Wednesday, December 29, 2010

John's Prologue

The following is a very slightly edited version of the homily preached on the First Sunday of Christmas, December 26, 2010. There were plenty of available seats (unlike two days earlier!)

The first chapter of John's Gospel is referred to by Biblical scholars as “the Prologue.”

Luke gives us the "screenplay" for the familiar tableau that we re-enacted again on Friday night: the pageant that includes angels and shepherds, baby Jesus in his swaddling cloths, the manger, and all the rest. (Although I should point out that there is no mention of donkeys that I can find in Luke.)

Matthew’s birth narrative is different: his focus is not on the simple, humble shepherds who come to see Jesus but on those wise men from the east, those goyim who bring highly symbolic gifts. Intertwined with their visit, of course, is a drama of political intrigue that resembles an old Jewish story: the story of the Exodus. It is in Matthew that we meet another Joseph, also a dreamer; who leads his family into and then out of Egypt. It is Matthew, the most Jewish of the gospel writers, who chooses a lens from the prophet Isaiah through which to interpret the Christmas story: Emmanuel, God-with-us.

We are tempted to blend the two narratives together, but there is wisdom in letting each speak to us in its own voice. Mark tells us nothing about the birth of Jesus at all.

And then there is John… In John’s gospel there are no angels, shepherds, or magi. Yet it is, I think, in the first chapter of John that we discover the true meaning of Christmas: a concise and powerful summary of the Incarnation—literally the “en-flesh-ment” of God. Luke and Matthew, together, give us the experience; but John is focused telling us what it means and why it matters to our lives.

What it means, John says, is that God has dwelt among us in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus reveals for us (and not just for us but the whole world) the image of God—very God of very God. We are no longer left to speculate about God’s love: we can consider a person who loves us. We can pay attention to who he was and what he said and how he behaved—how he challenged both his disciples and those who opposed him. (And how he loved both groups.) We can learn what he taught and bear witness to how he died. We can do all of this because the faith of the Church is that God is not confined in the heavens: the meaning of this event we call Christmas is that God dwells among us.

In Jesus’ life, we see not only a mirror of the divine life, but of our own lives as well; of what a fully human life might look like. Of course that is God’s desire for each and every one of us: to be alive, to be human, to be real. John insists that:

• The Word has become flesh in Jesus Christ.
• The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
• We have beheld his glory, as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

In the Eastern branches of Christianity—among the Orthodox of various flavors (Greek, Armenian, Russian) — the Incarnation is summarized in this way: God became human, that humans might become divine. To our Western ears that claim sounds almost scandalous and maybe even a little heretical. But it is actually a teaching of the Church Fathers, of the holy catholic and apostolic Church that we claim to be a part of.

We are changed by the Incarnation.
We are restored to what God intended for all people when He formed Adam and Eve from the earth. We are new creation, a holy people after God’s own heart.

We don’t say it quite as strongly but this message of John’s comes through most clearly, I think, when we celebrate Holy Baptism. It is always sad to me how the Doctrine of Original Sin has tainted and warped our understanding of Holy Baptism; because the whole point is that whatever we say about Original Sin, the point is that in Baptism Original Grace and Blessing is restored. We are given the same name that Jesus was given at his Baptism: beloved of God. We are called by our true names.

Yet we carry around with us, each of us, so many old names. Names perhaps from the schoolyard, perhaps even from our homes. “Stupid.” “Fatso.” “Ugly.” “Faggot.” You know the names…and probably if I stopped for a minute you could add the ones that most hurt you, the ones that you carry around inside of you even if on the outside you’ve long since moved past them. You may have become a beautiful swan at fifteen, but if you were called “ugly duckling” at twelve it may very well be a name you not yet let go of. Bullying may be in the news of late but it’s not a new phenomena. And those names unfortunately stick.

