Saturday, December 22, 2012

Thoughts from Bishop Jake

Wednesday, December 19, 2012            
Dear Sisters and Brothers,
The tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut, have left us all stunned and sorrowful. You can read my initial response from Friday by clicking this link. Later, I provided a theological reflection about this violence and the love of God in the sermon "Where Was God in That?" and you can read it by clicking this link.

Many have wondered how to celebrate Christmas when so many of our fellow citizens find themselves stricken with grief. The dissonance between our usual seasonal gladness and the horror of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School suggests to some that we should forgo joy and celebration this year out of respect for and solidarity with those who mourn.

This is an understandable but misguided impulse. In all things--especially in the face of sorrow, pain, and death--followers of Jesus help each other remember, and announce to the doubting world, that God's love conquers death and his light dissolves all darkness.

Our celebration of the Nativity of Jesus Christ reminds us that God enters even our darkest, most harrowing places. When we find ourselves in such a place--and Newtown brings us all to such a place--there is no more fitting time to remember Emmanuel. God with us.

We do not dishonor those who have died or turn an indifferent heart to those who grieve when we experience with joy the birth of the Son of God. Instead, we realize with greater depth and clarity why this birth was necessary for us and what an unspeakably wonderful gift we have received.

Nothing we say or do can make whole again what was shattered last Friday in Newtown. Lives and hearts and souls lie in pieces on the ground. And yet, what is beyond our capacity to repair God himself has begun to restore through the birth of Jesus. He makes himself vulnerable to our deepest sorrows and our most agonizing pain in order to bring us joy and healing that we cannot produce for ourselves.

And so I bid you to celebrate this Christmas with joy, because we are celebrating the healing power of the manger. Heaven has bent low to touch the earth. To turn death into eternal life. To exchange crushing sorrow for tender, undying jubilation. To redeem even and especially the tragedy of Newtown.

Joy and the whole Owensby family join me in wishing you every Christmas blessing. May the joy and peace of Jesus Christ be yours this day and forever more.
In Christ's Love,


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Choose Joy

Here's the sermon I preached at St. Alban's last sunday:                       

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.

That’s the collect we prayed just a few minutes ago, the one we pray every third Sunday of Advent. It goes with the lighting of the third candle of the Advent wreath, the pink candle of joy.

And that makes perfect sense, because what could bring greater joy to the hearts and minds of God’s people than the expectation that God will once again be stirred by our plea and with great might come among us?

The early part of this week—after turning in my grades in the nick of time Monday—I spent many of my spare moments thinking about what I might say about that today.

I thought of the great joys of this season, the anticipation of children of all ages, the eagerness with which we look forward to not only gifts under a tree and a feast with our families, but the moments sharing familiar carols and kneeling at a manager gazing in wide-eyed wonder at God become flesh to dwell among us.

And then came Friday, and the cruel and senseless deaths of 20 mere babes and a number of adults in Connecticut.

How can we light the candle of joy when our hearts are broken?

How can we sing—at all, much less “Joy to the World”—when the worlds of so many have been dealt a blow that will color every remaining moment of their lives?

How can we pray and believe that God has and does and will always come among us with great might when we continue to be so sorely hindered by the evil and tragedy that is so a part of the human condition?

I have just two responses that make sense to me this sad morning.

The first is that joy is something we choose, even when we do not feel joyful.

In other words, we tend to think of joy as only an emotion, something we must feel. And we do feel joyful when things in our lives go well, when our children make good grades or graduate from college. When our work is appreciated. When sick people get well. When the love we feel toward another is returned in kind. When the world makes sense.

But when things do not go our way, when our love is rejected, when good people suffer… and most of all when those we love are snatched from us and this life in the most senseless ways, then frustration, sadness, and deep grief drive the joy from our lives. We are bereft. We cannot imagine ever feeling joyful again.

Yet even then, we can choose joy. Especially then, joy is a choice we make in faith. As children of the living, Incarnate God, we go to the graves of our dreams and plans and exalted expectations, even to the graves of family and friends, and ultimately to our own grave, saying, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

The second response that makes sense to me this morning is to claim for our own what John the Baptizer offers to those who had gathered to hear him preach so long ago (Luke 3:7-18, NRSV). What should we do? they ask.

Now the context of today’s Gospel story is somewhat different from our own. John has been doing what John did so well, namely preaching hellfire and brimstone. Indeed, he has just called at least some of his listener’s a brood of vipers!

Those remarks were most likely directed at the religious leadership of the day, who did not take kindly to crudely dressed prophets drawing ordinary folks away from official religion, telling them the good news of salvation at hand and baptizing them in a river on the edge of the wilderness. John was clearly a threat to their power and influence.

But as is often the case, the ordinary folk, the ones with the least power and influence, are the ones who take John’s message most to heart. To them, calamity was at hand. And so they ask John, What should we do?

And John gives them simple, gentle instructions about how to live as those who have accepted God’s love and mercy, as those who have chosen joy in faith that God is with us.

Give your second coat to one who has none, says John. Share your food with those who are hungry. Don’t cheat. Don’t bully. Care for one another as God cares for you.

These are the same instructions Jesus the Christ gave us over and over: Welcome the stranger, visit the prisoner, love your enemy. And today, especially in light of Friday’s calamity, find someone who grieves and be with them in their grief.

We cannot all rush off to Connecticut, or to the many places worldwide where violence and suffering abound. But we can reach out in love and kindness to those who suffer in our very own community. It is how we express the joy we have chosen in faith, even when our hearts are heavy.

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.


Saturday, December 15, 2012

Christmas Party

St. Thomas's will have its annual Christmas Party tonight, December 15 at 6:00 p.m. at Harvey's Dance Hall.

Harvey's Dance Hall is located at 500 DeSiard Street in downlown Monroe. From Interstate 20, take the Hall Street Exit (#117A.) Go North 4 blocks. The Dance Hall is on the corner of Hall and DeSiard Streets. It will be on the right-hand corner. Note that Hall Street is a one-way street going north.

Hope to see you all there!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Commencement Invocation

I thought you all might enjoy this photograph. Because the pastor scheduled to give the invocation at ULM's commencement decided to go to New Orleans to a football game at the last minute, I was called upon to fill in. It was a great privilege to get to do the invocation at Will's graduation! Fr. Walter Baer attended and took this photo. Here's the prayer I wrote especially for commencement invocations:

God of mystery and splendor, from age to age your devotion to all creation never wavers. You constantly enfold us with extravagant care. At life’s every turn we are sustained by your ancient love that continually refreshes us.

Blessed Creator and sustainer of life, we give thanks this day for this university and for the teaching and learning that happen hear. We give thanks for all who make it possible: for dedicated faculty and students, and for the support of staff and administrators. We give thanks for family and friends who sustain the educational endeavor in so many ways, from paying bills to offering words of encouragement when the going gets tough, and above all, for always believing in our ability to succeed.

This day we are especially thankful for this graduating class, for the failures from which they have learned and for the challenges they have faced and overcome.

We ask now that the skills and knowledge they have gained here be crowned with wisdom. May they go forth guided by the light of your love. As they move through their lives, may they continue to learn and grow. And may they always use their privilege as educated people to create a world of peace and justice in which all peoples of the world live and thrive.

Blessed are You, Creator God, Lord of the Universe, who is good and causes good. Praise and glory be to you, Gracious Mystery. We trust that you will rise to answer us when we call upon your Holy Name this day and always. AMEN.