St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School
10/07/14 – Episcopal Schools Week
The Rev. Dr. Rosemary Beales
There’s a picture in our religion room that you’ve probably seen many, many times but never REALLY seen. Do you know how sometimes you walk or drive past something every day and you don’t notice it until someone points it out to you?
This picture is a picture of Jesus but it’s not like any other picture I’ve ever seen. In this picture, Jesus is standing in front of a blackboard – (that’s kind of like a smart board only not as smart, and you write on it with chalk). Like a halo around his head are written these words: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me.” That’s the beginning of the words we heard Jesus say in the lesson we just heard. In his left hand, he is holding some of the ancient ways that people heard the word of God – a scroll and a beautiful, fancy Torah like you can still find in synagogues today. In his right hand are the tools we use today – a huge Bible like you see in churches, a sheet of loose-leaf paper, and, of all things, a laptop computer. The artist* who painted this picture calls it “Jesus the Teacher,” because he’s showing in this picture that Jesus taught way long ago and will still be teaching when our laptops and our iPads and our smartphones are long gone. Take a look the next time you come into the religion room (make a special trip sometime if you’re in the fifth grade!) and see “Jesus the Teacher.”
But Jesus wasn’t only a teacher. In the reading we heard today, he is also a student. When Jesus came into the synagogue, he came because it was the Sabbath, and that was what he had been taught to do on the holy day of rest. He was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah – a prophet who lived 600 years before Jesus – and that is where he found the words we heard today:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free,
and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.
Jesus had studied those words, and many other words of scripture, all his life. Before he could read, someone told him stories; then someone taught him to read; and others listened and debated and wondered with him about what the stories meant. All of those people, all of those stories, opened his imagination so that he recognized the work God was giving him to do.
What does all that have to do with Episcopal Schools Week, which we are celebrating today? Well, let’s look at the story and think about what we do here, at OUR Episcopal school.
The story starts with Jesus coming to his home town, a place where everybody knew his name, where he was known and loved. Our school is like a little home town – we even have a town fair once a year – where we know and care for one another.
Then Jesus entered a sacred space to worship, as was his custom. Every Tuesday, we have a custom, too. We come to a sacred space – an ordinary space made holy by what we do here – to worship God with prayers and song. In doing so, we join with countless people through the ages who have worshipped God in many ways.
Jesus read the words of the prophet Isaiah, someone who lived many generations before him. Here, too, we learn the wisdom of those who went before us, whether spiritually or in subjects like math and music and many more. We ask questions and debate and use our imaginations to find new answers to old problems.
Jesus announced to the people what his life’s work was going to be: to bring justice and mercy to the people who need it most. Sometime, in some way, each one of you will find your life’s work. Our hope, in THIS Episcopal school, is that you will find the seeds of something that will make your spirit sing, that will light you up like a candle so that you shine with the glory of God. And whatever you do, may you never forget that your true joy comes in serving people who most need justice and mercy. May you never be content unless you are doing something to make Isaiah’s words come true.
What’s happening in our school is happening in Episcopal schools all across this country, and also in Haiti, the Virgin Islands, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela (not finished yet), Taiwan, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. It turns out our home town is bigger than we could have imagined
Together, the 160,000 students – that includes YOU — in 1,200 Episcopal schools will make the world a better place. Together, we can keep doing the work that Isaiah and Jesus began. Together, we can BE good news for the world.
*Michael O’Neill McGrath
St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School
The Rev. Dr. Rosemary Beales
Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!
If those words sound familiar, it’s probably because we often sing a hymn here in chapel that begins that way. In fact there are hardly any other words to the song except Rejoice, and again I say, Rejoice.
It reminds me of a song that was EVERYWHERE this past spring and summer. You may have heard it. The words go like this:
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy
…You get the idea. It’s a song about happiness.
Today I want us to think about the difference between happiness and JOY, the feeling that makes us REJOICE. Happiness, it seems to me, is what you feel when your birthday is coming, or when you do well on a test, or when it’s pizza day in the dining hall. JOY goes deeper,. JOY is something that no one can take away from you, even when hard things happen.
JOY is what St. Paul was feeling when he wrote “Rejoice always!” Those are funny words for someone to say when he is in prison. You see, Paul was a follower of Jesus at a time when that was a dangerous thing to be. Once, Paul had been an enemy of Jesus and his followers, but after Jesus died and rose again, he convinced Paul in a powerful way that he was really alive and that God really loved all people.
