Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Sermon: Breathless

Sermon for Christmas Day, Year C
St. Philips In The Hills Parish, Tucson, AZ
The Rev. Vicki Hesse, December 25, 2012

For Readings, click here
Isaiah 52:7-10, Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12) and John 1:1-14

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all hearts be acceptable to you, o Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen

A few years ago at Winter Solstice,
I went dog sledding in Minnesota. I know, crazy.
It was 40 below. 
The morning of our first run, we gathered in the common room to learn how to do this.. 

We learned about harnessing the dogs,how to lead them (on their back legs), and
how to call out GEE and HAW to steer the rig down the path. 

As we talked inside, the 35 anxious dogs outside 
howled, barked, and pulled on their chains in anticipation.
They knew we were preparing and got very excited.  
We went outside, with courage in our hearts and
harnesses in our hands to the cacophony of barking canines.

Pick Me! Pick Me!  the dogs cried, only fueling
our own anticipation and hyper-vigilance for the upcoming adventure. 

One by one, we grabbed a dog,wrestled the harness over its head and
slid across the icy path toward the sled. With six frantic, barking, jumpy dogs hitched,
the excited guides yelled commands and pointed to us to jump on board. 
The unceasing yelps from the “left behind” dogs created an ambiance of frantic energy.
At last, we jumped to our places, the tether was released and we yelled “Hike Hike!”.

At once, the dogs pulled with the speed of an Olympic athlete, and we heard….

Silence. No sound.

It took my breath away!

Just barely audible ~the sound of satisfied breathing, cantering paws padding through snow and
the edge of the sled’s runners cutting through the ice.Even the left-behind dogs were silent.  
They would not run, not today.

All that effort and anticipation and excitement and now…breathlessness. 
Beauty. Mystery. Peace. Joy. Surprise.

The season of Advent – the time leading up to Christmas day – is like that. 
All the anticipation, the decorations, the worry,
all the hustle and bustle only gets more hustly and bustly as we get closer to Christmas day. 

On the eve of the birth of Jesus, we found Mary and Joseph, expectant mother and father,
embroiled in the hustle and bustle that preceded birth,
all while trying to find a place for the coming child. The anticipation was palpable and finally – delivery! 

Like other birth experiences, after the crowds disbursed, the mother and father finally 
had time to spend alone with the newborn child. 

Silence.  No sound. Beauty. Mystery. Peace.  Joy. Surprise.

This was the day of breathless realization that life would never be the same again.
For this was not just any birth.

The poetic language of the Gospel of John describes this life-changing birth in stark contrast
to the concrete birth stories of Luke.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  
2He was in the beginning with God.  
3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being…”

This breathless poetry floats above Luke’s din of messy, daily reality that existed:
pregnant women, babies, a decreeing emperor, weary travelers, a swaddled baby, visiting shepherds. 
In this incarnation, we have the language of beauty, mystery, peace, joy, and surprise.

And somehow, even devoid of details, we feel grounded by the paradox of our Savior,
born into this world, yet one who cannot be boxed into human expectations. 

With the birth of our Savior, we are alerted to signs of life’s new meaning –
that life will never be the same again. We have crossed a threshold.

And now, it’s time for a little truth in advertising that may be different from the sweetness and light
of the adorable pastoral scenes that often accompany Christmas. This was not just any birth.

Jesus, born into a specific time, to a specific people with a prophetic legacy,
who practiced a specific religion, Jesus, born into a tradition that placed faith and loyalty
to God’s truth above all the niceties of diplomacy.
Jesus, this savior of the world, born as a human being 
 with a personality and identity that might embarrass us. 
Jesus, born today, is likely to cause some trouble. Powerful people found him a threat.
This was not just any birth. 

Because, to anyone who has ever encountered darkness, anyone who has ever struggled,
anyone who has ever looked at a newspaper headline about Newtown, CT (or any other tragedy)
and felt their heart break, anyone who knows anyone living a broken life,
anyone who knows that she or he is living that broken life, 
Jesus brings possibility, light, and life to the world. 

The good news, today, announced in the post-hustle and bustle breathlessness
proclaimed by the poetic Gospel of John, is this – darkness cannot overcome light.

“What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…”

God became flesh, so that we might know God – not just “about” God, 
but really know God, through Jesus. 
God became flesh to bring love to all people. 
God became flesh, messy, human flesh,
in beauty, mystery, peace, joy and surprise.  
God’s very Word, living among us. Now.

