Will You Play Your Part?

Sermon Preached Christmas 2013
St. Mark's Episcopal Church

This year’s Children’s Christmas Pageant was called, “I Will Play My Part.” Written by Roddy Hamilton, it tells the story of a congregation wanting to tell the story of Christmas but not having any of the things such a story might require – no stable, no straw, no well-dressed magi or cuddly sheep.  No starlit sky, no shepherds, no angels, no foreign travelers.  And, yet, despite this congregation’s lack of all the right things, they manage to tell the story anyhow by using the ordinary folks around them.   And, in fact, they do more than just tell the story – they become the story – as each of the players realizes that all they have to do is to play their part, the part God has given them to play in bringing the Good News of Jesus to the world.
At the end of November when we began telling the children about the pageant, our pageant director, Patty, went with me to each of the Sunday School classrooms.  She talked to the 8-year old girl we had picked to play Mary.  Leela was reluctant, too shy she thought for such an important role – perhaps a bit afraid of being in the limelight on Christmas Eve. But Patty explained to her that Mary, Jesus’ mother, was probably pretty shy too.  When that angel visited her to tell her she was going to deliver the son of God into the world, Mary was likely terrified.  Patty told Leela that if she was a little bit afraid to play such an important role, it would make her more believable.  And, you know what happened? Leela agreed to play her part and was Mary in our Christmas pageant.
Patty also talked to Patrick, an 11-year old boy in the next classroom.  She told him she had a special part for him, that we wanted him to be the Christmas Star that would guide the wise men to Bethlehem to see the newborn baby Jesus.  Patrick, did not want a speaking part; but, when he heard that the Christmas Star had no lines to learn, he said, “I will do my part.” 
When we got to the classroom of 3 – 5 year olds, we explained to them that they would be animals in the pageant. That we would need sheep and donkeys and cows to take part in the Christmas Pageant.  But no sooner had Patty explained this to them, then one of the children spoke up to say, “I’ll be a baby elephant” and another, “I’m going to be a dinosaur” – and so they were.  Because, you know what?  If on that first Christmas night, dinosaurs had still been around, I bet they would have been there to see the baby Jesus! And, if Jesus had been born in sub-Saharan Africa, then there might well have been a baby elephant there as well.  And, more important still, if the part that these children felt called to play was an elephant or a dinosaur, then who were we to tell them we had a different part in mind for them?
Why am I telling you all about the pageant?  Because I think that when it comes right down to it, God coming into the world to be with us – the incarnation, the birth of Jesus  – is, at its heart, about God’s invitation to each of us to play the part we have been given in the ongoing story of salvation.  
Perhaps you are called to play a part like Joseph.  Joseph, a bit reluctant to be involved in something so scandalous as a virgin birth (when he first learned of Mary’s pregnancy, he planned to dismiss her quietly and were it not for a visit from an angel of the Lord in a dream, he likely would have followed through with that plan).  No, Josephs are not keen on scandal.  Josephs are law-abiding folk. When the Emperor says to register in your own city, Josephs are the first to get on the road and head for home to be registered.    But, for all their caution, the Josephs of the world have an important part to play.  In the life of Jesus, Joseph raised this son of Mary, this son of God, as his own son.  Being a step-father.  Not an insignificant part to play. A part that calls for steadfastness and courage in the face of unexpected twists and turns.
Or, perhaps you are called to play a part like those first shepherds.  Those first shepherds heard the good news of Jesus’ birth and couldn’t help but tell everyone around them. The news was SO good, filled with such hope and promise that they couldn’t keep it to themselves.  Shepherds inspire and amaze others with the good news they share.  Being a story-telling shepherd.  Not an insignificant part to play.  A part that calls for eyes to see the wonder of God in the most unusual of places – in the night sky, in a stable, or even on the streets of Evanston.
Or, perhaps you are called like some of our youngest children, called to play a part that hasn’t even been written into the story yet.  A part that God is writing just for you.  Not an insignificant part to play.  Because, my brothers and sisters in Christ, there are no insignificant parts to play.  This is the story of Christmas.  God coming into the world to be with us – with each of us – the incarnation, the birth of Jesus  – God’s invitation to each of us to play the part we have been given in the ongoing story of salvation.   Will you play your part?


