Sermons by Katherine Ragsdale

Occasional Sermons by Episcopal priest, Katherine Hancock Ragsdale.

Location: Massachusetts

you can always google me at "Katherine Ragsdale" OR "Katherine Hancock Ragsdale"

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Baptized Into the Fullness of Life

Katherine Ragsdale

In just a few minutes we’re going to go over to that font and Baptize this child into the life and death of Jesus Christ. We’re going to pledge, on her behalf, to “renounce all sinful desires that draw us from the love of God;*” to “persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever (we) fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord;” to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ;” to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving (our) neighbors as (our)self;” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” We’re going to promise to teach her to model her life on the example of Jesus of Nazareth.

So the question I have for you is … Why would we want to do such a thing to this perfectly lovely baby, to this infant who has never done anything to us? You do remember what happened to this Jesus whom we’re pledging her to follow? He was killed – rejected by the religious authorities and executed by the State as a threat to the established order. All that striving for justice and respecting the dignity of every human being was wreaking havoc on the social policies and traditions of the age. And the folks in charge were having none of it. For the most part they still aren’t. They killed Jesus and a good number of his followers, and they’ve never stopped. The faces have changed, as have the methods and the excuses. All too often it’s those who call themselves followers of Jesus and purport to be defending the faith who are doing the killing, or at least, cheering on those who do. But the fact remains, those who truly work for justice for all people; who insist on standing up to the powers that oppress the children of God; who refuse to compromise their integrity or hide either their talents or their passionate indignation are too often killed – by governments, assassins, or the inexorable toll of poverty and marginalization. Never to turn back from the path Jesus mapped can land us into some dangerous places.

Even should this child we love manage to find a less dangerous route, we have still promised to do everything in our power to deny her the contemporary version of the good life. Not for her this season’s American dream – the self-absorbed search for endless self-gratification; the quest for beauty and power and money enough to satisfy every appetite; the cult of celebrity bought at the expense of the loser class. No, if we are successful in fulfilling the promises we are about to make, the vows we are about to take before God and one another, this child will be denied, will deny herself, everything that modern culture has taught us defines success.

Why would we deny her that? Because we want for her so very much more.

We have learned, from our sacred texts; from our forebears and teachers; perhaps from our own experience, we have learned that money and prestige and power and beauty and celebrity and things can never assuage our deepest fears or sate our greatest hungers. They may sometimes bring pleasure but the pleasure is fleeting and never fully satisfies. We want more than that for this child. We want this child to have the rich, full, deep life that, paradoxically, can never be reached through the unrelenting attention to self-fulfillment that television and ad agencies preach from their bully pulpits.

Many years ago I had a dream. I still think of it as a dream about my vocation to the ministry. In this dream I, along with many other travelers, was invited into a grand castle. We were tired and hungry and our beautiful host invited us into a huge formal dining room. A wide table ran the length of the room, piled high with every food one could imagine. Heaping platters of roasted meats, bright vegetables swimming in exquisite sauces, vast bowls of dew-bespeckled fruits ready to burst their skins with ripeness covered the full length and breadth of the table. The aromas alone made us weak-kneed with desire. Our host smiled and urged us to eat to our hearts’ content. There was, she assured us, no end to the banquet before us. Her servants would replenish the feast as quickly as we could eat it. No platter, bowl, or goblet would ever become empty.

And suddenly I knew – this was not real food. It was merely an illusion. It had no substance to nourish us nor would it ever ease our hunger. Quite the contrary. We were so very hungry and this mock food looked like it should satisfy and delight us. If we began to eat it, its inability to truly feed us would make us hungrier still. With each bite we took we would become more desperate for sustenance and would crave the feast that appeared to be before us even more. We would seize more and more, quickly becoming captives at the table, unable to stop desperately ingesting the illusion that then left us hungrier, and more desperate, with each bite. Eventually we would starve – waste away and die – having spent the balance of our lives in this devil’s playground with all our energies devoted to ingesting that which could never bring us life or joy or satisfaction.

