07 April 2016

MARY MAGDALENE AND THE RISEN CHRIST

My Easter continues whenever I discover new expressions of the encounter of Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb of Jesus. Most of you know the story of how she visited the empty tomb and wept, because the body of Jesus was not there. Standing there, however, was a man who looked like the gardener; and she asked him whether or not he had taken away the body of Jesus. When the man said, simply, “Mary,” she knew immediately that the unknown man was Jesus. She had mistaken him for the gardener (John 20:11-18).

I have enjoyed, over the years in previous classes and sermons, using so many artistic representations of that beautiful event. But, this past Sunday, I discovered still another way to interpret that famous Bible story! Below is a reproduction of “Saint Mary Magdalene at the Sepulchre,” by the 16th century artist, Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo.

In his daily meditation for 4 April 2016, the modern Franciscan Richard Rohr (a mystic and a hero!) speaks about how each of us seeks reality in Christ; yet, what the true risen Christ really shows us is our true self, a truth that is already deep inside us. Says Rohr, “This is the new self that can say with Paul, "I live no longer, not 'I' but it is Christ now living in me" (Galatians 2:20).” Rohr concludes, “In the truest sense, I am that which I am seeking.”


Here, in this 16th century painting, the artist Savoldo has expressed that instant, that moment, when Mary Magdalene looks straight at Jesus and realizes who he is. But, in the painting, she is looking at …us! The viewers! You and me! Christ is in us! Christ in us, the hope of glory. May the risen Christ be in you today. May the risen Christ be you!


Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo, "Saint Mary Magdalene at the Sepulchre," (16th Century) (from The Getty Center)

30 March 2016

THE TOMB IS A TUNNEL !

THE TOMB IS A TUNNEL !

27 March 2016 -- Easter Sunday

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed!

Have any of you ever been in a tunnel?

Two weeks ago, I was trekking through several tunnels. I was with a group of you, fifteen Cathedral parishioners, on a spiritual pilgrimage to Israel and Jerusalem. A special feature of this year’s pilgrimage was tunnels. We walked in a lot of tunnels, tunnels that had served as water supplies, escape routes, and attack routes – but also tunnels that were modern archaeologicial digs.

We walked through walls of sheer rock, and along long stretches of limestone, deep in the underground of Jerusalem, below bedrock in some places. We walked through some tunnels that had been hewn out by hand tools of the Canaanites. Other tunnels were constructed by Hezekiah and various Hebrew kings. Still others were the result of archaeology, present explorations into our past.

Our footing was precarious and uncertain. We stumbled along rocky ridges and unexpected slopes. Often the rock beneath our feet was wet, always slippery, and sometimes full of water puddles. Underground, we rarely knew exactly where we were. We could not hear the world above us, and our tunnels made unexpected turns and dives.

I am telling you all this, I am describing those rocky tunnels to you on Easter morning, because being in those tunnels felt like being in a rocky tomb. Walking deep in those Jerusalem tunnels felt like I was walking in a tomb. The walls were tight and dark, and I had no idea where I was.

I wonder if Jesus felt like that, when he was in a tomb, when he was in a tomb for three days. In Jerusalem, we visited some actual tombs, and some reproductions of tombs, and though they differed from each other, most were simply rocky caves, carved from the Israel limestone. All were dark and rocky. One rock may have been the actual rock where Jesus rested his head for three days.

Except I don’t think Jesus lay still for those three days he was in the tomb. I think he was walking. He was on pilgrimage, seeking and searching and exploring just like I was when I was in Israel two weeks ago.

There were fifteen of us on that pilgrimage, walking those tunnels, and I never heard anyone say they were afraid. That amazed me, because one of us was four years old, and another was seven; and whatever our ages were, we had every reason to be afraid. But there was something about our companionship that kept us unafraid. And there was certainly something about our guide – a modern day Virgil! A Beatrice!—who kept us brave and curious, not scared and hesitant.

There are some of us here this morning – Easter morning! – there are some of us here this morning who are walking in similar tunnels. Perhaps you are in the middle of life’s journey and in a forest dark, and perhaps you have lost that straight way. Maybe your life seems dark and the way is incredibly narrow – tight—and you don’t know where you are going.