This is not just any birth. How Jesus’ life played out means that we see,
God’s dream becoming a reality.  
Our Savior was a threat to the powerful people of his day 
because he brought light and life - God, in Jesus, brought
beauty, mystery, peace, joy, and surprise to all of God’s people.

Beauty in the hands of meal preparations for the hungry
Mystery in the arms of forgiveness and reconciliation
Peace in the hearts of comfort and healing
Joy in the love of companions and passion for the poor
Surprise in anger seeking justice for all,
especially those on the margins of society, and
Love to the lives our sisters and brothers

The birth of Jesus into our world is not just any birth.
The birth of Jesus means that life will never be the same. 

After all the hustle and bustle of preparations,
today’s birth-day of Jesus, is ultimately a day of hope. 
This birth means that God became human and lived among us to know us, love us, and restore us.
This birth means that nothing and no one is outside the creative, life-giving purposes of God’s world. 
This birth means that we are all part of God’s dream for light and life and fullness of grace and truth. 

when you wish one another Merry Christmas,
what you are really saying is
“God loves you with complete abandon.”
When you wish one another a Merry Christmas,
what you are really wishing is
“God’s glory is shining in you.” 
When you wish one another Merry Christmas,
What you are really sharing is
your the deep confidence that all things,
came into being through Jesus,
with a light and life of which
darkness cannot overcome. 

We now see God’s glory – in God’s Son, Jesus,
the light of the world. 

And that, is something to take our breath away.


Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sermon: People, Get Ready

Sermon for Advent 2
St. Philips In The Hills Parish, Tucson, AZ
The Rev. Vicki Hesse, December 9, 2012

For Readings, click here
Malachi 3:1-4, Canticle 16, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all hearts be acceptable to you, o Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen

This week I reflected on Advent: preparation, promises, and new life,
and a song played over in my mind. 

The tune was “People Get Ready”written and sung by Curtis Mayfield in 1965. 
I know, apparently, "if you remember the 60’s it’s clear that you weren’t there"
Anyway, I do remember the song as it blaredfrom my sisters’ stereo. 

People get ready, there's a train a-comin'
You don't need no baggage, you just get on board
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin'
Don't need no ticket, you just thank the Lord

Mayfield wrote this song a year after Martin Luther King’s march on Washington. 
Mayfield had grown up in the black church singing gospel and after the bombing of
the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham,… and after
the assassination of President Kennedy, this song arose in as his response. 
It arose, he said, from,
“…the subconscious, of the preachings of my grandmothers…”
It was his faith and his church that taught him,
This “… train a comin’” meant that there is always a chance,

“for redemption, long sought after –to stand apart from despair and the cycle of pain.[1] 

People, get ready for God’s breaking in andfor salvation for all people.

Incidentally, the song became one of the first
gospel crossover hits, covered by no less than 90 other artists.

"…that [song] touched people... [it was] a song of faith really,
a faith that transcends any racial barrier and welcomes everyone onto the train…”

I think it was the song’s idealism and optimism in that historical time that supported it’s
“crossing over” not only racial barriers but over generations. 

This song originated in a specific context and
rose up from a previously unknown messenger.

With it, God reminds us of a promised salvation for all.
Today’s Gospel text also comes out of a specific historical context and
rose up from a previously unknown messenger. 
The story took place in the midst of political and religious clashes. 

Politically, it was in the 15th year of Emperor Tiberius
(as we heard), not to mention six other political powerhouses.
These rulers enforced high taxes, controlled by
“shock and awe,” and believed in “peace through violence.” 
Roman society was inflexible – the “good life” was possible only for the select few.
Those not born into the right class did not have
any hope for change.  
“Regular” people – with no power – became numb to any possible change. 
It seemed that God was not on their side. 
The way things were – well, was the way things would be,
and for generations to come. That was the political reality.

Religiously, there was tension between
the Romans and the Jews, as well as within the Jewish culture. 
The high priests Annas and Caiaphas enforced
religious compliance of Levitical commands,
including keeping to one’s own kind. 
Annas, the high priest, although deposed by the Romans,
passed on his priesthood to his son-in-law Caiaphas. 
In that law-oriented, exclusive culture,
people became numb to any possible change. 
They believed they could control God’s salvation for those religious few. 
The way things were – well, was the way things would be,
and for generations to come. That was the religious reality. 

