January 4, 2014 | The Second Sunday after Christmas

by the Rev. Robert C. Laird

Each year, Santa puts two things in everyone’s stocking,
at least at my house.

The first is an orange, usually a clementine;
it’s always the first thing put in the toe,
so it’s always the last thing that comes out of it.

This is apparently something Santa does in many houses;
St. Nicholas was reported
to have dropped three sacks of gold
down the chimney of a poor man to provide a dowry
for his three daughters;
the oranges are meant to represent those sacks of gold,
and have been found in stockings for centuries.

But Santa also brings one other gift to everyone,
including this year when my mom and sister were with us:
a fresh package of thank you notes for each stocking.

Thanks to Santa,
I learned to write thank you notes at a young age,
always trying to get them in the mail before the New Year;
some years I am more successful than others,
but I learned early on the importance of saying thank you.
No matter how you feel about the gift,
you should say thank you;
in offering thanks,
we complete the action of giving and receiving;
otherwise we’re just sort of taking the gift,
instead of receiving it with gratitude.
Without offering thanks,
we rob a gift of its intrinsic holiness.

And that gratitude,
that simple statement, “Thank you,”
is the foundation of what the author of
the Letter to the Ephesians is saying today.

The whole letter is almost liturgical in its construction;
our selection for today consists of a blessing
(“Blessed be God, who has blessed us in Christ
with every spiritual blessing…”
and a thanksgiving,
(“I do not cease to give thanks for you
as I remember you in my prayers.”)

In fact, our selection of the letter today
is almost a rhapsody,
pure emotion flowing through the pen
and pouring onto the page.

And the verses of that rhapsody
are shot through with thanks:
thanks to God for making a world that includes us,
thanks to God for not only making us,
but for making us God’s own children by adoption,
through Jesus Christ,
and to honor the glorious grace that has been given to us
freely through the Son.

God gives us something amazing:
our lives,
the fullness of our very selves,
made in God’s image,
and called into relationship with God through Jesus.

And what do we do in that relationship?
We give thanks right back to God
for the gifts that God gives us.

To use the language from Ephesians,
we bless God for the blessings that God has given us,
from the blessings that God has given us.

This cycle of blessing and thanks,
giving to God from what God has given to us,
is the foundation of our relationship with God.

Anne Lamott, the essayist and author,
says there are really only three prayers:
Help, Thanks, and Wow;
and each of them is essential in its own way.

“Thanks” is certainly essential to our relationship with God,
because giving thanks nurtures and cares for
the holiness of the gifts and blessings we receive from God:
if writing a thank you note to your aunt for the Chia Pet
you received for Christmas is important,
then how much more important must it be
to give thanks to God for the myriad blessings
we receive from God each and every day?

Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits,
required each Jesuit to examine their daily lives
twice each day, and express their gratitude to God
for the ways that God works in their daily lives,
a practice which Jesuits keep to this day.
In fact, during the Council of Trent in the mid 16th century,
when the Jesuits there asked Ignatius
if they could skip their prayers because they were so busy,
Ignatius said they could skip anything but the Examen;
expressing gratitude is central to our lives.

It’s actually the thing
that makes it possible for us to do what Paul
prays we will be able to do:
To receive a spirit of wisdom and truth from God
through the Holy Spirit,
that the eyes of our hearts may have enough light
to see what is the hope of God’s call;
if we receive God’s blessings,
and give them back to God as thankfulness,
then God will continue to give to us,
and us back to God;
it becomes a virtuous circle,
which keeps reinforcing itself
as our gratitude grows and deepens.

My friends,
no matter who you are,
no matter what you have done,
no matter if you have much faith or little,
God is already working in your life,
and doing amazing things;
when you realize it,
and give thanks for what God is doing in your life,
and give thanks for Christ,
through whom it’s all possible,
that’s discipleship.
That’s what lies at the root of being a Christian,
at least as we have received the faith.

After all, the our primary act of worship on Sunday,
the Eucharist,
is a Greek word that means “Thanksgiving.”

What we do is give thanks,
in our worship,
in our private prayer,
through our missions,
in our life as a community,
joining in the prayer of the whole host of heaven,
that sings throughout time:
we give thanks.

It’s even easy to give thanks,
at least when times are good.

It’s pretty easy to thank God
when we win the lottery,
or get the promotion we’ve worked for,
or find ourselves in the flush of new love,
or are called “Mommy” for the first time.

It’s harder to be grateful
when we’re confronted with a truth about ourselves,
perhaps one we desperately need to learn,
but are loath to hear.

It’s hard to be grateful
for the times in our lives
that push us to the edges of ourselves—
a troubling diagnosis,
a disappointment or a betrayal,
or circumstances that are beyond our control.

It’s hard to be grateful
when we only have hard choices,
like Joseph and Mary faced in today’s Gospel.