The rocky tunnel you are in may feel like a tomb. Maybe you didn’t intentionally choose the tunnel you are in, but rather you fell in unexpectedly. Maybe you did choose the tunnel you are in, but you can’t figure out why you did. Maybe the rocky tomb you are in today is one that was created long ago, or maybe it was only recently discovered.

Whatever the case, that kind of rocky tunnel can feel like death. One definition of “death” is feeling like you have nowhere to go, feeling as if the earth itself has closed in around you. Death is feeling like there is no more path, no more freedom, no more light, nowhere else to go.

Today, Easter, is the opposite of that. Today, Easter, is the opposite of death. Today, Easter, is a day to remember an amazing thing about the tomb. The tomb of Jesus is not the end. It NOT the end of the path, NOT the end of freedom, NOT the the end of light. The tomb of Jesus is not a rock barrier. The tomb is a tunnel.

The tomb is a tunnel! In Jerusalem two weeks ago, what felt to me like a tomb was really a tunnel! Yes, it had some scary qualities. It felt claustrophobic and dark. But it was going somewhere. I, and my fellow pilgrims, were traveling!

I think Jesus had companions in the tomb. There’s no record of that, except that we read elsewhere in the Bible that Jesus –in his death—visited the souls of the dead (1 Peter 4). That is how we get our image that Jesus descended into hell, into the place of the dead. There, he provided saving companionship to those who thought their way had ended, to those who thought the rocky walls meant the end.

No, says Jesus, there is a way out. There is always a way out. The tomb is not the end! The tomb is a tunnel! There is always a way out, a way through the darkness and rock.

Two weeks ago, when I finally found the way out, when I emerged from that ancient Jerusalem tunnel, I was surprised. I had no idea where I was! First of all, because the sunlight was so bright, I couldn’t see anything at all. Then, when my eyes did adjust to the light, I could not recognize what I did see. I knew I was in the holy city of Jerusalem, but where?

So it is when God leads any of us out of the tunnels of our lives. Most of the time, we do not expect, we can not expect, where we will be when we get out. Even if we have been praying hard to escape the tunnels of our lives, praying hard to escape the tomb, we have no idea what this new life of resurrection will look like.

Often, when we do emerge from the tunnels of our lives, we don’t recognize the holy land that we are standing on. We emerge in the holy city, but we don’t know it.

But that is exactly why we call the resurrection something new! It was not the old life that Jesus was resurrected to; it was an entirely new life. It is not the old life we are resurrected to, it is an entirely new life! Many of us mistakenly want resurrection to the old life. We think resurrection magically restores all of the nostalgic great times and places of our memories.

If we are merely looking for the old to be restored in our lives, we will be disappointed. We will miss the true resurrection. That is why Mary, dear Mary Magdalene, who probably knew Jesus as well as any of the other apostles, dear Mary does not recognize the resurrected Jesus at first. She was expecting a resurrection of the old.

When Jesus was resurrected, he was new. The land around him was new. And Jesus made new the people around him, too. This morning, when we emerge from this church, when we walk out into the world celebrating resurrection, God wants to raise us to something new; God wants us to live into something new.

Can we do that? Our tunnels do not lead back to the way we came in. The tunnels of our lives will always, always, lead us to another place entirely, a new place, a place that we might not recognize at first.

The tomb is tunnel! Death is a tunnel! To walk the way of Jesus means that we do not, we cannot, avoid death. We don’t walk around death, or over death. The way of Jesus is down and through death, through that tunnel first, and only then out the other side. On that other side, there awaits us a place that we might not recognize at first; but that’s okay.

At that other side, God shows us liberating light, open space, bright glory. We call that other side – the other end of the tunnel – we call it Easter!

Happy Easter, fellow pilgrims, all of us who have walked with Jesus through the tunnels of life. Happy Easter!  “Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!” And we are risen, too.


AMEN.


