Monthly Archives: December 2009

Bach Envy

St. Thomas Church in Leipzig

No musician can ignore the daunting legacy of J.S. Bach. He wrote music that performers, such as pianist Glenn Gould and Portland’s Bach Cantata Choir, dedicate their very existence to exploring and every composer seeks to either perfect or destroy. Can you imagine trying to make it as a musician while he was alive?

Today, Georg Friedrich Kauffmann is known as a second tier Baroque composer and a major influence on J.S. Bach. They had many connections in Leipzig, the hub of German music, but Bach always seemed to have the upper hand. Kauffman was asked to inspect a newly completed organ at St. Paul’s Cathedral until Bach was given the high honor instead. Kauffman was the leading candidate to become Kapellmeister, musical leader, of Leipzig and had a splendid audition, until Bach won the position.

This morning, decide for yourself whose take on the ancient German carol O little one sweet you prefer – the organ prelude by Kauffmann or choral harmonization by Bach.

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The Word made flesh

And the word became flesh and dwelt among us…and we have all received grace upon grace.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. In the beginning. We read these first verses of John’s Gospel every year on the first Sunday of the Christmas season. These words shed light on the whole story of creation. The echoes we hear in John’s Gospel of the creation story suggest that God’s plan for creation was always that Jesus would come and redeem the world through love.

The twelve days of Christmas are the center of what some call the “Incarnation Cycle” of the church year: Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Each of these seasons expresses interplay between God and humanity in different ways. Nowhere in our church year do the readings speak more clearly to what we call the “Doctrine of the Incarnation” than on this Sunday.

Today’s scriptures remind us that Jesus was not God’s afterthought, a last-ditch effort to save humanity from itself. In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. Jesus was God’s heart’s desire from the very beginning. When we use the phrase, in the Nicene Creed, “eternally begotten of the father,” we affirm that Jesus is God’s gift to humanity from the beginning. Christmas is our celebration of God made human to walk with us. If that’s not the best Christmas present, I don’t know what is.

The evangelist John doesn’t give us the birth story we hear from Luke every year on Christmas Eve, but instead begins his gospel with the statement that is the basis for all Christian theology of incarnation: The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.

God’s will is to dwell among us everywhere. We know that Jesus is present with the destitute. We know that Jesus is present with the downhearted. Jesus is present with us when we feel we have failed. Jesus is present when we struggle with our neighbors. Jesus is present when we make fools of ourselves. Jesus is present in our celebrations. Jesus is with us in our joy and in our sadness. Jesus is with us when we are at our worst and at our best.

The second-century bishop Irenaeus of Lyons said that God became human, that we might become divine. It is through God’s becoming flesh, through Christ’s coming to us in the earthy humanity of the Christmas story, that we are shown the fullness for which God created us in the first place. In other words, the incarnation is about us as well as about Jesus. The incarnation is about Jesus becoming fully human and allowing us to rekindle the divine within ourselves.

I have a piece of calligraphy in my office with another important quote from that same St. Irenaeus about the incarnation: “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” When we feel fully alive, we are glorifying God. I’ve found this to be an important thing to think about in connection with how we are church here at St. David’s. It came to me some time ago that part of our mission must be our building, because otherwise why would we have this enormous and costly building for a small community to come and worship? What came to me is that the mission of our building is to be a place for people to come and be fully alive. This is true whether they are coming to worship, to play music, to study, to make art, to teach little children, to garden, to share tools, to sing, to make crafts, to teach peace….the list is as long as God’s yearning for us to be fully alive.

The season of the Incarnation is the season that tells us who Jesus is; it also the season that tells us who we are. We are beloved of God. How do we love God back? We love God by being fully alive. It is there that we find the joy of the Christmas story.

We sometimes say that every Sunday is a “little Easter.” I think we could also say that every Sunday is a feast of the Incarnation. When we come to the Eucharist, when we offer our souls and bodies, and offer all of the earthy parts of our own lives to God, we get a foretaste of the divinity to which each one of us is called.

Holy and loving God, you made your Word flesh to dwell among us. Please let us, who are flesh, become your Word and dwell in you.