My job, in this dream, was to stop us before we took that first bite and became trapped, unable to pull ourselves away from the fake castle and its table, unable to return to the less glamorous, but ever so much more substantial and sustaining, real world. Our job, which we take on this day, is to teach this child the difference between illusions that will destroy the good within her and things of substance upon which she can build a life worthy of her talents and her passion.

Here is what we have come to know. A life devoted merely to self-gratification, to sating our appetites, to the endless search for pleasure, will never satisfy the deep hunger within. And the more we devote ourselves to such a quest the smaller we become as we struggle to deform ourselves into creatures petty enough to be so easily satisfied. We were created to be more than that. We were created to be big … vast … infinite. We were created to be one with God, the force that creates and animates and sustains all that is, seen and unseen, known and yet to be discovered. We were created to know, and fall daily deeper in love with, the wondrous grandeur and complexity of the whole created order. We were created to take our part in the care and keeping and unfolding of that creation, to play our part in a holy task that began before history and will continue beyond the scope of our imagining.

We come today to Baptize this child, beloved of God and us, into the fullness of life. We come to begin the life-long process of reminding her that someone as gifted and precious as she can never be reduced to mere appetite and ambition – and neither can any other of the children of God, gifted and precious in their own right. We come to begin teaching her that she matters and what she does matters, that every choice she makes shapes the world for better or for worse. Every time she meets the world with greed or jealousy or malice she will make the world that much meaner a place. Every time she embraces the world with integrity, love, respect, and peace she will make the world that much more holy a place. We come to remind her that she is a part of creation, intricately and intimately linked to everyone and everything that is. We come to encourage her to spend her life exploring and enhancing those connections.

We come to remind her that she has it within her to walk a path of holiness and righteousness and we come to pledge her our support. We ask her to do this not because it will make her life easier, for it is unlikely that it will. Probably it will make her life far more difficult than it would be if she chose a more self-absorbed path … a smaller path. The path of holiness and righteousness may someday get her killed, it will certainly bring her hardships, but it will assuredly make her whole. In knowing and embracing her connection to the whole of creation she will become big: bigger than any solitary soul has it within itself to be; big enough to be God’s own partner in the on-going creation of all that is; big enough to know a peace and joy and fullness of life that simply is not available to the self-referential, that cannot be contained by those who have made themselves small.

We come to Baptize her into the fullness of life.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Interfaith Pride Service, 6/14/03

Interfaith Pride Service
Boston, MA
June 14, 2003
Katherine Ragsdale

First, I’d like to thank you for the invitation to speak to you today. It is good to be here. I’ve just returned from a week in Washington – a week spent addressing a variety of peace and justice issues. And I need to say a word about that, because, if I don’t make an effort to de-compartmentalize, to integrate, my life, I spin out into a fragmented mess – and it’s not pretty. But I promise, if you’ll bear with me, I’ll bring us back home quickly.

So, first, there was a 2-day roundtable of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian religious leaders—discussing the meaning of peace in today’s world and the conditions in the Middle East (and here at home) that might make peace possible. Only one person stormed out of the room, too angry, and, perhaps, too frightened to continue the conversation. That’s one too many, but, still, given the circumstances, not bad. For the most part, the group was able to embody the peace we yearn for.

Then there was a press conference by leaders of the women’s movement outlining some of the losses of freedom and dignity suffered lately and some of our plans to combat that. Let me tell you now – put April 25, 2004 on your calendars for a March on Washington for Women’s Rights – particularly reproductive rights.

Then we had a women’s leadership summit tracing the perils and oppression faced by women at home and across the globe and highlighting some of the ways governments, businesses, the entertainment industry, and activists are trying to respond to these challenges.

And finally, more informally, there was another of those exchanges where a gay man was arguing for our rights on the grounds that we can’t help being gay – the old take pity, have mercy, argument. You know, the one that concludes with a plaintive – who would choose this?

Let me answer that with three words:

Me! Me! Me!

In a New York minute! Me!

I can only hope that my straight sisters and brothers are as happy with their place in the sexual orientation continuum as I am with mine. But, alas, the conversation would not be de-railed; it continued with more insistences that we must be tolerated since we have no choice – the underlying assumption being that if we did have a choice we would, and should, choose to change.

