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From stck.xchng (c) user johnjazz

From stck.xchng (c) user johnjazz

St. Paul rocks out the building metaphor in writing to the Corinthian church.  He wants them to know that Jesus is the foundation and not any teacher or other person. And then we need to build on that foundation.

A sermon for the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany.  Based on  1 Corinthians 3:10-23

I grew up working in the family business.  My dad, after his time in military service as a tank mechanic, used the skills he learned to wire large machinery.  After a few years and upon earning his Master Electrician’s license, he struck out on his own founding LaBelle Electric.  I learned the basics of the trade and got instilled with a good work ethic.  I can look at a blueprint and imagine how something comes together from paper into reality.  I’ve been on construction sites throughout the entirety of my life, and when I head to a Habitat build or see some of the work my brother does when I travel back to Michigan, it’s very familiar.

So when Paul begins talking about buildings and foundations, it’s right up my alley.  The metaphor works for me.  Partly this is because electricians are on a construction site right from the beginning, laying underground pipe when the foundation is being poured, and they are one of the last trades to leave needing to wait for the painters to finish before putting on outlet covers or finishing touches on lighting.  Paul tells us that there’s a construction project happening, and that project is us.

Paul describes himself as a master builder—for those who have seen the new Lego movie, this is easy to envision.  He’s worked hard in setting up the Corinthian church, in laying a foundation for them.  And that foundation, he tells them quite simply, is Jesus Christ .

No before we start imaging Jesus getting squashed by a building or poured over by cement—easy to do if you have a child’s imagination that runs wild sometimes or are a kids yourself, and if that isn’t you, well, you know have that image in your head (You’re welcome)—Paul really means the teachings of Jesus.  The way Jesus lived his life.  The things that embodied Jesus’ ministry, the love he showed, his own sacrificial death and especially his resurrection.  Those become the makings of this foundation.  Jesus, his love, his compassion, his suffering and his conquering of death.

And now those who work on the construction site, the electricians and carpenters and plumbers and roofers and heating and cooling specialists, they all come in and build on that foundation.  Paul talks about this in detail in the next verses, but our lectionary committee in their great wisdom decided to leave the specifics out.  Hear these words from verses 12-15 that were omitted from our reading today:

“Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. 14 If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.”

Paul is clueing us in on what sort of material we should use.  While we can use anything that is nearby, Paul subtly tells us to use the things that will last like gold and silver and other gems, those that will remain after a testing by fire and not to use much wood, hay or straw that will turn into ash and float away.  Before I move into talking about what will last, let me point out something straightaway.  Paul doesn’t say that we will be lost when the testing fires come, rather only the things we used to build with.  Putting it another way, Paul declares that while we will face testing (he doesn’t say any of us are exempt from this), that we will not only survive but find true salvation and be purified, we will not be utterly lost; good news to be sure.

So it comes down to the materials we use and the work we do.  Any DIYer knows this.  When you’re at Home Depot looking at materials you can use, you first think about your budget, then you try to get the best you can.  When it comes to issues that could lead to harm, you call in reinforcements.  Many of you might feel comfortable replacing a light switch, but changing a service panel would be out of your league (and mine too, for what it’s worth).

So it comes down to the basics of Jesus.  Pope Francis, in a recent off the cuff video taken with an iPhone by a Pentecostal pastor the pope had befriended while he lived in Argentina, addresses a large gathering of American Pentecostal Christians about Christian unity (I’ll let that sink in for a moment).  He begins speaking in English to them, asking pardon since he’s not very fluent, then switches to Italian but declares he speaks neither English or Italian but the language of the heart.  He says, “This language of the heart has a [particular] language and grammar.  A simple grammar.  Love God above all, and love the Other [the neighbor], because he is your Brother and Sister.  With these two rules we can go ahead.”[1]

First love God above all.  Take time each day to pray, even if only for a few minutes.  Give God thanks for the good things you have, for your breath, the opportunities of this new day.  Be grateful in all circumstances for God’s abiding presence.  God’s deep love.  A simple prayer of Wow or Thanks or Help, as Anne Lamont puts it, can go a long long way.  Simply pausing, if nothing else, to recognize God in your life.

