Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Reflections before an annual meeting . . .

Those of you visiting or relatively new to the parish will assume that I scheduled the Annual Meeting on this day to coincide with the readings from Corinthians and Luke.  In particular, if you are here because of the work we have been doing against Human Trafficking, you now know the passage from which the “ransom note” t-shirt comes and the words which drive most of our ministries around here.  Of course, far many more of you have been here a while.  You have known me six years.  You know that neither I nor the Vestry plan that well.  In truth, the date was encouraged by our by-laws, and I did not see the readings until Robin printed them out for the lecterns.  But, yes, I did give a fist pump.  Is there a better set of readings for us as we head into an Annual Meeting?  The pranksters among us might suggest John 11:35 (and yes, I am going to make you look that one up if you want in on the joke), but Luke 4:18-19 sure describes a great deal of our calling as a parish.  I find it amazingly appropriate for us to consider this day the verses which we so often use in public.

Notice where this pericope occurs in Luke’s narrative.  This passage follows the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness right after His baptism and comes before the healing ministry which should confirm His identity in the sight of those who witnessed the events.  The dove has already anointed Jesus as the Christ.  Satan has tried unsuccessfully to dissuade Him from His mission.  Jesus has returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit.  So what does He do?  He goes to church.  Technically, He goes to synagogue, but the purpose is the same.  He goes to the gathering of God’s people to worship God and give thanks to God for the blessings of this life.  One of our struggles around here has been attendance at worship.  “Community Meal was my worship, Father.”  “I was just tired this week, Father.”  “I just wasn’t feeling like worshiping, you know.  He feels a little distant in my life right now, and I just couldn’t get up for it.”  “Well, I had this scheduled and that scheduled and, you know, I didn’t think about attending one of the midweek services.”  Sound familiar?  Perhaps this narrative speaks to you about your attendance.  Maybe you find yourself distant from God.  Maybe you have forgotten all that He has done for His people and for you.  Perhaps it should speak to all of us.  Is our worship stale?  Are our services no longer creating that thin space where this world and the next meet through the sacrament?  These are certainly questions we need to be asking both individually and as a worship community, and an annual meeting serves as a good time to take an inventory of such things.

Of course, the pericope is only beginning with Jesus attending worship.  Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah and then gives the most amazing sermon on the lesson.  “Today  the Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  Jesus takes the declaration of Isaiah and applies it directly to Himself.  Is He egotistical and simply bragging?  Has He lost His mind?  Certainly not.  Initially, those in attendance were amazed at His gracious words.  Better still, those miracles which follow testify to His authority and to the truth of His sermon.  He has come to preach good news to the poor.  He has come to set the prisoners free.  And we know by His life, His death on the cross, His Resurrection, and His Ascension that He was anointed by God and that He successfully completed the mission given Him by His heavenly Father.  Truly that congregation present was given an amazing insight into the plan of salvation.  Like us today, some accepted Jesus; others rejected Him.

Those that accept Jesus’ message, naturally, are among the anawim--the so called pious poor--of the Old Testament.  Samuel, Amos, Isaiah, and the Psalmists refer to this group as the humble whom God will exalt.  Yes, many are economically disadvantaged, but not all are.  The “pious poor” to whom Jesus is sent to proclaim freedom and release are those who recognize that they need God.  Some are prophets, some are economically well off, some won’t even be Israelites, as Jesus will remind us next week as His teaching continues.  Put in modern worship words, these are the people with contrite hearts, and Jesus is here to proclaim a specific message to them and to those who eventually reject Him.  Are we, both individually and corporately, among the anawim.  Do we truly recognize our need for God in our lives and in our parish?  Or are we about glorifying ourselves?  Just as importantly, do we minister to those pious poor in our midst the way God is truly calling us?  Are we ignoring some?  Are we paying to those who might not be among the pious poor that God has called us to serve?  Again, the annual meeting serves as a great time for us to pause, both individually and corporately, and examine ourselves and our ministries.  Are we proclaiming Him in all that we say and do, and are we inviting others to join us in our calling?

As a congregation, you and I might better understand than some of our brothers and sisters in the world around us the significance of the “year of the Lord’s favor” with which He is tasked to proclaim.  Those who studied Deuteronomy for three years around here can answer all your questions on the subject, but God taught a unique economic system in Israel, an unique system which was, for the most part, ignored by His people.  In those days there were no credit cards.  If you lacked funds to pay for necessary items, there was a kind of slavery.  One could sell oneself to the one to whom a debt was owed.  The catch was that every seventh year, all those enslaved in Israel were to be set free.  In other words, no enslavement could last more than six years.  Think of how radical such a system was.  Think of the testimony it would have given to the nations around Israel had they upheld it and God had blessed it.  And think of the hope for those enslaved.  Unlike in other nations and their systems, if you were a slave in Israel you knew when your time of service ended.  You had hope!  You had God’s promise!  Now we understand the betrayal that some felt and the need for that proclamation.  Imagine being in a system where the Pharisees are scrupulous about the torah to the point that they add some 600 new laws, and yet they seem never to call Israel to honor the year of the Jubilee, the year of release.  And, just for a second, place yourself in the shoes of the slaves or their families.  What would your joy have been like to be freed or have a loved one freed?  How inclined would you have been to give thanks to God for yours or their release?  Again, the annual meeting gives us an opportunity to re-examine our message.  Are we proclaiming release from sin and bondage through the work and person of Christ?  Are we loving others as Christ first loved us?  Are we harbingers of joy and thanksgiving and freedom?  Or are we saddlers of guilt and weight?

And that message and our calling brings me to the bit we will consider today.  Do we truly believe and proclaim that the release and freedom announced by Jesus has been achieved, both in our individual lives and in our corporate life together?  Is Jesus to us an interesting figure of history, a wise teacher, a radicalist of one sort or another?  Or is He the Savior of us and the world as He proclaims and demonstrates through His life, death, and Resurrection?  Is He the Way, the Truth, and the Life, or is He just a remarkable figure who had some interesting ideas?  Those of us who have met Him in our lives testify to the freedom and release He has given us.  Better still, as a congregation, we can testify to His power at work among us and through us as we serve  others and proclaim that same message of release, of freedom, and of light burdens.

Brothers and sisters, today marks an important day in the life of this parish.  The Vestry and I have asked you to pray and fast and help us discern where God is leading us as we look ahead to our life together.  But it also serves as a day when can reflect on those things we are doing.  Are we glorifying God in our life together?  Do we exhibit the joy and thankfulness one might expect from a redeemed people?  Are we cognizant of the cost of our freedom and release and moved at all times and in all places to give thanks to the One who first proclaimed and then acted to secure our liberation.  Our passage reminds us today of three chief responsibilities that we have as heralds of His message of release.  (1) Christ is unique.  He was given a special task and anointed to accomplish it by God, a task which He completed at cost of His life.  (2)  The message we are given, in marketing terms, has a specific target group.  Specifically, we are called to teach the pious poor in our midst all the saving work He has done, both in our individual lives and in our corporate life, that His saving deeds will be passed on to a generation as yet unborn or unreborn in the church.  (3)  Unlike other teachers and pundits and so-called wise men in history, Jesus brings about the release He has promised.  We have talked many times that one of the unique ways in which the Lord works is to proclaim, to do, and then to remind the audience that He proclaimed it first.  You and I are called to share in the proclamation and then to work to make God’s will happen in our midst.  As we enter more formally this period of discernment, how are we doing?  How are you doing?  Are you living and sharing by word and example HIs good news?  Are we as a church?  How can we be doing better?  This is the time when we can all take a breath, listen carefully for that still, small voice, and then recommit ourselves to His service in our community.