So – war, poverty, religious disputes, politics, freedom, civil rights, gender, sexuality … it was a long week. And, frankly, I can’t quite decide whether to be energized and impassioned that there is so much good work for us to do and so many amazing people with whom to do it, or to be overwhelmed and depressed because there is so much important work to be done and, even with so many talented, passionate people working so hard, the end is nowhere in sight.

Energy, passion, depression, despair – and let’s not even get into frustration, righteous indignation, and outrage. I suspect that this cauldron of emotions is not some odd shortcoming peculiar to me. Perhaps you, too, know all these feelings. Perhaps they play tug of war with your psyche, heart, and spirit, as well. And perhaps, you, like me, find that, given the free reign of benign neglect, in this world of so many injustices and so much violence, the emotional balance seems, more often than not, to tip toward frustration and despair.

Actually, I think it speaks well of us that we look at the world and, even from the positions of privilege and comfort most of us inhabit, we notice the wrongs of this world and they matter to us. I pray that we may never become blind to the injustices that surround us – never cease to notice – never cease to care.

But -- but...

Even as we commit ourselves to noticing and caring about those things that require and deserve our attention – things we have to, have to, fix – let us not make the mistake of noticing only those things. Let’s never allow ourselves to become so focused on the work yet to be done that we neglect to notice and celebrate our successes and our blessings.

This, too is human, I think – this tendency to hyper-focus on the work ahead and miss the bigger and more complex, nuanced, and deeply textured picture. But it’s a dangerous tendency – for all too often it leaves us discouraged. Dis –couraged. And to be dis-couraged makes me useless and it erodes my soul’s health. I suspect the same is true for you.

So, let’s try to resist that temptation to narrow in only on the job ahead am try to look at the whole picture for a moment.

It is true that there is plenty of important work ahead. The NGLTF reports that fully 1/3 of lgbt college students experience harassment. We know that there are far too many schools and families where it is not safe for teens to reveal or explore their sexual orientation. We know only too well the benefits that are denied to too many of us because we can’t get legally married. Personal and professional frustrations, roadblocks, and even dangers, persist for all too many of us or our sisters and brothers. There is work to be done.

But, sisters and brothers, just in case you haven’t noticed, let me make this very clear – the work that remains to be done? We do it as victors. We know the outcome of this struggle. We have already won.

Listen to this:

88% of Americans support equal opportunity in the workplace. (Only a generation ago I’m not sure 88% of Americans knew we existed and, of those who did, I’m not sure 88% would have supported our right to live – much less to be given equal opportunities)

Today, 75% of Democratic voters, 70% of Independents, and 56% of Republican voters supported sexual-orientation non-discrimination laws.

Only 40% of the public supports our freedom to marry (still – 40%!) but 73% believe we should have inheritance rights and 68% think we should get Social Security survivors’ benefits.

96% think HIV and STDs should be covered in sex-ed in the schools.

Today, any day of the week, a child anywhere in this country can turn on the television and find images of happy, healthy gay people. Doctors, lawyers, sports and entertainment figures, parents, grandparents, members of Congress or the clergy … on television, in the movies, in the newspapers, in our communities, any child in America can find evidence – reason to hope – that they, too, can grow up to lead a happy, fulfilled life, no matter what their sexual orientation.

This was certainly not true 30 years ago when I was a teen who didn’t even have the vocabulary to conceptualize why I didn’t fit in. This is huge. Every gay child has access to signs of hope. And every straight child has exposure to the idea that other sexual orientations are simply other ways of being – or, as my then 10 year old nephew explained to his 6 year old brother, “of course women can marry women and men can marry men. It’s really no big deal.”

We have changed the world and there is no going back. As you have Acted Up in the streets and cared for one another in your homes through those early, devastating years of the AIDS crisis, our community set a new standard for compassion and commitment; as we came out of our closets and faced down the bashers and oppressors, we added a new category to the list of the courageous; as we raised our children, adopted others, claimed our alliances, named our loves, we have changed the meaning of the word family. And every family in America (even the 17% of them that follow the old Ozzie and Harriet model) every family in America has been enriched by this broader definition.

The world has been changed in profound – awesome – ways. And we have played a part – a large part – in making that happen. Gay pride? You better believe it!