Read scripture.  Even just a few verses.  It’ll help you learn and remember the stories of our faith, and encourage and remind you that God has worked in the past and God continues to work even today.  Scripture can inspire you when you face difficulty, guide you when you fall off track and help you when you seek to find the way forward.  We can offer two things that may help you.  First, there is a pamphlet in our Bell Tower Entrance called Forward Day by Day.  These are small devotionals with a reading, small meditation and prayer.  We get these every few months, and I encourage you to pick one up.  Second, for families, we have subscribed to a Daily Devo sent each day to your email.  The format is similar to Day by Day, and it includes a photo or video about the topic. If you are interested, let me know and I can add your email to the distribution list. These small things can go a long way to building up your faith.

Second, love others.  We promise to respect the dignity of every human being and to work for justice and peace.  As our world grows ever smaller with the advancement of technology and information, who our neighbor is continues to expand.  Sometimes just giving monetary support can change someone’s life.  When we hosted our international potluck here at St. Mark’s nearly three years ago, Melissa and I, like others of you, sponsored a child.  We became connected to Evelyne a young girl from Burandi.  We send in our monthly support, and each Christmas we send a larger gift for her.  This week we received a letter of thanks for that Christmas gift.  Evelyne writes, “I thank you very much for the attachment you have proven to me, and for the financial support granted to me.”  She tells us that the gift we sent, $100, was exchanged for a large sum in their local currency.  She continues, “With that amount, we bought different need items of the family: clothes and shoes for me, clothes for mum—with them we will be well dressed and look smart on Christmas while going to church.  Some food products like rice and palm oil to improve our diet, soaps to improve hygiene, a goat for farming and iron sheets to rehabilitate the roof of our house and with them the rain will not longer be harm[ful] for us.”  With the letter she sent a photo, with Evelyne and her mom holding a couple new clothing items, a small sack of rice is in the foreground, three large metal sheets are behind them leaning against their modest hom, and off to the side is a young goat.  $100 goes a long way in the poorest country of the world, and I think it’s some of the best money we’ve ever spent.

Love others.  Focus on relationships and spending time with the ones you love.  Open yourself up to new friendships.  Share your stories.  Be kind to those different from you.  Don’t look down on others because of their circumstances.  Be present when trouble comes, and allow others to be present to you.  Find connections either locally like Southborough’s Food Pantry or Project Just Because, or around the globe either through organizations like Compassion and World Vision that invite sponsorships of children like Evelyne, or those working for justice like Love146, our February partner.  Don’t make it all about you.  Love.

That’s the stuff of gold and silver and precious stones. That’s the building materials we should reach for again and again.  And notice the building that we are constructing.  It isn’t our own individual places not our own lives, but rather a temple for God.  And more than that, the you Paul uses when we writes, “You are God’s temple,” isn’t a singular you, but a plural.  “Don’t all you all know that you are God’s temple,” he asks.  Together.  In community.  The work we do in creating this wonderful home for God takes all of us together.  The Christian faith is never lived alone; it is always in community.  And God calls all of us, each and every one of us from the youngest to the oldest, to do our part, to share the language of the heart and to construct a dwelling place for the Almighty.  May we do so with enthusiasm, commitment and joy.  Amen.



[1] http://www.buzzfeed.com/ellievhall/pope-francis-speaks-english-in-iphone-video-for-evangelical

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31Christmas2

Christmas is now officially over — Happy Epiphany everyone!—but my movie watching and reviewing need to continue on for a few more days!

Getting sick this past week didn’t help, along with some other issues that came up, however, I’ll be finishing soon and posting reviews along the way.  When I complete this project, I’ll post a round-up of all that I saw and what happened.

So thanks, readers, for your interest in my crazy Christmas Film project!