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Manifesting His glory that others might come to believe . . .

     There are times as a priest when I wish I could bottle and let you taste, film and let you watch, hear and let you feel what sometimes goes on around here.  There is a bit of isolation that goes on in the life of a parish priest.  I understand it.  I realize that the more people that are around, the less likely people are willing to pour out their lives.  One on one with priest, though, and there can be amazing and bizarre and scary and sorrowful conversations.  Unfortunately, many of you will go through your faith walk with God and never see or hear or feel these conversations.  And make no mistake, they can be examples of good or examples of bad.

     On the bad side of the equation, I wish I could share with you the struggles, the worries, the fears that come when someone chooses to distance themselves from God.  Notice I said “choose to distance themselves from God.”  God is immovable and unchangeable.  When in your walk with God you feel distanced from Him, ask yourself if He has changed or you have changed.  I wish I could somehow get people to tell other people who are considering that same distancing of their experience.    I have no doubt, were I able to catch the raw emotion on the other side, those considering would think twice.  They still might withdraw from God for work reasons or relationship reasons or because they don’t like the priest, but they would do so with the eyes of their faith opened and not be surprised at the resulting difficulties and emptiness.

     The last couple weeks, though, have allowed me to live in what St. Paul is describing to the Corinthians this week and to see the good side of the faith equation.  By that I mean that many of you will drop in, call, e-mail or whatever that you “are just . . . . “.  There is a false self-image which convinces people of faith that they are not that important in God’s plan of salvation.  Paul today is reminding us that we are part of the body, redeemed by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, and yet many of you sitting here today would tell me that you are not significant in God’s plan of salvation.

     We experienced a great example of the body acting as St. Paul describes at Community Meal last Wednesday.  Those of you who read of my encounter with “Jeff” know why I was not as engaged with those whom we normally serve at the feeding site.  If you want to hear more about Jeff and his story, go to the Bulletin or my blog.  That is not the focus today.  What I want to focus on is how the gifts and talents of you led to that divine appointment.  In a way, what happens a lot around here is that God works a tapestry.  I thought of this over the holidays as I watched an episode of one of those shows about how things are made.  They showed Iraqi ladies, I think it was, using all these nondescript threads.  They were working using this color and that color and this color and that color to make a piece of art that tells a story much like a picture.  To me, they were a jumble of threads.  To those ladies, they were their imaginations come to life.

     Jeff hitchhiked across the upper midwest that Wednesday.  He had heard from his doctor and then later his Episcopal priest that Episcopalians in the Quad-Cities had been heavily involved in fighting human trafficking.  Once he researched us, he knew he had to see for himself if the stories were true.  He had discovered via the web that we served the homeless every second Wednesday.  He arrived early so he could observe.  Fortunately for us, he arrived so early he could go into the site and warm up.  You may or may not know this, but on cold days and hot days the shelter opens to warm or cool the homeless.

     Anyway, Jeff found himself warming himself and drinking some coffee next to some of those regulars whom you and I have served for years.  The conversation, he said, turned when he asked what the people at the table thought of us.  “It’s St. Alban’s night?”  “ Are you sure?”  “Let me check my calendar.”  began to ripple around the room.  Jeff said it was funny listening to the conversations from that moment on.  “Wonder what they are making?”  “Who are they?”  Those who have been homeless longer were excited we would be serving.  Some churches, they not, run out of steam in January.  There is a natural fatigue that seeps in during the Christmas season.  “Some churches kinda take a break.  They still feed us and we are thankful, but these people at St. Alban’s care.”  The old-timers answered the newbies by describing their favorite meal.  Most talked about our Christmas roasts and English feasts.  A bunch remarked how they could tell us they did not want turkey around Thanksgiving.  A couple even mentioned lamb.  Jeff said he was as shocked as some of the newbies at the descriptions of our meals.  He commented that we must do fancy meals to leave such a mark in their minds.  They said it was quite the opposite.  Our meals were normal.  It was, to them, like we made meals for our families and just brought it down there to share with them.  We give them choices.  Sometimes it’s between juices.  Sometimes it’s chocolate milk.  Sometimes it’s beef or fried chicken.  “They just do us right, you know?”

     Jeff was impressed.  When he was explaining why he opened up to me despite being unable to open up to so many psychiatrists or therapist over the years, he said it was the way they described you guys.  They love you guys.  You could feel it in the room.  People started teasing one another “Damn, I was hoping you wouldn’t show tonight so I could eat your share” was one comment that stuck in his mind.  “When people who are hungry and cold and just generally miserable have hope, Christ is really there somehow.”  I know.  I been in both places.  I have lived without Him, and now I live with Him in me.  Then he got down to business and shared why he’d hitch-hiked so many miles in the winter to speak with us.

     As I shared bits and pieces of this conversation with parishioners this week, I heard all kind of self-deprecating evaluations when I mentioned people’s roles in this conversation and thanked them for their faithful labor.  “I just give money every once and a while.”  “I just make fluff.  It’s not really cooking.”  “All I do is spoon out food.”  I know that many of you lack that perspective that I get to see from my position as priest in this congregation.  But if you have served in this ministry, if you have cooked, if you have purchased the food, if you have prayed for those who hunger and who freeze in the cold, if you have cheered others on who participate actively in Community Meal, you have had a hand in the keeping of this divine appointment.  Your faithful service served as a testimony to those on the margins who, in turn, testified of your love of Christ.  When Jeff started his trip, he’d hoped we would at least not blow him off.  He left knowing that you and I and our friends in DC and Atlanta and Hartford and Cedar Rapids and LA and all over this country would hear his story.  The testimony of the homeless and hungry in our midst assured him of that.  Some of us would act on it.  You helped make his burden light, and only those there saw the tears of joy and thankfulness overtake the rage and impotence at his experience.  God took all of us, like individual threads in the hands of the ladies on that tapestry show I watched, with all our tangles, and made something beautiful, something redemptive occur.  That is what St. Paul means when he talks of the body of Christ acting together; that’s what John means by manifesting the glory of God in the world.

     Of course, that was not the only impact we had on those whom we try to reach in His name.  A lady appeared at church this week.  She was in desperate need of a gas card.  She had heard that we actually try and help people.  She had no ties to us.  She was not an AA member, not a former AFM customer, not a Toddler Music mom, not a survivor of Winnie’s Place.  She was quick to give me every reason not to help her and certain she was not the kind of person we help.  When she finally shut up long enough to let me speak, I asked her what she needed.  She told me she needed a gas card.  Transporting her daughter, who’d been mostly dumped on her by the father because the new wife did not like the daughter.  She was in no position to care for the daughter-she’d agreed with the judge’s decision about that a few years ago.  But what could she do?  She couldn’t let her daughter be turned out.