At Baptism, however, we are sealed and marked and claimed by the living God: as God’s own beloved children. When the priest makes the sign of the cross on our foreheads in oil, we are being claimed as a royal priesthood—kings and queens who are esteemed of God, partners with God in mission. As St. Paul told the Galatian Christians in today’s epistle, so it is with us as well: we are adopted as part of God’s family. We are heirs of God. Like Jesus, we, too, cry “Abba, Father.”

That claim is not primarily about gender, but relationship. I don’t want to minimize the challenges of sorting through the hard questions of inclusive language and images. But as I hear “Abba,” it is not a claim that God is more like an earthly father than an earthly mother. It is that God is not distant. God is like the parent (mom or dad) who changes our messy diapers or sits by our bedside when we are sick. God is like the parent who teaches us to drive, or picks us up at the police station when we take stupid pills. God is like the father, or mother, who welcomes us home with open arms and cooks up veal piccata for everyone, even when we have lost our way in the world. Beloved child of God. Not only is that our “new name,” but it is our truest name. We are a holy people. God became human so that we might become divine.

Now at some level that is a rather terrifying thought. It’s easier in some ways to be stupid, or ugly, or useless than it is to be esteemed, beloved, important, given a purpose. It is the work of the Christian life to live more fully into that which God already calls us: to live into the meaning and purpose of our Baptismal identities. The process of sanctification is never a smooth process that can be graphed as a steadily upward incline. But that’s the direction we are called to move in, even if we do so by “fits and starts,” even if it’s a step forward and one to the side and a half-step back. Because that’s who we really are, who we truly are. The journey of faith is about living into the name that is given to us by the One who knows us best.

That may sound a bit like an “I’m ok/you’re ok” message, like something you’d find in the self-help section of a bookstore. But it’s really not that at all. My concern about new-age spirituality is that it doesn’t seem to have an adequate grasp of Sin. But the life of Jesus, especially his death, make it all too clear to us that Sin is real. Sin is so real there seems to be a propensity among us to destroy the good that comes as gift from God and to ignore the good that is within us. The Christian faith, in both East and West, recognizes that Sin abounds. But we also insist that grace abounds all the more, and that God keeps inviting us to become more fully our true selves, as people created in God’s own image.

In Jesus, the divine became human, that human beings might become divine. Or if that sounds too radical to you, if it rocks your Calvinistic Protestant world too much, then how about this: we are invited, by the grace of God, to participate in the divine life. Not just someday, but today. Right here. Right now. We come to the Table to eat what God already claims that we are: members of Christ’s own body, heirs of the promise, a holy and beloved people.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


"In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth."
(Luke 1:39-40)

I’ll never forget the “children’s sermon” that my Old Testament seminary professor gave us about the importance of doing a "close reading" of Biblical texts, especially those we think we already know. He had two copies of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, which he read aloud to us. The poem was written in 1822 by Clement Clark Moore. He had an early edition of the book as well as a modern re-printing. What he wanted us to pay attention to were the illustrations. According to Moore, St. Nick is “dressed all in fur from his head to his foot and his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.” In the early editions that’s just how he is pictured — in an all white fur outfit covered with soot, “with a little round belly.” The image matches Moore's words precisely.

Now fashions change of course, and these days as everyone knows, St. Nick has gone red, with white fur trim. And like many of us he’s put on some weight. In the later version of the book he had, what happened is that the text is essentially ignored: the illustration matches the "Santa" we all love from the mall. What’s interesting, however, is that most of us don’t even notice. We don’t even register the disconnect between Moore's words and the more modern image.

Now that isn’t a huge deal. But it’s an illustration that has always stayed with me, because what my teacher said next was the real point: most of us have preconceived images dancing in our heads, especially around Christmas time. We think we know Mary and Joseph and the babe and the shepherds and the magi. We carry around pictures in our heads of that manger scene that are shaped more by pageants and Christmas cards than by the birth narratives in the Bible. So we look in vain to find an innkeeper, for example, or the number of wise men who came from the east. When we already have an image in our heads, however, it’s easy for us to make the text fit our image rather than adapting our images to what the text in fact says.

