Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Christmas Eve 2016: Merry Christmas. Happy Christmas. Feliz Navidad

Christmas Eve 

It’s Christmas Eve. And warm. Outdoor cafes are full. The pre-Christmas rush at Barney Greengrass.  Almost…a big almost…as busy a time as then High Holy Days. One of the customers there jokes, Yeah Jewish Christmas…breakfast Barney Greengrass,  a movie and Chinese food…Yesterday when I stopped in for coffee, I even joined in the relay line awhile…

Earlier today. Pat and Leila and Dion all helped get the place ready.
Leila and Pat decorated
Now Jed is rehearsing at the piano and Dion, Berik and Leila making farolitos for our front steps. A taste of navidad en estilo de santa fe right here in the Upper West Side.
Farolitos light the way
Tells people we’re here. Welcomes them. Makes me happy.

As always, I am anxious. Who will be here? Will it be OK? Will my boys feel good about it?
Pastor Brashear and sons
They’ve lived through the year of the service on the steps in front of locked gates. Years with only them and a few homeless. Then the signs of returning hope…two years ago with Ralph Farris of ETHEL and last year with Carman Moore and his premiered new carols.

Not to worry. A couple comes by at around 6:30. We’re still getting ready. The people start to stream in. There’s my bandmates Pat from Ireland and Rabbi Steve, Ted and Asya from the Center. Tourists. Neighbors. All will be well. 

The service begins. We light the Advent candles. With other music, Jed and I do the Lo How a Rose/The rose medley again. And its time for my reflection. I hold my light up lotus blossom and ask who knows what it is ? John R knows.
John R, Pastor Bob, Dion and Berik
I tell how our predecessors used this design from the Buddhist tradition for  our baptismal font back at he turn of the last century. Very rare form the time. And how back in early December, I  was at Riverside Church for a Buddhist transmittal of the light ceremony.. With Some 500 Chinese Buddhist priests, and an equal number of others. There was my friend TK as a Japanese Buddhist representative. And an imam. And me, representing the Christians.
Lotus blossom light

I could only understand a small portion of what happened. Although the chants were intoxicating. But there was this moment. The altar was filled with these lotus blossoms. Priests came to the altar. Took the blossoms and passed then out through the congregation. And I watched as the lights came on and their glow spread throughout the sanctuary. 

It was still early enough in December to be Hanukkah. I spoke of how their ceremony reminded me of our Christmas Eve ceremony. And how in Hanukkah, even though the miracle was about oil that lasted 8 days before running out, it had been decided to add a candle a  day instead of the other way because light in the world must always grow.

Just like in Advent, we add a candle every week. The light must always grow.

There seems to be a need deeper than any of our traditions to celebrate light in the darkness of winter. Something archetypal, primordial even. Deep. 

It’s been a dark time. Baghdad. Paris. Beirut. The shootings in San Bernadino. And all across the country. An average of one a day. Police violence and Black Lives Matter. Refugees and migrants in flight, across the globe, even as the Holy family had to flee a homicidal despotic ruler. More than enough darkness. But we celebrate light. 

We celebrate God’s full humanity in the midst of ours. Coming to know us fully. Know our hurts and pains. Joys and sorrows. Announced first to shepherds. Those who work outside the gates. Those who are looked on with suspicion when they come inside. Born in a makeshift shelter in the midst if animals. Shelter where it can be found.

I wonder where the child would be born tonight. To workers in the back of kitchens where Christmas Eve dinners are served. To the deli and bodega workers in the middle of the night. In a van belonging to Christmas tree sellers from Quebec. Or even in the midst of the homeless, gathered on church steps. Here God dwells with us. And there is light.

The tradition used to be we’d darken our sanctuaries at this point, light a candle from the Christ candle and then pass it out through the sanctuary. As if the world had been all dark but then Jesus came and presto –changeo, LIGHT. 

But here it is….the light has always been here, always. Since the very first day when God said, Let there be light, and there was, and God saw that it  was good. Light when the children of Israel aid enough and walked out of the empire with Moses and light when the prophets called on their own people to return to justice, it’s sometimes dim, sometimes hard to see but always there. Even in our own time. 

So tonight, we won't bring our sanctuary to darkness. But we will each share our own light until all the candles glow. And as we pass the light, we will sing Silent Night.

In this silent moment, as we share our light. Listen…to the sounds of traffic out on the street, to the tree sellers from Quebec loading up to return to their families, on such a night the human one comes…

As you look at your own light, see it glow, take it with you. Let the light of your life be light for others…

And from up front , I watch as the light grows. 