     Now, as those of you who donate gas cards know, we do give them out.  Nearly as fast as they come in, they go out.  Naturally, I was out.  I apologized.  I explained my lack had nothing to do with her lack of affiliation, it was simply that the need out there was incredible.  I know.  You were kind of my hail Mary.  Everyone said if you guys had it, you’d help.  We talked a bit about her life.  In particular, we talked about what had led to the breakup of her marriage and what had led to her current predicament.  She seemed genuine, and I found myself wishing I had another gas card or that Vern was there--I could ask him to run down to the Depot sometimes and get one and pay him back with my next discretionary check.  Her self-evaluation seemed accurate, but she had no forgiveness for herself in her voice.  She excused her ex, she excused past employers, she gave everyone a break but herself.

     As I commented on that simple fact, she noticed my office.  Now, there are more than a few of you who hate my office.  I know it is a mess by your standards, but the fact is that there’s a ton of stuff in there that needs a new home.  I don’t keep everything offer, but I do keep those things I know to be in need.  She saw the televisions.  What are those for?  How many do you need?  When I asked why she wanted to know, she told me that hers had died just after Christmas.  So I asked if she would like a new one.  She laughed.  What do you have, a television store in here?  I explained I did have televisions in need of a new home.  Are you serious?  I was as serious as I was when I said I wished I had another gas card.  Which one can I have?  I told her she could pick.

     Now, those of you who think my office is as bad as a teenagers room (btw--it’s been a long time since you were around a teenager’s room if you really believe that), will be happy to know a television is gone, but God was not done yet.  Remember the daughter?  She comes into the church looking for mom.  Typical of her age, mom was taking way too long.  Her mom called out from my office and she came in.  Then her eyes fell on the bicycle.  Who’s bicycle is that?  I don’t know yet?  What do you mean you don’t know?  I got it last Thanksgiving.  A couple guys fixed it up for me: new tires, new brakes, cleaned up the gears.  I tried to find a home for it last Christmas and all this past year but no luck.  It was at this point that I noticed she was not even listening to me.  Mom, it’s teal.  Mom, it has a fanny pack.  Mom, it’s 21-speed.  Mom, it has a water bottle holder.  Mom, it’s teal! -- in case mom had not heard her the first time she named the color.  I turned to mom.  

     Mom shrugged a bit.  My mom and I tried to find her one for Christmas.  She likes to ride a bike.  We couldn’t afford it.  She’s a silly thing to try and get when you can’t get gasoline, huh?  I turned to the daughter and asked her if she liked it.  I got the “are you so stupid you sometimes forget to breathe stare.”  If your mom says it’s ok, it’s yours.  She squealed like happy teenage girls only can.  You know, they hit those pitches that make you certain windows are about to shatter.  Can we?  Can we?  Can we, mom?  Can we buy it from him?  Now, not surprisingly, mom told her daughter no.  I was here to ask for help for gasoline.  If we could buy the bike, we could buy gasoline instead.  Now, I should point out a bit of bartering went on at this point.  The daughter clearly liked the teal and the fanny pack.  The bartering was so intense, no one wanted to let me speak.  When they reached a natural pause, I finally got their attention.  I wasn’t selling the bike, I was giving the bike.  Mom started arguing with me, at least her lips were moving like she was.  It was really hard to hear over the squeals of the daughter.

     After a bit of discussion, and squealing, mom finally consented to let her daughter have the bicycle.  I did apologize for not meeting her real need.  She laughed.  She said she had given up on the television and the bicycle.  Compared to gasoline and utility needs, they were not worth the effort of hoping or praying.  We had a nice discussion of our Father’s love and care for all His children.  She chuckled.  Before today I would have argued with you.  Thank you for everything, for the talk, for the television, and especially for the bicycle.  She really needed a pick-me-up.  It’s tough being a teenager in the situation she is in.  It’s tough being an adult in the situation you are in.  But remember He knows.  He has big shoulders.  And He only wants good things for you.

     To you “I only’s”: if you gave to discretionary funds so I could get the bike fixed, if you give to keep me here and that office open, if you pray constantly “let my priest, Lord, clean up that office of his,” if you pray that His will be done on earth as it is in heaven, you had a hand in this divine appointment.  For the mom, the answered prayer was obvious.  For the girl, it was probably one of those seeds.  She could not have cared less about the why or how, she only cared for the teal and the fanny pack.  I tried.  I did.  I tried hard to get her to understand how the bicycle came to be.  My hope and prayer is that her teal bike will be “that” bike of her youth and that some day, some where, someone will remind her who really gave her that bike.  Mom knows.  A grandma knows.  Maybe someone will hear her story and remind her that, as her tough times with her mom began, her Father in heaven was already taking care of her, already willing to take her into the arms of His love.

     Brothers and sisters, I know there are any number of overhangs in our life together and individually.  As a parish, we have been speaking for a few weeks of visioning and discernment.  A number of you have been afraid to offer your opinions, your hopes, your fears, your prayers.  Why?  Our Lord has equipped you to serve Him and glorify Him in this church where He has planted you.  Why should you fear to share with the rest of us what you think He might be calling us to do?  There are no inconsequential people in His kingdom; there are no red-headed step-children in His family; there are only first born sons and first born daughters; full inheritors of His love, of His grace, and of His gifts.  And while there are worries and stresses on us as a community, there are more placed on us individually.  Some of us need a hip, some of us worry for our jobs, some of us worry if we are raising our kids well, some of us are wondering if our kids are failing our grandchildren, some of us are worrying about our health, I could go on.  But the same Lord who equips you and enliven your hearts to make it possible that a survivor of human trafficking might hear the words and testimony of those whom you serve with no thought of recompense for 47 years and the same Lord who causes things like televisions and bicycles to be here when someone needs them (even if it violates our sense of good order), is the same Lord who meets your needs.  Like those weavers I spoke of in Iraq, our Lord takes the threads of our life and, if we allow Him, creates in us a masterpiece, a work worthy of redemption through His grace.  As a community this week, we have lived that prayer “Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”  As a community, we have significantly manifested His glory to the world around us, just as we do when we minister to battered women, to trafficked adults and children, to runaways, to the homeless, to those whom we have served on mission trips, to those hungry in our midst, to those who need a good dousing at water wars, to those who listen to our music and eat ice cream, to those imprisoned in our jails, and engage in any other ministry in our life and work.

     Our reading from John this week is, among other things, about abundance.  Specifically, that abundance describes His grace in the lives of His people, even when His people “know Him not” as John would say.  Jesus is only invited to this wedding in Cana; He is not the central figure.  His answer to His mother is understandable.  It is not yet His time.  And yet, in obedience to His mother who sees the lack for the wedding and all that it signifies in that culture, He acts.  Better still, though Boone’s Farm would have served the celebrants well, Jesus made some 150 gallons of the best possible wine and did so without so much as a “by your leave.”  Such is His power and authority that He can overcome our shortfalls, our sins, and perceived inadequacies with abundant grace and manifest His glory through our restored bicycles, donated televisions, commitment to help, and our lacks.

