impossible pregnancy through the consent of a brave and Blessed Mother.

God is coming into the world through the faith and love and justice of every person in this congregation and in the Communion of Saints—brave and blessed mothers all. And everything is about to change…

“Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a child… of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Advent 1   1 comment

C99mg1hXoAAWSUBThe following is the text of a homily I gave at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, on 3 December 2017
Biblical texts: Isaiah 64:1-9Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18Mark 13:24-37

It is night. Charlie Brown is standing outside, looking at Linus, who is walking towards him holding a candle. Charlie Brown says, “What’s this?”

Linus replies, “I have heard that it is better to light a single candle then to curse the darkness.”

“That’s true,” says Charlie Brown, now looking past Linus, “Although there will always be those who disagree with you…”

And in the final frame we see Lucy, shouting into the night: “You stupid darkness!”

Scripture, like Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts”, is always relevant, but sometimes it feels particularly relevant, as if it speaks precisely to this present moment. When I began to prepare this homily and read the first line of the Isaiah passage, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” I thought, “isn’t scripture relevant?” In this time of unveiled white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia, of increased violence, economic and environmental injustice, and morally-bankrupt leaders, how much do we long for God to “tear open the heavens and come down,” to bring justice and righteousness to the wounded people of our nation and world.

Today we begin both the season of Advent and the new Liturgical Year. The Church begins its year with a time of waiting, hoping, preparing for the coming of Christ in the present and future. And we remember the ways our spiritual ancestors did the same in the past.

Each of the seasons of the Liturgical Year represents an invitation to us to contemplate our relationship with God both as individuals and in community. An invitation to remember that we are citizens of God’s kingdom, and how the way of that kingdom is different from the way of the world.

And I think Advent may be the strongest of such invitations; it is perhaps the most contemplative of seasons, and this invitation to contemplation comes in the time of year in which we often find ourselves most busy; the invitation to remember the ways of God’s kingdom comes at a time when the world is shouting at us to shop, buy, consume. Black Friday always gets the jump on Advent 1.

This congregation is abundant in generosity—our blanket drive is the most recent in a long list of examples—so I have no doubt that each of you approaches your Christmas shopping with a spirit of giving rather than material accumulation and consumption. That’s not what my Advent message is about.

But I do want to encourage you to find time within this season for that contemplation that the world wants you not to find time for. Even if all you can manage is 5 minutes on one day in this whole season. If you can do more, great; if you can make it a weekly or daily practice in this season, great. But if it’s just one time, one day, for a few minutes, stop what you are doing, set your phone down, and spend a moment with God in silent contemplation.

What should you contemplate? Consider what we are waiting for in Advent.

We begin Advent with a collection of apocalyptic readings, establishing that things are bad. And this is a good beginning to our contemplation of waiting: for what were our spiritual ancestors waiting?

What was Isaiah crying for in that passage? For what restoration does the Psalmist cry when they say, “Restore us, O God of hosts”? What was it like for our spiritual ancestors to wait generations for a messiah? What was it like to wait hundreds, thousands of years for a promised deliverance? What agony must that have seemed at times, particularly during the times of wandering in the wilderness, exile, captivity, and occupation. They must have believed their world would never be just again. What kept their hope alive?

Sometimes it is a good and right thing to sit with that darkness, to be patient with it, to contemplate the ways in which we are together in waiting for the light. We are in communion with our spiritual ancestors and with each other. That is part of what the Eucharist is about. We, like them, are waiting in hope.

In times such as our own, when power is held and abused by people exercising the worst parts of human nature, when the people in charge make a mockery of the values of our faith and the stated values of our nation, it is acceptable to scream “you stupid darkness!” And that can be a holy and righteous part of your Advent contemplation and meditation.

And then: light a candle. Meditate on your vision for this wounded world. In the spirit of the motto we have adopted at St. Thomas for this year, bring your light. How can you be the Light of Christ in a dark world?

The incarnation of God is an ever-ongoing thing, as the Body of Christ—in us, the Church—enacts the will of God, the legacy of Jesus. God works through human beings, and that includes you—as individuals and as community.

“Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” The hope of Advent is what the hope of our spiritual ancestors over millennia has always been: that a savior, a redeemer, a sustainer will come. That there will be light at the end of the darkness, that a power greater than the evil powers of this world will come in great glory. That the ways of this world have not won, and will not win.

This hope is what keeps us working God’s will in the world through the dark times; and that work in turn feeds the hope. This is the “keeping awake,” the being “on the watch” that Jesus speaks of in this reading from Mark. That God—often through us—is working all things for ultimate good. That there is a light shining through the darkness.

I have quoted Blessed Julian of Norwich from this pulpit before. Julian is the 15th Century English mystic who wrote the book “Revelations Of Divine Love” from a series of visions she had during an illness. But I haven’t quoted her most famous line, which is what God told her several times in slightly varied words through these visions: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”*

Julian was no Pollyanna: her words—or rather, God’s words as reported by her—are not meant to be a don’t-worry-be-happy panacea, pretending that suffering isn’t real. “He did not say,” Julian notes, “‘You shall not be perturbed, you shall not be troubled, you shall not be distressed…’”*

The words “all shall be well” are that same hope: that God is always acting in love in the world; that despite the very real evil and suffering in the world, God is present with us and working for ultimate good. That someday Jesus will return, and whether that happens tomorrow or 10,000 years from now, we can keep working in the assurance that all shall be well. And that this is the vision we can carry in our hearts as we work to bring God’s Reign to earth.

Jesus is coming. And God’s abundant love has always been, is now, and will always be becoming incarnate in the world around you. As we begin this season of preparation, as you patiently contemplate the darkness, let God’s abundant love become incarnate within you—become incandescent within you.

Julian again: “And so our good Lord answered all the questions and doubts that I could raise, saying most comfortingly in this way, ‘I may make all things well, I can make all things well, I will make all things well, and I shall make all things well; and you will see for yourself that all things shall be well.’”*

*Julian of Norwich (2015). Revelations Of Divine Love. (Barry Windeatt, Trans.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1395).

Waiting, Hoping, Preparing   Leave a comment

fullsizerender-2The following is the text of a homily I gave at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, on 27 November 2016

Happy New Year!

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, which means it is the first day of the Liturgical Year, the calendar that the Church follows. The Liturgical Year is our way of following the life of Christ through the year. It is a way of marking God’s time even as we mark civic time. It is the Church’s way of reminding us that though we are very much in this world, we are not to be of it: we are citizens of God’s kingdom more than any earthly nation.

When I came to the Episcopal Church, out of the Presbyterian Church, in my 20s, I was at first shocked to find that we didn’t sing Christmas Carols in church all through December (except for the handful that are really Advent hymns), and that there were many Episcopalian families that didn’t put up a tree and decorate the house until a few days before Christmas. But in time, I came to embrace those traditions in my own life. And over the past several years I am beginning more and more to think of this day, rather than January first, as the beginning of the year.

Now I’m not telling you you can’t do those things: if you want to put up a tree this weekend and sing carols all month, go for it. Whatever brings you joy and brings you closer to Jesus is the right way for you to celebrate the season. But I would encourage you to find some way to keep Advent in a world that is keeping cultural Christmas. If you have a family altar, put a blue or purple cloth on it. Make an Advent wreath and light the candles on it every night, saying a prayer—or even one of the Daily Offices from the Prayerbook—with your family. One of my Gregorian Brothers had a pair of converse sneakers in the colors of every liturgical season; he’d be wearing blue Chuck Taylors for the next four weeks. Spend time reading a daily Advent meditation: you can find them online or in bookstores. There’s a wonderful book that I’m starting again this week called Watch For The Light. These are little ways to take time to keep the Advent vigil this season…

We begin the liturgical year not with Jesus’ birth, as might be the intuitive choice, but with the time before Jesus arrives: a time of waiting, hoping, preparing. In Advent we recognize three different kinds of waiting: first, the time of the Old Testament, in which our spiritual ancestors waited for the long-promised coming of The Messiah, a waiting that culminates in Christmas. Second, the Second Coming of Christ, that time of ultimate reconciliation that Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel reading. But we do not only see the waiting and hoping of the past and future: the third kind of waiting is this present moment: we wait, hope, and prepare for how God is being made incarnate in our own daily lives right here and now.

