I wonder how many of you remember Kathryn Kuhlman. Ms. Kuhlman, who died in 1976, was a well known evangelist and faith healer. Her television program featured a now familiar mix of preaching, music (with Dino at the piano) and faith healings. Ms. Kuhlman began each of her broadcasts with these very carefully enunciated words, “I believe in miracles” or more precisely in Ms. Kuhlman’s own inimitable pronunciation, “I believe-a in miracles.”
Christmas is here – this silent and holy night. We are here together in this lovely church to be still before a great and mighty wonder. On this holy night God spoke one word, which was his Son. And the word was made flesh – and we have come to worship and adore him.
Spread out before us is this beautiful crèche, lovingly made from olive wood by woodcarvers in Bethlehem. I love to just stand and gaze at it – with wide-eyed wonder, like a child. I love the shepherd at the end, playing the pipes. And the shepherd gazing at Jesus, while gently and with immense care and affection, holding his sheep. And right at the far end the straggler camel, coming behind everyone else. And there, right in the middle, the beautiful figure of Joseph, with his hands cupped, looking at Mary and Jesus with adoration, amazement, wonder.
“Their sound has gone out into all lands…” So goes a bit of Psalm 19. Our sermons now go out into all lands on the Internet. So I hesitate to admit what I’m about to, lest I expose myself to international ridicule and opprobrium. Others will have to decide whether to suppress this confession in the electronic media: some days, when I feel like I could use a little self-indulgence, I make my way over to Burdick’s Chocolate Shop. Then I order a pot of tea and “a little somethin’”. The “little somethin’” is usually a slice of their chocolate mousse cake: a thin but intense layer of chocolate ganache on top, then a thick, creamy layer of chocolate mousse, and at the bottom, a layer of chocolate sponge cake—soaked in Poire William, (that’s the liqueur that comes with a whole pear inside the bottle). Three clearly differentiated layers unified in a common theme: chocolate! Three manifestations of chocolate in one glorious epiphany. Hallelujah for chocolate! It makes me happy to know that something in this world can be so delicious.
You may have heard me say in the past that the Christian faith, and specifically the liturgical cycle of feasts and fasts is one of the few ways that connects many of us to the world around or rather, under us. In the past few decades wide open spaces have turned into strip malls. Soil has become a toxic waste, and our feet rarely touch the ground. It is not because we have finally discovered how to fly. Rather it is because out cities have become concrete canyons. In places like Toronto and Montreal there exist a labyrinthine system of tunnels and underground shops, office buildings and walkways which connect most of the downtown to the subway system. There you never have to go outside to swelter on a hot and humid July afternoon, or freeze on a frigid February morning. We have become observers to the world outside us, sheltered from the elements by air conditioning and central heating. Electricity extends the day, far beyond nightfall and what we can do and when we can do it is no longer limited by our need to cooperate with nature, but rather by our ability to harness it.
The New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini had an article over the weekend about his encounter as a twelve year old with the Ballades of Chopin—actually, the first one in G Minor, and, especially, a certain three-note turn of phrase toward the beginning. He goes on to write about those musical moments that are so powerful that, in an instant, indelible impressions are made and lives are changed. Even children are susceptible to these occasions of transcendent beauty. Perhaps especially children.
As a teenager, my favorite musical and social activity was being in a church handbell choir. It was so important to me that I chose a college with a handbell choir. That greatly limited my options, and it brought me to Massachusetts, for which I’m thankful! In high school I also began solo ringing. Rather than a choir in which a dozen ringers each has a few notes, I rang from a six-foot table full of bells with a piano accompaniment. It is delightful but unusual art form. From solos at my home parish and my college chapel, most everyone knew me as “the bell guy.” When visiting my home parish, inevitably someone still recalls the bell solos and asks if I keep ringing. I haven’t rung for years. I have new pursuits and even new nicknames. Yet to many, I’m still “the bell guy.” That memory sticks. Visiting California, I usually run into that memory.
It’s refreshing that the Scriptures present folks just as they are. We see the characters in the Bible, warts and all. From Joseph’s lying and deceit, to King David’s adultery and murder, to Saul’s murderous campaign against the early Christians – it’s all there. And now, it’s Jesus’ own disciples who are exposed.
It might have been tempting for the gospel writers to cast these disciples in a better light, to put a more positive “spin” on their words and actions, to “photo-shop” their portraits in the gospels by covering up the blemishes. It might have been tempting to re-tell the story in a way that made them seem a little more heroic and a little less human.
Before I came to this country, I was the rector of the parish of St. Mary’s Welwyn in Hertfordshire, just north of London. It is a very ancient parish, part of the building had been paid for by King Edward the Confessor – and on one of the walls there is a panel listing all the rectors of the parish with their names and dates. They go back for a thousand years. It was always a strange feeling to read the names – Saxon names, Norman French names – and then right at the end, my name!
I doubt that there are many people here today who believe that the Bible was handed down by God intact (and in English) in the year 1611, in the form of the King James Version. What you may not realize, though, is that there has not always been universal agreement about just which books should be included in the Bible, and that one of the books that has had a little trouble with Church authorities over the centuries is the letter of James from which we have heard a passage read today. It was only in the late fourth century in the West and the fifth century in the East that the letter was widely accepted as Scripture; in the sixteenth century, Martin Luther would have liked to have had it removed from the Bible. In his introduction to James in his German translation of the Bible, Luther said, in effect, “It’s not in my canon” — i.e., it was not a book he considered to be the inspired word of God.
What’s heaven going to be like? Do you ever wonder? Have you ever had any glimpses of heaven? For me, one of the times I’ve glimpsed heaven has been those wonderful meals you share with really good friends, where you eat and drink and chat and laugh for hours and hours, and it seems just a few minutes. And you never want the meal to end.
And in Scripture, heaven is very often described in terms of a great meal – a feast – a banquet. And so in our readings today. “On this mountain,” writes Isaiah, “the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine.” And then in our Psalm today, Psalm 23, we read those lovely words, “You spread a table before me…You have anointed my head with oil and my cup is running over.” And in today’s Gospel we have this parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.”