     All of us individually could have in no way made the impact we did for just two lives the last couple weeks.  For the survivor of human trafficking, we have given hope that there are people of God beginning to talk about how to care for men like him when they escape their situations.  The world might be better attuned to the needs of women in the same situation, but I daresay none of you who heard or read his story will ever forget his hurt, his impotence to fix himself, and his rage at the world around him for doing nothing and his own self-perceived unwillingness to do anything about it either.  Some of you labored faithfully for 47 years to make that moment of hope, that overflowing of his vessels with grace, possible.  Some of us labored for years and passed into glory without seeing that moment, but they knew in their hearts that He purposes nothing without meaning and that His grace trumps our condition.

     The second encounter is a bit different.  A few of you could have bought the girl a bicycle, bought the family a new television, and bought the mom a tank of gasoline.  But think of how it was done.  She saw “the junk” in my office and heard whom we serve and why.  Then, when a need was expressed that could be met, she knew it was our Lord meeting her need.  Had one of us bought her those things, she would have thought him or her a nice person.  But now, every time she turns on that television or sees her daughter riding that teal bicycle, she will be reminded of her Father in heaven and His love and care for all her needs.  Though she has made horrible choices, though she has made choices that impact her mother and her daughter that she can never undo, she has been reminded of our Lord who redeems all things, overcomes all things for His glory and our salvation.  If she remembers our conversation, hopefully she will remember that all He requires is our repentence.  As I said about this on Facebook this week, when God acts, He goes big, even when it is in seemingly little actions like giving away a donated television or bicycle.

     There are, indeed, different kinds of working and different kinds of people, but He is in all of them and all of you working to show forth His glory in the world.  As a new discipline for many of you, I want you to begin reordering the way you think about your service of Him.  Instead of preparing to come into my office or into church and share your lacks, your “normalness”, your perceived “ho-humness,” take a moment and pray.  Ask God to show you how He is using you to manifest His glory in the world around you and this church.  Ask Him to give you eyes to see and ears to hear that you have become an effective herald of His Gospel in the world around you.  You might be surprised at the answers He gives.  And, brothers and sisters, in those moments when you find yourself worried that your sin makes you unlovable, that your mistakes are too big to overcome, that you are not worthy to call Him “Abba,” remember the wedding at Cana.  No matter how big or how many the sins in your life, the power of His grace conquers and covers them all.  And His love for you, evidenced by the path He walked to Calvary for your sake and mine, is greater than any bride or any groom had for one another in history.  Think on that this week, as well, and take heart.  All of this, all of it, has been conquered and redeemed!  That is His promise.


Friday, January 11, 2013

Human Trafficking Awareness Day 2013

     This year?  Will you all be doing something this year to mark the occasion of Human Trafficking Awareness Day?  I suppose I have earned a bit of exasperation.  As religious and secular reporters called again this year, some expressed their frustration that for us at St. Alban’s, Human Trafficking Awareness Day usually marks another day in the long fight against modern slavery.  This year, on January 11, some of us will be doing the work of trying to lead those trafficked to freedom and healing, others of us will be doing some education and awareness events in the QCA and surrounding towns, and all of us will be praying again this weekend for both those enslaved and those who enslave them as well as those who have survived the experience.

     This year, though, it seems incumbent upon us that we begin to lead a shift.  For too long, we in America have glorified slavers and minimized the dehumanization done to those enslaved.  Part of this effort has been intentional, no doubt.  Cable shows such as Pimps & Hoes minimize the trauma and pain forced upon so many women and girls and young boys trapped in the sex trade, an industry so big that some estimates place the profits in the neighborhood of $8 billion dollars.  Instead, there is a commercial attempt to glorify and normalize the lifestyle exhibited.  Men want the young, fresh, new-to-the-business girls; but little attempt is made to learn her story or to even make sure she is performing whatever acts for money she will get to keep.  Leading to the purchase of sex for money is the related industry of pornography.  As part of that $8 Billion profit center, the effects of pornography on men, women, and relationships is only beginning to be documented by social scientists.  One of the ties between the two are online sites that blatantly advertise girls and boys being sold for sex.  Though most suspect such blatant sites disappeared with Craigslist, other sites have sprung up around the country to place buyers in contact with sellers and their slaves.  And while the sex trade may account for more than 90% of the profits off the labors of those trafficked, it accounts for less than 6% of the number of those enslaved around the world.  

     In America we love cheaper goods.  One of the deep, dark secrets of the business world is that labor can sometimes be forced rather than paid.  At times, this can take the form of prison labor, as some of the goods in China are made.  At other times, “coyotes” pretend to be temporary agencies offering employees at amazingly cheap rates.  The companies pay the “temp agency;” the goods get made; and we buy them cheap.  And still other systems, such as debt-bondage, are heaped upon the poorest of the poor.  To our desensitized ears and fuller wallets, it sounds reasonable: I loan you money and you work for me.  The problem is that the interest rates and required purchases are more like those of coal mine scrip stores, and people are seldom ever able to work off their debt and enjoy freedom.  Eventually, the owner “trades them” to someone who “pays off” their debt.  You and I would call it purchasing the slave.

     Survivors of human trafficking can be found working as au pairs or nannies or maids in the households of some the wealthier-to-do in our country.  Survivors can be found working in the gardens of those same estates.  Survivors of human trafficking can even be found picking labor intensive foods such as tomatoes, apples, strawberries, or avocados.  They can be found in factory settings, in meat packing facilities, in any industry where labor costs need to be controlled.  And survivors can be around us in all walks of life.

     One of the chief criticisms leveled at those “who have no idea” is the language that we use.  Those who would enslave other human beings have figured out that words have power, that naming someone or something gives one a certain amount of power over it and them.  By allowing them to determine the language, we have allowed ourselves to be convinced that the slaves “have chosen their lives,” that “they enjoy what they are doing,” that “their existence is not that bad.”  No longer!  To that end, we in Attacking Trafficking and at St. Alban’s are tired of using the soft language, the language that minimizes the abuse and dehumanization occurring in our midst.  In order to raise the consciousness of the fight we are in the dehumanization being practiced, we are beginning to try and change the vocabulary so that we can begin to have honest discussions about what is going on in the world around us.  Naturally, we are open to suggestions, especially from survivors, but here goes an effort to revise the lexicon:

Human Trafficking -- the phrase makes sense, but too many people confuse it with other phrases.  Worse, far too many people associate it with illegal immigration and especially smuggling.  As the President has already figured out, however, slavery cannot be mistaken.  It is precisely because the word evokes those emotions and those cultural memories that we should return to it when speaking of this evil.  How else can we better sum up the illegal trade in human beings for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor?  Slavery knows no borders, knows no socio-economic limits, knows no racial preference, and is the best word used to describe those who are forced to work for no pay, whether they are prostitutes owned by men or women who sell them or special needs men working in a turkey processing plant in rural Iowa.