Paul was changed forever. He began telling the story of Jesus and God’s love to anyone who would listen. He traveled to many places telling this story and starting churches so others could tell the story, too. Whenever he moved to a new place, he would write letters to the people he left behind to encourage them and give them hope. That’s what Paul is doing in the letter we heard today. He tells the people in a city called Philippi, called the Philippians, not to worry about anything, and to focus on what is good and true and worthy of praise.
When I read this Letter to the Philippians this week, I found myself thinking about a girl called Pippi, and not just because Pippi sounds a little like Philippians. There’s something about this girl that seems to embody JOY.
You may know this girl. She has two carrot-colored pigtails that stick straight out and a nose full of freckles. At the end of her long striped stockings she wears shoes twice as long as her feet. And she takes her pet everywhere she goes – only instead of a dog or a cat, she has a monkey named Mr. Nilsson. Oh yes, and a horse who lives on the porch of the house where she lives alone, with no one to tell her what to do. Pippi Longstocking was one of my favorite books when I was your age – she was as popular as The Diary of a Wimpy Kid is now.
I’m thinking of Pippi today because no matter what happens to her, she does not worry but focuses on what is good and true and worthy of praise. When she tried to make pancakes and ended up with egg on her head, she said, “I always did hear that egg yolk was good for the hair.”
When two policemen came to take her to a children’s home, she laughed and said she was home, and spent the day playing tag with them, and they were always “It.” When an angry bull disrupted Pippi’s picnic, she simply broke off its horns – have I mentioned that Pippi was very strong? – and rode the bull in circles till they were dancing.
Unlike St. Paul, Pippi never mentions Jesus or tells the story of God’s love. But for me, she doesn’t have to. She lives JOY. And I believe that the only place JOY like Pippi’s can come from is from God, the creator of joy.
And so what Paul said to the people he loved, I say to you today:
Rejoice in the Lord always.
Do not worry about anything, but pray about everything.
Pay attention to what is true, and honorable, and worthy of praise.
Keep on doing the things you have learned and received and heard.
And the God of peace – the God of JOY – will be with you. Amen.
St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School
The Rev. Dr. Rosemary Beales
No one can see the face of God and live.
That’s what God told Moses on top of Mount Sinai. Moses was as close to God as anyone, and yet even he was not allowed to see God’s face. God wasn’t being mean when he said that; God was being merciful. Have you been told that if you look directly at the sun for more than a few seconds, you’ll damage your eyes? It’s like that. God’s glory is so bright, so intense, that human beings can’t take it directly. So we experience it in other ways.
Moses saw God’s glory from a distance, when God told him to stand in the cleft of the rock, that is, an opening. God kindly offered to cover Moses with his hand as God’s glory passed by, “and you shall see my back,” God said. And Moses knew that if he saw God’s back, he could follow God all the days of his life.
Even though no one can see God’s face, many of you have your own ideas about what God might look like. I am lucky to see those ideas when you draw or paint them and invite me to look.
Imagining what God might look like is one way to meditate on the presence of God, the presence that was all around Moses, and is all around us. The Bible is full of stories of people who knew something of God’s presence, even though they couldn’t see God directly.
This week and last week, many of you heard the story of Abram and Sarai, who later became Abraham and Sarah. Some of you remember that story from other years or have read it for yourselves. Once Abram came so close to God and God came so close to Abram, that Abram knew what God wanted him to do. God wanted Abram and Sarai to go to a new place that God would show them. So they set out, not knowing where they were going, and wondering if God would go with them.
Do you remember what happened next? Abram and Sarai stopped at a place called Shechem. They prayed, and they found that God was in that place, so they marked that place with a stone for an altar to show where God was. They came to Bethel, and they prayed, and they found that God was in that place, too, and they marked that place with an altar. They were learning that God was not just in the places where they had met God before, but that God’s presence went with them wherever they went.
And it’s not just people in the Bible who can feel and hear and sense God’s presence. It’s also you, and me. If you think quietly for a moment, you might remember a place and a time when you felt especially close to God. Think. (SILENCE). If you couldn’t think of anything this minute, that’s OK. Keep listening – silence helps — and keep watching for those moments when you are especially awake to God’s presence. I wonder how you’ll mark that place in your memory.
Since it’s not just people in the Bible who have the presence of God, I want to tell you about a time when a very ordinary person, a very, very ordinary person, felt God’s presence. Before I came to our school, long before you were born, I had a different kind of job. I was a journalist, which means that I told stories; but not the kind I tell today. J I wrote stories in newspapers and magazines. I really liked that work, but like anyone on any day, some days I just didn’t feel like going to work. (Does that ever happen to you?)
