Sunday, December 28, 2014

Merry Christmas

Sermon for Christmas Eve 2014
Little Portion Friary
Mt. Sinai, New York

Br. Clark Berge, SSF

Christmas is one of the touchstone holidays. It asks basically: how do you want to live? Think about all the family rituals and the stresses and blessings of the holiday season: Christmas is about how we face the real situations of life, vulnerably and joyfully. How we face life’s challenges is the proof of the pudding, so to speak, of our religion, Christianity. It goes from intellectual proposition to hands-on, flesh and blood relationships.

Christianity teaches the main point of our faith is that God became a human being, Jesus. He died on a Cross, and then God raised him from the dead, essentially redefining our consciousness about life. Death has no ultimate power over us, so we are free to challenge all those people and powers and situations that threaten us with death, which means all those who make us feel small, diminish our life, or rob us of joy.

We champion life because God does. That is what we are celebrating in this special day.

Think about the headlines in our world today: ISIS and terrorism, war, climate change, social upheavals as we struggle as a society with racism, torture.

Think about your private dramas—more personal and more painful; for instance: sickness, death, and divorces. Or maybe you are planning to move and looking at everything around you: “This is the last time we’ll ever…”

So what does Christmas have to say to all of this?

I want to talk about two things that answer our troubles from a Christian point of view: vulnerability and joy. Of course living them out requires true grit: conversion we call it.

As the popular writer and speaker Brene Brown says, vulnerability is the key to wholehearted living; to be fully alive as the Christian saint Irenaeus calls it. Vulnerability does not mean being a doormat or exhibiting weakness or shame. It means emotional honesty, integrity, knowing the truth about ourselves—the real deep-down truth, not the superficial answers we give (on the one hand cataloguing our achievements or on the other hand, glumly noting all the ways we fail). When we are really vulnerable we put our true selves on the line.

Jesus in the manger is the perfect image of vulnerability.

Look at him: undefended, dependent on his mother, yet he radiates beauty; that is the human truth as God sees us! By celebrating Jesus’ vulnerability we acknowledge our own. It’s all there in the rough straw, shaky manger; God knows what the manger smelled like: the stink and prickle of real life. God chose the humble life, that’s where we need to look for him.

If vulnerability is linked to humility, honesty and truth, it is easy to determine the Christian take on the big issues of our day: love not war, care for Mother Earth, acknowledge all people are equally loved by God, respect the dignity of every human being and the integrity of all creation.

To live this way means we give up all fantasies of world domination (even if its just social media), or any notion of splendid isolation. We need to grow into our full participation in the community, the larger human family. Believe it or not, God is inviting us to collaborate with him. With God we are to carry out the plan for creation on this planet, our fragile home in the universe created in love by God.

As St. Paul wrote to Titus and we heard tonight: we are to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly: in other words, conscious, authentic, integrated and God-centered.

The message of Christianity is aimed at our hearts so we will live life-giving lives.

Keep looking at the baby, the Holy Child.

I’ve sat with families for whom birth became tragedy. Yet almost every successful birth is an occasion for thanksgiving, for joy. This is the second thing I want to talk about tonight in our celebration of Christmas. Let’s think about a baby’s birth: gratitude, awe, humility: these quickly become joy. This is the gut-level joy that causes mothers and fathers to weep, grandparents to break down doors, uncles to wax poetic.
Isaiah alludes to this kind of gut-joy: you have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy, he exclaims. Before you need to think about doctrines and dogmas, before you learn to navigate liturgies and prayer books, Christianity is about the joy of life.

A Baby is born, a child’s tears wiped away, a child tells a knock-knock joke, a first kiss is shared, an anniversary meal is eaten, a new job started, a vocation discerned: these sacred moments are the outward signs of God’s action in your life.

You don’t even have to believe in God to experience the blessings of God. Tonight we have to acknowledge that God believes in us more than we believe in him or ourselves. God’s initiative is the source of our joy.