Victims.  I have had three or four ladies and one man ask that I not think of them as victims.  Victim, to them, reminds them of the powerlessness of those lives they have escaped.  Victim, for them, implies an on-going process of dehumanization.  Instead, we have begun speaking of those who have escaped as survivors.  Survivor is a strong word; it is a word which describes a fighter.  If you have ever encountered a survivor of slavery, you know the physical and emotional strength that was necessary for them to survive their ordeal and to gain their freedom.  Some of those methods of survival and escape might well be questioned by those with the benefit of freedom (slaves have had to serve as bottoms for slavers, for example) and the luxury of idleness, but these men and women have managed to survive and find their way out of a situation that, more often than not, results in death, death at the hands of the buyer, the slaver, or themselves.

Hoes/Whores/Prostitutes.  There is a myth out there, mostly promulgated by slavers and buyers, that the girls engaged in prostitution are simply choosing to earn money in the way that others of us choose our own career paths.  My personal experience is that many are like those who have had abortions in their past.  Few celebrate it.  Almost universally, they lament the path their life took.  But the money is, admittedly, very good.  One of the lures for those rescued is for them to return to “the game” of their own choosing.  My question for society, though, revolves around their decision-making process.  If a girl has been sold in the sex industry for a period of time, and missed out on education and social formation during that period, can we really think of such women as making a rational decision?  Yes, they will say that they can make more money on their back or dropping a guy’s pants in an evening than most professional women will make in a week, but lacking that education and socialization, can we say they are making a fully-informed decision?  What are their options?  Plus, far too many of the ladies we encounter are in reality minors.  Girls are usually first trapped as sex slaves at age 12.8 or so (for boys, the age is nearly half that).  If those buying their services could not avoid statutory rape charges in a consensual sexual relationship with a girl, can we ever really say that she “chose to sell herself.”  For me personally, and for many of those with whom I labor in the field, I am nearly at the point where I think that prostitution ought to be decriminalized for the sex slaves.  Get tougher on the buyers and slavers, but give those victimized opportunities to get help and out of the life.

Johns.  Let’s call them what they are: buyers.  As long as we continue the myth of calling them Johns, what they are doing seems legitimized.  Let’s call what they are doing what they are doing: they are buying girls or boys or men or women for sex.  Period.  They are not nice guys like we know looking for a Pretty Woman.  They are not nice guys like we all know looking for company and fun.  The name they give themselves, monger, does not convey the absolute evil they are perpetrating and perpetuating.  The social sciences are beginning to see a significant difference between those men who pay for sex and those who don’t (an article from, I believe Newsweek, addressed this in the mainstream some time ago).  Aside from the attempted decoupling of the emotional aspect from the physical action of sex, there are other disturbing trends.  Buyers don’t have to worry about whether the one purchased likes what he is doing to her.  Even in the cases of consenting adults, if one can truly call such a situation this, there is a sense of ownership.  “I paid for you.  You will do what I want.”  Universally, girls and women in the game talk of this aspect.  Buyers demand to go bareback, demand to be able to engage in violent anal sex, and demand a host of other behaviors which were not agreed to at the “time of purchase.”  The impact of such behavior on non-paid relationships is not yet fully understood, but buyers will remark how the purchase of sex is just easier than the effort required for a relationship.  By calling them Johns, we normalize their attitude and behavior, we tolerate their purchase of other human beings for sex as “boys will be boys.”  Perhaps calling them buyers will cause them to re-evaluate their choices and attitudes.

Pimps / Madams.  Hollywood has glamorized the pimp and the madam.  Let’s call them what they are: slavers.  As surely as plantation owners profited off the free labor of their slaves in the 18th and 19th century in this country, pimps and madams are doing the same in the sex industry just as some “temp providers” are in this day and age.  “But they bail them out of jail or keep customers in line or keep other slavers from taking advantage of them.”  No they don’t.  As long as the buyer pays, the slaver could not care less what is being done to the slave.  The slaver might use the buyer’s demented desires to eke out some more scratch from him, but the slaver does not care about the physical damage or emotional damage done to his or her slave.  All the slaver wants is the money.  The slaver does not accept excuses, and the slaver does not care for his slave.  “Made eye contact with another pimp and he took your money?  Not my problem.  Get me my money!”  “Customer slapped you around?  Did he pay you?  Give me my money!”

Labor Conscious Companies.  There are lots of euphemisms that CEOs and analysts toss about with respect to companies that are able to squeeze more profits out of their supply chain.  Let’s start calling these companies what they are: Companies that profit off slave labor.  I hear the argument that CEOs can’t possibly make sure every employee in their vast network is getting paid a fair wage.  I hear the argument that companies out not be held responsible for illegal immigrants that work for them.  It’s time we as a country stand up and demand action.  That CEO who cannot tell whether a seamstress or fieldworker is getting paid I bet has plenty of system checks in place to make sure that those same employees do not “walk off” with raw materials or products.  It’s called stealing, and companies are always on the lookout.  Is it really so hard to make sure those who work for you are receiving their wages?  Really?  And one group targeted by slavers are the undocumented workers.  If it is illegal to enter this country without the proper documentation, then it out to be illegal to hire those who enter illegally.  “But they fake their papers.”  I’m sure there is a good black market industry for forged green cards and social security cards, but even this stupid priest knows it is weird when a dozen people walk in with sequential social security numbers.  Businesses claim that they are better than running their business that government.  Fair enough.  I bet they would be a lot better than the government a detecting fraud if a failure so to do cost them on their bottom line.

Lot Lizards.  Some might wonder why we did not include this term above with prostitutes, whores, and hoes.  Essentially, this term is used to describe women who sell sex to factory workers.  The term is short for “parking lot lizards.”  At many of our manufacturing centers in the country there are a group of women who offer sex for money.  Sometimes it is done in cars.  Sometimes there are RV’s utilized for this.  Sometimes it occurs in sites just “off property.”  Often it occurs on “payday.”  Our experience with this group has been that they do not now necessarily meet the definition of a current trafficked person.  A significant portion of those whom we have encountered, however, are survivors of abuse and trafficking.  In many cases the woman has been traumatized during very important formative and developmental years.  Imagine how you would have turned out had you been pulled out of school, isolated from friends, and/or used by adults and taught you were worthless.  How would you make a living?  Many of these women turn back to prostitution to try and make a living.  Often they do not have slavers.  In this case, the buyers are more responsible for the continuing dehumanization.  The reference to the reptile tells us all we need to know about the attitudes toward them.  So what do we call them?  How about learning their names and their stories!  None of those women whom we have encountered in these situations dreamed as young girls that they would end up in this life.  Maybe, just maybe, if we learn their stories, we might be able to find them some help.  Maybe, just maybe, if we learn their names, we’ll think twice about buying them and victimizing them once again.

Again, this is just a start.  Over time, perhaps we can change the way we view this nefarious industry and those caught up in it simply by naming them truthfully.


Thursday, January 10, 2013

His name was "Jeff."

His name was “Jeff.”

Are you Fr. Brian?

When I responded affirmatively he pressed, Are you the Fr. Brian expert in Human Trafficking?

Now, I am by no means an expert.  I explained that I am more aware than most, but that doesn’t qualify me to be an expert except that in the sense than in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is often king.

I came to the meal site tonight to speak with you.  Can I speak with you about something weighing on my heart for a few minutes?  I promise I am an Episcopalian, so I’m not wasting your time.  He proceeded to give me his parish, his confirming bishop, and assert he was in good standing--that was a first.