As always, we end with Joy to the World. I’ll linger. Greet every visitor. One woman tells me it’s her third visit this week, came and was surprised by Fools’ Mass. Then came back for Antigona. Then had to come for Christmas Eve.  Linger with Pat and Ana and my boys. Many, like rabbi Steve, walk out to the street carrying their light with them.
Rabbi Steve, Pastor Bob, Jed Distler
On the steps, Pat reminds me in Ireland, it’s Happy Christmas…

Many of the Antigona cast members are from Spain. Spending Christmas away from family. So Martin has invited the Noche family to gather at a Spanish restaurant for una grande celebracion de Noche Buena. My boys and I, Dion and his lady will join them. There will be endless tapas, free flowing vino y cerveza y sangria. Pollos estofados y flan y postres. And around 11, the flamenco singers will burst into song, deep, dark and passionate. 
Canciones flamencos

Feliz navidad. Merry Christmas. 
Martin, Pastor Bob y Xianix

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Fourth Sunday in Advent: Fools' Mass


Fools' Mass

 There has been an aggressive and angry man hanging out on our steps. Speaks only to me in Spanish. Has one bad eye. Heavy beard. The other day he followed me into the Bean. I don't know what to make of some one yelling No necista tenga miedo de mi. Aggressive yelling is not a way to reduce fear. I kept looking for someone there to notice but no one did.  Yesterday when I told he would need to move before the performance, he got in my face, poked me in the chest and called me maricon. Faggot is just as offensive in any language.

Today our friends from Theatre Dzieci return for their annual Advent performance of Fools’ Mass. As I arrive, they’re already getting into character. Happily, the chapel is filling up. We’ll eventually need to get more chairs. A new character offers me a program, but won’t let go.

The basic plot is the same every year. It’s an asylum during the days if the plague. Kindly father Jose has cared for this cast if characters with their various mental and emotional issues. And bad teeth.  And now he has died. And the inmates have to figure out how to do the mass themselves. Got a real Peter Brooks kind of feel to it.

And what a cast of characters. The leader who keeps tapping his head and saying sorry. The one who just stares off into space.  A new blind character. The one who wants to hug. The new blind character. I have noticed how subtle changes year to year. For awhile  a new Spanish speaking woman appeared. Now, in this year of Muslim bashing, one of the fools is constantly intoning Allah u akbar.

But when they sing, the ancient church songs are perfect. It's the phenomenon I experienced in nursing homes where a room full of people would be virtually vegetative until an old hymn was played and all of a sudden, the room fills with song.

The dramatic high point comes when a pregnant woman gives birth to a loaf of bread which is then stabbed and then shared.  My friend Jean described it as the perfect representation of incarnational theology. And another friend says that it is the most faithful representation of the deepest truth of the mass she has seen. Grotowski praxis at its best.

Visitors are profoundly moved. The characters maintain character even as the congregation leaves. My 94 year old friend Rachel completely gets it and almost glowing. Later she will tell me how it took her back to her own days working in an asylum. That it was so accurate, they must have spent hours in an asylum just observing.

I’ll always remember Teddy (who passed away 4 years ago this week) saying, I get it, when the one who has taken care of us is no longer there, we have to take care of one another…

I miss him still.

Five days until Christmas.

The weather outside feels like spring.

Dzieci's Matt Mitler and Pastor Brashear

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Third Sunday in Advent: .....Don't worry....


A holiday pot luck

It’s a warm, too sunny, too warm, strange spring in December day.I haven’t seen Marty in awhile. He’s sitting in front of Dunkin' Donuts, hand out looking for tips.  When he recognizes me, he nods, salutes.
Pastor, did Albert Einstein have anything to say about the weather?
Not that I’m aware of Marty.
72 pages of equations. he said it all comes down to e=mc2. And that only 3 people in the world understand it.
And I’m not one of them, Marty.
And he laughs. You have a good day, Marty.
He nods. Salutes  again.

Our scriptures for the day are  Zephaniah 3: 14-20, Isaiah12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7  and Luke 3: 7-18. As part of our musical reflection, Jed and I do Don’t Worry be happy by Bobby Mc Ferrin. And then our reflection….

Yesterday when I got on the subway to come to the church to rehearse with Jed, the train was filled with Santa Con revelers.  And then I noticed….the air conditioning was on!! Much as I enjoy December spring, there’s something basically just not right about that.

What I’m thinking about today is worry.  Is thee anyone here today who is free from worry?  I worry about the church. My kids… My future…I could go  on…Perhaps the best expression of  this is the Bobby McFerrin song.  I wanted to sing it today because I used to find it completely annoying. One time, I was at a church leaders retreat back in Pittsburgh. Our leader was from the intentional community Church of the Savior in Washington, DC. He was kind of like a monk and was wearing  sandals in winter. Every break he would play this song. After 2-3 times, it  was driving me crazy. I said to my friend John, if he does that one more time, I’m outta here. Which is exactly what happened. One more Don't worry, be happy…and we were off to the bar.

It seemed insipid.  Is anyone here old enough to remember Alfred E. Newman?  Mad Magazine? The What, me worry? guy? And of course, our advice from Donna Schaper last week on living mercy,  promise never to offer illusory hope…which usually begins  with don’t worry…

I told Andre about this one time. He kind of of scowled a little. Told me that he’d studied with Bobby Mc Ferrin’s father. You ought to think about this, he said. He really means it.

