Thursday, December 25, 2014

Malala's Magnificat | A Sermon for Christmas Eve

preached at All Saints Church in Pasadena at the 5:30 p.m. service Christmas Eve 2014

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, goodwill among all people.”

So there we have it. The familiar words that conclude the Christmas Story in Luke’s gospel echo in our ears once again on this Christmas Eve as we gather surrounded by light and beauty and music and community to celebrate the mystery of Christmas. We welcome again the promise of new life in the birth of this Christmas baby. We wonder again at the power of a love great enough to triumph over death and we claim a Christmas Truth greater than any of the traditions it inspires: the mystical longing of the creature for the creator – the finite for the infinite -- the human for the divine.

One of those traditions it inspires is the lighting of the Advent wreath – candle by candle through the Sundays of Advent – until tonight when it glows with all its candles fully ablaze. When my boys were little, lighting the candles on the Advent wreath on the dining room table was a really big deal. I'd like to think it was because they had grasped the significance of the Advent season as a time of spiritual preparation for the coming of our Lord. However, I suspect it was because if the Advent Wreath was there, the tree and presents couldn't be far behind! 

Yes, we love our Advent wreath. And yet, like any beloved tradition, we can run into trouble when the symbol becomes more important than what it symbolizes. An Advent wreath case in point was an energetic exchange on a Facebook group called “Episcopalians on Facebook” in response to a question from someone who identified as “a new Episcopalian” about what color the candles should be on the Advent Wreath.

Three hundred and eighty six comments later – and no, I did not read them all – it became clear that there was GREAT division amongst the ranks between the three purple and one pink people and the three blue and one pink people. And don’t even ask about the reaction to the “what about four red candles – that looks more Christmassy” lone wolf – who was well and truly hounded out of the conversation as an Advent Heretic. 

Suffice to say it was not an exercise in social media Christian charity. 

And finally one voice of clarity weighed in with this brief comment: “Silly me. I thought the point was the light from the candles ... not the color of the candles.” 

Yes, the point of candles we light IS the light. The Advent candles are points of light in the darkness which surrounds us – and we light them – week by week – in anticipation of our hearts being filled again with this Christmas promise: 

"What has come into being in Jesus was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

And this year, it seemed to me, was a particularly dark Advent. 

Night after night we lit the candles on the Advent wreath on our dining room table with the "breaking news" of the day echoing in our ears and in our hearts: the Ferguson Grand Jury decision; Eric Garner's poignant cry of "I can't breathe;" the Torture Report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee; the anniversary of the Newtown tragedy with its reminder of the ongoing scourge of gun violence in our nation. 

And all the while my email inbox and Facebook page were bombarded by pleas to "Keep Christ in Christmas" – followed by helpful hints on smacking down friends or neighbors who offend the Christmas Code by saying "Happy Holidays." 

Like I said, it was a particularly dark Advent.

Maybe that’s why the candles seemed to burn a tiny bit brighter … not only the actual candles we lit here at All Saints Church or the ones my wife Lori and I lit at home on our dining room table … but the virtual candles that were lit in the messages of hope, peace, joy and love that emerged from that darkness during the weeks of Advent preparation for this O Holy Night. 

And maybe what helped me recognize them was that – like a whole boatload of other people – I’ve been trying to take on the discipline of mindfulness – of being in the moment. Of being not just “present and accounted for,” but “present and aware of.”

Now this is easier said than done in an age of multi-tasking, multi-platform, multi-connectivity – and it is most definitely not my own person “default mode.” So it did indeed qualify as a discipline. 

But during Advent I tried to spend each week being mindful of where I saw the lights of hope, of peace, of joy and of love shining in the darkness. And here are some of the lights I saw … starting with Hope. 

“Advent is the season when Christians are called to live with more hope than the world thinks is reasonable” – wrote Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. Tonight is the night that we glimpse the incarnation of that hope – more hope than the world thinks is reasonable – represented for us as Christians in the baby in the manger. 

“Peace is not just mere absence of violence. Peace is, I think, the manifestation of human compassion” – said the Dalai Lama. Tonight is the night we hear again the angels proclaim God’s desire for peace on earth and goodwill to ALL – not just some – people. And we experience again the unique manifestation of compassion: the sudden, amazing and incomprehensible gift of grace from a God who loved us enough to become one of us in order to show us how to love one another. 