Spring, Leap and Dance into God's Future Today

Sermon preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
December 15, 2013 – Advent 3A
Isaiah 35:1-10, Matthew 11:2-11

Last Sunday we heard from the prophet Isaiah that “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”[1] It was a passage filled with unlikely pairings that perhaps we can only imagine in the land of cartoons, digital animation, or, as I suggested last week, children’s artwork and imaginations. But just as we barely begin wrapping our minds around what it might be like to inhabit such a world, we come up to this week’s passage from Isaiah in which we are promised even more: “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped,” a time when “the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”[2]
In the season of Advent, we are invited to put on a Spirit of hopefulness, enthusiastic anticipation of a promised future. But, let’s face it, in light of seemingly over-the-top promises like Isaiah’s and in light of all that goes on in the world around us that Spirit of hopefulness can feel downright foolish if not fraudulent.  Earlier this week I was reading Peter Steinke’s book, A Door Set Open: Grounding Change in Mission and Hope and came across an insightful distinction between dialectical thinking and ideological thinking. According to Steinke, an ideologue is one who reduces everything to opposites: “everything is reduced to here or there, this or that. There can be no ambiguity. Thus, in order to see light, the ideologist minimizes the moments of despair and erases the darkness.”[3]  This kind of thinking is an oversimplification of reality and can seem like a trivialization of the world around us.  And, you and I, when we hear such thinking, have an understandable tendency to stop listening.
Dialectical thinking, on the other hand, allows that the truth of the world may, in fact, be “expressed in opposites, two ideas that appear to cancel out each other.”  Steinke’s example is the Scriptural warrant that one must lose one’s life in order to find it and he writes, “In a broken world, hope and lament are partners. Hope does not need to silence the rumbling of crisis to be hope. . . .  Dialectical thinking allows one to hope in the darkness.”[4]  The hope of Advent is deeply grounded in the realities of our present condition. 
Some etymologists believe that the word hope comes from the Old English hoppian which means “to spring, leap, [or] dance.”[5]  Hope then is more than a feeling – it’s an action word; it is a word that asks something of us – something more than imagination; it asks us to give that feeling legs as we leap up, spring forward, and dance into a new way of being in the world.  Physicist and Anglican priest, JohnPolkinghorne, writes:
“hope is much more than a mood, it involves a commitment to action. Its moral character implies that what we hope for should be what we are prepared to work for and so bring about, as far as that power lies in us.”[6]
And perhaps we know this intuitively because it is especially during the Season of Advent when Christians – and others – “get busy.”  We step up our collections of food for the hungry, our gathering of clothing for the poor. We bring cookies and flowers with us when we visit those who are sick or homebound.  We intuitively understand that the hope of Advent is grounded in the harsh realities of our community as our attention turns to bringing hope – to being hope – to others. 

  • Through your spirit of hope, St. Mark’s delivered a shopping basket filled with groceries to the City of Evanston this past week. That food, along with other food donations from throughout the community, will go to nearly 300 families in our community. 
  • In addition, two St. Mark’s parishioners volunteered at Tuesday’s Producemobile which saw the largest distribution yet – nearly 9 tons of fresh fruits and vegetables shared with more than 220 families.  
  •  In the Parlor, the Christmas tree continues to be decorated with new hats, mittens, gloves, scarves and socks that will be given to the homeless men and women who are guests of the Interfaith ActionHospitality Center and to the children who at Oakton Elementary School who participate in the Blessings in a Backpack program.

Yes, during the Season of Advent, we are a hope-filled people who generously bring hope to our community. 
The challenge, of course, is to not let this time of hopefulness become just another “program” of our already over-programmed lives, just another thing we do in this one season of the year.  The challenge is to allow the Season of Advent, this season of hopeful action to become a way of being throughout the year, throughout our lives. Today’s passage from Matthew opens with John the Baptist sending his disciples to Jesus to ask,
“’Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.’”[7] 
Quoting Peter Steinke once again: “God made the first move in his promises, and invites us to respond movingly.”[8]  Jesus is the hope of the world.  Hope – “to spring, leap, or dance.”  May we be so moved today and always. Amen.

[1] Isaiah 11:6.
[2] Isaiah 35:5-6.
[3] Peter Steinke, A Door Set Open: Grounding Change in Mission and Hope, (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2010), 37.
[4] Ibid., 37, 38.
[5] Douglas Harper, “hop,” Online Etymology accessed on December 13, 2013.
[6] John C. Polkinghorne, God of Hope and the End of the World, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 47-8.
[7] Matthew 11:2-5.
[8] Steinke, 97.


In Conversation

Proper 25C
Luke 18:9-14

Many of you may know that our senior warden, Lisa Montgomery, teaches 8th grade at Nicholas Middle School.  Well, earlier this week, Lisa was sharing with Lynette Murphy and me, her experience of student conversations.  She has begun teaching conversation in her classrooms after observing a number of so-called conversations between students.  Here’s an example (I apologize if I don’t have the details exactly right, but the gist of the dialogue is here):