10 February 2016

ASH ON OUR FOREHEADS AND ON OUR FEET


Last weekend, on the Saturday before Lent, I was quite cold. I was down in the beautiful winter woods of middle Georgia where I grew up. I was also in the pastures there, on our old farm, helping my brother. Over the past year, those rolling pastures have grown up with things we don’t like. There are briars and small sweet gum trees. Oh, my Lord! The bane of sweet gum trees in the South!

Lots of invasive species have spring up in those pastures, but lots of the good grass species have also grown too high. They simply needed to be cut back. But we didn’t cut those things back last Saturday. We burned them. My brother, and my father, and my son – all of us together – spent the day burning the pastures and woods.

It’s always a bit risky, even dangerous, to set an intentional fire. Don’t worry; my brother had called the forestry service to notify them of the burn! And my brother knows what he is doing. We were doing something most every tender of pastures and woods has done over the centuries. Native Americans burned that same land at one time, providing clear browsing areas for deer and other forms of nourishment.

In burning, we were getting rid of invasive species, and we were also preparing the soil for the growth of new things. Pastures need clearing. Woods need their undergrowth burned away from time to time. Afterwards, the ash is messy – it makes your boots black when you walk there afterwards—but the ash is also healthy. The ground is nourished and fertilized by that ash.

So the fire burns, yes, but it also nourishes. And, on a cold Saturday in the winter time, the fire also warms us. Dangerous as it was, we tried to stand as close to the fire as possible, so close that ashes were landing on our feet.

At its best, the confession of sin is a lot like burning pastures. When we confess our sins – daily, or weekly, or annually, like on Ash Wednesday – we are clearing the land in order for something else to grow. The confession of sin is a good and fertilizing thing, especially if we understand sin to be whatever hinders the growth of God’s presence in our lives.

Confessing sin means letting go of it, burning it away, getting rid of whatever it is in our lives that is hindering new growth. That is how I propose a definition of sin in our time: whatever it is that hinders new growth in our lives.

God wants to grow things in our lives. God wants to grow new things in our lives! But the old growth is often in the way. That old growth might be some invasive species that has come into our life over time. But that old growth might also be perfectly good plants, good things that simply need to be pruned and cut back and allowed to flourish again in fresh ways.

Ash Wednesday, then, is a day to burn something away. Lent is a season to burn things away. These late winter days, cold and gray, are excellent days in which to build a fire. Yes, the fire can be risky and dangerous. Sometimes it burns too close and hurts us. But it also burns away those things that hinder us from the newness of God.

On Ash Wednesday, many Christians mark their foreheads with ashes. Some Christians wear the ashes all day, while some quietly wipe the ashes away during the day. It doesn’t matter how long we wear them. The point is that, even for a moment, those ashes are signs that we have burned something away.

The ashes of Ash Wednesday are reminders that we are making room for God. We are clearing the pasture of our soul for new growth. Whether you are at church today or not, and whether you are a Christian or not –wherever and whoever you are – I hope you are creating space for God. I hope you are walking on good ground, humble ground that has known fire and ash, ground that is fertile and ready for new life. Don’t be afraid of fire and ashes. They are the signs of new life growing within you.

15 January 2016

DO NOT FEAR! THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH IS NOT SUSPENDED AND WE ARE NOT HIERARCHICAL!


Do not fear! Apparently, the various primates of the Anglican Communion of Churches, meeting in Canterbury this past week (January 2016), voted on a statement which considers “how we may preserve our unity in Christ given the ongoing deep differences that exist among us concerning our understanding of marriage.” An 8-point resolution followed, apparently supported by a majority of the 38 primates, but not by all of them.

I do yet not have all details of the primates’ vote, but I am seeing various headlines and reports saying that The Episcopal Church has been “suspended” from The Anglican Communion. Other articles mention that the Anglican Communion of Churches is “the third largest Christian body in the world.”

Such reports sound sensationalistic, but they are deceptive and can be misleading. Here’s why: The Anglican Communion of Churches is simply not organized in the way that the Roman Catholic Church is. Casual readers of church news might prefer otherwise, desiring a handy table of heirarchy and doctrine. But no. The various churches and provinces of the Anglican Communion of Churches are quite diverse, and held together by common faith, common heritage, common tradition, and common spirit – but not held together by doctrinal absolutism, or one pope, or one body that sets global policy. For those reasons, large differences of opinion and theology, on matters like same-sex marriage, continue to exist in the Anglican Communion of Churches.

