In our daily prayers God was every manner of image and metaphor and meaning, and always, "God the Father." We never ever prayed to "God our Mother." What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with God's own....Joan Chittister, "Called to Question"

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas I

A reflection on the readings for Christmas I:Isaiah 63. 7-9, Hebrew’s 2. 10-18, Matthew 2. 13-23 by the Rev. Dr. Sarah Rogers

I am writing this on 23rd December, while the pre-Christmas preparations are well underway. We have had more snow here this December than can be remembered for many years. I have spent today getting the church ready for Christmas, putting up the crib and the Christmas tree, arranging flowers – all the usual preparations with a couple of faithful helpers. Everything now looks very festive, we are prepared for the arrival of a very special baby, God’s son, the Saviour of the world.

While we were doing all this there was a general discussion about a series that has been on TV the last few days. The series, ‘The Nativity’, has retold the story of the birth of Jesus. The anxieties, trials and tribulations of Mary & Joseph, the rejection they faced from their families and communities. All told in a way that would appeal not only to Christians, but also to those on the fringes of Christianity, those more in the secular world, each 30 min episode had the typical cliff-hanger ending usually seen in soap-world. Alongside the main event were the side stories of a hot-headed young shepherd, Thomas, struggling to pay his taxes, with a wife who is ill having just given birth to a baby, and that of the Magi travelling from the east following the star to Bethlehem.
I was struck by the way Joseph was portrayed. A man very much in love with Mary, keen to build a house for her, to provide for her and the many children they will have. Then, after the annunciation she disappears to visit her cousin Elizabeth, he doesn’t know why. By the time she returns her pregnancy is obvious, he doesn’t understand. Mary had tried to find the words to tell him before she went, now anything she says to him doesn’t make sense, he just feels betrayed. Despite this, on her father, Joachim’s request he takes her to Bethlehem with him so that she is safe from those in Nazareth who want to stone her as an adulteress. He stays true to his vow, and helps her. He still doesn’t believe what she has to say and then he has a dream, revealing that the child she is carrying is the son of God. Even then, he STILL doesn’t believe all that he has been told. Then when the planets converge and the most wonderful star appears over the stable appears, Joseph finally returns to Mary’s side and grabs her hand as Jesus is born, and finally he believes. It was a tear-jerker..!
Then Thomas, the shepherd arrives and realises the hope that the baby brings with its arrival, as he reaches down and kisses a tiny foot. It was the side-story of Thomas the shepherd that seemed to grab the imagination of my parishioners. One of them said to me ‘we don’t know whether the shepherd’s baby is a boy or a girl, if it turns out to be a boy I will cry’. We didn’t actually find out the answer to that question. Of course, as Christians we know the full story, we know what happens next. The story on TV ended with the birth of a baby in a stable in Bethlehem and the shepherds and Magi coming to worship that baby as the Messiah. We wait for Series 2..!

The Gospel reading for the First Sunday after Christmas takes us beyond that. The arrival of that baby, the predicted Messiah, puts so much fear into Herod the King that he has all of the new-born children killed. Suddenly the world is filled with fear and dread as babies are killed, mothers are weeping for their children. Joseph, thankfully dreams again and takes Mary and Jesus to safety in Egypt.

Herod was running scared, he clearly wasn’t thinking straight, he was so absorbed by his desire for power, that the arrival of Messiah in the form of a tiny baby was too much for him. There are a number of things he could have done, befriended Mary & Joseph, taken Jesus under his wing, nurtured him, influenced him and so in the future extended his rule. He could have worked out that such a tiny baby wasn’t going to be any threat to his rule just yet, he had a few years to work out a strategy. He could even have laughed at the wise-men and refused to believe that the Messiah was about to arrive. Instead, he sees the threat as genuine and immediate, something to be stamped out straight away and so he kills.
This needless slaughter may indeed be the fulfilment of a prophesy, but it is not necessarily God’s will. Violence of any kind goes against God’s wishes for us. However, the story of Herod’s massacre of the innocents is echoed, far too often, in the news stories of today. This sort of needless killing is still heard about today, infanticide, murder, acts of war and terrorism. Not to mention the needless suffering of others in other ways. None of this is God’s will – he gives us freedom to make our own choices. Part of human nature is self-defence, the ‘flight or fight’ response when we are attacked. Some, like Herod, retaliate to a perceived threat, defending themselves to ensure their own security no matter what it costs others. I have no doubt that God knows all too well that this is all too often our response and he weeps because of it and feels the suffering that is endured.

But God came into the world as a child, a baby who needs His mother to care for him, to feed him, to hold him. Austin Farrer puts it like this:
“Yet Mary holds her finger out, and a divine hand closes on it. The maker of the world is born a begging child; he begs for milk, and does not know that it is milk for which he begs. We will not lift our hands to pull the love of God down to us, but he lifts hands to pull human compassion down upon his cradle. So the weakness of God proves stronger than men.” (from Said or Sung by Austin Farrer).