 

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A sermon based on Matthew 2:13-23 for the Second Sunday After Christmas Day.

restA couple of years ago I received a Christmas card with this image on the front.  It may look familiar to you.  It’s called “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” and it’s a painting by French artist Luc Olivier Merson finished in 1879. It resides permanently at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  This isn’t the typical scene for a Christmas card, of course, and the person knew me well because, if she hadn’t, I would have received a nice Hallmark card with angels or a cleaned up scene of the manger or the like.  If you know the biblical backstory, this scene—certainly a Christmas one or we wouldn’t have read it this morning on the Second Sunday after Christmas—reminds us of the darkness in the story.  Of Herod’s intense anger.  Of fear.

Melissa and I were married 18 years ago this past week.  Even though we weren’t Episcopalians or at a liturgical church at the time, we wanted readings from Scripture that reflected the Christmas season, and in working with the minister who presided at our wedding, Harold Bussell, we selected this text.  Our dear friend who was to read it asked us a few times if she had the correct verses.  Were we sure we wanted this lesson—including the bit about what Herod did to the baby boys back in Bethlehem that was conveniently left out by our lectionary committee—to be read on such a happy occasion?  We simply assured her that we did.

We got a fabulous sermon on our wedding from Harold, assuring us that even though weddings brought great joy like Christmas, we would not escape difficult times.  The vows we made on that day would mean that we would be in it together no matter what came, that we would be with one another.  While I wish I could say that we’ve only had Hallmark card experiences during these past many years, I would simply be lying to you and also to myself.  We’ve been to Egypt and back on more than one occasion, but we’ve been with each other through it all. And God has been with us too.

rest2So this painting draws me in when I see it.  It holds my gaze and I remember my wedding and the years since that time and the true meaning of Christmas.  Writer, Kate Benedict, reflecting on this painting penned these words:

“The child Jesus gives off the painting’s only light, and the eye finds that light automatically, following it, finally, to the blind, uplifted head of the sphinx itself. Stark, modern, terrifying, it is an extreme image, suggesting the dark night of the soul. They are experienced by anyone who quests, the dark nights when something vital in you sleeps, something feral in you starves.

“Yet the implication of the painting is a hopeful one. Merson shows us that the divine child shines whether one’s eyes are closed or open. In the depths of the dark night lies the promise of morning when, having rested, the Holy Family will wake and move on, leaving the blind sphinx of an old order behind in the dust. However unendurably a dark night plagues us, however much it keeps us from our urgent endeavors, still it may be the vital interlude when the divine child of inspiration makes itself manifest.”[1]

I mentioned those three left out verses rather obliquely.  Someone at a desk somewhere decided that they’re a bit too painful to hear during Christmas because it’s not what we want Christmastide to be about so he cut them out, but they are a part of the biblical narrative.  St. Matthew writes, “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’”

Joseph, Mary and Jesus escape under the cover of night having been warned in a dream to flee.  These other families face unspeakable horrors.  Where was God?  Why couldn’t God do something for them too?  Certainly warning them so they could band together to fight off the Romans would have been something God could have done for them.  We want the cleaned up version of this scene too.  We want the Hallmark version of the Bible.

This week a mentor sent me a link to an amazing sermon from the Rev. Dr. Samuel Wells, former Dean of Chapel at Duke and current Vicar of St. Martin’s-in-the-Field, London.  In it he describes how much we want God to do things for us.

But, he writes, “’for’ is not the way God relates to us. God does not simply set the world straight for us. God does not simply shower us with good things. God does not mount up blessings upon us and then get miserable and stroppy when we open them all up and fail to be sufficiently excited or surprised or grateful. “For” is not the heart of God.

“In some ways we wish it was. We would love God to make everything happy and surround us with perfect things. When we get cross with God, it is easy to feel that God is not keeping the divine side of the bargain—to do things “for” us now and forever.

“But God shows us something else. God speaks a rather different word. In Matthew’s gospel, the angel says to Joseph, “‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’” And then in John’s gospel, we get the summary statement of what the Christian faith means: “The Word became flesh and lived with us.” It is an unprepossessing little word, but this is the word that lies at the heart of Christmas and at the heart of the Christian faith. The word is “with.”[2]  And that word, he suggests, is the most important word of the Bible.  With.  We celebrate the birth of Emmanuel.  God with us.