But, whatever else the primates can do, they cannot vote, by any margin, to keep a province or church from participating in the Anglican Communion of Churches. In fact, the word “suspension” does not appear at all in their January 2016 8-point resolution. (Another point: To claim that I, as an Episcopalian am not an Anglican, would be similar to claiming – in the heat of some rhetorical political dispute —that I, as a Georgian, am not an American.)

For the past fifteen years, various votes among various entities in the Anglican Communion have tried to force theological unity on the controversial issue of same-sex marriage. Many such votes have tried to appeal to some ultimate authority, or tried to assume some ultimate heirarchy, in order to support their position.

I am of the opinion that such desired heirarchies, or such fantasized hierarchies, are simply not there. Though our American Episcopal Church has recently tried to describe itself as an hierarchical church in certain legal situations, our beautiful and larger Anglican tradition is simply (and complex-ly) NOT hierarchical. The Episcopal Church is one of 38 global provinces who have a history and tradition and theology set in the gracious and generous elements of that Christianity which has roots in the British Isles.

Obviously, the issue of same-sex blessings, and same-sex marriage, has obsessed our church in recent years. Whether they are for or against same-sex marriage, some may regret that obsession. On the other hand, however, the issue is not a bad proxy for generosity and flexibility and openness, and, indeed, love. No matter what part of the globe we inhabit, our Anglican tradition has typically been one of the more progressive of the Christian expressions of faith.

I believe that our progressiveness, our openness to development, results from our sensitive observation and attention to the presence of God in the flesh. We believe in Jesus Christ. We believe in incarnation. We continue to seek God in one another, and to affirm the presence of God in people, even in people who think and act differently from us.

In short, we are not an hierarchical church! The primates do not run the parishes of The Episcopal Church. (In fact, our bishops don’t actually run them either! In times of controversy, it is not healthy simply to appeal to higher and higher perceived hierarchies. It is healthier to make principled and Christian stands within our own integrity.)

I urge us, then, to continue living out our service and witness, our love and ministry, in the same Christian ways that we have been living them out. Do not fear! Jesus Christ is with us, leading us in the Spirit into all truth.



MORE DETAILS ON THE 2016 PRIMATES’ RESOLUTION,
IN THE CONTEXT OF THE PAST FIFTEEN YEARS

The operative words of the January 2016 Anglican Communion primates’ resolution, on the matter for further impairments to communion, seem to be these:

“we formally acknowledge this distance [between our positions] by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.”

The phrase, “should not be appointed,” seems to be a request of those making appointments, generally the Archbishop of Canterbury and maybe, in some cases, the Anglican Communion Office. This statement seems to be a hope, and it is up to the “appointers” whether they accept the notion of being “required.”

The phrase, “should not be elected” is, again, a wish. How can anyone enforce, or guarantee, an election, which is generally understood to be a matter of voluntary and free will?

The phrase, “internal standing committee” is a bit ambiguous. Perhaps this phrase refers to the rather newly formed “Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion,” whose members include Bishop Ian Douglas of Connecticut.

The phrase, “not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity,” takes up the ongoing matter of who decides doctrine and polity in Anglican Communion churches. This is exactly the matter under dispute across the global communion of churches. The primates have been meeting formally only since 1998! They were never intended to be doctrinal governors! Indeed, the manners in which some primates and bishops are appointed, some selected, some chosen, and some elected, vary widely across the globe. The Lambeth Conference of Bishops, whose first meeting was in 1867, was also never intended to settle matters of doctrine. Votes of Lambeth Conference were never originally intended to become doctrine, even though conservative advocates wanted the 1998 resolution, Lambeth I.10 to be interpreted as such.

Will the hopes and “requirements” of the primates’ January 2016 resolution be enforced? I am of the opinion that they will not be. The points are certainly heartfelt and sincere and faithful. Though I am progressive on these matters, I know that these controversies are painful for everyone.