This happened at a time when I was learning to tell Godly Play stories, in fact, I was learning by heart the story of Abram and Sarai. And as I lay in bed thinking about the problems of the day ahead at the magazine, I heard in my head the words of that story, “God is in that place too.” God WAS in that place too, and from that day on, I looked differently at my work.
Years later, on a foggy and empty beach, God came close to me again, and gave me the courage to leave that job. God’s presence led me on the journey that would one day lead me here, to you. (TBTG)
In a few minutes we’ll sing a song about the many ways of knowing God. And today, when we sing, “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place,” I hope you will feel it all around you. May the presence of God go with you today and all the days of your life. Amen.
St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School
The Rev. Dr. Rosemary Beales
Blessed…blessed….blessed….blessed…Nine times in today’s gospel, the word “blessed” rings from the mountaintop where Jesus had gone to teach his disciples. When Jesus was beginning his work, he chose 12 helpers, but before they could help him teach, they had to learn. So he climbed a hill, and the disciples followed, and so did a large crowd of followers. The words he spoke there became known as The Sermon on the Mount, and the part we heard today is called “The Beatitudes.”
There is a lot to think about in these nine sayings about finding true happiness even in the midst of trouble–so much that we’d be here all day if we tried to pick up each beatitude and turn it this way and that to learn everything about it. So today, we’ll just look at one of the beatitudes and how it helped make one person a saint. Most of the saints we know about loved all of the beatitudes, but for each one there was one that was especially for them. For a saint named Tekla, the beatitude that is especially his is this: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.”
Tekla was born hundreds of years ago in a village named Zorare, in Ethiopia. His birth was a surprise because his parents had waited a long time to have a child, and also because the night he was born a special star hung over his parents’ hut. The king, Amlak, heard about the star and asked for the child to come to him, and little Tekla was baptized at the great cathedral, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Back in his family’s village, Tekla quickly grew into a strong, adventurous boy. One day, while he was climbing the tallest tree he could find, a branch snapped. He came down with a hard thud.
Tekla’s leg was badly broken, and in those days there were no x-rays, no casts, no physical therapy to help. Tekla’s parents tried to make him well, but week after week, he lay suffering on his sleeping mat. He grew thinner and weaker, but his leg did not heal.
Then someone showed him mercy. Abba Salama, the village priest, prayed over the boy, returning every day to read to him from the Bible. Tekla looked forward to these visits, and as his knowledge of the Bible grew, so did his strength. Finally, he told his parents, “If you make me a small crutch, I think I can walk again. Then I can help you with the goats.”
Tekla’s father whittled him a crutch from a forked branch, and he hobbled off with his herd. Tekla and his parents were grateful, but the villagers were disappointed. What was the meaning of the great star, when this boy was so ordinary? “It’s obvious the boy has no future,” they whispered.
Tekla disagreed. I will never be a warrior, he thought, but I can be a priest. He tucked his few possessions in a sack, kissed his parents, and limped away, headed to the ancient monastery of Debra Damo. Halfway there, he was so tired he had to lie down under a bush to sleep. Suddenly, he was awakened by a sound like a baby crying. Through the bushes he saw . . . a lion! A deep gash ran down its leg, and blood dripped from its paw. Tekla was afraid but also filled with compassion. “Anbassa,” he said, which is the Ethiopian word for lion. “You are hurt, like me. I will help you.” He bandaged the lion’s leg while the great beast purred and rubbed his head against the boy’s arm. “Goodbye,” Tekla said. “I will pray that you recover.”
Years went by. Tekla studied hard at the monastery and became a priest. When he was about 20 years old, he was lowered down from the cliff on which the monastery sat, and began to make his way, still leaning on his crutch.
When he had gone barely a mile, though, something terrible happened His crutch snapped, right in two, and he fell to the ground. Hard as he tried, he could not stand up. Vultures gathered in the trees, waiting for him to die.
Just then a tremendous roar startled Tekla. Poised on a rock stood a great lion, ready to leap. “Lord, save me!” cried Tekla.
At the sound of Tekla’s voice, the lion stood still. It started to purr, jumped from the rock, and rubbed his huge head against Tekla the way your kitty might do to you. Tekla noticed the long white scar on the lion’s leg. The great beast, to whom Tekla had shown mercy, was now showing mercy to him.
“Anbassa!” Tekla cried, amazed that the lion recognized him after so long. “I am sorry, my old friend,” Tekla said, “but I must be on my way now to do the Lord’s work.” He tried to stand, but without a crutch, his leg buckled and he fell . . . every time.
Anbassa nudged him, then lay down at his feet. Tekla lifted his good leg across the lion’s broad back. Then the majestic animal rose to his feet and trotted off, with Tekla holding on to his mane.