Christmas Eve: What if God was one of us?

And Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

We didn’t have a Christmas Pageant at St. David’s this year, but I’ve got a story about a Christmas Pageant. Those of you who are familiar with Christmas pageants know that it’s all about hierarchy and status, and from year to year the players work their way up through the ranks from sheep to angel to donkey to shepherd to innkeeper to Joseph or Mary. In the normal developmental cycle, after you’ve played Mary or Joseph, then you’re done. Off to high school for you! So there was a middle-school kid named William who was passed over when he thought it was definitely his turn to be Joseph, and they made him Inn-Keeper Number One, again. You who are faithful pageant-watchers know the first Inn-Keeper’s line: Sorry, no room at the inn. Well, when pageant night finally came, William was still really mad that he didn’t get asked to play Joseph. When Mary, big with child, and Joseph and the donkey came to the Inn to ask for a room where they could spend the night, William said “sure, we’ve got loads of room. C’mon in.”

This would’ve changed the whole story. The fact that there was no room at the inn is central to who Jesus is and who we are.

It is not difficult to imagine that the stable was probably not the kind of place any of us would want to spend the night, let alone have a baby. The Word becomes flesh in a dark, untidy place. God reveals his will for humankind by being born into a particular human family. Family, as we all know, is sometimes the most untidy place of all. God’s will is to dwell among us, wherever we are and whoever we are.

In choosing such an unlikely person as Mary to be the bearer of the Christ, and such an unlikely place as a stable for the Christ child to be born, God begins to turn the world upside down. Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls this “the great reversal.”

Most of the stories we hear about Jesus all year long are about this reversal, about the Kingdom of God being revealed in unlikely, untidy places and unlikely, untidy people. This “unlikelihood of God” begins at Christmas. God is Savior and comes to us in the flesh. This is cause enough for celebration. Even more glorious, however, is the fact that God becomes human in such an ordinary place and in such an ordinary way!

We are just as unlikely recipients of God’s grace and favor as Mary and Joseph. Maybe even more so. And yet God comes to us in Jesus, not only whenever we gather in this place, but always, everywhere.

How will Jesus turn our lives upside down? What can we do to live into this great reversal of all things that we proclaim when we celebrate the incarnation—the enfleshment—of God in Jesus? There are clues throughout Luke’s Christmas story.

Jesus will turn our lives upside down if we look for signs in unlikely places. Imagine that God gives us signs, in the same way that God has guided Mary, and Elizabeth, and Joseph, and Zechariah, and the shepherds with signs since Luke’s story began. When the angel Gabriel tells Mary about her cousin Elizabeth being miraculously with child, he says for nothing will be impossible with God. This phrase inspired the title for a children’s Christmas story by Madeleine L’Engle, called The Glorious Impossible. If we look for signs of God in unlikely places, we will likely find “the glorious impossible.”

Jesus will turn our lives upside down if we say yes to something outrageous. Imagine that we are Mary, asked to receive the Holy Spirit and bring God into the world. In a sense, we are. At any moment there is some miracle of transformation waiting to be born in each of us and capable of bringing transformation and peace to the whole world. What is it?

Jesus will turn our lives upside down if we imagine that we are living as wanderers, in search of a home in which to spend the night. Imagine that we are Mary and Joseph, pilgrim people. The roof over our head provides a way-station from which to do the work God has given us to do. For many of us, this church is our way-station, our gathering place for helping Jesus build the Kingdom of God.

As followers of Jesus, as worshippers of the kind of God who is present in a tiny baby born in a manger, we can change the world. But we need to follow the movement of the story….We need to zoom in from the totality of the whole world to the place where we are: our own untidy place, our own opportunity to say yes, our own way-station in the kingdom, and the signs we see of the unlikelihood of God in our midst.

As we pay attention to the unlikelihood of God, we can become unlikely partners in the transformation of the world. And to that we can say: glory to God in the highest!

Advent IV: Mary’s Sunday

A sermon from the Rev. Katharine Holland

Only 5 days until Christmas – time to “shop ’til you drop,” “cook up a storm,” mail those last Christmas cards, make a mad dash to clear the clutter lying around the house (& shove it under beds, into already full closets or out in the garage) – & then there’s the last harried hours of wrapping presents, perhaps into the wee hours of Christmas morning.
 