Yes, we still have work to do. There are laws yet to be passed, kids yet to be saved, opportunities yet to be opened up and explored. And, as long as we’re broadening our vision, let’s remember what God told the children of Abraham:

You must never take advantage of a stranger, for you know what it is to be a stranger. You, whom God has set free from bondage and need, must never ignore the bondage or need of another. You who have been so richly blessed must share your blessings with those in want.

Sisters and brothers, the conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East; the rise of poverty and the loss of hope here at home; the loss of civil liberties, freedom, choice, and opportunity – we are not free to ignore these either. We who know what it is to be marginalized, denied opportunity and hope, denied basic human rights, denied safety; we who know these things and yet have been so richly blessed, are not free to ignore the plight of others.

We have work to do – but we have powerful tools with which to do it. We have the communities and alliances we have built over the years, we have our passion and our vision, we have the things we’ve learned.

Let me just highlight a couple of those things –

1) We have learned not to give in to the temptation to be dis-couraged. We have learned not to be afraid.
Fear undoes us –
It renders us useless
It erodes our souls
And it is a faithless an ungrateful response from those who believe that we are never abandoned to the fray, never left alone, unaided or uncomforted – from those who have been carried so very far already.

2) We have learned that you cannot sustain a movement, or a spirit, on opposition – to anything, no matter how worthy of opposition it may be. Movements and spirits are sustained by vision – by what we are for not what we are against. As we march, today and every day, we march not primarily away from all that is wrong but toward all that is good and true and honorable and just. Yes, there may be, will be, skirmishes along the way, but they are incidental. They are not the point.

The vision is the point. We march and we fight and we persevere because we yearn for a world where every human being grows up safe and loved, where her dignity is respected and his particularity is celebrated. We dream of a world where everyone understands that the God who created us loves us -- and where true love is, God’s own self is there.

3) We have learned that Gandhi was right – you must become the change you wish to see. We will achieve our vision not by hiding and hating but by loving and celebrating. The world we dream of – a world free from fear – can be ushered in only by our own fearlessness. A world of rich diversity, beauty, love can only be achieved by our own refusal to be seduced by despair, our own refusal to live small, to be less than we were created to be. We win the ability to love only by loving – with powerful, extravagant abandon.

4) We have learned that we can afford to live like that. For the victory is already ours. And our adversaries would do well to remember the words of Gamaliel, a Pharisee and elder of the land who warned those who wanted to eliminate the followers of Jesus. Be careful, Gamaliel said. If this is of man alone it will surely fade of its own accord. But if it is of God nothing you can do will stop it – and you might even find yourself to be working against God’s own self.

We know where God is in this. We know it deep in our hearts – in our very marrow. And we see the evidence. The world has already changed – more profoundly than we could reasonably have hoped. Surely it is God who saves us – we shall not be afraid.

Yes, there is work to be done and, as people who have been so richly blessed, we are not free to shirk or disengage. We must press on – but we do so secure in the knowledge that the victory is ours; the prize has been won and claimed for us already. We do so grateful and proud to be allowed to play some part in seeing God’s love for the world brought to light and fruition.

Sisters and brothers – we are blessed to be able to be a part of this. Blessed to have each other. Let us press onward, march forward, this and every day, fearlessly, with confidence and joy, with grateful hearts, and yes, with Pride.

And may God continue to bless us and those we love this and every day.


Monday, January 24, 2005

Preparing for Lent

2nd Sunday After Epiphany, Year A
Saint David’s Church, 1/16/05
Katherine Hancock Ragsdale

Well, if you think there wasn’t enough time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Today is only the second Sunday after the Epiphany, yet we have only three more Sundays before Lent. Easter is early this year and with Lent coming so quickly it seems a good idea to begin preparing – or at least to begin thinking about how we will prepare.

Before I talk about Lent, let me remind you of something we’ve discussed before – the Law. You will remember me telling you, many times, that the Ten Commandments, the Law, was God’s great gift to God’s people. It was not given so much to condemn as to point the way to Salvation. These were God’s people who wanted to know how best to love and serve the God who loved them. The Law was God’s answer. When we hear Law we hear constraint and punishment. But the Law was, to the people of Israel, not so much burden as gift and means to liberation.