In the bleak mid-winter, I wish I could say that God will solve all your problems. Or that your loved ones won’t suffer.  Or that the trouble you are facing financially or with your teen or with your parents can simply disappear if you have enough faith.  But I need only look at that painting and recognize that even Jesus’ own family faced challenges and anxiety too.  Yes, they escaped death when they made it into Egypt, but that meant living as exiles, as refugees for a few years in a place completely foreign to them with a different language and culture and foods and certainly away from friends. (Remember, in Matthew’s gospel the Magi don’t come to Bethlehem until Jesus is a toddler and he’s now at a house. Surely Mary and Joseph made connections with others there.)  And those friends may well have lost a child in Herod’s rampage.  And they have to keep changing their plans due to this trouble—they intended to return to Bethlehem yet they are sent to Nazareth instead.

But God is with us.  In Egypt.  And back in Bethlehem.  And in Framingham and Marlborough and Southborough, too.  And we are called to be with people too.  Not to try and fix all their problems—we can’t—or to hope that a donation will change everything for them—it won’t.  Rather we live into Christmas by being with them, by working with others, so that they are not isolated in this life, even and especially if it means simply being present with them.

I close with a poem by civil rights leader and theologian Dr. Howard Thurman titled, “The Work of Christmas.”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

 


[1] Kate Benedict, “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” http://www.katebenedict.com/RestOnTheFlight.htm Accessed 1/2/14.

[2] Samuel Wells, “Rethinking Service.” http://thecresset.org/2013/Easter/Wells_E2013.html  Accessed on January 2, 2014.

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31Christmas2

 

wonderfullifeIt’s a Wonderful Life” holds a special place in my heart. It’s one of the rare Christmas films that I watch every Christmas, often on Christmas Eve in between church services (although, if I’m tired, “A Christmas Story” gets popped in to the BlueRay player so I can stay awake).

George Bailey, played wonderfully by Jimmy Stewart, begins the movie in serious trouble.  Or at least we’re told that by the angels in heaven (on what appears to be a heavenly intercom).  Clarence, an Angel Second Class, is assigned to help George out as he seriously contemplates suicide on Christmas Eve.  But before he can intervene, Clarence (and we movie-watchers) need George’s backstory.

George spent his whole life in Bedford Falls.  We see him save his brother, Harry, from the icy waters of the local river even though it cost him the hearing in one ear.  We watch as he helps Mr. Gower, the local pharmacist, realize he put poison in a prescription accidentally.

George has given his life to Bedford Falls and his family’s business, the Building and Loan.  All the while Mr. Potter—the bad guy and local banker who owns everything except the Building and Loan—tries to ruin both George’s dad and the business.  All George wants is to leave home and explore the world.  After his father’s sudden death, he gets roped in to running the business, and he falls in love with Mary, who has known she would marry George from an early age. Just as they are about to leave on their honeymoon, the market crashes and there’s a run on the bank. People want their cash.  George and Mary forego their trip abroad in order to save the Building and Loan.

It all comes down to a Christmas Eve when forgetful Uncle Billy, who has worked at the business forever, accidentally wraps a substantial cash deposit in a newspaper and inadvertently hands it over to Mr. Potter.  Potter is too evil to even consider handing it back.  Oh yeah, there’s a bank examiner there to check the B&L’s books. George—on one of the happiest days of his life, his brother has just received the Congressional Medal of Honor—sees his life floating away. He’s angry with Mary and their four kids. He storms off, gets into a crash and nearly commits suicide by jumping from the bridge. But it’s Clarence who jumps and George saves him.

George with Clarence’s help sees what life would be like if he had never been around. It’s quite heartbreaking to see, but it leads to a wonderful finale.

I knew this film would get my highest rating before I watched it again. I’m even more sure of it now.

5stars

 

If you’ve never seen this film, you absolutely must.  A Christmas classic forever!