Politically, religiously, it seemed nothing would ever change. 
God’s grace seemed absent and many people suffered. 
They certainly did not expect anything new from the son of one of the hundreds of priests
in the backwaters of the empire.
What could this preacher possibly be saying that had not been heard before?

Does it seem to us that nothing will never change? 
Does it seem that God’s is absent even while we suffer?

You may remember 2 years ago when the
“Occupy” movement critiqued the political and economic
engine of our country.  This week, that same movement
(on the Occupy Wall Street[2] blog) reminded readers that,

“…many low wage workers rely on public assistance
to get by in our economy. While workers throughout {NY} are making near
(or below minimum) wage or are fighting to protect their wages and benefits,
CEOs are making record incomes.  Their lobbyists are pushing our elected officials
to cut spending on social programs and extend tax cuts for the richest 2%.”

Maybe your reaction, like mine, is 
 “yea, yea, well, that will never change. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer” 

But instead, let’s wonder, 
What does this say about our nation’s political and economic engine?
How is God empowering us to change this reality? 

People on the margin of poverty are (of course) not only in New York.
Last Tuesday, there was a flood of hungry people at our food pantry here at St. Philips. 
That day, all the food bags were handed out and the pantry went empty. In one day. 
We put up signs on Wednesday morning “out of food bags, sorry.” 

What does this say about the fact of hunger in our community? 
How is God empowering us to change this reality?

If you feel angry at the political and economic machine or
feel your heart breaking right for hungry people,
perhaps a response is arising in you. 
Perhaps God is nudging you to get creative.

You may have heard about a “rebate” that is being provided
to St. Philips from the Diocese to fuel fresh “missional” opportunities. 
Could some of that money be used to address these issues in our community? 

In the busy-ness of the Christmas Season, John the Baptizer interrupts our schedules. 
He cried out, “People, Get Ready.”
The people of the Jordan wilderness region,
those who lived in the political and religious tension, heard John’s crying out.
See, John, raised as the son of a priest, knew the text of the Old Testament book
of the prophet Isaiah, who had reminded the previous generation of disbursed,
and desperate Jewish people of God’s covenant –
that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Isaiah had proclaimed that an unsuspecting ruler (Cyrus the Great) would gather up the Israelites while God ushered in a new age of justice, righteousness and peace.

·    Get ready, John told those numb people,
o       because God remembers God’s holy covenant. 
·    Get ready, John proposed,
o       through the “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” 
·    Get ready, John explained,
o       because I am aware of your suffering,
your life in darkness and in the shadow of death –
God made me aware of it.
·    Get ready, John said,
o       because in the tender compassion of our God,
the dawn from on high shall break upon us.
Upon all humanity.
·    Get ready, John announced,
o       for the triumphal return
of the presence of God among us.

Now there was some good news!

John cried out and asked them to notice first the grace of God and then repent – 
in that order.
John told them - God is already preparing the way!
God will fill every valley, level every mountain, smooth out the rough spots. 
John reminded them, God has already begun by bringing you here. 

John cried out in the wilderness – People, Get Ready.

This season, John interrupts our numbness. 
John, an unknown messenger, cries out to notice first the grace of God and then repent. 

How do we repent?  By turning around.  
We can look at the structures and systems around us in new and different ways.
We can soften our hearts to pain and suffering.
We can realize that God is already preparing the way, by bringing us here, in this historical context. So let’s turn around! 

People get ready, we hear John say to us…
·    Feel the heartbreak of negativity that the
political/economic engine has on the poor.
·    Recognize the discomfort you feel knowing about
the severe gap between those who have much
and those who do not. 
·    Carry the sadness from knowing that
some children go to bed hungry. 

People get ready, John asks, listen to these signs. 

Our response reveals how God is active in our lives. 
God remembers the covenant with humanity – to work together for Love and healing.  

We lobby for transparency of budget,
We pack up food bags to feed the hungry,
We spend afternoons with children who
would otherwise be on the street or at home alone,
We educate each other on immigration issues

These are the ways that God is breaking into our lives already.

So, here’s a question:
What good work is God already beginning in you?
For what is God preparing you?

Today’s good news is that God remembers God’s holy covenant,
across all historical contexts and all generations.   
Just as Isaiah promised and John proclaimed,  
we go before the lord to prepare the way –
the way for the Most High God to guide our feet into the way of peace. 