Similarly, we tend to think of Lent as a time of self-denial and guilt, of suffering and flagellation. But the purpose of Lent is not to make us miserable but to make us mindful – mindful of who and Whose we are. So, whose are we? Who is the one to whom we belong and whom we are expected to follow?

John asked a similar question in a recent Gospel reading. He heard about Jesus and sent his followers to ask, “Are you the one for whom we have been waiting or shall we keep looking?” And how did Jesus reply? He said, “Go back and tell John what you have seen. The hungry are fed, the sick are healed, the lonely are visited, and prisoners are set free.” We are, it seems, to be identified not by what we believe as much as by what we do. We, who wish to follow Jesus, are to feed the hungry, visit and heal the sick, set free those who are imprisoned. We are to care for one another.

When John asked who Jesus was Jesus didn’t say, “I’ve come to end hunger, and poverty, and illness, and imprisonment, and despair.” We might wish he had done just that. We may still hope that he will. But what he said was that he was one who responded to those needs, one at a time. I think many of us, facing the magnitude of the problems of our world become paralyzed. Since we can’t fix it all we do nothing. Since we don’t know how to be Martin Luther King we assume we can be no one. But I suspect that Martin Luther King, and many who have made huge differences in the world, didn’t start with a grand plan. Like Jesus, they simply did what was before them, met the need of each moment. Which is, of course, exactly what each of us is called to do.

Now I should pause here to acknowledge what you already know – I’m more a systems than a band-aid person. I don’t believe in just patching up the individual in front of me and ignoring the systemic problems that left them in need of patching up in the first place. You’ve heard me tell the story of my friend and colleague Ntsiki who says that if a bloody body floats down the river into your village a good Christian must pull the body out and bandage it and nurse it back to health. And if another battered body floats into the village the Christian must do the same thing again and again and again. But eventually, if those bodies keep coming, the Christian must go upriver and find out who’s doing that to them and put a stop to it.

We do need to take on hunger and poverty and the myriad things that maim and imprison the bodies and spirits of our sisters and brothers. But we do it one step at a time, addressing that which washes into our lives or steps into our paths. We start by healing one sick individual or comforting one despairing person.

Yet even that can seem overwhelming. We talked about this at the Vestry meeting last week. We got to talking about what one says to someone who is grieving the death of a loved one. Some of us were saying that we are so very aware that there’s nothing we can say that will make it better. Knowing that anything we could say would be inadequate, we hesitate to speak at all. Another member told of a time when she was grieving and how much a simple, “I’m sorry for your loss” meant. She reminded us that even little, inadequate things matter. We do have it within us to do the things we are called to do. By meeting each moment as it presents itself we may well discover that we have it within us to do more than we could ever have imagined.

Did you hear what Paul said in this morning’s Epistle? Talking to the church in Corinth, Paul said, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind-- just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you-- so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” So that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift. You are not lacking in any spiritual gift. You, and you, and you ... you are not lacking.

Now the good news here is that this fear of our own inadequacy is not some modern, or personal, moral failing. Apparently this has been a problem, a part of the human condition, for at least 2000 years. The bad news is that it’s not just a modern moral failing – we are not excused from the call to action because our world is more complex and our problems at least seem bigger. People have, it seems, always tended toward paralysis in the face of problems bigger than we know how to address.

But we’re only commanded to deal with this day’s need, this individual’s pain. We’re instructed to follow the example of Jesus, one day at a time. And we’re assured that we have what it takes, already within us, to do that. We are not lacking any spiritual gift necessary to do the work we were created to do – to be God’s stewards, God’s partners, in caring for the world around us.