Expectations are high – it’s been instilled in us by the culture & the marketing experts that Christmas is the holiday of the year – the time to give the perfect gift to everyone on your list, make the perfect meal with all the special food that your family has to have, decorate your house & tree lavishly (ala Martha Stewart), & most of all make a day to remember; one where everyone will be happy; because of course, that’s why we do it – to make us & our loved ones happy.  To meet these high expectations, we spend way too much money, deprive ourselves of needed sleep, push ourselves to extremes in every way, all to create the perfect atmosphere . . . & then wonder why we feel so let down, so deflated when we arrive at “the big day.” 
 
Where’s the joy, the wonder, the spiritual boost that Christmas is supposed to bring???
 
Where, indeed?
 
Today, the focus is on Mary, the mother of Jesus; the God-bearer; the one who, after being told by an angel, no less, that she is to bear God’s son, breaks out in song with the beautiful & inspiring “Magnificat” that we’ve been singing each Sunday during Advent. 
 
I’m not sure that I would have reacted that way.  Mary was probably between 12 & 14 years old when she was visited by God’s messenger, the normal age in that  time & place for a girl to be betrothed.  After the experience, she “went with haste,” we are told, to visit her much older cousin, Ellizabeth, to share her news, & probably for advice & comfort as well.
 
What interests me here is the huge gap between how we celebrate this holiday of Christmas & how Mary gives us an alternative model – through her obedience, humility & grace under pressure, through the openness of her heart to God – an alternative way to respond. 
 
Today’s collect mentions God in the context of his “daily visitation” to us (tying in to Gabriel’s visitation to Mary) & asking that God “may find in us a mansion prepared for himself” just as he did in Mary.
 
But how prepared are we, really???  I know we’ve got the cards sent, the presents, the tree, the decorations, the meals planned, the house cleaned; but what about our interior house, that place where our soul resides.  What have we done to prepare ourselves in that way?
 
I heard on the news this week that a young single mom with a 6-year-old son had been robbed of all the gifts under her tree, along with various computer items in the house.  When interviewed, she said they couldn’t have Christmas now, because there were no gifts. 
 
That bothered me. 
 
While I understood the loss & her inability to replace the “things,” it wasn’t quite the tragedy that the interviewer was trying to portray. 
 
Christmas happens each year whether we’re ready or not, whether we have lots of presents or none at all; & I felt more sorry for this woman & her son because the culture, the advertisers, the news media, have done such a good job of telling her what Christmas is that she’s bought into it – Christmas only happens if you have all the “stuff” to go with it.  And that’s sad.  She seemed to have no concept about the part of Christmas that goes on inside us – about the mystery of our relationship with God, of the meeting between human and God in Christ that can play out in our lives if we let it.
 
In a different story, I read about an armed robber in Indianapolis who held up the currency exchange because he had little money for the holidays & a 2-year-old child to support.  When he approached the cashier with a gun, she started to cry, asking him to reconsider his actions & mentioning God.  The robber asked her to pray with him.  On their knees, they prayed for nearly 10 minutes.  The robber gave the cashier the sole bullet in his gun as a sign he wouldn’t hurt her, then sent the cashier into the bathroom & took only $20 from the cash register.  He later apologized to her.  [from The Christian Century, 12/15/09]
 
Would I think to bring God into that situation?  Would you?  Certainly I might be praying desperately for God to protect me, bargaining with all my might, but would I mention God to the person trying to do me harm?  I’m not all that sure; but this woman (like Mary) was so prepared inside the personal mansion of her soul, that it was an automatic response; she probably didn’t even have to think about it.  And God acted in her life & by extension in the life of the man who had come there in desperation, creating an opportunity to change what looked like a hopeless situation into a meeting with God.  God was truly present in this woman, & it made all the difference.
 
“Emmanuel,” God with us. 
 