It’s been said that worry is its own reward…as when you are worrying about something,  you emotionally feel as if you’re engaged, as if you don’t need to do anything about  it…because you are worrying…

So Bobby Mc Ferrin say, Don’t worry, be happy. Paul says :
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Prayer….with all the shootings, think about that a moment, you always see the Facebook post sending with thoughts and prayers…it’s almost doesn't change anything. Prayer must be accompanied by doing…

Paul’s prayers are not easy…. by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God….that thanks-giving we’ve been talking about the last two weeks…the idea being if you put your whole self into it, all your heart, clearly tell God what you are  asking, be profoundly sincere in your asking, you will turn it over to God…you will feel peace as you let it go…..your hearts and minds will be guarded…you will do what you need to do, what you can do.. and after that, it’s out of your hands…

It was CS Lewis who said, I don’t pray to change God’s mind, I pray to change  my own…

I will also say that when two people pray together, there is real intimacy that is formed. Spiritual  intimacy. We meet each other in a deeper place, a place where the holy spirit dwells.  The Place where God is.

When I was I Seminary, I was part of an urban core group of about 12 people my  senior year. We each worked 20 hours a week in an urban church. We met for four hours every Monday. We began with a theological reflection paper.  Then a case study from our experience. Then group process. Then finished with worship. Eucharist. There we people in that group that I just plain did not like, but as we met each week and prayed for each other, near the end of the semester I discovered that while I still didn’t like some of the people, I had come to love them…We are a small enough community.. what if we each prayed for all of us each week? Consciously and deliberately? What might change? Pope Francis always asks of people pray for me. Are we able to ask that of each other? Pat asked me to pray for her mother-in –law  last week…What if I asked you to you pray for me? By name? In your home, in your heart? What might change?

I cannot say that any change in external circumstances are ever guaranteed. What can change is your heart and mind.

Our three passages share a model of  Fear, presence and joy…
We name ,claim our fear….
We experience the presence of the Holy Spirit
And then experience joy….. we sing praise….we feel….happy…?

I can’t leave without touching on John the Baptist again this morning. He stormed in here last week,  like  he always does, every year. With his wild hair, rough clothes and strange diet. Knowing hast he was raised in the Temple, it’s like he’s gone form Trinity Episcopal Wall Street to the sawdust tent revival trail of hot August nights. And he comes on strong today…You brood of vipers…this not seem to be a good way to build a  church. Who wants to hear Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

But I’m struck by his advice…..He starts with sharing serious crowd sharing….
10And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" 11In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."
And then check this out…
Tax collectors? Those despised collaborators with the empire? Making their living by cheating their  own people?
, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." 1

 And Soldiers? Not Roman soldiers, but those who worked for the Jewish establishment, kind of  like the Palestinian authority" Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."
He’s saying do your job…and do it appropriately…he doesn’t say, Walk off your job…join me in the wilderness..become revolutionaries a las montanas …her says DO your job where you are….

He doesn’t say, NYPD officers, occupying enforcers of the empire, Leave the force, join the people…he says, serve the people, do what you are  supposed to do, are pledged to do…protect, serve, defend….

The revolution will never get anywhere without defectors, without those who are converted into a new way of living where they are.

We traditionally hear the wheat and chaff part as separating the bad guys…the good from the bad, our enemies from ourselves…but here is the point…we all have both wheat and chaff inside of us…we are all BOTH…the call is to allow the holy spirit to burn chaff away from  inside of us all that keeps us from being who we are supposed to be. Internal from a

That’s what this season of preparation  is all  about…

In this meeting ahead…

Don't worry
Feel the Presence
Be open to Joy

Joy…this  gaudate Sunday….it’s hard to think about as we  go from  holiday party to party, but in the past, this was a time of reflection, penitence…. This was to be a Sunday to break the  darkness, to be a break from penitence ….so let us go  into our time together with that spirit….


Following the service, we go to the chapel for a very important congregational meeting. We have a serious discussion of our financial situation, always perilous. We discuss the plan for our new 501c3 (not for profit ) finally putting legs under the Center at West Park. Possible changes in pastoral coverage.  Hard stuff. But there is support. And enthusiasm. We’re still in it. Willing to take a risk. The next step.

After our meeting, we share in a holiday pot luck. Everyone has brought something to share. The spirit is good. It is a time of anticipation. Of hope.

Pastor Stephen and Russ

Zephaniah 3 :14-20
14Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
15The LORD has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.
16On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
17The LORD, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
18as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you,
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
19I will deal with all your oppressors at that time.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
20At that time I will bring you home,
at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes, says the LORD.
2Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.

3With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. 4And you will say in that day:
Give thanks to the LORD,
call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations;
proclaim that his name is exalted.

5Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously;
let this be known in all the earth.
6Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
10And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" 11In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" 13He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." 14Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.