Lent calls us, not to dwell on and condemn ourselves for our failures, but to remember what Paul has told us – we are not lacking any spiritual gift necessary. Lent doesn’t command us to give things up or take things on for their own sake, or based on how difficult it will be to do it and how unpleasant we will find it. Lent invites us to choose a discipline that will keep us mindful of who and Whose we are. Lent encourages us to embrace a discipline that will help us to become aware of those gifts and strengths and talents within us – and to nurture and hone them. Lent hopes to seduce us into taking the time to know ourselves and our gifts so well that using those gifts in the service of God and God’s people becomes second nature to us. In Lent we are invited to become who we were created to be – who we already are – so that we, like Jesus, respond to the needs before us, no matter what their size, without thinking twice. If we do that we may find ourselves feeding one hungry person – or we may save a whole village, or change the world in ways as yet unimaginable. But we will not be paralyzed by our own doubts or fears of inadequacy. And, should anyone ever send someone to ask us, “Are you one of them, one of the followers of Jesus?” we won’t have to marshal a lengthy defense. We can simply say, “Tell him what you have seen. The hungry are fed, those who mourn are comforted….”

It is not too soon to begin planning and preparing for your Lent. Let me know if you need any help.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Tsunami Sermon

2 Christmas
Katherine Hancock Ragsdale +

Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

If you take a look at your bulletin insert, at the citation for the Gospel I just read, you’ll see something interesting. There’s a gap. Three verses in the middle of the selection are left out. We read of the angel warning Joseph to take Mary and the baby and flee the wrath of Herod. Then we read of the angel telling Joseph Herod is dead and he can bring the family back to Israel. What we skip is what happens in between, the massacre of every male baby under two years old. I don’t know why the compilers of the lectionary chose to leave that out. Maybe it’s because it’s just too horrible. The readings of this season, today’s readings, focus on the power of God, God’s grace and blessings, the joy awaiting God’s people. Perhaps it was just too hard to imagine all that rejoicing in the face of the horror of the massacre of innocents.

I can understand that feeling. I’m having the same problem myself today. I don’t know how to get into the spirit of rejoicing in God’s power that today’s lessons call us to when today’s news is still full of the horror of the tsunami. Once again babies are ripped from their mothers’ arms and sent to their death. Once again, we stand stunned at the horror. Once again, we try to rejoice for those who were spared but the horror of those who were not overwhelms us.

At times like this I am reminded how fortunate I am not to be one of those Anti-Darwinian, Creationists who are convinced that God micro-manages every moment of history. They somehow think that to acknowledge the intricacy of the natural world, the complex wonder of natural selection and evolution, the glories of the natural world doing its thing, is to diminish, rather than highlight, the awesomeness of the Creator. How, I wonder, if they are unwilling to acknowledge natural forces at work without God’s constant intervention, do they make sense of something like the tsunami?

Unfortunately, I’m afraid I know the answer. They say that God did, indeed, directly and deliberately cause this disaster. It is all, they say, God’s punishment. Already they’re preaching that God did this to punish licentious tourists reveling on the beaches when they should be in church – demeaning the Christmas season. Or, they say, it’s because some of those beaches were popular destinations for gay and lesbian tourists. God, they are saying, wiped out families, communities, villages to punish a few.

What I don’t know is how anyone could worship a God like that. If that’s the way God works then the only reason to worship Him is to spare ourselves from punishment now or in the afterlife. I have to tell you, I’d rather be damned than knuckle under to a God like that. On the other hand, I know that not everyone is quite as stubbornly oppositional as I am. Some folks might be willing to worship such a God. But, that’s not the God we meet in scripture. That’s not the God Jesus tells us about.

We’re told of the God who promised Noah that He would never again wipe us out to make a point. The prophets tell us that God comes to us as a loving suitor wanting our love in return; that God has engraved our names in the palms of Her hand and will never stop loving us. Jesus tells us that God loves us and cares for us more than the best and most devoted parent we can imagine. This is not a God who would massacre us or anyone.

Instead, we’re told of, and experience, a God who set a world in motion, a world within which nature and people can do awful things; things that God can’t, or won’t – doesn’t --stop.

So, we’re reassured that our God is not reprehensible but faced with the possibility that He’s either impotent or impassive, which leads to the question – why bother? What’s the point of a God who can’t, or doesn’t care enough to, fix things for us? To answer this perhaps it’s best to ask God. And God’s words come to us most clearly in God’s Word – Jesus, the Word made flesh. Jesus, who endured his own encounters with depravity and evil. Jesus, who escaped the slaughter of the innocents only to face the crucifixion.

