Friday, December 28, 2012

Christmas Eve Sermon

Sermon preached Christmas Eve, 2012
Episcopal Church of the Incarnation
Santa Rosa, CA

Many of us are familiar, I’m sure, with the beautiful story of Silent Night – about how, on Christmas Eve, 1914, in the first winter of World War I, some German soldiers began singing their version of Silent Night, Stille Nacht, and about how the British soldiers, not a hundred yards away, joined in on the singing, and pretty soon British and German soldiers, who just a few hours earlier had been shooting at each other, were belting out Christmas carols together.  

And you have perhaps heard, then, how, as their courage was made strong by their singing, they began to climb out of their trenches and calling out to the other side, “Don’t shoot! We won’t shoot either!” and pretty soon soldiers from both sides were meeting in the middle of no man’s land, shaking hands, exchanging souvenirs and delicacies like Bavarian ham and English cigarettes.  Pretty soon someone brought out a soccer ball, and within moments a hilarious soccer game was under way

One British private, serving in the 2nd Queens Regiment, wrote home about his experience:  “It was a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere; and about 7 or 8 in the evening there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches and there were these lights -I don't know what they were. And then they sang "Silent Night" - "Stille Nacht." I shall never forget it, it was one of the highlights of my life. I thought, what a beautiful tune.”

It’s a beautiful story, made even more beautiful by the fact that it is true, and well-documented by letters sent home from the front. 

 What is slightly less well known is how this was not just a single incident involving just a few dozen men.  According to the New York Times, over 100,000 soldiers participated in these spontaneous outbursts of peace on that day, stretching all along the front.  In one case, it was “Silent Night” that inspired the truce; in another, it was “O Come All Ye Faithful” – the Germans replied with the Latin version – Adeste Fidelis.

Nor is it commonly appreciated, I think, just how frightening it was for those first few soldiers as they stepped out of the protection of their trenches.  One German Captain wrote about this in a letter home:  “I shouted to our enemies that we didn't wish to shoot and that we make a Christmas truce. I said I would come from my side and we could speak with each other. First there was silence, then I shouted once more, invited them, and the British shouted `No shooting!’ Then a man came out of the trenches and I on my side did the same and so we came together and we shook hands - a bit cautiously!”

Nor do we hear much about how enraged the generals became when they heard about this.  The commander for the British troops, Gen. Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, wrote, “I have issued the strictest orders that on no account is [this fraternizing] to be allowed between the opposing troops. To finish this war quickly, we must keep up the fighting spirit and do all we can to discourage friendly [exchange].”

Apparently it never occurred to the general that perhaps the war might be finished more quickly, and more honorably, if the soldiers were allowed to follow their more natural inclination, which was to exchange gifts rather than bullets.

The famous Christmas Truce of 1914 has become something of a real-life endorsement of that famous bumper sticker, “What if they gave a war and nobody came?”

Or, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore…”

By the time Christmas Eve rolled around a year later, the generals were ready; they made sure no more spontaneous outbreaks of the Christmas Spirit would be tolerated.  They threatened the front line officers with courts-martial, rotated troops to keep them on the move, and ordered artillery barrages to prevent anyone from raising their heads above the trenches.   Nonetheless, it is known that a few artillery companies intentionally aimed their cannons away from the troops, making it possible for a few gift exchanges and spontaneous soccer games to break out.  

By the time the third Christmas of the war came around, each side was so exhausted and dispirited by the war, and so thoroughly convinced of the inhumanity of the other side, that there was little danger of further Christmas truces.  

But one wonders: what if they had been able to sing Silent Night every day, and not just on Christmas Eve?  What if all the generals had been unable to stop the singing of Silent Night?  What if Silent Night had been ringing in every soldier’s heart, not just that one night, but every night of the war?

The other day a friend of mine prevailed upon me to sit through a Lord of the Rings Marathon; and I have to say it was time well spent – a spiritual experience, really.  One especially striking scene was near the end.  Frodo and Sam are trying, with their very last ounce of strength, to get through Mordor and to Mount Doom, where Frodo will try to drop the Ring into the pit where it will be destroyed.  But they are absolutely exhausted; Frodo is fitfully sleeping and whimpering and shivering from the cold and exhaustion; that’s when Sam sees a break in the clouds – it’s the first sign of light since they entered the evil country.  A couple of stars twinkle as the clouds break, and Sam says, “Mr. Frodo!  Look!  There is light!  Beauty up there – that no shadow can touch.”  