And that’s the way they traveled, the little priest and the big lion, throughout Ethiopia, telling everyone the good news of Jesus and God’s love. And of all the words of Jesus that Tekla loved to share, I think maybe his favorite were these: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Amen.
Based on A Saint and His Lion: The Story of Tekla of Ethiopia, by Elaime Murray Stone (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2004).
Proper 28A – 11/16/14
St. Paul’s Alexandria
The Rev. Dr. Rosemary Beales
“That day will be a day of wrath.
When I was in high school, I played bass guitar in an all-girls band. I know, looking at me now, you would not expect that I had done something so cool. But going to school every day and doing all my assignments and working my little job at a furniture store downtown were not enough for me. I had a little talent and a big dream.
As graduation was approaching, I approached my parents with my plan: Instead of going directly to college, I would go with my band to New York City and hit it big. My mother was not pleased. And you can probably imagine my father’s reaction: Anger.
The prophet Zephaniah has something to say today about anger, about the wrath of God. “Be silent before the Lord!” he cries. And don’t imagine that “the day of the Lord,” which sounds kind of sweet to us, is a day to celebrate. Rather, “it will be a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.” That day doesn’t sound like a day I want to wait around for.
What has made God so angry? In Zephaniah’s tirade, God was incensed about people who had offered incense and worshiped foreign gods, and others who had sinned against the Lord. But notice what made God so angry that he would reverse his acts of creation and destroy the whole earth and all its inhabitants: “I will punish the people who rest complacently… who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.’”
Such indifference – indifference toward God and toward others –is what most enraged Zephaniah’s God. Complacency — the careless sense that God could not possibly care what we do or don’t do — that is what really ticks God off. Indifference invokes God’s wrath.
We don’t hear much about the wrath of God in today’s Church. Now I’m not proposing that we return to the era when Jonathan Edwards preached mightily about “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” But Edwards, that prophet of 18th-century America, had a purpose in mind: to shake people out of their complacency and wake them to God’s righteousness. There’s a reason his era went down in history as The Great Awakening.
Of course, it’s human nature to wake, and sleep, wake and sleep. And I think we need Zephaniah’s trumpet blast from time to time to interrupt our dream state and spur us to action. I think, from time to time, we need the wrath of God.
When my father, a gentle and soft-spoken man, became angry with me, I was shocked. And then, strangely, I was comforted. As the sixth of seven daughters, I hadn’t had much contact with my father. By the time I came around, I think, he had lost interest in this houseful of women. In my adolescent brain, I imagined that he didn’t much care what I did or didn’t do. My father’s anger woke me up. It showed me, in a way no gentle words could do, that my father loved me.
It’s a paradox, that anger can be an expression of love.
Had God not cared for the people of Judah in Zephaniah’s day, he would have simply turned his back on them, rather than sending his prophet with words of warning.
Had the master in today’s parable not cared what the servants did with the talents given them, he would have rewarded all 3 the same, instead of casting the indifferent slave, the one who didn’t even try, into outer darkness.
Had Jesus not cared about the people he would leave behind as he went forth to his passion, he would not have told this parable of wrath.
But in the face of wrath, there is hope. In the love story between God and God’s people, there is always hope. At the end of Zephaniah’s short book comes a reversal, when the prophet sings: “Rejoice, O daughter Zion, for the Lord has taken away the judgment from you.” After your time of exile, “The Lord will bring you home . . exult over you with loud singing, restore your fortunes.”
There is hope for all of us in the restoration brought about by Jesus’ death and resurrection. In a move that the theologian Hans von Balthasar calls “The Great Reversal,” Jesus the Judge turns and becomes Jesus the Advocate. Jesus is the one in whose light we stand convicted for our complacency. And Jesus is the one who turns and pleads on our behalf for mercy in the face of God’s anger.
In the face of my father’s anger, I did not go to New York and hit the big time with my band. I did go to college as expected. Sadly, before I could graduate, my father died. But his love, the love expressed in anger, did not die. It remains even to this day. So may it be for us in our relationship with God.
And may the wrath of God be with you always. Amen.
Isa 49:8-13 & Luke 4:16-21
Tidings of Comfort – a service for those who are sad at Christmas – 12/10/14
St. Paul’s Alexandria
The Rev. Dr. Rosemary Beales
The Lord has comforted his people
And will have compassion on the suffering ones.
Suffering: It’s not a word we hear much in the world around us these days. It’s a word that rubs against the grain amid holly wreaths and gaily wrapped packages and silver lanes and candy canes aglow.
Suffering: It’s a reality, whether we acknowledge it, or bury it under piles of tinsel. Suffering is an old, old story here on planet earth.