Jesus, who again and again reminds us that the choices we make, the things we do or fail to do, matter. We matter. God doesn’t, it seems, follow us around like an over-bearing parent cleaning up after us as we go so that our passing becomes invisible, inconsequential. What we do matters. It has consequences in the world and it pleases, or breaks the heart of, the God who loves us. The God who loves us allows us to matter.

The message of Jesus is that we are to love God not in the hope of being pulled out of our messes but because God loves us enough to stay with us in them and to be with us on the other side. We’re to love God much as we love one another at our best – not for what we can get out of it but simply because of who She is and how we are loved in return.

God does not spare us tragedy, disaster, or even crucifixion. But somehow God does provide an unquenchable spark of hope. It’s that spark we spoke of last week even as the drama was unfolding, as yet unknown to us. Last week’s Gospel told us that God sent a light into the darkness and the darkness could not, can not, will never, overcome it.

We’ve seen a few such sparks of hope:
Japan has pledged $500 million in relief aid.
I heard on the news this morning about a brewery that has suspended its beer-making operation and is devoting all its resources to bottling water to send for relief.
The US has sent troops to aid the effort. People who give their lives to their country’s service deserve to know that they’re making the world better. The troops now doing relief work have that assurance.

In the midst of horror there are sparks of goodness and we are invited to see them and to be them – not in fear but in love.

It’s hard to know how to respond to this disaster. I know of only a few ways:
We can give generously to relief efforts and there are baskets by both doors to collect your donations which will be sent to the Episcopal Relief and Development agency.
We can pray – for those who have died, those who will die (for there will be more), those who have lost everything and everyone, and the responders who will sacrifice their own comfort, and maybe their lives, to serve others.
We can remember that this could have been us. There is no level of prosperity or power that can insulate us from disaster. These things can happen to us, too. In fact, because we are all bound one to another, this did happen to us. We can remember that.
And we can come to this altar today to receive the gift and grace of God, not only for ourselves, but in communion with all those who have died and those who live in need of grace and blessing but who are too far removed from any sight of the light to easily see or reach for them today.

We do these things, holding on to the unquenchable light of hope for those who cannot now find it, trusting that, in our own times of darkness and despair, others will do the same for us.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Christmas Eve, 2004

St. David's, Pepperell, MA
Katherine Hancock Ragsdale+

Some years it’s harder than others to get into the Christmas Spirit.

Of course, that raises the question, what is the Christmas Spirit? Is it the one depicted in all those TV specials and the commercial barrages, which accompany them? Happy families gathered together, bringing one another joy and delight through perfect and abundant gift-giving, basking in the glow of familial love?

I’ve had Christmases like that. I hope you have, too. I hope this year is like that for you. But I’ve been hearing too much, of late, from folks who are finding themselves in the midst of Blue Christmases. People who are less aware of the loved ones around them than of those not with them – dead, estranged, deployed, or simply grown up and gone away. People who find all the Christmas hype nothing more than a painful reminder of their losses and regrets – of all the pain of their lives.

Or maybe the Christmas Spirit has to do with that proclamation of Peace on Earth and our fervent desire to believe that all’s right with the world and that anything that isn’t all right is in God’s hands and not our concern—even though God has never suggested anything of the sort. But the problems are so big and complex and overwhelming that we don’t know where to begin and so we yearn to embrace a message that tells us it’s all ok. And some years we can pull it off. Other years the news is too bad and too ubiquitous to allow us that easy escape.

Or maybe the Christmas Spirit calls us to abandon sentimentality and look at the story the Bible tells. James Carroll, in his Boston Globe column, walks us through that real 1st Christmas story:

The single most important fact about the birth of Jesus, as recounted in the Gospels, is one that receives almost no emphasis in the American festival of Christmas. The child who was born in Bethlehem represented a drastic political challenge to the imperial power of Rome. The nativity story is told to make the point that Rome is the enemy of God, and in Jesus, Rome’s day is over….

The Gospel of Luke puts an even more political cast on the story. The narrative begins with the decree of Caesar Augustus calling for a world census – a creation of tax rolls that will tighten the empire’s grip on its subject peoples. It was Caesar Augustus who turned the Roman republic into a dictatorship, a power-grab he reinforced by proclaiming himself divine.