It made me think of the times in my own life when I felt lost, and at the end of my rope, and beyond saving, only to see a star, or a sunrise, or the smile of a friend, or a simple gesture of kindness – and that’s all I’ve needed to find the strength to carry on.  

It makes me think, on this dark and cold light, of the star that hung over Bethlehem, and of the stars that shined over that battlefield nearly a hundred years ago, giving those wretched soldiers the courage to speak words of peace and of love.

It reminds me to keep an eye out for that star, each day – for in the midst of darkness and grief, there is light.  A light to enlighten the nations.  The Prince of Peace.

A member of our congregation has a daughter who teaches school in New Town, Connecticut – thank God, a different school than the one that was attacked so terribly last week.  A few days ago she wrote to her mother and her friends about what it’s been like.  After describing poignant scenes of grief and unspeakable loss, she says, There is “good that’s come out of this…, [in] the outpouring of love felt by people worldwide.  Comfort items like blankets, quilts, stuffed animals, and books have been pouring in at a rate that has overwhelmed those coordinating.  People are sending and want to send money, not only to help the families directly affected, but also the people in town.  There have been accounts of people calling from across the country to give their credit card numbers to our little General Store, with instructions to pay for every cup of coffee purchased and other gestures like that.  Flowers, wreaths, candles and even 26 Christmas trees have been sent and placed at memorial gathering places.  The love and grief of the world has been felt.  I can’t describe the sheer numbers of people who have come from places near and far to care for our townspeople.  The resources are amazing and they all seem to know just how to help and what to do – especially as we felt paralyzed the first few days….”

Events like this remind us that for every sick murderous psychopath bent on destruction, there is an army of good soldiers singing “Silent Night” – the world is full of so many more people willing to sacrifice and work hard for the good of all, so as to completely overwhelm and outnumber the few who seek to do harm.  When we know how to be helpful, we help.

Silent Night is being sung, every day.  The star that gives hope to us all is shining in the darkness – and the darkness does not overcome it.

Many churches, on the one week anniversary of New Town, tolled their bells 26 times to honor the 26 children and educators who were killed.  But at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC – which is an Episcopal Church, I’m proud to say – the bell was tolled 28 times.  Because the killer and his mother were also human beings who deserve our prayers.  For as Jesus taught us, what good is it if we pray only for those who deserve our prayers, or only for those whom we like, or approve of.  That is not God’s way; that is not the way of the Christ.  Jesus came to this world to set a new standard for love – that we cross the battle lines of division and enmity; that we climb out of our trenches; that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  

We who are gathered here tonight follow a god whose purpose was to simple: to love, without exception; and to meet every person who would do him harm with an open heart and an invitation to love.

It is this love – this Silent Night kind of love – to which the world has responded.  We are here tonight because we know that no one is perfectly good, or perfectly evil, and no one is beyond the reach of God’s love.  

Today as I was scanning through Facebook I found this post by a member of our congregation:

"On Friday, I stopped at a local Santa Rosa restaurant to have lunch while doing some misc. Christmas shopping. When I tried to pay for my lunch, I was told that a person at another table had paid for my lunch. She had already left, but it was apparently a regular customer for years who picks someone at random each year and buys their meal. So... feeling like I wanted to extend the Christmas spirit, later in the day, I paid for a few people behind me at the Starbuck's drive-up. The woman at the window told me there were many gestures of this type during the Christmas season and she gave me a coupon for a free beverage. Today, I drove through to use my free coupon but was told the person in front of me had bought my latte for me. So... I used the coupon to pay for the person behind me.............”

Seems like this Silent Night love is breaking out all over the place.  It seems like you can’t even buy a cup of coffee in this world without someone buying it for you!  That’s a Silent Night kind of love.  Would that it were being sung every day.  Maybe, if we choose, it could be.  Maybe, if we make this our prayer; maybe, if we hold hands and open our hearts and look for the star that is beyond all shadow, we will find the strength within ourselves to be messengers of that love.  