Waiting, hoping, and preparing. Right now, I think many of us are waiting, worrying, and dreading. We are in a time of uncertainty and fear: the racism, misogyny, xenophobia and ableism that has always been present in American culture is in ascendancy again, and in danger of being mainstreamed. We seem more divided than ever. How do we prepare with joy for the coming of Christ—in our past, present, and future, in the midst of such turmoil, distress, and division?

This morning’s readings begin in a place very familiar to us as Coloradans: the mountains. We have perhaps a unique understanding of the passage from Isaiah. In my nearly two years in Denver, I’ve seen in those mountains God’s majesty and the grandeur of God’s creation—a holiness, and even a certain kind of danger—a holy danger, if you will. I’ve heard from many of you who have lived here all your lives that the mountains are peace and respite—that the very sight of them is comforting to you. They are where Coloradans relax, and where we find our adventure and joy.

Isaiah tells us, “In the days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains…Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord…that he may teach us his ways, and that we may walk in his paths.’”

So what if we were to imagine a mountain far higher than our fourteeners? A place where all the peace, respite, comfort, joy, adventure—and even that holy danger—are all magnified by the presence of God. Might that be a place where we could learn God’s ways and walk in God’s paths? How might we bring that mountain to earth, into our own lives and our political realities?

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father… Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

The end times that Jesus is talking about could come this afternoon, or it could come a thousand years from now—or a million. We are simply told to be ready.

And what does being ready look like? The same thing that being a Christian looks like: work and prayer. Doing the work of justice and love that Jesus teaches us by word and example through the Gospels. Praying that God would make this world better reflect God’s kingdom, and then being God’s hands, bringing God’s kingdom to this earth.

“Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep… The night is far gone, the day is near.” What are the ways in which you might be asleep to God’s will and revelation in your life and in the world? What are the ways in which God might be calling you—through Paul’s words here in the letter to the Romans—to wake up?

Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, in her excellent book, The Liturgical Year, calls Advent, “the season that teaches us to wait for what is beyond the obvious. It trains us to see what is behind the apparent. Advent makes us look for God in all those places we have, until now, ignored.” Or as Paul says, “the moment to wake from sleep.”

There is perhaps no better season than Advent for noticing the darkness—in our world, in our nation, in our own souls. Sit a while with that darkness this season. Meditate on it. Talk with God about it in prayer. See how much it needs the Light of Christ. And then: Pray on your own response to it; see how you can cast away the works of darkness and be a messenger and harbinger of that light.

You may have thought that my earlier list of Advent observances was a bit on the superficial side. The goal of those suggestions was to get you into a mindset of living a liturgical year. Of living in the way of the Kingdom of God rather than the way of a nation that cannot ever truly represent the way of Jesus, no matter who sits in its halls of power. Following the life of our incarnate, empathetic Christ, who knows exactly what it is like to be regarded by an empire as less-than-fully human.

But I will now add to that list: observe Advent by living out the Gospel: by feeding the poor, by welcoming the stranger, by lifting up the oppressed. Work for justice: march for it, demand it from your elected representatives on all levels. Protect the vulnerable, by lobbying on their behalf, and—if you’re serious about the safety pin we’re all wearing, by putting your body between theirs and those who would harm them.

Remember that, no matter how divisive our different ideologies may seem, there is no division in Christ Jesus. We are all one in God’s love, and we are called to love each other in the same way even when we radically disagree.

Above all, do not be afraid, even when it seems there is much to fear. Remember that God loves you, as God loves all of us.

These are the ways we prepare with joy for the coming of Jesus. These are the ways we announce that there is room in our inn, and prepare a cradle for the birth of a poor refugee baby who will be our king. These are the ways we look with hope to a future where God’s justice will prevail and earthy governments will matter no more. These are the ways we see God’s incarnation in our own lives, today.

Besides this, you know what time it is, how now is the moment for you to wake from sleep. Beloved, the day is near.

Posted 27 November 2016 by Br. Scott Michael Pomerenk, BSG in Homilies

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