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement: [to] get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” On the third Sunday of Advent, Ed Bacon challenged us to “choose joy” – and these words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel – which were making the rounds on Facebook as a meme – captured my imagination as the “how to” part of Ed’s “choose joy” challenge. Tonight is the night when we stand – once again – at the manger and our hearts sing “Joy to the World” in radical amazement.

Hope, Peace and Joy. And that brings us to the fourth candle – Love. 

These are the words Malala Yousafzai spoke earlier this month when she became the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize: 

Dear brothers and sisters,
 the so-called world of adults may understand it,
but we children don't.
Why is it that countries which we call "strong"
 are so powerful in creating wars
but so weak in bringing peace?
 Why is it that giving guns is so easy
 but giving books is so hard?
 Why is it that making tanks is so easy,
 building schools is so difficult?

And in her words -- the words of a young, Muslim school girl targeted for violence by extremists of her own faith for daring to both aspire to and speak out for the education of women – I heard the echo of these words attributed to another young girl – a Jewish girl who extolled the greatness of God in these timeless words we call "The Magnificat:"

He has shown strength with his arm;
 he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
 and lifted up the lowly;
 he has filled the hungry with good things,
 and sent the rich away empty.

For the God Mary extolled in her Magnificat – the God who gave her the courage to say "yes" to the extraordinary call to be the bearer of the Christ Child in the 1st century – is the same God who inspires Malala with the courage to be an agent of change for love, justice and compassion in the 21st. 

To lift up the lowly. To challenge the proud and the powerful. To fill those hungry for education with good things. This is the God who upsets the applecart of the establishment and turns the tables on the powerful. This is the God who entrusts the incarnation of the Good News of God's inclusive love to an unwed mother in an occupied territory. This is the God who uses the voice of a Pakistani school girl to send a message-heard-round-the-world challenging the status quo and giving hope to the hopeless. Making God’s love tangible in powerful and unexpected ways. 

This is Malala’s Magnificat: a light shining in the darkness in a life lived in alignment with God’s love, justice and compassion. 

It has been a particularly dark Advent -- and so I give particular thanks on this Christmas Eve for the gift of mindfulness. 

For awareness of the hope, peace, joy and love – lit like Advent candles in the darkness of 21st century breaking news: in the words of a Presiding Bishop, a Tibetan Buddhist, a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim schoolgirl. I give thanks for the diversity of those voices and for the reminder that What is coming into being in Jesus this Holy Night is life; life that is the light of all people. No matter what tribe, gender, faith, tradition -- or what color you think the Advent wreath candles should be. 

And so on this “O Holy Night” may we resist the Christmas temptation that is greater than all the Eggnog and Christmas Cookies in Christendom. And that is the temptation to “put Christ into Christmas” only to leave him there: to receive with joy the gift of the Word made flesh on this Christmas Eve and fail to live as the Body of Christ the other 364 days of the year.

My brothers and sisters, as we celebrate tonight the wonder of the amazing gift of our brother Jesus born of our sister Mary – with all of its beloved trappings and traditions – may we also be given the grace to keep the hope of Christmas alive in the year ahead. May we receive the gift of "Malala's Magnificat" and the light she is kindling in the world. It is a light that transcends gender, tribe and religion – calling us each to find in our own lives and in our own contexts the courage to scatter the proud, to lift up the lowly and -- all the while – to magnify the Lord. 

And as we claim both the gift and the challenge of living lives of radical amazement, may we be given the energy and imagination to hold onto more hope than the world thinks is reasonable as we go out into this “O Holy Night” as bearers of the lights of hope, of peace, of joy and most all of love.

Merry Christmas! Amen.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

comment on TREC

Brief comment on recently released TREC Report (Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church):
Deeply grateful to all who worked so hard on this monumental charge. And I have absolutely every intention of caring about this very, very soon -- and am dutifully bookmarking smart things good people are saying about this important work -- but right now am in parish-priest-scrambling-to-get-it-all-done-before-Baby Jesus-hits-the-manger mode.