We rejoice today because[3] the great work of salvation history
is not about one lifetime or one generation or one century.

We rejoice because God’s incarnation means
that it is not all up to us to fix everything here and now.  Phew!

We are called to get ready, to do our part in our time. 

We notice God’s work in the world and
rejoice in God’s preparing the world for Love.

God prepares the world for the Jesus to come among us. 
God remembers God’s covenant with humanity. 

Perhaps today, in this specific historical context,
you hear God’s voice singing…

People get ready, there's a train a-comin'
You don't need no baggage, you just get on board
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin'
Don't need no ticket, you just thank the Lord


[2] http://occupywallst.org/ cited on December 5, 2012
[3] Excerpted from The Rt. Rev. G. Porter Taylor’s “Weekly Reflection” Dec. 5, 3012

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Sermon: Thanks

Sermon for Thanksgiving Day
St. Philips In The Hills Parish, Tucson, AZ
The Rev. Vicki Hesse, November 22, 2012

For Readings, click here

Thank You, God. Amen

The other day I saw this report about Sam Sifton,
the national editor of the New York Times. 
He has a new book out called,
“Thanksgiving, How To Cook It Well.”[1] 

He said, on the national news,
“Thanksgiving is scary for a lot of people. 
It’s a holiday that’s filled with a lot of stress…
Do I have enough plates?
Do I have enough glasses?
Am I really going to have a tablecloth? 
What is a tablecloth?  Can I use a sheet?
That’s cheap.  Maybe I should…
What do I do about Uncle Morty who’s an alcoholic? 
He’s gotta be there – but then he gets drunk!”

Sifton summarized,
“Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be so complicated…Everything’s gonna be okay,”

“It’s a pretty simple meal
when you really think about it. 
You’re roasting a giant chicken.
You’re mashing some potatoes. 
You’re mashing almost everything. 
It’ basically a pile of mush on a plate
with slices of big chicken.”

Even still, Thanksgiving is scary for a lot of people
= = = = 
In today’s Gospel message,
we get the sense that the disciples were scared, too. 
This new vocation they chose – to follow Jesus –
was filled with a lot of stress. 
‘What will we eat?’ ‘What will we drink?’ ‘What will we wear?’

See, up to this point in the Gospel according to Matthew,
Jesus had been preaching and teaching to them
in the “Sermon On The Mount.” 
There, Jesus explained what it meant to be disciples. 
He taught a new way of looking at God’s kingdom,
about the beatitudes,
about being the salt of the earth and the light of the world,
about his fulfilling the law (not abandoning it),
about how to live in community, and
about how to pray. 
Our text today comes right at the point in Jesus’ sermon
when Jesus offers more instruction
about what “righteousness” means. 

So the disciples begin to get scared and anxious. 
‘What will we eat?’ ‘What will we drink?’ ‘What will we wear?’

The disciples, eager to please Jesus and to be good disciples,
might have, at that moment had a wavering faith –
a faith that until now, they could hold onto. 
And here was Jesus,
asking them to move away from their cultural values
into a life of trust and obedience in God’s reign.
This made them hesitant; they needed reassurance. 

= = = 
We are not unlike those disciples,
eager to please Jesus and to be a disciple,
but sometimes with a wavering faith. 
Jesus is asking us to move away from cultural values
and into a life of trust and obedience. 
This makes us hesitant; we need reassurance.

In fact, few of us are exempt from worry and anxiety. 
It’s not uncommon to live with chronic anxiety,
and many are scared – of losing our homes,
losing our jobs,
not having enough money for retirement;
caring for our children or caring for our parents; and
avoiding danger and terror attacks.

Those who have little,
fret over adequate shelter, food, and water;
finding a decent job;
taking care of their families;
having enough money to survive. 

All of us – rich and poor, privileged and exploited –
have legitimate reasons to fret and worry,
even though we know that fret and worry
do not change the realities we face.

Will God love me if I don’t worry?
Will God love me if I show my vulnerabilities?
Trusting in God’s providential care is not easy. 
If God is going to lovingly provide for all my needs,
does that mean that I can just goof off? 
More often than not, my faith waivers –
what if… it doesn’t work out. 
I feel like it’s all up to me. 

AND, there is a tension of
living as a disciple and
believing in God’s loving providential care. 
we are called to feed the hungry,
clothe the naked, and
visit those in prison. 