Confronted with the truth
that Herod wanted baby Jesus dead,
Joseph rushes his family out of the barn
and into the night,
fleeing for their lives to Egypt,
with a newborn child and his young mother,
still recovering from childbirth.

It’s hard to give thanks when things look bleakest.

But Joseph,
who remained faithful to God
as this astonishing and amazing story unfolds,
acted to protect his family,
trusting God,
who three times in today’s Gospel
spoke to Joseph through an Angel in his dreams:
“Go to Egypt to escape Herod,”
and then “It’s all Clear: Go back to Israel”
(and then “PS: Go to Galilee, not Jerusalem”),
and each time, Joseph did as he was told.

Now the Gospels say precious little about Joseph at all;
he gets short shrift from the Evangelists,
which I think is unfortunate.

After all,
he endured so much to do his part in raising Jesus,
to living God’s call to him,
even though it was hard.

And each of us is given these opportunities in our lives:
each of us has the opportunity to give thanks,
even when things are hard;
even when the road is difficult;
and we can’t see where the road leads;
and in learning to express gratitude even then,
even when times are rough,
we live more fully into the call to be disciples,
and we journey more deeply
into that virtuous circle,
where blessing begets blessing,
and we continue to be nourished
through giving our gratitude,
even when it’s not easy,
even when the night falls dark.

So what are you most grateful for?
I’d invite you to answer that question now,
but more importantly,
I’d invite you to answer that question tonight,
just before you go to bed,
thinking about everything that happens between
this moment and that one.

What are you most grateful for?
It’s a question that God can help you answer,
if you ask for help;
Just review your day,
moment by moment,
and ask God to help you see
the moments that you are most grateful for.

It’s the one thing that Ignatius of Loyola asked his Jesuits to do
twice every day;
it’s the beginning and end
of the virtuous circle of our lives of faith,
and it’s the thing that honors the holiness
of every gift and blessing we receive,
whether we realize the gifts and blessings when they come,
or whether we need a little distance in order
to see them as blessings and gifts.

It’s the very cornerstone of our worship as Episcopalians:
we give thanks at the table,
for the bread and wine,
for the gift of Jesus, who is present to us
in the bread and the wine,
and for the many blessings that we receive each day,
because God is doing amazing things in each of our lives,
whether we realize it or not.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ
with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,
just as he chose us in Christ
before the foundation of the world
to be holy and blameless before him in love.

Thanks be to God.

December 21, 2014 | The Fourth Sunday of Advent

by the Rev. Robert C. Laird

It always amazes me to see all four candles lit
on the Advent wreath,
and how quickly it feels like it sneaks up on us.

At the beginning of Advent,
there is so much time;
we have four weeks, after all;
but these weeks are always so full,
with shopping, and friends, and family coming into town,
and then, suddenly,
you’ve barely taken a breath,
and the whole wreath is ablaze.

This year, we light the last candle,
and begin our journey to Bethlehem,
to the birth of Jesus,
which is announced in today’s Gospel.

It is a remarkable thing to see Mary today;
she’s engaged to be married to Joseph,
which means that Joseph has already paid the bride price,
the money that due to to Mary’s father
for the right to marry Mary
(this is why in Matthew’s Gospel,
Joseph decides to quietly dismiss Mary,
even though they had not yet been married;
that’s how engagement worked in those days).

The other remarkable thing is that
these marriage contracts were,
in Mary and Joseph’s time,
entered into when the bride was between
twelve and twelve-and-a-half years old;
it was truly a different time;
nowadays, women are typically
more than twice that age before they consider marriage,
and then they decide to get married on their own.
In the US today,
most children turn twelve when they’re in sixth grade.

But for her time, Mary was of marrying age,
and was preparing to make a life with Joseph,
and then into that world crashes the Divine.

Gabriel shows up to her,
with some amazing news:
she is going to have a child.

This wasn’t the first time God had announced an amazing birth:
both Hagar and Sarah spoke to angels
about the birth of Ismael and Isaac;
the birth of Samson was announced to the wife of Manoah
(whose name is lost to history);
and Elizabeth was visited by Gabriel
to announce the birth of John the Baptist
(well, actually, Zechariah was visited,
but one would certainly hope
that even though Zechariah couldn’t talk at the time,
he somehow communicated to Elizabeth
that she was going to be pregnant,
despite her advanced age;
what a shock to her if he didn’t!).

But those women were all older,
and infertile;
Mary was still a virgin:
this “something unheard of” was new.

And her response is remarkable:
first, she asks “How is this possible?”
which is perfectly understandable,
if not almost precocious;
then she says “Here am I, the Handmaid of the Lord;
let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary, a sixth-grader by our understanding,
was saying yes to God in a way
that is amazing,
and changed the world for all time.