The good news from my corner of the kingdom is that the church is alive and well -- and so working to reimagine it to make it better is a good thing; fretting about the need to resuscitate it is an unnecessary thing.
Here endeth the brief comment on the recently released TREC Report. We now return to our regularly scheduled Advent program in progress.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Bits and Pieces ...

It's been an unusually busy Advent so far ... including the privilege of being part of the #BlackLivesMatter March here in Pasadena on 12/14 -- AKA "National Black Solidarity Sunday." [photos here]

I did mange to write a short piece for the Huffington Post -- "Malala's Magnificat" -- which turned out to be the beginnings of my Christmas Eve sermon.

We've also launched a Advent Calendar of daily meditations from All Saints Church ... commend them to you here.

AND ... on a personal note ... my son graduated from college on Saturday with his B.A. Here's the note I posted on FB:

Just have to take a minute to send a shout to my brilliant, kind, amusing, creative and occasionally sardonic son Jim Russell (AKA Jamie to his mom) who is tomorrow -- December 13, 2014 -- graduating from WKU (AKA Western Kentucky University) with his B.A. in Social Studies and a teaching credential -- having completed the final semester of his undergraduate career with straight A's.

I know. Seriously. Am I a proud mom or what?

We're not going to dwell on the fact he only told us he was graduating two weeks ago -- leaving no time for us to reorganize heaven and earth to get there to watch him walk tomorrow. But he's promised [a] lots of pictures and [b] more warning when he finishes his Masters ... which he'll start on in January.

Some of you "knew him when" back in Ventura and Cucamonga days ... some of you helped us pray him through his active duty in the Army ... some of you just know him from pictures I post on FB. But however you know him, share our pride today as we celebrate this great big fat accomplishment.

GREAT job, sweetie. We are SOOOO proud of you!
And ... here are the pics he sent:

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Thus Spake the Diocese of Los Angeles on Marriage Equality

This is what it looked like when the question had been called and the main motion -- the "Resolution Regarding Marriage Equality" -- was voted on today at the 119th Convention of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Los Angeles.

The language of the resolution was simple:
Resolved, that the One Hundred Nineteenth Annual Meeting of the Church in the Diocese of Los Angeles direct that the following resolution be filed with the Secretary of the General Convention for consideration by the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church:
Resolved, the Diocese of Los Angeles urges the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church to take any and all steps necessary to make the Rite of Holy Matrimony available to same-sex couples throughout The Episcopal Church immediately.
Jim White -- the chair of our diocesan deputation to General Convention -- introduced the resolution with these words:
Right Reverend, Sir, on behalf of the entire Deputation to General Convention, I present this Resolution on Marriage Equality. As delegates will see, we have written it as simply as possible, requesting that General Convention “take any and all steps necessary to make the rite of Holy Matrimony available to same-sex couples throughout the Episcopal Church immediately.”

If I may give a brief overview of the sausage factory that is the General Convention legislative process, the bulk of the work is done in General Convention’s legislative committees. Resolutions dealing with the same topic are sent to a single legislative committee to be perfected into a single resolution that eventually makes it to the floor of the Houses. There will be many resolutions on the topic of Marriage Equality at this upcoming Convention, and in fact, the Presiding Officers (the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies) have already announced that there will be a special legislative committee dealing just with the topic of Marriage. That committee will have members who are much better versed in the Canons and Constitution, as well as the rubrics of the Prayer Book, than are most of us are we. For that reason, we have not attempted to tell them how to go about making the necessary changes, rather just expressing our desire that they make them. We’ll leave the nuts and bolts up to them. It is our sincere hope that this Convention does not attempt to amend this resolution with those types of details as we believe that will just muddy the waters.

We should also say that it would have been possible for any three of us to have collaborated and written a Deputy’s resolution, or for 3 of you Bishops to have gotten together and written a Bishop’s resolution. But we felt that this issue was important enough that it should carry the weight of the whole Diocese submitting it. We hope this convention agrees with us that the Diocese of Los Angeles wants to stand on the right side of history and call the Episcopal Church to end marriage discrimination against same-sex couples.
Following that introduction, there was discussion from the floor. About a  half-dozen folks spoke. One senior priest saying how much he hoped we could move this forward and give him what he needed to respond to all couples equally in his parish. One "usual suspect" (every convention has one!) wanted to move an amendment to change "immediately" to "as soon as possible" (seriously!) ... and then muddied the waters a little by conflating the issues of civil marriage and holy matrimony.