God choose to come into the world to draw us closer to him. He doesn’t fight back in the way we might expect he simply reaches out and draws us close in LOVE. Jesus grew up and chose to follow God’s will and die on the cross, and in rising again, he showed that even wrath and violence can never overcome or extinguish the love of God.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Advent 3

A reflection on the readings for Advent 3:Isaiah 35: 1-10; Psalm 146 or Canticle 3 or Canticle 15; James 5:7-10 and Matthew 11:2-11 by the Rev. Camille, Hegg

The collect for Advent 3 is one of my favorites:
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy spirit, be honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.

I remember hearing this when I was a child and the priest talked about the day as “Stir up Sunday.” I always had the image of God standing at a stove and stirring a big pot of something that smelled good and tasted delicious. I imagined soup or the chicken and dumplings my mother made. The clearest and most present and pleasant image is that of the chocolate fudge she made. When she stirred it the smell was amazingly and delightfully magical. We kids couldn’t wait to taste it.

It was in the stirring of the pot that the smell came forth. In stirring the pot the vitality, the essence, were released. Also, expectation and hope. Expectation, of delicious soup or dumplings, or fudge! Hope, realized in the taste, and to a degree the delight in sharing. She usually made several batches of fudge and wrapped up packages to take to friends. The house smelled of chocolate all day. The kids got to help at all stages, including delivering the packages to the door of the designated recipients.

Until our 1979 prayer book this collect was used on “The Sunday Next Before Advent,” as it used to be called. How British/Anglican is that?! A parishioner who knows about these things told me that before everyone was taught to read, when that collect was read, the women knew it was time to go and mix and stir their fruit cakes and Christmas puddings. They knew Advent begins the next Sunday; Christmas is almost here. Fruitcakes and Christmas puddings need that much time to mature and ripen and come to their essence.

In the gospel this week John the Baptizer is in prison and sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the one to come. In Luke some translations read that the people were “on tiptoe in expectation.” That phrase always reminds me of being a child and standing on tiptoe to look into the pots, especially that pot of fudge! As I got older I got to be the one to stir and therefore release those delightful smells.

This particular Sunday evokes images of God which are very feminine for me. God as cook; God as the one who nourishes; God as the one who gathers the ingredients of creation and forms that which is new and delightful; God who invites us to the table; God who teaches us to go out and feed and clothe and soothe; God as the source of power which comes from care and not violence; God who invites us to live in expectation and hope.
All of the readings for this day remind us of the delight that is store for us. In the midst of things which we cannot understand- violence, poverty, power struggles in our own government and throughout the world, and so much more- we do well to remember as the Epistle says, to rejoice, to continue in prayer, hold on to good, let our gentleness be known to everyone.

My prayer is that we be instruments who are able to transmit, stir up, inspire in our friends and leaders that expectation and hope. Let us be on tiptoe expecting good things and stirring up the goodness that is in all of us and all humanity.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Advent 2 Claiming Hope in Despair

a reflection on the readings for Advent 2A by the Rev. Margaret Rose

In spite of a seemingly positive jobs report, this week marked the day that numbers of unemployed will lose their benefits. The death rate in Afghanistan is beginning to climb again and the negotiations on peace between Palestine and Israel are breaking down by the minute. The START treaty, despite being endorsed by the military, Republican and Democratic Generals seems to be dead in the water for this Congress. The homicide rate in New York is up, and a Congressman from Harlem who has done good work for many years in the House, now in his later years somehow forgot to pay taxes on homes here an abroad. Heroic sports figures in baseball, cycling and more are having their medals revoked, because somehow they felt they needed to cheat to win. And to top it off, it seems that terrorist attacks lurk on every corner and we will have our bodies scanned or patted with mistrust every time we fly. If the politicians are right, this is a season of fear and darkness and the chill of winter almost enfolds us in it. And if the news is right we should despair.
“You better watch out! And not just because Santa is coming to town.”

And yes. And yet. I have been astonished as I walk around my city which happens to be New York. It is actually Advent in Manhattan! And despite the fact that the so called secular world doesn’t have a clue about the preparations in Advent, hope is in the air. I know it is marketing and commercialism and all the things we often say we should avoid in this season, but sometimes the Holy Spirit is working in the world and those of us prone to more dire predictions will benefit by paying attention.

The lights, which of course are used by marketers beckoning us to up their bottom line also brighten the darkness on Fifth Avenue. The “Crown” in front of Cartier, the laser snowflake show at Saks took my breath away. The store windows once again tell the story of good times gone by and hope for days to come. New Yorkers and tourists are out walking, taking time in the middle of the day or early evening, risking good cheer to one another, defying the darkness and chill and to imagine the possibility of a future.