So, we headed over to the corner, and he proceeded to start quizzing me.  After a few questions, I asked why he wanted to ask me those.

Too many people don’t care and don’t want to learn.  They pretend to care, but they really don’t.  I was as much interested in watching you process the questions and the information you knew as your answers.

Do you need some kind of help, or is there something wrong?

I wish we could sit.  My knees get a bit wobbly when I start talking about this . . . but here goes.  I have PTSD.

I am sorry to hear that.  In which war did you serve?

What if I told you no war, what would be your next question?

What trauma plagues you?

What do you know about the sex trade?

I gave my answers.  God knew they were on my mind with all the interviews and questions I had faced already this week when we remember victims and survivors of modern slavery.  Girls are generally trafficked beginning at age 12.8 or so.  Here locally, the girls are expected to earn their slavers about $4k per week, but that amount fluctuates by community.  He interrupted. . . 

What do you know about boys?

Understanding dawned.  Not much, I am afraid.  I have met runaways who have been targeted by slavers, but I had not met any boy survivors or victims.

That’s not too surprising.  We tend to get killed in the game.  Those who survive, though, more often than not end up offing themselves.

I apologize for assuming you had been in war.  I guess the adage is true; I made an ass of myself with respect to you.

Not at all.  When I said it was not war, you assumed a trauma.  You must have some experience with it.

And I have some wisdom about boys who have been trafficked, but I have never gotten to speak to one myself.  You are right about the psychological effects, though, and the violence.  Many are killed; more may kill themselves.  And then there’s the other effects . . . 

Such as?

Intimacy issues in relationships.  Inability to forge relationships.  Depression.  Addictions.  Abuse.  Risky behavior.  Self-loathing.  There are a lot of effects on girls.  The big difference, I am told, is the age.  Boys are sold for the first time around age 6 or so.

Thank God you are real.

What do you mean?

I had heard of you while I was traveling here.  I looked you up on the internet.  You don’t talk about a lot of sex trade on your blog or Facebook, but the few stories you had up there are close to me.  So I had to make it over to see you.  My car broke down last week, so I had to hitchhike nearly 300 miles to get here.  I asked people here if you would be here.  They said you almost always come, but I was so worried.

You know, Father, there are a couple differences between boys and girls in the sex trade.  If girls get out, people want to help, and no one wants to blame them.  When we get out, we can’t even go to a rape crisis center for help, and people always ask “you’re a big guy, why didn’t you stop them?” like I was this size 40 years ago.

Actually, some people blame girls, too.  It’s not right; it demonstrates their ignorance about the sex trade.  But it happens.  I wrote an article for the QC Times for Human Trafficking Awareness Day.  I bet if I told the full story of “Becca,” many would feel little sympathy towards her plight today, years after her trafficking occurred.  

Well, any time I have been allowed in a rape survivors class, no one has ever asked the women why they didn’t stop them.  A few times they have asked if they said “no,” but no one ever asks if they tried to stop them.

I am so sorry that you have been victimized again by those charged with helping you heal.

Don’t feel sorry for me.  And don’t be mad at them.  They don’t know.  They don’t understand what it is like to be a boy playing with toy soldiers one day and being forced to play with other things the next.  They don’t understand the pain and shame that comes when some huge guy gives it to us as kids and either beats us if we squirm or cry because of the pain or laughs at us.  That’s the worst:  the laughing.  I can cover my ears and still hear it.  They don’t understand the isolation it causes.  Women will bond with other women in rape survivor classes.  We can’t even do that.  Those of us who survived are at risk at doing it to others.  We are taught to be powerful, we are taught not to be weak.  Sometimes there is an overwhelming urge to do to another what was done to us to get even and prove we aren’t weak.  Heck, you know why I didn’t drive here?  Sometimes I want to kill men who look like the guys who did this to me.  If I see them in other cars or on sidewalks, I just want to mow them down.  It’s best, sometimes, that I don’t drive.  You know, I’ve been kicked out of five or six rape survivor classes because I was disrupting the class.  The girls would get scared at my anger or did not want me describing the violation I felt.  Ugh.  I hate talking about this.  I am sorry.  I probably freaked you out, didn’t I?

Don’t apologize for how you feel.  If you’ve acted on those feelings, that’s a different thing.  But I think your feelings are probably normal for what you have experienced.  Did you want Absolution or something like that?

What?  Oh, no.  I’m sorry.  I have rambled and rambled.  I just wanted to encourage you and then leave.  I did not want to tell you anything other than I am a survivor, and here I am telling you all this.

Encourage me about what?

I hear that you are working on a shelter, and I have read that you are wondering about a boys’ shelter?

Wondering what he had read and heard, I acknowledged it as true.  But I also told him that I had been unable to secure funding so far to hire even an administrator for a shelter.

Do you know how many shelters there are for boys like I was?



Girl survivors tell us that there are no good shelters for boy survivors.  There may be one out there, but it is a hidden gem.  Of course, there are not many good girls’ shelters either, but there are a few.

There are none, Father.  Believe me, I looked.  I have hated who I am for years.  At times, I nearly gave in and killed myself, but I kept looking.  It was like a compulsion, if you know what I mean.  

But you and your people, you all can change that!  While I was waiting on you guys to get here and serve us, I asked around this shelter about you.  All the long time homeless knew it was your night.  Some came in with a “It’s second Wednesday” or “It’s St. Alban’s night,” “I wonder what they are serving.”  I heard how you guys make Christmas meals, Thanksgiving meals, do picnic meals, and all kinds of cool things.  That guy told me how you have been trying to figure out how to get a coat on that lady.  You guys care.  Please, please, for the love of God and for the hope of boys like me, please, please build a shelter for boys.  Please.  Someone has to speak for us.  Someone has to tell our story.  Someone has to care enough to do something for us.  Please?

Jeff, I have no idea what we are going to do.  My vision is a network of shelters around the country to protect survivors and enable them to assist prosecutors in the actions against their slavers.  But that’s my vision.  It may not be my parish’s, and it may not be God’s plan.  You are not the first, however, to ask me to consider a boys’ shelter.  But you are the first boy survivor I have personally encountered.  But I do promise you, we have already spoken out and will continue to speak out for all survivors and victims.  We put forth the church wide resolution at General Convention, which does you absolutely no good, calling upon The Episcopal Church to fight trafficking against men, women, and children.  It failed, but we will never give up.

Why did that not get passed?

It did, they just dropped the men.


For the very reasons you suggest.  Some seem to think boys and men choose to be enslaved.  As boys grow, they become stronger.  I think it is hard for some, especially women, to think that boys / young adult males are enslaved in the same way.  It not fair.  It is by no means admirable.  But that’s where we are as a country and as a church.

Well, if you won’t do a shelter for boys, will you at least keep speaking out on behalf of us?

Of course.  And I did not say we will not do a boys’ shelter.  Maybe we do one or the other.  Maybe we do both.  Maybe we do neither.  I just don’t know what we are being called to do.  Figuring that out may take time.  But you can rest assured that once I share your story in church, boy survivors will always have a number of voices and maybe a few more prayers.  And we won’t be the only voice.

What do you mean?