As I went to Microphone 2 to clarify that issue, another delegate at Microphone 3 spoke to God having created Adam and Eve for a reason and something about the gay men he knew not being "wired" for marriage.

Jesus gave me the wisdom to stick to what I'd gotten up to say and I so stuck to my clarifying comments. on the work of the Marriage Task Force and the purpose of this resolution -- to add the voice of the Diocese of Los Angeles to those urging the Episcopal Church to move forward on marriage equality at General Convention in Salt Lake City.

We then heard from one delegate to told us if we moved forward on equal marriage for same-sex couples missionaries would be dismembered in Syria. And then, finally, a delegate rose to share that when he and his partner of 35 years were married last year, it would have "meant a lot to them" to have been able to have their church offer them the same rite of Holy Matrimony straight couples received ... and he urged passage of this resolution. And there was much applause. And the question was called. And the resolution was adopted. And we moved on to the next item on the agenda.

And I'll admit to getting a little teary. When Nat, our transitional deacon hugged me and said, "congratulations" I thought about all the water under all the bridges during all those conventions and all the talking-across-the-divides and all the contentious floor fights and reconciliation task forces and compromise resolutions and everything else that got us to this point.

And I had to just pause for a moment and be amazed. And grateful. Tomorrow I'll be back to work on on making today's resolution a reality. But for the moment, I'm grateful just to sit in the gratitude that this is what it looked like when the question had been called and main motion -- the "Resolution Regarding Marriage Equality" -- was voted on today at the 119th Convention of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Los Angeles.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Resolution regarding Marriage Equality

The following resolution will be considered by the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles at its upcoming Diocesan Convention -- to be held December 5th/6th in Ontario. If you are a delegate to that convention I urge your support. Thank you!

Resolution regarding Marriage Equality 

Resolved, that the One Hundred Nineteenth Annual Meeting of the Church in the Diocese of Los Angeles direct that the following resolution be filed with the Secretary of the General Convention for consideration by the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church:

Resolved, the Diocese of Los Angeles urges the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church to take any and all steps necessary to make the Rite of Holy Matrimony available to same-sex couples throughout The Episcopal Church immediately.


At General Convention 2012 the resolution authorizing Liturgical Resources for Blessing Same-Gender Relationships (A049) included authorization for bishops to exercise “generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this Church” and the “adaptation of these materials to meet the needs of members of this Church.”

In the years since 2012, the cultural landscape has shifted so dramatically that civil marriage equality has become a reality for a majority of Episcopalians in the United States  In some dioceses clergy are blessing civil marriages between same-sex couples and in others the A049 resources have been adapted for clergy to bless them on behalf of The Episcopal Church and to solemnize them as agents of their state.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously said during the March 2013 oral arguments on DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) “There are two kinds of marriages; full marriage and the skim milk marriage.” In June 2013 the Supreme Court ruled against those skim milk marriages in United States vs. Windsor – opening the way for equal federal protections for same-sex marriages.

Our Bishops, along with bishops from all six dioceses in the State of California, joined other faith leaders in amicus curiae briefs supporting the overturn of Proposition 8 and the repeal of DOMA. And the 77th General Convention overwhelming adopted Resolution D018 urging Congress to end discrimination against same-sex marriage and to repeal DOMA.

It is time to act consistently with our words and witness to marriage equality. As we continue to call the state to equally protect all marriages in our culture at large, it is time to make Holy Matrimony a sacrament for all who seek it appropriately in the Church.

The time has come for The Episcopal Church to move beyond the skim milk of generous pastoral response and adapted materials for same-sex marriages and to acknowledge the equal sanctity of all marriages by making the Rite of Holy Matrimony equally available to same and opposite sex couples.

Submitted by:
Canon Jim White
General Convention Deputation; Chair
on behalf of the General Convention Deputation

Tuesday, December 02, 2014