But God is doing a new thing among us. Word is that the present Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby does desire to bring the matter of sanctioning same sex marriage to the General Synod of The Church of England. The ever witty Giles Fraser, a priest who writes for The Guardian newspaper, notes that same sex marriages are occurring in England now, presided over by ministers due to a strange legal loophole.

Giles Fraser remarks that “The Anglican church is only nominally a top-down organisation. What matters most is what happens on the ground. And on the ground, in pews across England, Scotland, Wales, Canada, Brazil, Korea, Japan and the US, the movement towards marriage equality is inexorable. Whatever piece of paper Justin Welby emerges with, it won’t hold back the tide of history. The best the conservatives can hope for is a few speed bumps. (see entire article here).”

Essentially, the prediction is that, soon, even the original provinces of the Anglican Communion of Churches, in sanctioning same-sex marriage, may well be acting in ways opposed by churches in the so-called Global South.

As for American Episcopalians serving on appointed ecumenical and interreligious boards, it is important to remember that the Archbishop of Canterbury made a similar pronouncement of banning Episcopal Church and Anglican Church of Canada representatives in May of 2010 (in his notorious Pentecost Letter!). But The Anglican Communion Office may have found ways to proceed with American and Canadian representatives anyway. (see the appointment of American Mark McIntosh here,), and see the appointment of Canadian Linda Nicholls here ).

Finally, of course, there is the Anglican Consultative Council, which first met in 1971, and which might better represent the breadth of the Anglican Communion of Churches. That group also represents the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion of Churches, but its voting members are comprised of lay people and priests, in addition to bishops.

I urge The Episcopal Church never, ever, to withdraw from our voting participation in the Anglican Consultative Council. A short remembrance of how The Windsor Report was formalized serves as a warning:

The Windsor Report of 2004, with its proposals for certain moratoria on same-sex blessings, was accepted by vote of the Primates Meeting in 2005. Afterwards, a resolution supporting the Primates’ decisions then came before the Anglican Consultative Council of 2005. However, one of the Primates’ proposals had already been accommodated before its official reception! That is, that members of the ACC from The Episcopal Church and from the Anglican Church of Canada, would absent themselves from official attendance at the next meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council.

Therefore, when the Anglican Consultative Council met in Nottingham, England, in 2005, two delegations were exercising what I would call “gracious restraint.” They knew that the atmosphere was tense, and they wanted to indicate some tangible form of respect for those who disagreed with actions in The Episcopal Church and The Anglican Church of Canada.

Unfortunately, however, the matter of accepting The Windsor Report, and thus further “formalizing” it, and thus further “formalizing” its moratoria, was exactly one of the key matters of ACC-13 in Nottingham. One of the emerging “Instruments of Communion” was voting on a matter without two delegations (each including three members, six people in all).

The vote was close! The vote was 30 in favor of affirming The Windsor Report, with 28 opposed, and with 4 in abstention. The chair determined that the resolution had thus passed, and so the Windsor Report, with its notion of “moratoria,” became further “formalized.” Had the delegations from The Episcopal Church and The Anglican Church of Canada been voting, certainly the results would have been different.

The “lesson” for all Anglicans bears repeating. Stay in communion. Stay at the table. Claim your vote. I acknowledge that such table fellowship is difficult, for believers on all sides of the issues, and especially on this issue of marriage. What we believe about marriage comes from the heart of our theologies of faithfulness and commitment.

Finally, again, “Do not fear” are the familiar words of God’s angels throughout scripture. They are the words of Jesus himself. Be of good courage, be of good cheer, said Jesus, “I have overcome the world.” The world would have us panicked by sensationalistic headlines and simplistic summaries. The world would have us shown as divided against ourselves. But we Episcopalians and Anglicans have far more that unites us than divides us. We have accepted the love of Jesus, and we are committed to loving him more and more, in each of our neighbors and around the globe.



07 January 2016

SAND DOLLARS AND STARS


It's been almost a hundred years since the sand dollar looked like a dollar. Our dollars have turned from gold to silver, and from round discs to sheets of paper. Now, our dollars are figures on a check, or digits on a credit card, or maybe just a swipe of our smartphone.