There are women survivors who befriended boys who are no longer alive to tell their stories.  They tell the stories of those boys who are no longer with us.  There are other pockets of people doing this work in Atlanta, in Hartford, in Chicago, in Phoenix, in Nashville, in New Orleans--we all talk.  We all share our stories.  And we all want it eliminated in our lifetimes.  You can bet that some of those with whom I share your story will always speak on your behalf.


Really.  Before tonight, I had never met a survivor.  The stories I had heard were second and third hand.  It’s easy to see you pain, your hurt, and your desperation. . . 

Sorry about that.  I know “if He brings you to it, He will bring you through it.”

I hate that saying.


Because it is a lie about God.  Do you really think that God, who became human and died for your sins and for the sins of those who hurt you and would repent, who while He walked the earth indignantly fussed at His disciples to let the children come to Him, is sitting up there somewhere from time to time saying “I think today I am going to make Jeff bump into some really sick f@#$%.  They are going to hurt him, mock him, and cast him away when they are finished?  That’s My plan today.”  Do you really believe that, Jeff?

I guess I hadn’t really thought of it like that.  But then why did it happen to me?

Because your mom and those guys were sinful, sick, a@%#$*&@!  God gives us free will, and often He allows us to experience the consequences of those sins.  But He did not “Will this to happen.”  Rather, what they did to you, the least of His, they did to Him.

Whoa!  That’s in the Bible.

Yes it is.

I’d never ever thought of my life in those terms.  He’s gonna be pissed when they meet Him.

Unless they repent, you are right.  But now you get an idea of why He was scourged, mocked, and nailed to the tree.  Our sins are horrific.  And you are only one man who was a boy.  But hear me tonight, and never ever forget this, you are never alone!  You were bought for a price, His blood and His flesh.  And He has promised you that He is with you always.  Always.  Always.  Never ever forget that.  When you feel alone.  When you feel like intimacy is impossible.  When you feel like you want revenge.  Please, tell yourself:  He is with me.

Thanks, Father.  You’ve given me some stuff to think about.  I’m sorry to have cornered you . . . 

Say no more . . . This was important to you, and I am very glad we met, Jeff, and you shared.  Could we pray before you eat?

Nah.  I chose not to drive.  I have some money.  I’ll hit a restaurant.

You will do no such thing.


You will eat the food prepared by those who will speak your story.  Maybe, maybe in the dark moments that lie ahead in your life, you will remember the taste of one of these dishes.  Maybe, when the bile forms in your mouth and you feel the rage coming on, you’ll remember the taste of something prepared lovingly this night by the people who are calling on others to rescue boys and girls who share your experiences.  Who knows, maybe that taste will help you get through an episode and do no harm because it will remind you that others love you and wanted to help you.

You are a stubborn son of a bitch, you know that?

I think I have been told that only a few times this week.

I think I’m glad you’re on my side.

Be glad, instead, He is.  The big guy upstairs doesn’t make as many mistakes as me.

He laughed.  I suppose that’s a fair offer.  Your cooks are legendary in here.  I guess I can try it this once, seeing as how you said I should.

One problem, Jeff.

What’s that?

I hope you didn’t want any chocolate milk.  It went quick tonight.  I’m sorry about that.

Chocolate milk?  You serve the homeless chocolate milk?  No wonder they love you guys?  Why don’t you pray and let me try some of that food . . . 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Star of wonder . . .

     Happy Feast of Epiphany!  It is a day of some astronomical importance.  If you have not heard, tonight there is an interesting phenomenon.  Saturn, the moon, and Spica, I believe they were saying on the news, will form a nearly perfect isosceles triangle in the the night sky.  Of course, this is not the most famous starry phenomenon associated with this day in history.  That honor belongs to The Star, the one that had the honor of marking the birth of our Lord and leading the wise men of Babylon to Jerusalem in search of the new born king.  I must confess I came upon my sermon for this day a few weeks ago.  On the internet, I came upon a couple simulations that used Starry Night to give us an idea of how the night sky appeared around the time of Christ’s birth.  It was being used by Christians to try and date the birth of our Lord.  As you all know, I am more than a bit of a nerd.  In my youth, astronomy was one of those “hobbies” which I found very attractive.  I was privileged in that one of my best friend’s dad had the keys the big telescope at the Huntington Galleries back home in WV.  Whenever there was a significant astronomical event to be viewed, or maybe if a planet such as Mercury just happened to be in a great spot, we would head down to the Galleries and look at whatever celestial event that had caught our attention.  With that background, you might not be too surprised to know that I watched those simulations.  By the time I was finished, I understood Paul’s words to the Ephesians today far better than ever.

     Place yourself in the lands to the east of Jerusalem, the lands that used to belong to Babylon.  Imagine you are an astronomer sharing in a collective knowledge understood only by few in various empires in the world.  You remember the king’s servant, Daniel, and his stories of deliverance of God’s people in history.   You remember how your king saw the finger of God writing on the wall, how your king was driven mad for a time for despising the God of the Jews, and you remember how the king paid for the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem and declared that Israel could go home.  What explains those events?  What could have moved the great king to set free a subjected people?  As one of those better educated, you also know the stories.  Daniel was very free in his worship of Yahweh.  If the holy Scriptures revered by Daniel were to be believed, the land of Judah was represented by the constellation Leo (the Lion) in the night sky.  As with most people, you understand that what happens among the gods in the sky is reflected here on earth.  So you have committed yourself to learning the language of the heavens so that you can explain better the events on earth.  One August night, a bit more than 2000 years ago, you notice something interesting.

     Jupiter, the king planet, and Venus, the mother planet, come together in what we call a conjunction.  Now we understand that Venus is many millions of miles closer to the sun than earth and that Jupiter is many, many millions of miles further from the sun than earth, but at least once per orbit of Jupiter, the two can appear in the night sky to be next to each other.  Because one is inside our orbit and one is outside our orbit, the planets can look as if they are coming together once or three times, depending on a host of factors.  But in August of what you and I call 3 BC, something amazing has happened.  Jupiter and Venus have begun a mere 15 arc minutes apart and closed to about 4 arc minutes.  From the perspective of the human eye on earth, they have become one big star!  From the perspective of human history, a conjunction of 30 arc minutes occurs only once every 144 years!  Nobody living has ever seen one.  And there is no history of one ever being this close.  So you sit up and take notice. . . 

     As time passes you notice that Jupiter continues its wanderings and works its way westward to the star Regulus, the little king.  This conjunction is about 20 arc minutes apart.  Now to your eyes, the king planet and mother planet have come together, then the king planet has travelled in a few months to the little king in the night sky.  And this conjunction has not occurred a single time, but three times!  In fact, to your eyes in the lands of Babylon, it would appear that Jupiter has traced a circle over the course of eight months over the star Regulus.  Putting two and two together, what do you think has happened?  A king has clearly been born.  But where?

     I reminded you of Daniel and his service to the king to give you a hint.  As you think on these amazing celestial events, you notice that all the conjunctions between Regulus and Jupiter have occurred within the constellation Leo.  Is there a significance?  Well, if Daniel was to be believed, God considered Judah to be signified by the lion.  After all, Genesis 49:9 speaks that truth.  And Judah is the tribe that rules the lands to the east.  Could the stars indicate that a king has been born in the land of Judah?  The stars are not yet done sending their message.