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31Christmas2

 

MuppetWith 50 some version out there, I was bound to see more than one version of Dickens’ classic. “The Muppet Christmas Carol” hadn’t been in my original list, but I needed to improvise due to big screen films I wanted to see that didn’t come to Boston.  So a friend gave us her copy of this great film, and we sat down and watched it as a family again (we saw it once before).

You know the players, Scrooge (played expertly by Michael Caine), Bob Cratchit (Kermit), and others.  The Great Gonzo tells the story by playing Dickens’ himself, and in typical Muppet fashion there are songs interspersed throughout the film that move the plot and give out some great laughs as well.  Like Waldorf and Statler both coming back as Marley (and Marley’s brother) who were partners with Scrooge and sing “We’re Marley and Marley” which we’ve been repeating for the past few days.

This is easily the most accessible version of A Christmas Carol I’ve seen (I’ve not seen Mr. Magoo or the recent Jim Carey version (still on tap)).  It blends the seriousness of the story—Scrooge is just really bad and the townspeople sing about how bad he is—with the joy brought about through the Muppets.  It follows the story pretty closely, Scrooge’s apprenticeship with “Fozziewig,” the three ghosts, his nephew, Fred and all the rest.  And his transformation is truly wonderful to behold.

This toe-tapping, joyful film hits it out of the park:

5stars

 

A real treat on the true meaning of Christmas.  If you haven’t seen this version, you really should!

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31Christmas2

loveactually“Love Actually” won the distinct honor of being the top vote getter in my reader poll.  I had never seen it, and frankly didn’t remember even seeing the trailer. But so many folks told me it was their favorite film and I just had to see it.

The story takes place in London near Christmas and begins with a voiceover from Hugh Grant (later we learn he’s the Prime Minister) about the arrivals gate at Heathrow. He says that unlike the stories we hear about, love is the main thing here. Between moms and daughters and new couples and old couples and everything in between.  “If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.”

And so it goes. This film is one of those multi-faceted story-lines that interweave with one another from time to time. There is the single Prime Minister (recently elected) who shows up at No. 10 Downing only to fall for a new house worker there. Or his sister, Karen (played by Emma Thompson) who is entering the middle age of her life and her husband, Harry,  looks to inject a bit more love into it with a lovely new necklace for Christmas, or so she wrongly thinks. It’s actually for a co-worker of his whose quite flirtatious.

Another woman at his work place, Sarah, is encourage to pursue her obvious love for the creative director named Karl.  Sarah finally musters up the courage and goes for it.  After they go out, we learn she has a brother who is mentally ill and constantly calls her, and she always answers the phone, killing any possible relationship with Karl.

And so it goes.  There’s the recent widower who attempts to help his step-son discover true love for the first time.  And the couple who meet working as porn body doubles together (yeah, I’m glad I didn’t watch this with a parishioner).  Also the 50-something rocker who gives the films its featured song (a butchered remake of a hit for Christmas). And a newly married couple with the best man who seems to have eyes for the groom (or so we think).  Also the writer who finds a love oversees.  I’m sure I’m missing one or two of the stories.

I liked the premise, thought it could have done without some of the nudity, and certainly there were too many plots to follow.  Yes, love actually shows up in the strangest of places, and yes, it’s not a Christmas film obsessed with stuff.  But I wanted more meaning at times other than just a couple hooking up.  Maybe I expect too much.

So, actually, I give this film my middle of the road rating:

3stars

 

I can see why so many love it.  I won’t be joining them though. Once was enough for me.

 

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31Christmas2

shop“The Shop Around the Corner” is destined to be a family favorite.  I knew this going in having seen the modern take “You’ve Got Mail” over a hundred time with my wife Melissa. (Seriously, it’s her favorite film of all time.) And then I found out Jimmy Stewart starred in it, and I was sold.

Stewart plays bachelor Alfred Kralik who is the best salesman at the Matuschek and Company in Budapest and owned by Hugo Matuschek.  Alfred is Hugo’s confidant and has excellent advice.  Enter Klara, who has previously worked as a salesperson and desperately wants a job.  She sells a cigarette music box to a woman and convinces Hugo to both hire her and buy a huge supply of the boxes.