Our relationship with God is not a one-sided relationship; relationships never are.  We choose to let God enter in, or to ignore him, or even to shut him out.  It’s not about the one day; it’s about the whole year.  How are we daily preparing ourselves to receive the Christ, to make a place for the God within us, to welcome Emmanuel?  It is only in habitual interaction with God that we are able to draw closer, to celebrate the gift of Christmas in our hearts, that the day becomes holy & filled with meaning, & the true JOY of Christmas is made present in us.
 
Bernard of Clairvaux once said, “Divine love so penetrated & filled the soul of Mary that no part of her was left untouched, so that she loved with her whole heart, with her whole soul, and with her whole strength, & was full of grace.” 
 
And that is my wish for you as this Advent season draws to a close – that you will be so filled with God’s Spirit that no part of you will be left untouched by his grace.

The blessing of peace

From this morning’s psalm 29: “The Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.” St. David’s is blessed with peacemakers these days and I thought in this “season of sharing” it was worth mentioning some of them.

Our artist-in-residence, LeRoy Goertz, has an vision of art as areconciliation, and has stories to prove it. LeRoy sculpts and talks about peace in his Art of Reconciliation office in our lower level. Learn more about LeRoy Goertz and his work at www.artofreconciliation.com.

The Portland Peace Choir (www.portlandpeacechoir.com) had an overwhelmingly successful first concert at St. David’s in November, the church packed to the rafters with people longing to hear songs of peace. Members of the choir have come back to sing with us on Sunday mornings, and others are exploring using our space for other kinds of peace-making activities. The Peace Choir’s spring concert is May 22, 2010.

The Zen Community of Oregon is hosting a 12-hour Chant for Peace on January 9 in our parish hall. What a blessing of peace that will be! Members of the Portland Peace Choir and St. David’s Choir will be among those participating in this important event. You can learn more at www.zendust.org/12_hr_c_4_peace.html.

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, we are blessed indeed!

Christmas in a Minor Key: The Longest Night

What is the Longest Night Service? It’s a service during the darkest time of the year for those who grieve or struggle during this season when popular culture tells us we’re only supposed to be feeling joyful and generous.

The world most of us inhabit offers a fairly narrow spectrum of feelings and attitudes toward the season: expectant, busy, happy, feel-good-family-time….you know the drill. So what about the person whose mother died at Christmas, and Christmas has never been the same? What about the person going through a divorce this year? What about the person who always gets sad this time of year, whose bad feelings are worsened by being made to feel so very out of step with the rest of society? How can people who associate Christmas with a time of loss or depression also celebrate the birth of Jesus?

Christ’s coming into the world is always heralded by tidings of great joy. However, these joyful tidings are not, in themselves, the central message of the Incarnation. Jesus came to comfort those who mourn, to companion those who grieve, and—over and over again—to reach out to the very edges of society and invite the marginalized to follow him, to be his inner circle, to sit with him and to eat and drink with him. This is the Christ whom all of us celebrate at Christmas, whether we’re focusing on the little baby in the barn or the one who will before too long be nailed to the cross. Christ’s love of the poor—and that includes the poor in spirit—is what unveils the kingdom of the God, the world the way God wants it to be.

What is the Longest Night service? Think of it as “Christmas in a minor key.” The Longest Night service is a place where we can literally bring our grief and angst to the altar, with photos and candles and prayers for those we miss at Christmas, and for ourselves as we hope for light shining in the darkness.  Some people find it meaningful to bring a photo or memento of someone they love.  We create an altar of remembrance, covered with candles. We sing of light shining in darkness and light candles of hope. We share a simple Eucharist in thanksgiving for new birth and for those we love and see no longer.

I have a friend who says that the Longest Night service is her way to prepare to fully enter into the Christmas story on Christmas Eve. “It’s my compartment,” she says, “for all the sadness and anxiety that comes upon me this time of year. I go to that service, and then I can turn my attention to my family and all that they need and expect from me at Christmas.”

All of you in the Portland metro area are warmly invited to the Longest Night service at St. David of Wales, 2800 SE Harrison Street, at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, December 22. If you’re somewhere else, google “Longest Night” or “Blue Mass” in your area and find a place to welcome the light of Christ in a way that honors your own reality this time of year.