     After the third conjunction with Regulus, Jupiter heads on a quick journey.  Once again it encounters Venus, but this time within the constellation Leo.  Can there be any doubt?  Clearly a king has been conceived and born in the lands of Judah!  Plus, from your perspective in Babylon, the combined stars have set in the west as of June 17.  From your perspective, your direction has been determined by the stars and the gods who order them as clearly as if they had been written on parchment.  So you set out with others who have noticed this amazing celestial event to Jerusalem, to see this king whose birth has been written in the heavens.

     When you first set out on your journey, Jupiter and Venus have set.  You have gone to Jerusalem only because you expect that astronomers like yourself will have noticed such a magnificent event.  When you ask about the new born king, there is fear and concern and surprise.  Everyone seems to have been caught unawares by your inquiry.  But the Jews have the sacred texts to consult.  Even though they cannot see the stars you mention because they have set, they can read the words of God.  And they tell you that a king is promised to come out of Bethlehem.  So, once again, you head out toward the little town named in Scripture, knowing your journey is near an end.

     Now, the events in the sky have been enough to cause you to set out on a long journey, but what do you see as you look up?  Guess what planet has reappeared as you hung around the court of Herod?  Jupiter has risen again in the night sky after a bit of an absence.  But where?  In the constellation Virgo.  That’s right.  Jupiter can now be found in the constellation of the virgin.  But look at its motion.  It appears to be coming closer to the ground.  It’s “westward leading” seems to have all but stopped and turned into more of a dip toward the ground.  Finally, on the night of December 24, it appears to stop, hovering over a point southwest of Jerusalem.  It will not appear to “back up” until January 7.  What is southwest of Jerusalem?  Ah, yes, the stars confirm the sacred Scriptures of Yahweh’s people.  Bethlehem lies a handful of miles to the southwest of Jerusalem.  You are, indeed, heading in the right direction and are about to encounter the new born king of the Jews.

     You may be asking yourself why I spent so much time trying to paint a picture in your mind as if you were one of the magi.  Simply put, I wanted to point out to you the care and concern and knowledge and power required by God to mark the birth of His only begotten Son.  Can you imagine the sheer volume of information required to make sure that the heavens marked this incredible birth at the right time?  Can you imagine the understanding required to know the orbits of the “wanderers” (our planets) and the stars and how they appeared on earth?  And who in antiquity understands things like “retrograde motion?”  Most of us in modern times would still like to think that the physics of the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote are really in play in our lives.  Yet here is God juggling all these orbits and how they appear and are likely to be interpreted by us on earth.  Heck, I think it plausible that Daniel’s slavery is being redeemed in yet another way, many centuries later, through the interpretation of those celestial signs by the magi.

     We have come off a tough Advent as a parish, as a church, and as a country.  On the parish level, we lost a beloved member in Mary.  Our health has been a bit on the bad sign ever since Thanksgiving.  How many of us have had the flu?  How many of us have had to visit the doctor.  More than one of us has had some procedures done.  Because of the various flus and cruds, a number of us have probably felt a bit isolated.  I know I had to not visit shut-in’s for nearly 3 1/2 weeks because of a flu and a crud that i did not want to share with those already in poor health.  When I did get back to visiting, a number of people complained that they had missed companionship as much as anything.  Looking outside the parish, it may have been far worse.  Our beloved church continues to make headlines for all the wrong reasons giving an appearance to the world that her garments are tattered and frayed.  Our “mother” church in England, in what can best be described as clumsily, decided not to consecrate women in the episcopacy after giving every outward sign that such was their intention and goal.  Closer to home, our church managed to provoke yet another fight and enrich lawyers in the process, as it worked to charge and recharge and recharge the bishop of our fastest growing diocese with violating our canons in a state whose Supreme Court seems to have made it abundantly clear in prior decisions that parishes own their buildings and do not hold them in trust.  I do not know Bishop Katharine and Bishop Mark well, but I share your wonder from a distance as to how two bishops in our church could seem to be so personally offended by the other.  Are we not instructed to seek forgiveness when we offend by our Lord?  Is it our witness that our “trusts” hold us in relationship or our Lord?  Is the fight really about power and, so, all the more lamentable because it is championed by overseers in the Lord’s Church?  In the “secular” world, the tragic shootings at Newtown, CT, the shootings at the mall, the ambush of officers and first responders have caused plenty of reflection and recriminations about the violence that pervades our culture.  Is there really no hope?  Is the only escape death?  The recently completed negotiations over the fiscal cliff will likely hang like a pall over our country as we restart the fight over the debt limit and begin the new year.  Oh, and let’s not forget, we all know people who were very disappointed to find out the Mayan interpreters were wrong right before Christmas.  It has been a tough season.  The world has tried hard to snuff out the Light that has come into the world.

     But as a reminder of His love for us we have entered and celebrated the season of the Incarnation, and as a reminder of His power and glory we have begun the season of the Epiphany with the retelling of The Star.  I have retold that story of the star so as, in the words of St. Paul, to enlighten the eyes of your heart, so that you may know the riches of His glorious inheritance among the saints and the immeasurable greatness of His power for those of us who believe in Him.  Times may seem dark.  Life may, indeed, be hard.  But God has already acted to save you and me!  He has sent us His Son with an amazing offer of life for all who would accept it.  He announced that effort with these amazing celestial events.  And He crowned the One who did His will with the glory of the Resurrection.  Were the story to end there, we would rightly worship Him and thank Him for what He has done.

     But salvation history is not yet complete.  In fact, it is only just beginning.  You and I are called to speak in terms of eternity.  And it is an eternity which begins with an amazing feast to celebrate when we are called home to be with Him.  Think on this for just a second: the One who arranged the heavens to announce the birth of His only begotten Son is the One who is planning that heavenly wedding feast to which He calls all of humanity.  And each one of us gathered here this morning that claims Him as Lord is guaranteed an honored spot at that wedding feast!  Each one of us who calls Him Lord is invited and has a place prepared.  Each one of us is destined to eat of His amazing provision and drink of His amazing vineyard.

     It is a wonderful invitation to know you have, but have you ever really considered the scope of the feast to which you are called?  Think on it in these terms: we all agree that God did an amazing thing announcing the birth of His only begotten Son to the Gentile world through the use of the heavens.  How well planned do you think the wedding feast will be when all His children, you and I and those known only to Him, return home to share in His glory and majesty?  How big will that event be when you and I are called into His presence, with all our brothers and sisters and all the saints in light, with those proud loving words “Well done!  Enter into the joy of your Father” and crowned with the glorious riches only He can provide?  Perhaps in light these celestial events and in light of His promises, you and I can begin to get the barest hint of how the darkness of this world is doomed to fail against such power and love.  Maybe, just maybe, His light might burn a bit brighter in our hearts this year as we go forth into the world proclaiming His love, proclaiming His hope, and proclaiming His power to accomplish His will to all those blinded in the darkness and groping for sight, groping for hope.  Pray that our message is one of invitation, invitation to those loving arms stretched out on a cross, whose glory was revealed to the world this day in history, so many years ago!