Something about this season does it to us. And I don’t think it is either denial or naïveté but expresses something deep in the heart of human being. And for my part it is some how the Holy Spirit who lives among us and offers these resilient moments for all of us.

In the church of course, we name it Advent and defy the darkness and the fear in a different way. and darkness of our time. It doesn’t take a Cartier Crown (spectacular as it was!). The very ground of our faith is that hope will win out over despair. From the prophets until today that is the message of Messiah’s birth. And if I am honest, the perils of today of 2010 are not so different from those I might have mentioned ten or hundred or two thousand years ago.

Take Isaiah. The 9th Century BCE was the era of the text today. Times were bad. Jerusalem was declining. The people, fighting small ethnic wars with their neighbors were embroiled in political in fighting. There was violence in the streets and the threat of invasion from without. The turbulence of present day Baghdad or Afghanistan would be a cakewalk for Isaiah’s time, except of course for the advanced technology (which could be another reflection by itself.) In any case, fear was the rule of the day.

Yet out of this social situation Isaiah’s witness arises proclaiming that God is present and the hope of the Messiah coming very near. Over and over Isaiah claims peace in the midst of war:

They shall beat swords into plowshares and nation shall not lift up sword against nation. The wolf shall lie down with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together. A little child shall lead them. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra and the weaned child shall put a hand on the adder’s den. They shall not destroy in all my holy mountain. Waters shall break forth in the desert.

What a crazy idea. Was Isaiah naïve or in denial, proclaiming some future hope by and by that might or might not come to fruition? And how different this is from the apocalyptic vision of death and destruction we hear from the prophets of our texts in past weeks. Here in the midst of impossible odds, God’s realm of loving abundance promises to break through and create peace. With the coming of the Messiah, hope is to be born and reborn again and again. Good thing. We need it.

I wonder. What is it that makes us each year, from Isaiah’s time until our own reclaim this hope, believe that in spite of the odds or of history, things will be better next year, that we will make it through. What is it that makes us marvel at the lights, put up a tree, sing The Messiah?

There is no formula of course, no guarantee that despair will not win in the end. But there are witness who give us courage to face our own despair. The prophets of course but those of today as well. You can name your own I am sure.
For me, there is Mugisa from the Congo, who in spite of seeing her friends raped and killed, her own husband kidnapped for days, her house robbed, did become bitter or give up but started and empowerment project in her village.

Or a woman whose story I heard recently. Her name was Angela, a mother of four whose husband finally succumbed to the drug habit which had plagued him for years. Having not finished high school, she was relegated to low skill jobs, food stamps and welfare. Yet, in addition to her own four children she was adopting the child of a cousin who was soon to be homeless. “I do that,” she said, “because everybody needs a place to lay their head. We may not always have the gas and the lights, but they will have a roof and a little something to eat. You know, I don’t think of it as a bad life.” In order to continue ot receive assistance, Angela trained much to her delight, as a certified nurse’s assistant—a home health aide. She was glad to have the work even though it did not always pay well, and even though from time to time the clients’ racism was blatant. “Well,” Angela said, “Many of my clients are from another era, and there is a lot of prejudice. At first they are just mean and sometimes they call me nigger. But I say to myself: ‘Well, you may call me that, but I am the one here combing your hair and making you look pretty. I am the one helping you get out of bed in the morning, helping you get dressed.’ And you know what happens? Pretty soon that word nigger become thank you.”

Tears came to my eyes as I listened. Imagine a person, in the face of ridicule and racism, hanging in there, serving the needs of another, forgiving a world of pain and hurt and continuing to strive to make better for herself and her children. “It is okay,” she says, “and I think it will be better next year!”

Enough folk like these loving women will change the world. They are living out Isaiah’s vision. Not giving up and knowing that forgiveness and thank you are the way of hope. Is it their faith that gets these women through? Grace? Character? A good mother somewhere in the past? Whatever, they are witnesses for us offering hope and light in the midst of our own and the city’s shadows.

That is what the season is really about: light in the darkness, hope in despair. Isaiah said it. The city says it. Angela and Mugisa say it. It is what Paul says to us in the letter to the Roman. ( Remember, that early Christian community too, in the first century was persecuted and under siege. These Biblical witnesses and the stories of those who live in hope today are offered so that by steadfastness and encouragement, we too might have hope. It is not as easy as speaking the words. Hard times are real—in the world, in our own lives and communities, among those we love. But the Gospel reminds us that turning around, starting anew, indeed repenting –pointing in a new direction, is always possible.

The Advent message of hope remains. And St. Paul’s prayer at the close of the epistle to the Roman is our own: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.