Along the way we learn Alfred is having a pen pal romance with a woman he’s never met. He’s deeply in love.  And he’s antagonistic with Klara who seems to be making inroads with the boss, and rubs Alfred the wrong way.

Of course Klara’s the mysterious pen pal.  Alfred doesn’t learn this until the day he’s fired (as he’s fallen out with Hugo, he gets more and more frustrated until finally Hugo lets him go) when he’s supposed to meet his pen pal in a cafe.  When he realizes it’s Klara from the shop around the corner, well, he has to come to terms with his mixed emotions.  He both loves her—the part of her that sent the wonderful letters—and loathes her—the part that was in competition with him at work.

Alfred comes back to work soon after—Hugo realizes he made a huge mistake in firing him—and Alfred softens toward Klara.  He woos here all along while keeping the pen pal writing up and not letting on that he’s really the mysterious friend.

The action all takes place during the lead up to Christmas, and the final scenes take place on Christmas Eve.  There is some talk of love and connection and reconciliation, although more could have been done with that.

I’m giving it 3 Bethlehem Stars (it could have done more with the Christmas themes), while also recognizing that it’ll be one I watch again and again.

3stars

 

 

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31Christmas2

frozen“Frozen”—the new animated film from Disney—didn’t make it on my original list of films to watch.  I didn’t see any of the three recent releases, however, and felt like I needed to see one film on the big screen (two of the three never made it in wide release nearby, and the other failed at the box office so left before I could see it).  So, it’s technically not a “Christmas” film although it is a winter film, and is destined to be holiday classic.

The film is based on Hans Christian Anderson’s tale “The Snow Queen” and tells the story of two princess sisters, Anna and Elsa. Elsa, the older, possess the ability to freeze the things she touches or to create snow and ice out of thin air. Elsa and Anna play one night, making a snowman and sledding around, but Elsa loses her balance and “zaps” Anna with a freeze to the head, knocking her out.  Her parents rush in and make their way off to some distant helpers who bring Anna back around.  However, they are warned, if Elsa had hit her sister’s heart instead of her head, they wouldn’t be able to save he as easily. (Yes, kids, this is called “foreshadowing.”)

Their parents lock Elsa up—and lock up the gates to the kingdom—trying to help her control her feelings so she doesn’t freeze everything she touches. It gets worse as she gets older, and we see Anna longing to see Elsa again because they used to have so much fun together.  They eventually become teens, and mom and dad head off for a long trip over the water. This is Disney, of course, so the kids are orphaned.

frozen2Which gets us to the main plot of the story, Elsa is to be crowned queen.  The gates to the kingdom have to be opened.  With people flooding in, Anna meets the man of her dreams—a bloke named Hans who is number 13 in line for his kingdom—who asks for her hand. Elsa, after being crowned, refuses to give her blessing and in the action that follows allows her anger to get the better of her creating winter in the dead of summer.  Elsa flees, and Anna pursues figuring Elsa would never hurt her, giving control of the kingdom to Hans.

Along the way Anna meets Kristoff and his reindeer Sven, and they run into Olaf, a snowman.

I hate spoilers, so I’m not going to say anything else.  Disney surprises in this film, which is great.

Even though no Christmas tree or manger was in sight, this one gets:

4stars

You should see this one in the theater if you have the chance this Christmas season.  And I suspect it will be a Christmas favorite for years to come, and I know it will be in our house.

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31Christmas2

noangelsI had never even heard of “We’re No Angels” prior to looking for Christmas Films online, and it kept turning up in my searches. It’s a 1955 comedy starring Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov and Aldo Ray who escape from the prison on Devil’s Island, a penal colony off the coast of French Guiana.  Their escape happens at Christmas time, and they hope to steal money from an unsuspecting family in the civilian area of the island (a fabrication). So they pose as workers and soon find a store clerk willing to hire them.