It was an old story for the people Isaiah addresses in tonight’s first reading. These are the people who endured the destruction of Jerusalem two generations before, who as they were marched away from their beloved city, must have looked back at the smoke from the burning temple and wondered if they would ever see home again. These are the people who were living in exile, torn away from families and from every familiar place, from every holy place. These are the people who had hung their harps on the willow trees along the river and wept: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
Today Isaiah announces to them there will be a new song, a new song. “Sing for joy, O heavens!” They will not go back to the way it was, but they WILL go forward, to a transformed future, a future different from and better than they might have imagined.
Transformation was at the heart of a play that has haunted me since I saw it last spring. Katherine is a Beethoven scholar who is obsessed with one of Beethoven’s obsessions: for 20 years the great master wrote variation after variation on a snippet of melody by a minor composer who had invited 50 of the great masters of Vienna to offer their adaptations. At first Beethoven refused, but for years, even in the midst of writing masterpieces like the Ninth Symphony, even as his deafness deepened, Beethoven could not put it down. From what he called a beer-hall waltz, he extracted a march, a minuet, a fugue – THIRTY-THREE variations before he was done.
33 Variations, in fact, is the name of the play, and Ludwig was not the only one creating variations. Katherine, too, was transforming and being transformed, and so was her daughter, Clara. From two woman who could not bear to touch one another, they become an inseparable pair of fellow sufferers. Katherine, in her middle age and at the peak of her musicology career, has developed a terrible disease that is wasting her body while her mind watches. WE watch Katherine transform. At the beginning, she is a cranky individualist, mercilessly critical of Clara and not about to accept help from anyone, least of all her distant daughter. Her terrible illness forces her to depend on others, to give and receive mercy. By the end of the drama – and the last of Beethoven’s variations, which are played throughout – we know something about transformation. Katherine, while not cured of her terrible disease, is nonetheless healed. She and Clara have a new song, a new story.
A new story is what Jesus has to tell when he strides into the synagogue in his hometown. He is fresh from forty days in the desert, filled with the Holy Spirit, and he reaches back 600 years for the words of the prophet Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he tells the suffering people of Nazareth, announcing that he is the one Isaiah promised God would send. He is the one who will preach good news to the poor, give sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free. His people ARE oppressed, living under Rome’s thumb, and wherever there is political suffering, there is personal suffering, too. But a new chapter has begun in earth’s sad story, Jesus tells them. And in these very walls, a new song – this year’s variations on the angels’ ancient song – will soon resound. HOPE is here, even in the midst of suffering.
Now, I am not here to tell you that suffering is a good thing. Suffering is never God’s will for God’s people. But I am sure of this: God is able to bring good from the most devastating disasters, the most terrible grief. That is the drama of redemption, — good from evil – and that is drama more compelling than any stage play, more sweet than even Beethoven’s music. The drama of redemption is the ultimate drama of the gospel, and of our lives.
Transformation is happening. God is doing a new thing. Watch for it in the days ahead. Listen for the music of a new story. And in that song, hear God’s love for you.
Mark 13:34-37 and Isaiah 64:1-9
St. Alban’s Annandale
The Rev. Dr. Rosemary Beales
Time, time, time . . . there are all sorts of time.
There’s a time to get up, and a time to go to bed.
A time to eat, and a time to stop eating (even on Thanksgiving weekend!).
A time to work, a time to play, a time to worship.
But what IS time?
Some people say that time is in a line, and I wonder what that would look like?
Ah, wait a minute, here it is (pull out end of gold ribbon). . . time in a line.
This is the very beginning, when time was brand new. It is the newest part; it is just being born. Now look!
Time is getting older. The part that was new is now getting old.… (continuing to pull ribbon from right to left). Even while we’re here thinking about time, old time is passing away and new time is being born. The time that was so new when we began has passed away and new time keeps coming into being.
I wonder how much time there is? I wonder if time will go on forever? I wonder if time will ever ….Oh, look, it ended. . . .
This is the end, but it’s the very newest part. So it’s kind of like a beginning.
And this is the beginning, but it’s the oldest part. So it’s kind of like an end.
Look– we have a beginning that’s like an end, and an end that’s like a beginning.
Long ago, the Church did something wonderful. The Church took the beginning that’s like an end and the end that’s like a beginning, and tied them together so we can always remember that for every beginning, there’s an end; and for every end, there IS a beginning.