A similar problem occurs when we try to speak of this young Jewish girl, Miriam in Hebrew—or Mary if you prefer. (So long as we remember that the text precedes her becoming a Roman Catholic!)The Church has alternatively said too much or too little about Mary; much of it shaped by our own agendas.

But before she was the BVM, she was just a kid — probably no more than fifteen years old. She is called by God through the very same pattern that we can find throughout the Old Testament: whenever God needs to have a job done, from Abraham to Moses to David to Isaiah with his “unclean lips.” The angel says, “I’ve got a job for you.” She is, in turn, fearful, confused and resistant. The angel presses on and tells her that she’ll have a baby. She responds, “how can this be?” The angel insists it can be because with God all things are possible and then Mary sings, “Here I am Lord…” Then she runs off to see her cousin, Elizabeth.

Mary says “yes” to God and the world is changed. She is Christ-bearer, which in truth is what we are all called to be. We, too, are called to say “yes, Lord” and let Christ be born into a broken world in and through our words and deeds. But she was first. Therefore she is a model, a witness of what faith looks like.

The life of faith is not without its questions and its struggles, uncertainties and fears. But with God, all things are possible. Mary’s humanity is crucial—for it is precisely in all of her vulnerability and youthful bravery that we see why she matters. If she can do this then maybe we can too.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What I Am Reading...

...or more accurately, the books that have made it to the top of my pile and that I hope to read early in 2011.

Walter Brueggemann is always good. But this book, it seems to me, goes to the heart of what his greatest contribution has been not only to Biblical scholarship but toward a helpful post-Christendom ecclesiology. In Out of Babylon he continues to explore the Biblical theme of exile relative to the experience of the Church in our time. Chapter 8, "A Durable Metaphor...Now Contemporary" just about sums it up for me.

I first encountered Bonhoeffer when I turned twenty-one at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland: a Lutheran pastor who became a close friend was doing PhD work at St. Andrews; Jorg gave me a copy of Letters and Papers from Prison. I read Life Together whenever I start to feel discouraged about parish ministry or the wider church, so that I can try to let go of my "wish dream" of the Church and give thanks for the community God gives us. I look forward to delving into this bio.

I'm planning a book study in my parish on A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith and have already begun this one. A colleague of mine offers a gentle critique that McLaren is still wrestling with his evangelical background and context and that the direction he is moving in is not unlike what Lutherans and Episcopalians have been saying for some time. Still, I find that people are at various stages in the asking of such questions, which include questions about Biblical authority, the Church's authority, human sexuality, religious pluralism and others. It seems to me that it will be a helpful way to engage in a deeper conversation.

I sometimes joke that if I wasn't a pastor I'd like to be a Supreme Court justice. It's not really a joke; I was always way more interested when in college in attending law school and going straight to being a judge than in actually being a lawyer, and I've long been interested in the Court. I think Breyer is a smart guy. A friend of mine, knowing of this interest, passed the book along to me and I'm eager to delve into it.

Robert Putnam wrote "Bowling Alone." This book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, explores faith in America, and while he writes about things that have important implications for the Church, part of what I like is that he writes not as a theologian but as a social scientist. I read an excellent review of this book in The Christian Century and can't wait to dive into all 688 pages!

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Regular Joe

O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light rises up in the darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what you would have us to do, that the Spirit of Wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in your light we may see light, and in your straight path may not stumble, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Book of Common Prayer

Some of you may remember Spike Lee’s 1989 film, Do the Right Thing, which unfolds amid racial tensions in a Brooklyn neighborhood. The film ends with two quotations. The first is from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; it states that violence is never justified, under any circumstances. “Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love,” said Dr. King. The second quote comes from Malcolm X, who said “I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don't even call it violence when it's self-defense, I call it intelligence.” Lee leaves it at that.