They claim they can fix the roof which is in need of repairs, but of course they intend to use their vantage point to case the place so they can get cash and new clothes and finally leave the island.  But the family running the store—the beautiful daughter Amelie and parents Felix and Isabelle—prove much too kind and completely broke  so the crooks can’t bring themselves to harming them in anyway.  It’s Christmas Eve, and the crooks are given a wonderful meal and the joy of the season by the family.

WereNoAngels2Enter the villains, Andre Tochard and his son Paul. Tochard owns the place, and is a distant cousin of the family.  It’s all about the money for him, and he can’t wait to get his hands on the books to see how things are going, even though it’s Christmas Eve.  The family wasn’t expecting them for a few days, so they have to rush around to get rooms ready for these two, and as we go along the three crooks see they have found their targets.  Andre and Paul don’t care at all for the family—although Paul is to marry Amelie—and Bogart and pals want to help make the family’s situation better in any way they can.

It’s a comedy to be sure, and I laughed quite a few times. Bogart is spot on, and the plot is great.  And through it the message of Christmas does come in to play—the crooks can’t take money from the poor and kind family, but they’ll attempt to do so from the wealthy Tochards. There’s a focus on the feasting and being together.  And no, the crooks aren’t really angels—or maybe they are—I’ll let you decide at the end.

I’m giving this one:

4stars

 

More of the message of Christmas came through than I expected!  If you haven’t seen this Christmas Classic, you really should!

 

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Christmas Eve 2013

christmaseve“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”  And so begins the Nativity story from St. Luke, reminding us of the powerful people at the time of Jesus’ birth. Augustus and Quirinius and others just like them called the shots in that area of Palestine, or so they thought.  With the sound of their voices and a stroke of the pen, they could make thousands of people move about like pawns on a chessboard.  Joseph and a very pregnant Mary did as they were commanded, traveling from Galilee to Bethlehem because of Joseph’s heritage.

None of the powerful ones asked if it inconvenienced Joseph or Mary to make the 80 mile journey or so.  It didn’t even cross their minds, or if it did, it would have been with evil delight.  So traveled they did, and arrived in Bethlehem to find it full up.  No guest rooms could be found even among the relatives. Finally someone offered them space by the animals—we’re not told if it happened to be a stable or a barn or even a cave.  Simply that the manger would double as a bassinet after Mary gave birth to Jesus.

Which she did, of course.  “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  And she gave birth to her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.”

The action moves immediately to an angel messenger.  But, as Lutheran Bishop Craig Satterlee put it, Luke’s narrative turns completely away from the powerful.  While you’d expect a heavenly messenger to by-pass the officials of the Empire, you might expect the angel to go and find the clergy.  But “the angel’s announcement of the fulfillment of prophecy goes not to the Temple but to shepherds living in the fields.”[1]

Shepherds were not trustworthy people and had little to no standing in the community.  Their testimony wouldn’t hold up in court, and due to the constant moving of their herds, lived a vagrant life.  But the messenger of the almighty appears to them in the fields of Bethlehem rather than going to the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem a mere 5 miles away.

Which makes good Bishop Satterlee suggest this:  “If we want to experience the newborn Christ, and we take Luke’s account seriously, the last place to be on Christmas Eve is in church, because Jesus is being born where people need him most.”[2]

Now before we start saying this is exactly the reason we’re Episcopalians and not Lutherans, let me unpack that a bit.  On this most holy of nights, we pull out all the stops.  We get dressed up in our fancy clothes and light all the candles in this church and decorate this place with dozens of poinsettias.  We’ll hear exquisite music and will kneel once again to sing “Silent Night” as the lights are dimmed.  And we do all this to celebrate Christ’s nativity together.  This place is wonderfully resplendent and I am very grateful for all of this and the hours it took to make this festival Eucharist so memorable.

And yet I cannot help but think of the other places I’ve been this Advent season with parishioners.  I’ve had the privilege of serving turkey soup to some three hundred homeless people in Boston at the St. Francis Center.  I took communion to parishioners who are unable to get past the four walls of their homes due to their physical health.  A group of us visited with seven young men in the lock up in Westborough who desperately want to be anywhere other than where they are at and long to have a mother’s home cooked meal.  This past Sunday a band of carolers and saxophonists made their way to a nursing home to bring joy to the elderly who need to live in a 24 hour care facility due to their poor mental or physical help.