His census decree is what requires the journey of Joseph and the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem, but it also defines the context of the child’s nativity as one of political resistance. When the angel announces to shepherds that a “savior has been born,” as scholars like Richard Horsley point out, those hearing the story would immediately understand that the blasphemous claim by Caesar Augustus to be “savior of the world” was being repudiated.

When Jesus was murdered by Rome as a political criminal – crucifixion was the way such rebels were executed – the story’s beginning was fulfilled in its end.

Maybe the Christmas Spirit has to do with exploring and embracing the meaning of liberation – the revolution that these stories point to. But that, too, can be too overwhelming to face, especially knowing which roles we’d be cast in if that story were unfolding today – as, of course, it is.

Any way you look at it, there are some years in our individual or corporate lives when it’s hard to get into the Christmas Spirit.

But…But, there is a promise in these stories – a promise given to each and all of us no matter where we fall on the Christmas Spirit spectrum in any given year. We’ll hear it Sunday when the Gospel reading is from John and includes this: “A light shone in the darkness and the darkness could not quench it.” The darkness could not quench it.

These stories don’t require us, or even ask, or allow, us to deny the darkness. Darkness let loose in the world or the sins and griefs we harbor in our own hearts. We don’t have to pretend in order to claim Christmas. In fact, it’s better if we don’t. God knows all about darkness. God sends a light – unquenchable hope. Even if your own hope should, from time to time, flicker and die, it can always be relit from that never dying hope born again this day.

But what do we hope for? Well, how about Love and Joy and Peace – for miracles. Not big, cataclysmic, turn nature on its ear, miracles. But those everyday unfathomables that turn our lives upside down and thereby empower us to become who we were meant to be and to do the work God has given us to do in God’s world.

Falling in love… and being loved in return. Being really seen, really known, by another human being, and, somehow, finding that more comforting than terrifying. Staying in love – even though that person has hurt and infuriated you more than anyone else ever has – or ever could – many times – and will again. Love makes no sense and yet in it we are reborn. It’s a miracle.

Or the birth of a baby. Out of next to nothing grows this new life, and that tiny little creature changes everything. And, more often than not, you’re glad of it. It’s a miracle.
Every day of our lives is full of miracles; and why should we, who rely on miracles, ever give up hope?

Very soon, this baby whose birth we celebrate tonight is going to grow into a revolutionary, preaching a new way and calling us to practice that new way. We are called to be God’s agents of Peace and Justice and Love and Joy. Tonight, though, we’re invited to pause, to take note of the light, to take note of the miracles, to take note of the joy and love that surround us and to be sustained by them, to prepare ourselves to accept, expect, and work miracles.

And how do we do that?

First, by opening ourselves to Love – God’s Love for us – the Love we’re instructed to bring into the world and to let guide all our decisions and all our actions. At Christmas, the birth of a baby points the way to that Love, for babies teach us about Love and about God. You know, we don’t just love babies; we adore them. We love them with senseless extravagance – even when they cry all night and spit up all day. We love them.

At Christmas, the birth of this baby reminds us that this is how God loves us – and how we are invited to love one another. We are encouraged to embrace the miracle of unconditional, unreasonable Love. We are invited to adore one another – even when we whine all night and throw tantrums all day – even when our behavior makes us pretty unlovable.

And I have a suspicion that, if we can love one another with that kind of abandon, we’ll be able to let go of some of our fears, insecurities, and defensive aggression and become, in fact, considerably more loveable.

We adore babies not because of what they do but simply because they are. How much more ought we to adore one another – who have suffered so much, learned so much, done so much. The people sitting in this room with you are adored by God. Look at them; there is so much there to love, adore, and wonder at.

Come, let us adore the babe in the manger, yes. But let that miracle inspire us to unashamedly, unreservedly love one another and be strengthened by the miracle of Love, given and received. Strengthened not to blind ourselves to the darkness but rather to face it, head on, and, holding on to that flame of hope, to light yet more candles – to do the work given us to do. To fight in every way we can imagine for justice and peace among all peoples – fueled by Love and expecting miracles.


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