Here on the first Sunday of Advent, we begin again. And here at the beginning of a new church year, our readings are all about endings. It is like that every year;
Every year, as we want to wait quietly for the Christ Child’s sweet beginning, we are confronted instead with the grown-up Son of God pronouncing an end to all things. I used to dread this day, this drama, with its scary images and strong warnings. Who would look forward to a day when the sun will be darkened, and the moon give no light, and the stars fall from the heavens? Who except a fan of the dystopian literature and disaster movies that attract such crowds these days?
What is the appeal of those things, I wonder? When things are so terrible all around us, when disease and injustice and violence and desperate need are all around us, why are we as a culture attracted to visions of end times?
I think it’s because we know, deep beneath our culture’s disdain for Christian truths, deep in the darkest corners of our own hearts, that every ending is a beginning – that something broken and crooked must give way, before something good and new and whole can be born. It’s a birth worth waiting for.
This is what Jesus is trying to tell his disciples in today’s gospel. They are gathered at the Mount of Olives, overlooking the city of Jerusalem, having just witnessed a poor widow give her all, having marveled at the temple’s beauty and having heard Jesus warn them that all this glamour and glory will soon be lost. Not a stone will be left upon stone. An ending.
But WHEN? beseeched Peter and James and John and Andrew. WHEN – the question of their age, and of ours.
Without answering that very human question, Jesus proceeds to describe the most terrible anguish, an anguish that in fact did occur when the Roman army overran Jerusalem and overthrew the temple just a few years later.
But today’s passage takes us beyond that history, into the disciples’ future which is our present, and beyond our present into the future which is also somehow our past. Because time doesn’t always run in a straight line, we come to an ending that is like a beginning: A new creation.
The picture Jesus paints today portrays a cosmic unraveling. He seems to be undoing his own creation. He through whom all things were made is undoing the creation that began with Let there be light! and will end with the sun, moon and stars descending into darkness. Strange as this may seem, there is comfort in this calamity.
Because in that apocalypse is the fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah’s plea that God would “tear open the heavens and come down.” In the midst of the misery of the world, the Son of Man will come in clouds of glory. That’s the promise Jesus makes today; it’s the promise we recite in our creeds week after week; but it’s a promise that seems to fade into fantasy in the midst of our mundane lives.
The first Sunday of Advent each year reminds us that this promise is real. This promise is for us. The end of time as we know it will inaugurate an era beyond all time.
Notice that in today’s gospel, Jesus does not say what happens AFTER he “gathers his elect from the four winds.” He doesn’t say HOW God will fix the earthly miseries that only God can fix. But Mark’s gospel, the one we will read for the next year, gives us a pretty good idea. The kingdom that Mark’s Jesus insists “has come near,” the kingdom that is “at hand,” will finally arrive. Gone will be the reign of greed, of self-serving, of anxiety and fear and violence. In their place will be a reality best illustrated by a story that takes place in darkness.
Brian was 15 and working his first job, cleaning pots and kettles and tools in a bakery. For hours each night, he was shut up alone with horrifying chemicals and hard labor; then nightly, he would trudge home in the dark. “I hated it from day one,” he said, “but I couldn’t quit. I was afraid to feel like a failure.” This went on for a week, until one night he came out the bakery’s back door into an alley that he says “looked like a good place to get shot.” A bulky man was slumped against the wall, smoking, and Brian figured he was about to get rolled. He was almost glad, because then he’d have a good excuse to quit. The man stood up and approached Brian, and instead of a weapon, held out a … sandwich. ‘Boy,’ he said, ‘I run the shop next door and I see you in here working, and I bet you have not eaten, and that’s awful hard work. I know how that guy leaves his tools. So here’s a sandwich. It’s not from me exactly, but from my wife, who keeps a sharp eye out. So there you go.’
A few days later, Brian did quit the job but he still returns to that alley, just to watch.
“Even now, sometimes, I see that man smoking in the alley,” says Brian, “and standing up, and being kind to a kid he didn’t know. Even now I’ll be walking along and suddenly there he is. Waiting to be kind. We think we are alone but we aren’t.”
We think we are alone, but we aren’t. Even as winter closes in with its gathering gloom, we know that darkness is not the end. After our suffering – the suffering of a world rife with disease, destruction and death – there will dawn a kingdom where people give their all for others, a world of kindness, and mercy, and grace, and forgiveness, and love.
We do not have to wait for that day. We can begin to live that kingdom now. While we wait for the babe of Bethlehem, while we wait for the coming of the Son of Man, we can remember that the end is coming, and so is the beginning. We can keep a sharp eye out, watching and waiting, amid the world’s miseries, for a chance to be kind. We can practice, this Advent, telling the good news of the gospel: “We think we are alone, but we aren’t.”