 Maybe, if we believe it can be so, we, too, can be bearers of that light and that love.  That’s what this church believes is true.  May it be true for you, this Christmas night, and for all the nights that await us.   Because good hearts, open to the light of Christ, can work miracles.  

May it be so.  Amen.

Monday, December 3, 2012

On New Sleds and Other Purposes for Prayer

The podcast for this sermon can be listened to by going to this link:

"What Are We Waiting For?"
Sermon preached the First Sunday of Advent
December 2, 2012

I have a friend from High School back in Minnesota who emailed me a few of weeks ago to tell me the doctors had found a mass of some sort on one of her ovaries.  They poked at her and took some scans and samples, and then sent her home to wait for the results.  Those few days of waiting seemed like weeks.  Finally, they called; the tests were inconclusive; they asked her to come in for another set of tests.  That took a few more days of waiting for the appointment, after which they told her they’d get back to her in a few days with the results.  More waiting.  A few days seemed like a month.  Then they called to say they thought the lump was a benign cyst but now they were concerned about some abnormal growth of cells in her uterus.   Could she come in for more tests?  She’s waiting for that appointment now.    

And so it goes.  She said she’s learning a whole new way of living while waiting.  And of waiting while living. 
Of course, to an outside observer, her life seems pretty much the same.  She still goes to work; she still enjoys travel; she continues to feed the cat and water the plants as per usual.  But on the inside, everything is different – especially time: how it passes, where it goes, where it leads.   

Many years ago, Patricia Moore preached an Advent sermon that I’ll always remember.  She said when you’re on a road trip, driving down a lonely highway in the middle of the night, and the low fuel light comes on, you don’t necessarily panic, but you do find yourself paying more attention to the signs along the highway. 

These are the themes of Advent: sacred waiting.  Waiting, while living, and breathing, and paying attention.   And I suppose the big question is this: what are we waiting for?

So many of us are waiting for something.  Sometimes we live as if our lives haven’t yet started – as if we can’t really live until we get that diagnosis, or get that job, or meet that right person, or make it through this busy time.  My friend, waiting to hear the news from her doctor, is beginning to ask the question: am I waiting to hear if I’m going to live?  Or am I waiting to hear that it’s time to start living?  Or am I waiting to hear what it is I’m living for?

Many of you have picked up this book, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily by Joan Chittister, and have begun reading it.  This is our first attempt at encouraging the entire congregation to read a book together, and to have a series of sermons that addressed the topics in that book.  We’re hoping to do this a few times a year – to give us all a common vocabulary, and a common experience, to learn from one another and draw us into deeper connection.  

We chose this book after we did that survey a while back, in which we asked you to tell us about the challenges you were living with every day.  We heard about a huge variety of challenges and concerns, from health and finances to loneliness and depression to concerns about the kids and the parents and the future – and so it seemed to us that a good starting place would be not to talk about each of these challenges, one at a time, but rather to begin by concentrating on the thing that gets us through any challenge; that aspect of life that strengthens us in our core; gives us the ability to survive and to thrive when times get tough – and that, of course, is our spiritual life.  Because when it comes right down to it, when the rubber hits the road and the chips are down and our backs are against the wall and we’re between a rock and a hard place and we’ve completely run out of clich├ęs – it’s our spiritual life that gets us through.  

It’s our spiritual life that answers the questions “What are we waiting for?” and “What are we living for?”

One thing I like about this book is that she’s talking about a spirituality, if you will, for the rest of us.  This is not a spirituality that retreats from the world – rather, it’s a spirituality that engages the world.  It’s all about living more fully, more consciously, in the world that we inhabit.  