Because after all,
Mary was agreeing not only to raise Jesus,
to carry him to term, and love him,
but to co-creating with the Holy Spirit
the Divine breaking-in to the world,
Jesus, God’s own self,
born as a human, and in the world to save it.

Mary must have known that she was exposing herself
and her family to scandal;
how the tongues would wag,
given how small Nazareth was,
when Mary turned up pregnant before her wedding.

She must also have known
that being God’s son,
and born to a poor family like hers,
would not go well for Jesus;
the life expectancy for prophets in Israel
was pretty bad,
and wasn’t likely to be any better for Jesus.

Mary was saying “yes” to raising a son
who would deny her,
saying “I have no mother, only a Father in heaven;”
she was saying “yes” to following him to Golgotha,
to the place of the skull where Jesus was crucified;
she was saying “yes” to watching his death,
and grieving his loss;
she was saying yes to carrying in her mother’s heart
the ugliness of human existence,
all of which Jesus encountered,
and ultimately redeemed,
but at an ultimate cost.

It’s truly amazing what Mary does in today’s Gospel.
But it’s equally amazing what God does in today’s Gospel.

Though Gabriel,
God is not only breaking into the human world,
both by sending Gabriel to talk to Mary,
but also by telling of Jesus’ birth;
not only has God come into the world,
but God has chosen to come into the world
on the side of the poor, and the oppressed;
after all, Mary was not of a wealthy family,
nor was Joseph.
Jesus was to be born to a poor family,
raised the son of a handyman;
a far cry from the royal birth we saw last year
of Prince George of Cambridge.

Mary’s song reflects this truth:
“He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts
and proud inclinations.
He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty-handed.”

God has chosen the poor,
and Mary is an example of this;
Mary, who was not particularly favored in our world,
as a girl, as someone without means,
one of the most lowly in her culture,
is most favored by God.

In Mary, God is siding with those on the margins,
something Jesus does consistently
throughout his ministry.

God has just turned Mary’s world upside-down,
and will do the same for us,
if we give him the chance.

After all, as Gabriel says to Mary,
“Nothing is impossible for God.”

Even though for humanity,
so much seems impossible;
in Mary’s time,
just the idea that Mary would be favored,
or that Rome might not rule Israel forever,
or that the hungry might have food,
would have seemed impossible to us,
but nothing is impossible for God.

In our time,
just as much seems impossible;
globally and nationally,
we are as divided and paralyzed as we’ve been
in several generations;
and each of us individually
knows our shortcomings,
the things that feel impossible for us,
the things that drain our hope,
and feel insurmountable.

But none of it is impossible for God.
God, who breaks into human history—
into our history—
God, who chooses the poor and the marginalized,
who gathers up the lowly;
God, whose kingdom promises justice,
and love, and peace, and hope—
nothing is impossible for God.

Regardless of your political persuasion,
I think it’s we can all agree
that we ‘ve made a pretty good mess of the world.

Looking over the two thousand years
since Jesus’s birth was announced to Mary,
(and for the thousands of years before that),
humans have a pretty spotty track record.

And Gabriel proclaims in today’s Gospel
that God will right the wrongs,
and God’s reign will restore and redeem
the mess that we have made:
for with God, nothing is impossible.

That’s what the lights of the Advent wreath
mean for us today:
that God has entered into the world;
that God has chosen to be with us,
as flawed as we are, and as messy as we can make things;
that for God, nothing is impossible.

It’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a sixth-grade age girl,
and even more to put on a baby boy,
who will be born to a poor family in a barn;
but God is capable of surprising us,
and turning everything upside down,
in amazing, delightful, and terrifying ways;
but it’s not too much for God,
and it’s not too much for us,
with God’s help.

Christmas Services

St. Luke’s Christmas Eve service will be at 7:30 PM on December 24, 2014. Join us as we celebrate Christ’s birth on Wednesday!

December 7, 2014 | The Second Sunday of Advent

by the Rev. Robert C. Laird

“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
This quote has been attributed to Winston Churchill,
who turns out to be a very deep well from which to draw inspiration for sermons;
in 1932, while in New York City,
Churchill got a prescription from an Upper East Side doctor, which read:
“This is to certify that the post-accident convalescence of the Hon. Winston S. Churchill necessitates the use of
alcoholic spirits especially at meal times.
The quantity is naturally indefinite but the minimum requirements would be 250 cubic centimeters.”
This is during the tail end of prohibition, mind you,
and the prescriptions calls for at least 8½ ounces of spirits,
seemingly at each meal.
That is a LOT of alcohol.

Read more

November 16, 2014 | The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

by the Rev. Robert C. Laird

In New York City this week,
Dr. Craig Spencer was released from Bellevue Hospital,
the latest in a string of Americans
to contract and recover from the Ebola virus,
which is raging through Western Africa,
including in Guinea,
where Dr. Spencer had been treating Ebola patients
with the group Doctors Without Borders.

Read more