The challenge is to keep joy alive.

They wrapped the child in bands of cloth—to keep Him warm, safe, healthy, alive. How do you protect your joy? What are your techniques? I find I am my own worst enemy. When I make a mistake I feel sick to my stomach. I want to grovel: I’m sorry, I’m sorry! A strident voice from my sub cortex says, “You are no good!”

Who needs enemies with a brain like that?

So I have some strategies learned from books, therapists, more highly evolved friends; I make a mistake, and I say: I made a mistake but I am still a good person. Simple, but it calms me down and wakes me up from self-hating shame. I can harbor my joy even in times of self-doubt, hardship and adversity. It is founded on the astounding revelation of love and acceptance of all the human condition that we celebrate tonight. On Christmas night, God took flesh and became human.

Does it change for you when I switch from psychological language (words like authentic, integrated) to spiritual language (Grace, love, blessing)?

Use whatever language you like, grab the joy, hold it tight.

The joy will mess with all your destructive tendencies. It will interfere with all your relationships—casual, personal, professional: a joyful cop, as much as a joyful priest, a joyful sales representative, a joyful farmer, student, parent; it is the wedge that Christianity wants to drive into society. We are called by God in this joyful night to be awake to life here and now, to make a difference for good.

And with Christianity it is always right now: our focus isn’t in a nostalgic past or imagined future. We are called to be awake, unafraid, sober, and respectful and devoted to the truth about God and ourselves—so we need to be asking for God’s help right now.

Christmas takes us right to the core of human life: what kind of person do you want to be?

Anything is possible.

With God in your life the message you give will be “good news of great joy for all the people.”

Friday, December 12, 2014

And then. . .

I don't feel like giving a run down on all the things that have happened to me since my last blog entry. I wonder is there a category for "occasional blogger?" I hope I have earned a credential as non-compulsive (in this regard at least)!

Suffice it to say that in October I visited some Anglican religious communities in Cameroon and Tanzania (offering friendship and advice, not money). Then I travelled to England for an SSF Ministers pastoral Meeting, and followed this up with a wonderful stay at Glasshampton Monastery, our friary in Worcester, UK. I returned to New York the day before Thanksgiving.

If there was one major preoccupation in all of these visits and engagements it had to be about what makes the religious vocation flourish. In Africa the people we met were new at religious life for the most part. More than anything else they wanted connections with other Anglican religious. Conversations with them made me think about what I like and don't like about my life and where I perceive God's call.

Though we spoke a lot about structures and customs, this is not where I sense God's call.

Though we prayed in Latin, Swahili and English, God wasn't calling me in any particular language.

But in the shy looks of men and women who don't know what to say, I experienced God.

In the stories about a longing for a more serious, more beautiful life I heard the stirrings of the Holy Spirit, and experienced God.

In his poem "Church Going"Philip Larkin writes about how we "surprise a hunger in ourselves to be more serious," a hunger that "can never be obsolete."

In our SSF meeting we reaffirmed our love for the things that bind us together as an international Order: praying together, living together in fraternity and poverty, keeping a love for the poor in our hearts.

Buildings come and go, communities flourish and wither. New ways and new initiatives to respond to the persistent call of God are emerging all over the globe.

The danger is to think our way (whatever that is) is the only way. The Congregational Church had a terrific campaign a few years ago. A banner was displayed in front of our Mt. Sinai Congregational Church (along my usual jogging route): "Never put a period where God has placed a comma."

Religious life is, in the end, not just about organizing a comfortable or a theologically or ideologically agreeable community. During this Advent season we are reminded over and over again in the prescribed Bible readings that we exist to bear witness to God's presence in human community and the world. We are to bear witness to the ancient prophetic call of Isaiah and Jesus to stand for justice and peace. In America, and other places where my brothers live, basic human rights are challenged. We cannot relent in our efforts "to show others in his beauty and power the Christ who is the inspiration and joy" of our lives.