= = = 
Which is what the disciples had just heard
in the Sermon On The Mount –
about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and caring for others.

At that point, Jesus looked at the disciples and
smelled their fear.
With compassion, he began from their perspective.
Jesus taught the disciples
in language of their wisdom tradition. 
He appealed to their common sense and
their understanding of how nature works.[2] 

Isn’t life more than food?
Isn’t the body more than clothing?
Look at the birds… consider the lilies of the field…
look at the grass 
Therefore, do not worry, …

Jesus asked the disciples to “seek first the kingdom”
not in a “chronological” manner
but to seek God’s kingdom above all else. 
Jesus reminded the disciples, you have one priority:
God’s kingdom. 
Think less about what you are doing and more about what God has done, is doing and has promised.[3]

Jesus assured them. 
The one who called them to this radical style of life
is also the Creator
who lovingly provides for all of creation and
who, in the end, brings all of creation into God’s reign,
worry or not. 

Jesus assured them.
Look, he said,
God comes to where you are most vulnerable –
eating, drinking, clothing –
and that is the cross of the moment.   

It was the cross of the moment
in 1863. 
That was a vulnerable moment for Abraham Lincoln,
when he set the day of Thanksgiving
on the fourth Thursday of November[4]
a day we have observed ever since. 

In Lincoln’s vulnerable moment,
his life consisted of a confluence of anxious situations:

·        His political future was bleak:
o       If he was defeated in the 1864 election,
o       the confederacy would gain independence
o       and the Union would be permanently split. 
·        Members of his own cabinet openly detested him.
·        His wife was being investigated as a traitor. 

In this moment, Lincoln must have had faith
in God’s providential care. 

He must have discovered a spiritual practice
included in many of Paul’s letters,
including 1 Timothy that we read today, that
“… that supplications, prayers, intercessions and
thanksgivings be made for everyone…”

In Lincoln’s vulnerable moment,
he came to the awareness that
in the midst of personal suffering,
the one thing one needs most to remember
is the goodness of God. 
In the face of circumstances that seem too difficult to endure,
Lincoln discovered God’s goodness and mercy
by giving thanks as one community.

When we give thanks today, as one community,
we begin to know God’s loving care. 
We begin to realize that we can face an uncertain life.
We begin to know that we are not alone.
God hears, sees, and cares about us and our situations. 
God lovingly provides for all of creation. 

God is already acting in our life
by calling us here today; to share a meal –
a special meal in our culture. 
This meal of common food
has been in our tradition for years. 
It’s what people are craving
more than carbohydrates and protein. 
Today’s meal helps us remember who we are.[5] 
The meal of which I speak, of course,
is the Eucharist.

In that spiritual practice of giving thanks,
we have that supreme example each Sunday
and which we observe today:

That on the night in which he was betrayed,
Jesus took bread and when he had given thanks, …

and then after supper, Jesus took the cup
and when he had given thanks…

In THAT Thanksgiving, in THAT Eucharist, Jesus personally embodied God’s loving providence for all of creation.

God provides food enough.
God provides drink enough.
God clothes you with righteousness and grace –
even to those of little faith. 

God gets involved in Thanksgiving dinners and
pours grace gravy overall the trimmings.

The good news today is
that Jesus is inviting people
to God’s Thanksgiving Dinner,
where priorities are clear.[6] 

In the reign of God,
people look out for each other and share what they have;
people take what they need and leave some for others. 

In God’s Thanksgiving Dinner,
people think about their neighbors
even as they think about themselves. 

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God!
It is right to give God thanks and praise.


[1] “Thanksgiving Do’s and Don’t from Sam Sifton,” by Alexandra Ludka, November 16, 2012.  Cited at http://abcnews.go.com/US/sam-siftons-thanksgiving-cook/story?id=17740861#.UKxNzWfAETA on November 19, 2012
[2] New Interpreter’s Bible, Matthew p. 210-211
[3] This quote excerpted from Rt. Rev. G. Porter Taylor in his Nov. 21 weekly reflection at http://bit.ly/U10BwV
[4] What Makes This Day Different, p. 122-123
[5] YES! Magazine, Fall 2012, page 31 “Tribe Returns To Traditional Diet” by Kim Eckart
[6] Feasting On The Word, Eighth Sunday After The Epiphany, Year A, p. 406