Student A:  “My dog died last night.”
Student B: “Oh. I went to a movie last night. It was great.” 
Lisa expressed her concern that the second student had no idea how to move the conversation forward with her classmate.  No condolences offered: I’m so sorry to hear about that. Or That must be really hard. No questions asked: what kind of dog was it? How long did you have your dog?  Are you going to get a new dog? Any of these would have been a move in the right direction toward conversation.  But, instead, the second student’s response consisted of “Oh.” And, then a new topic was introduced.  According to Lisa, this type of exchange is not uncommon among students.  And so she has begun teaching communication strategies in her classrooms.
I looked up the word “conversation” on Wikipedia yesterday – just out of curiosity – and here’s how the article began, “conversation is a form of interactive, spontaneous communication between two or more people who are following rules of etiquette. It is polite give and take of subjects thought of by people talking with each other for company.”[1]
The article goes on to say that “Conversations are 'interactive' because contributions to a conversation are response reactions to what has previously been said.”[2]  Now, if by “response reactions” we mean that the other student did say “oh” before talking about going to a movie, I suppose that aspect of conversation took place.  But as for the rest of the exchange – it can hardly have been said to be interactive and it certainly followed no rules of etiquette.  Instead the students’ exchange of words was a simple exercise in taking turns talking about themselves.
Which brings me to this morning’s gospel reading:  iIn it, a Pharisee and a tax collector go up to the temple to pray.  Before we consider the two men’s prayer, that’s pause for a moment to think about the nature of prayer.  Marjorie Thompson writes in her wonderful book, Soul Feast, that “Prayer involves freely entering a relationship of communication and communion with God, for the sake of knowledge, growth, and mutual enjoyment” (32).  Although Thompson goes on to discount the use of the word “conversation” as a description of this relationship, I think it is an apt word – especially if we understand conversation as an interactive and spontaneous give and take by those talking with each other for company – for companionship. 
Conversation is the heart of Ignatian spirituality.  David Fleming, in his book, What is Ignatian Spirituality? writes that conversation – “'to be conversant with' something or someone” is “to truly know them deeply. It means 'to have dealings with.' To converse with someone is to know them and to be involved with their lives. In the Ignatian scheme of things, to converse is one of our ways of loving.”[3] Prayer then is conversation with God – it is our way of loving God and – because conversation is a two-way proposition – it is one of God’s ways of loving us.
And so we hear the prayer of the Pharisee: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”[4]  It is hard to imagine how this prayer moves the Pharisee toward deep knowledge of God.  (As an aside, that Wikipedia article on conversation has a sub-section called “Conversational narcissism” which is apparently “a term used by sociologist Charles Derber in his book, The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life” to describe individuals who instead of exchanging ideas and following the conventions of conversational etiquette, shift the conversation back to themselves).[5] The Pharisee in today’s gospel seems to be talking to God – after all, he begins by saying thanks to God. But notice that he immediately shifts to a comparison of himself to everyone around him – those “thieves, rogues, adulterers” and “even . . . this tax collector.”  “O, Dear God. Look at me.  I am the perfect model of a religious person.  I am following all the rules.  I am doing all the right things.  O God, look at me and pay no attention to that tax collector who is praying nearby.” The Pharisee, through his prayer, is essentially saying, “God I have no need of you – nor of anybody else – because I already know all the things I must do to be rewarded.”
And then there is the tax collector – perhaps the most despicable person in first century, social outcasts at best.  It is no wonder we are told he stood far off – he was likely allowed no closer to the temple.  And his prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”[6] - this is a prayer of conversation, a prayer begging to be in right relationship with God. Henri Nouwen calls such a prayer a “prayer of the heart” where we stand
“in the presence of God with the mind in the heart; that is, at that point of our being where there are no divisions or distinctions and where we are totally one. There God’s Spirit dwells and there the great encounter takes place. There heart speaks to heart, because there we stand before the face of the Lord, all-seeing within us.”[7]
It is the prayer of the tax collector that says, “God I have need of you. God, I need only you and your gracious love.”
Tomorrow evening, our vestry will hold its monthly meeting.  We will begin our time together as we do most months – with a period of reflection and prayer.  Tomorrow’s reflection will center around two questions: “Can you recall a time when you felt that you were in love with God?”  and “Can you recall a time when you felt that God was in love with you?”  While these questions are not meant to be easy, the assurance we have is one simple truth: God is, indeed, in love with you.  Not because of the ways in which you are different from other people. Not because you fast twice a week or give a tenth of your income. Not because of the clothes you wear, the car you drive, the friends you keep, or the work you do.  Simply because you are. God is in love with you and desires nothing more than to deepen that relationship with you, to enter into conversation with you, to companion with you.  Will you respond to God in prayer?  Will you enter the conversation that God has already begun in you?  You need not have fancy words, you need not have words at all. You need only to be open to the love of God and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Amen.

[1] “Conversation” accessed October 26, 2013 at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conversation.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Excerpt from What Is Ignatian Spirituality? by David L. Fleming, SJ accessed on October 26, 2013 at  http://www.ignatianspirituality.com.
[4] Luke 18:11
[5] “Conversation.”
[6] Luke 18:13.
[7] Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, (Ballantine, New York: 1981), 59-60.