In all of those places, Jesus is so desperately needed.

As I stand before you in splendid array tonight, I know I’ll spend a mere 3 minutes outside in the cold as I return to my cozy home.  Before bed, I’ll look excitedly at our glorious tree which has more than enough presents underneath it and give thanks for all my blessings.  And I know with certainty that if Christ chose to be born once more on this night, my house would not make the short list of places for the angel to visit.  I live in Jerusalem and work at the temple.  The angel would head to Worcester or Lawrence or to  the family just barely scrapping by or the houseful of immigrants or the nursing home or the prison or to the guys sleeping under the overpass just trying to make it one more night.

I’ve been watching Christmas films as an Advent practice this year.  What has interested me most of all is if Hollywood gets it, if the true message of Christmas can be found in feature length Christmas films (and yes, I’ve found that to be the case more often than not).  I started out the weekend of Thanksgiving with “The Bishop’s Wife,” an old classic staring Carey Grant as an angel named Dudley sent to answer the prayers of a new episcopal bishop and his wife.  As a friend once said, if you’re going to have an angel show up to answer your prayers, who wouldn’t want him to look like Carey Grant.

The bishop is in the thick of a capital campaign, trying to raise millions in order to build a new cathedral.  He is constantly seen in despair as he loses his very soul over the project, in addition to losing his connection with his wife and daughter who are being sacrificed on the altar of his work.  Dudley attempts to lead him toward peace, but as the bishop gets closer and closer to Christmas Eve, he feels it all slipping away.

As the good bishop walks up to the pulpit on that Christmas Eve, he find not the sermon he wrote, but one that Dudley crafted for him.  Listen to his words:

“Tonight I want to tell you the story of an empty stocking. Once upon a midnight clear, there was a child’s cry. A blazing star hung over a stable and wise men came with birthday gifts. We haven’t forgotten that night down the centuries; we celebrate it with stars on Christmas trees, the sound of bells and with gifts. But especially with gifts. You give me a book; I give you a tie. Aunt Martha has always wanted an orange squeezer, and Uncle Henry could do with a new pipe. We forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled – all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It’s his birthday we are celebrating. Don’t ever let us forget that. Let us ask ourselves what he would wish for most, and then let each put in his share. Loving kindness, warm hearts and the stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.”

In just a few hours, some 50 kids will be opening up gifts given by all of you even though you’ve never met them.  Extravagant gifts of love and joy bought after you chose a gift card from our giving tree.  Games and stuffed monkeys and winter coats and gloves.  Pajamas and graphic tees. The gift of Christ will be visited upon those homes.  And in a few months, a village somewhere in the Third World will get clean water in the first time in God knows how long due to our Sunday open plate offerings.  And those boys in lockup will be visited again in February, and a meal will be served to the homeless at St. Francis House this coming Sunday.  And we’ll reach out to those whose lives are turned upside down.  All of it is spreading the message of Christmas to those who need it so profoundly.

Maybe this isn’t such a bad place to be on Christmas Eve after all, as we too need the overwhelming love of the Christ child. On this most holy and silent of nights, the cry of newborn can be heard and with it comes good news for all people.  The news is carried on the wings of angels who fan out to the most unlikely of places.  We need this message of hope in the desolate places of our hearts, the places we rarely go for fear of what we might find there.  The good news can penetrate even the darkest places of our own lives, flooding us with the magnificent light of God’s love shown in the humble birth of Jesus the Christ.

May these 12 days bring you peace, and with it goodwill to all, as you share the love of Christ with those who live in the desolate places of our world and those who live in the desolate places of their own lives.   May Christ’s light pierce the darkness so that all people may know the joy of Christmas, and may God use us as holy messengers to share that joy.  Merry Christmas!  Amen.

 


[1] “Commentary on Luke 2:1-14, from Working Preacher.com (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1522) Accessed Dec 20, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

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