But the "sand dollar" name persists. It is the name of a lovely shell, a skeleton, really, along the Atlantic coast, and in oceans around the world. Alive, the animal has little spikes, and thus is one of the echinoderm phylum of animals. The word "echinoderm" means "spiny-skinned." The sand dollars that I find on the beach are flaky gray discs, with a beautiful five-pointed star pattern on one side.

That five-pointed star pattern is a good clue that the sand dollar is actually related to the starfish, or what we call the starfish. The true name of the starfish (not a fish, per se) is the sea star.

At the Feast of the Epiphany, we in the Christian Church pause to celebrate a star. It was the sign of a star that led wise men from the east to be searching for the one who would be messiah and who would shepherd God's people. They found the child Jesus.

That star, and stars in general, continue to be signs for us of the light of the world. Somehow, stars indicate a mysterious and powerful light, light that comes to us not just in one line, but in various rays. Light radiating out from its core, in several rays, is what we call a star. Often, we give five rays to a star, but there are obviously so many more.

One of the features of sea stars is that when an arm, or ray, is broken off, another one grows in its place. Its body is able to regenerate. (Echinoderms are known for their radial symmetry.) Such is the power of star light, too. It is able to regenerate.

When we look for light in our lives, we are looking for something powerful enough to regenerate, powerful enough to touch us again and again. We may be looking for something spectacular and heavenly, but the true lights of the world can come from most anywhere. True lights of radiating mercy can come from right beside us, in someone we know. Or from someone we don't know. True lights of radiating mercy may even come from the ground below us, from the ocean mud and the sand.

True lights of radiating mercy can come to us in the form of a gray and flaking skeleton on the beach, a sand dollar. It may look like old currency, but there is something holy in it. It has carried the value of spirit in times past, and it can carry the value of spirit again.

During this season of Epiphany, I want to find the stars of heaven. Those stars may not be in the skies. They may be in the sandy beaches of our state. They may be in what the waves and water have washed up and left behind. With God, there is another chance. God wants to show us light, and God will regenerate that presence, again and again, if we need it.


I hope you find some of God's sand dollars this season. They won't buy you a thing at the shopping mall, but their value will be unsurpassed. They will have the ability to show us, again and again, that God's light and God's love are eternal.

25 December 2015

CHRISTMAS AND THE SOUL LIST OF GOD

“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. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also ….went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.”   (Luke 2:1–5)




Do you have your list with you? I've got mine! I have even signed it!

Surely you have had various Christmas lists. Do you have yours in your pocket still? Have you filled in all the blanks yet?

Most of us have other lists, too. We have grocery lists, shopping lists, recipe lists for the holiday meals, thank-you note lists. So many lists! Apparently, even Santa Claus keeps lists. Next week, we will make out the most difficult list of all – our list of New Year’s Resolutions!

Most everybody makes lists. Check lists. Top Ten lists. Genealogies. When earnest people make a New Year’s Resolution to read the entire New Testament, from beginning to end, they start at the Gospel of Matthew, and are baffled to read only that Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers. Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar, Perez begot Hezron, and Hezron begot Ram, and so on and so on. According to Matthew, the beginning of the New Testament is a list. Someone has said. “Thus begin the begats.” The world is full of lists, no matter where we live or what century it is.

“All the world should be listed.” So declared the decree from the Emperor Augustus, about to impose another tax upon his empire. He demanded that his people register, take a census, make a list. Yes, of course governments like to make lists, because it helps them keep control. So, today, we have taxpayer lists, and we have property records. We register our cars. We register our births. We register our deaths.

And it’s not just governments. We all make lists, whether we like government or not. Every day I make a “To Do” list, a list of the things I hope to achieve today. Alas, I rarely get to the end of that list, but somehow the list comforts me. It makes me think my day has been organized. It makes me feel like I have control.