For every beginning, there is an end. And for every end, there IS a beginning.
 Adapted from Jerome W. Berryman, “The Circle of the Church Year,” in The Complete Guide to Godly Play, Vol. 2 (Denver: Church Publishing, 2002), 26-27.
 Brian Doyle, “In the Alley,” Christian Century, September 17, 2014.
Luke 2:1-20 & Isaiah 9:6
Christmas Day 2014
St. Paul’s Alexandria
The Rev. Dr. Rosemary Beales
Unto us a child is born;
Unto us a son is given.
Those ancient words of the prophet Isaiah, and the glorious melody of George Frederick Handel, were running through my head the past few days. For my family is celebrating the arrival of our latest addition, just six days ago.
Last Wednesday, I was leaving the school where I serve as chaplain. Two first graders, playing near the entrance as they waited for their parents, called, “Bye, Reverend Beales. See you tomorrow!”
“I won’t be here tomorrow,” I called back. “My daughter is having a baby!”
Henry shook his mass of curls and shouted, “It’s a miracle!”
“It is!” I chuckled. “And so are you!”
Then Henry’s eyes widened, and so did Langston’s, as they exclaimed in stereo, “We are?”
Yes, my sweet loves. You are.
They are miracles, as each one of you here today is a miracle. As my grandson Ryan, who arrived just past midnight on Friday is a miracle.
Sometimes my students get miracles and magic mixed up. And the easiest way I know to explain a miracle is this: A miracle is something only God can do.
Only God could create the miracles of Langston and Henry. Only God could create the unique miracle that is each of you. And only God could produce the spectacular, mysterious, astonishing miracle we celebrate today. Only GOD could cause GOD to be born in human flesh.
Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.
The strains of Handel’s Messiah sounded afresh in my heart early Friday, as I met tiny Ryan for the first time. Snuggled on my daughter’s chest, with Dad hovering inches away, was a brand new life. Then the ritual unwrapping began. The inventory of toes, the examination of tiny feet, the satisfaction of a sturdy fist curled tight around my finger. As a five-time grandmother, I love the ritual of unwrapping.
It turns out that we, too have some unwrapping to do this morning.
Oh, I know that some of you were ripping into Christmas gifts before dawn. I know that others of us are waiting to savor the moment after a leisurely brunch. But that’s not the unwrapping I mean.
What do we have to unwrap HERE?
We have THE Miracle. We have The Story.
This is where we come to hear, to tell, to SING The Great Story
of how love came down at Christmas;
in that bleak midwinter, long long ago,
when the snow lay on the ground and the stars shone bright;
when a patient donkey carried the mother Mary to a stable in
the little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.
We come to tell the story of the little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay,
while ox and ass before him bow, and the heavens are lit by a great
star, shining in the east beyond them far.
We tell of choirs of angels who sing in exultation,
announcing good news to certain poor shepherds.
of kings who traverse afar by camel,
and a little drummer boy who plays his best for him, a rum pa pum pum.
A rum pa pum pum?
We have some unwrapping to do.
The Story, the wonderful story, is a gift we’ve been given.
Over the centuries, it’s been wrapped in many packages, many layers,
because part of God’s gift to us is imagination.
Imagination helps us to picture that first Christmas,
to place ourselves at the manger welcoming the newborn king¾
And maybe camels and snow scenes and a little drummer boy help us to do that.
There’s nothing wrong with this wrapping,
but if we can peel it back tonight,
we may see more clearly the simplicity, and the mystery, of the Gift Itself.
I started with the donkey.
A beautiful little book recently came my way, the story of three French children
who find a soldier, blinded in the Great War, and lost in their woods.
In his hand he clasps a tiny, silver donkey¾
and when he unwraps his fingers and holds it out to them
the children beg to hear its story.
As it turns out, the soldier has four stories to tell of these gentle, humble, trustworthy creatures – and the first is the story of a donkey named Hazel,
who carried the mother Mary to Bethlehem.
So I started looking for the donkey in the story that Luke tells this morning.
Hazel isn’t there, and neither is any of her breed. . . . I peeled away the donkey.
Next to go was the cow that warmed the stable –
in fact, surprisingly, this story mentions no stable.
And no innkeeper, though in every Christmas pageant I’ve ever seen,
two innkeepers refuse entrance to the inn and the third offers only a shed.
Peel away the innkeepers.
What about the snow? In this story, it’s not even on the radar,
nor is there any mention of winter, or any other season.
There is not even, in this story, a star:
Along with the magi, that will take twelve more days.
Peel away the layers of imagination — beautiful though these wrappings are —
and lay bare the Gift at the center of it all.