I doubt anyone would be surprised that when it comes right down to it, it all turns on the quality of our listening: are we listening closely to our lives?  Are we listening for God’s voice?  Are we listening to our own voice?  Are we listening to anyone?    And, ultimately, that capacity to listen takes us to the question of our prayer life.  When we forget to pray, or think we’re too busy to pray, she says, 

"…we have begun the last trip down a very short road because without prayer, the energy for the rest of life runs down.  The fuel runs out.  We become our own worst enemies: we call ourselves too tired and too busy to pray when, in reality, we are too tired and too busy not to pray.  Eventually, the burdens of the day wear us down and we no longer remember why we decided to do what we’re doing: work for this project, marry this woman, have these children, minister in this place.  And if I cannot remember why I decided to do this, I cannot figure out how I can go on with it.  I am tired and the vision just gets dimmer and dimmer."
(p. 31-32)

Now, here’s the thing: how many of us, I wonder, get rather uncomfortable with this kind of talk?  I have to confess that I, for one, am always feeling pretty insecure about the quality of my prayer life.  I always feel that I should be praying more; I always wrestle with my lack of discipline – actually, that’s not exactly accurate.  If I were more disciplined, I would wrestle with my lack of discipline.  As it is, I just confess that it could be better.  

The truth is I’m kind of sensitive about this topic.  So whenever someone who is obviously far more spiritual than I am – a Benedictine nun, for example – starts talking about the importance of prayer, I immediately start feeling inadequate.  I have this image in my head of the devoted contemplative priest – the wise old man who rises before dawn, sits with his Bible for an hour, and then puts the Bible aside and lifts his heart in prayer for another hour, and then spends another hour writing incredibly warm and profound letters to people, so that by the time he hits the shower and gets dressed he is practically glowing with piety and wisdom.

I don’t know if I’ll ever have a life like that.  But something inside me says that’s the person I should be.  And the sad thing is that there have been times in my life when I have had a discipline exactly like that – and the thing is that in the short term, it turned me into a smug, holier-than-thou priest who just couldn’t resist letting people know exactly how much prayer and Bible study I had done that morning.  There’s really nothing quite so tiresome as a person who is proud of his spiritual life.  

Well, the refreshing thing about Chittister’s book is that she has no use for that kind of spirituality.  She says, “I pray to become a better human being, not to become better at praying.” (p.37)  And while she reminds us that it’s important to set aside a certain time every day to pray, and to stick to it, she also reminds us about what the point of prayer is.  Prayer is not about bribing God to give us what we want.  Prayer is about opening our own minds and hearts to be transformed into the mind of Christ.   

For example, my prayer life probably began when I started to beg God to give me a brand new candy-apple red sled for Christmas.  But then, when I didn’t get my brand new candy-apple red sled for Christmas, I had the choice of abandoning prayer altogether as an obvious waste of time, or considering the possibility that maybe there is something else that prayer is for.  

Maybe through prayer, I could be given the grace to accept my disappointment and forgive my parents for so obviously failing to love me.  Maybe, with further prayer, I could be led to experience how grateful I am for the gifts I did receive.  And then, maybe, through prayer, I might become more aware of how fleeting the pleasure of receiving gifts is, and how much more satisfying it is to give than to receive.  Perhaps, if I’m praying correctly, I might become more aware of the fact that most children in the world would be happy with a little bit of candy, while I was greedily defining the exact shade of candy-apple red of my new sled.  I might even find myself praying that their needs get met first, before God grants me my desires.  I might even be given the grace to rejoice in the gift of life, the gift of being itself, which permeates all of creation and sings of the glory of God.  I might come to see that, in the end, prayer has nothing to do with getting what I want, and has everything to do with growing into the man God would have me be; it has to do with joyfully embracing this gift of the present moment –this unrelenting, never failing, always fulfilling love of God, pouring out on the whole of creation, every moment of every day.  Finally, perhaps, my prayer life might lead me to embrace and move into a renewed sense of purpose for my life, which is to serve that love, sing that love, let that love fill me and move through me and guide me through each day.  

That, in the end, is what prayer is about.  And that’s just the beginning of this book by Joan Chittister.  Next week we’ll explore the topics raised up through Chapter 7; and we’ll invite the congregation into a discussion during coffee hour.  If you haven’t received a copy of the book yet, no worries, there will not be a test or a grade.  The only test is the life we are given – which is test enough – and our reward is not a letter grade, but a renewed sense of joy and purpose in our lives.  

May this time of Advent be that for you – a time of holy waiting, as we rediscover, together, what we are waiting for, and what we are living for.