Do any of you remember the writer, Umberto Eco? He is perhaps most famous for his book, “The Name of the Rose,”  written years ago; but he continues to write as a philosopher in Italy, and a true wonder. He cheerfully admits that he likes lists. A few years ago, it was his task to catalogue a special exhibition at the Louvre, in Paris. Someone interviewed him (Spiegel magazine in November 2009) about why cataloguing was important. Why making a list was important. 

Umberto Eco replied that, “the list is the origin of culture. It's part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It …wants to create order… How does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.”

Umberto Eco went on to say that,  “The list doesn't destroy culture; it creates it. …. It's a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don't want to die.”

Umberto Eco is right! Something in us likes lists; they keep us alive. One of our favorite songs is a list, so catchy that John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner made a jazz version of it:

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
…..Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings
These are a few of my favorite things

Keeping things alive, creating order, making infinity comprehensible, our culture likes to make lists especially at the end of the year. We see titles like, “the top heroes of the past year,” “the top ten movies of 2015, “ the top twenty vacation spots for 2016,” “ten ways to lose weight in the upcoming year.”

Connecting us to the culture around us, lists give us the feeling that we are in control.

But, there are two kinds of lists. Some lists are required of us, ways that our culture or the empire wants to take something from us. These are demanding and obligating lists. Such was the list of the emperor Augustus Caesar, who required a census, that everyone be registered with the empire. And there is always an empire, no matter what century we are in. Whether you have seen the latest Star Wars movie or not, that movie does remind you that one thing never changes: there is always an empire!

Empires want control over us, and they make lists which take things from us. When we absorb lists of “top ten vacation spots, top ten ways to lose weight, top ten investment opportunities,” we are letting ourselves be controlled by what they describe. We can turn most anything into an idolatrous empire.

But there is a second kind of list: not lists which take things from us, but lists of things we want to give. Christmas lists are the supreme example. The Christmas list consists of what we want to give, people to whom we want to give.

There is nothing better than this second kind of list, a list not of obligations, but a list of thanksgivings. The best list is for what we want to give.

We remember the Christmas story tonight because we want to join the soul of Christmas. We want to join the heroes of Christmas, those who know how to give. The heroes are the shepherds who give glory to God.The three kings give, because they want to honor a new kind of king, not a ruler over an empire or kingdom, but a Lord who teaches the world to give, and not to take.

And Mary, dear Mother Mary, gives. Mary is just like any other woman who gives birth. She gives away some of herself. She gives away some of her soul.

And God gives, too. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away – in fact, in an eternity long ago—God made a list. God made a list when he decided to give. Knowing that he would be giving away something of himself when he created life, God made a list.

That list is us! That list is all of God’s creation. God gives himself to that creation list, creation which is earth and air and water, birds and animals and fish, trees and flowers and grasses, all God’s favorite things, “wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings,” and finally a list of us – humanity: blacks and whites and browns and eastern and western – the whole catalogue of humanity. The entire taxonomy of flora and fauna in the world is God’s holy list.

God’s list is us.

God signs his great list with the person of Jesus: Jesus, the signature of God.
We honor Jesus because Jesus is the sign that God has given truly of himself. Yes, God’s autograph is Jesus of Nazareth, flesh and blood, the title and signature of God’s great soul list.

All the world is registered tonight, but not registered with the Emperor Augustus. All the world is registered with the Holy.

We are on God’s giving list tonight. God has given soul to us. In the same way, our giving lists show us where our soul is: Christmas lists. Prayer lists. Thank-you note lists. Lists of things for which we are grateful.

Giving lists show us where our soul is. Make a list this year of those you love. That is your soul list. Make a list of what you are giving thanks for. That is your soul list. Make a list of what you want to give away. That is your soul list. Your soul list is for giving.

The lists which truly give us life, which give us soul, are the lists of things that we intend to give.

Christmas is for giving.  Christmas is for giving our souls. When we give, we gain freedom. When we give, we gain infinity! When we give, we make infinity comprehensible, and the Word becomes flesh, and dwells among us, full of grace and truth.

Amen.

The Very Reverend Samuel G. Candler
Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip

(this is the sermon for Christmas Eve, 2015, delivered by Sam Candler at the Cathedral of St. Philip, Atlanta, Georgia)