Lift it up to the light,
and clasp it to your heart as you would a treasure.
For at the heart of this story is . . . Love. AND LOVE IS ALWAYS A MIRACLE.
In this story, an empire in love with money
demands that a young woman, and the man who loves her,
make a difficult and taxing journey.
In this story, the Child she carries won’t wait until his parents can offer him
a better beginning than a borrowed feeding trough.
In this story, the poor — in the form of shepherds —
have good news proclaimed to them,
and the language of angels is spoken on earth.
In this story¾at the heart of this story¾is the Child,
wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.
Peel away even these swaddling clothes, and there¾
naked and unprotected¾
is God . . . .
. . . God, who so loves the world that he cannot stay away;
. . . God, who will embrace earthly joys,
and endure earthly hardships,
even death, for the sake of LOVE.
This story, first told in the flesh of the infant Jesus and the man he became,
is repackaged in each one of us who bears his name
and hopes to follow his ways.
And wouldn’t it be a miracle if we really did? If we really did feed the hungry, and care for the weak, and liberate the captives, and stand up for justice? Wouldn’t it be a miracle if the people who walked in darkness could see a great light, and that light was US, “shining as a light in the world to the glory of God?”
Such a miracle is a gift we can unwrap for the world,
telling, through each of our miraculous lives,
the Story of Love, who came down at Christmas,
and stayed forever.
Unto us a child is born,
Unto us son is given.
 Hartnett, Sonya. The Silver Donkey (Cambridge, Mass.: Candlewick Press, 2006).
When I was a child, I played with dolls. That’s no great revelation for a little girl growing up in the 1950s and ’60s (yes, I’m that old!). I am the sixth of seven daughters, so my younger sister and I had not just our own dolls (new every Christmas) but all the abandoned dolls of our older siblings. I fondly recall a whole corner of the room we shared populated with dolls of every shape and size and color.
Most of these dolls didn’t do anything. They didn’t walk or say “mama” or perform any tricks, they just opened themselves to our imagination. Eileen and I WERE their voices, we moved them as we chose, we assigned them names and personalities. The one exception to not doing anything was my doll Agnes, who came to me at about age 7. I remember marveling on Christmas morning when my mother showed me that Agnes could answer questions “yes” or “no” with a nod or a shake of her head. Even when I understood that the button on her belly was “yes” and the button on back produced a “no,” I still found it marvelous. Maybe that same year, Eileen got her Betsy-Wetsy doll and could change its diapers (cloth, of course).
None of our dolls, I also recall, were the characters of movies or TV shows (now, with our paper dolls, that was a different issue, but that’s for another day). We did have Shirley Temple dolls that we loved, but Shirley was so many characters wrapped up in one that we were never limited to the roles our ringleted little friend had played. We loved our Ginny dolls, who were about 6″ tall and had lots of fun outfits. (I still have my Mary Ann’s tiny Dutch wooden shoes.) Barbies didn’t enter our collection — we (and definitely our mother) were not interested in glamour but in imaginative play.
I’m thinking about all this today because I just ventured into Toys “R” Us for my first granddaughter’s first birthday doll. I had to look pretty hard for a baby doll that wasn’t a Disney character and didn’t have some sort of hard-edged speaker in its tummy and didn’t poop a magical formula into diapers you’d have to keep buying, just like the real thing. I found a sweet baby with no name except the one she’ll eventually earn from her little mama, and better, one that can go into the tub for a real bath.*
Why is all this so important to me? Because playing with the imagination is the best part of playing dolls. Whether they’re babies that help us be pretend mommies and daddies, little-girl dolls like the Ginny (or American Girls today), or even the bears and bunnies and ponies that accompany our children to bed, these toys are the ticket to a world of imaginary adventures that take girls AND boys beyond their everyday world and, most importantly, beyond themselves.
In my Godly Play room, one of the favorite lessons is Baptism, which includes baby dolls (in my room, three babies with different skin tones). Part of the appeal of this story during work time is the opportunity to handle the “babies,” and I am especially touched to see boys — perhaps for the only time in their lives — enjoy the pleasure of these pretend little people and the nurturing role the dolls inspire.
Playing with dolls may help children imagine the things that they see (playing games of ‘as-if’) but it also opens the gateway to imagining things that no one has ever seen (‘what-if’), and isn’t that the kind of play that can help us imagine our way into the kingdom of God? Let us pray for a kingdom of love and compassion and hope and redemption and joy; and above all, let us play.
*(I also found it shocking in multi-ethnic Northern Virginia to see a huge array of white baby dolls and hardly any of color. What’s up with that? Again, an issue for another day.)