Life is complicated. It’s hard enough to “do the right thing,” but sometimes the even harder part is in figuring out what the right thing is to do. I think what makes that film so brilliant is that Lee gets that, and therefore chooses to leave us, the audience, to wrestle with the question.

There are times in our lives when it is very clear what we need to do, even though it may be difficult to find the courage and fortitude to do it. It is hard to act in accordance with our stated convictions and core values. But it may be harder still when we are genuinely unclear about the way forward. In those times, what we really need is help in figuring out what the right thing is. Is violence always wrong, or is it sometimes a necessary “self-defense?” To ask that kind of question we need wisdom and insight and discernment.

Or we may have a friend whose addiction problems are out of control: do we err on the side of not rocking the boat too much (so at least they will know they are not alone and that we do care about them) or on the side of “tough love” that sets clear boundaries (and holds them accountable for their bad choices?) So much depends on the circumstances, on context, and a whole lot of factors that may be beyond our understanding. At such times, before we can “do the right thing,” we need to figure out what the right thing is to do.

Joseph, we are told in today’s gospel reading, was, “a righteous man.” In Greek the word is “dikaios.” It’s translated into English as “just” or as “justified” as often as “righteous”—and it is a fairly common word in the New Testament, especially in St. Paul’s writings. What exactly does it mean to be a “just” or “righteous” person? I suspect that if you asked most Christians, across generational and denominational lines, they would say that it is basically about trying to do our best to follow God’s commandments as they are revealed in the Scriptures. But in the case of Joseph, there is a text in the Torah that is quite explicit, given the situation in which he finds himself. It seems pretty clear what he is supposed to do, if he is in fact a “righteous man.”

Mary and Joseph were engaged—although something gets lost in translation here when we move into English and our twenty-first century context. In first-century Palestine, to be “betrothed” was a legally binding arrangement that could be dissolved only by death or divorce. In other words, Mary and Joseph were already as good as married. And so if Mary has been “sleeping around” (and all the evidence Joseph has seems to suggest she has) then she has committed adultery. So what is the right thing to do here? How would a righteous man act? The Bible says that adultery is punishable by death.

If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones. (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)

Now we must be very clear here: in the first century, Jews were not going around stoning adulterers. The rabbis had interpreted the text as belonging to another time and place, and softened the blow quite a bit. They were not Biblical literalists. Still, adultery was considered a very serious sin and those who committed it were publicly humiliated and shamed, even if not stoned. The practice, in other words, was to make public what had happened in private. A "scarlet letter" worked as well as stoning to ostracize a person from “polite” society and make her as good as dead to the community.

Keep in mind that Joseph still believes at this point in the story that he has been wrongfully betrayed: that his honor has been violated. He must have felt incredibly hurt, humiliated, and angry. One could certainly understand his desire to lash out. But beyond that he can, as a religious person, justify his desire for retaliation by quoting Scripture! He can say not only that he has every “right” to expose Mary to public humiliation and that it’s a form of “tough love,” but that it’s his “religious duty.” He can say that is the “will of God” and that these aren’t his rules, but God’s, because it says so, right in the Bible! In spite of how the rabbis were interpreting Deuteronomy 22 in Joseph’s day, he could have pushed for a return to “that old time religion” and gotten a bumper sticker for his car that said: “Bring back stoning: God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

But of course Joseph didn’t do that.

He could have listened to the interpretations being given by the rabbis of his day and exposed Mary to public disgrace. This decision would had the advantage of being “in the mainstream.” With the full backing of the religious authorities, Joseph could have claimed the moral high ground by publicly divorcing Mary, so that everyone in town would know that he had been wronged. He had every right to do that, even if it wasn’t the right thing to do.

But Joseph didn't do that either. Even before he has this strange dream, Joseph discerns a higher calling than following the letter of the law, even a law already mitigated by the rabbis. Joseph decides that he is “unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace.” He decides that the “right thing” to do here is to dismiss her quietly. And Matthew declares that the reason he did this, the reason he went against the conventional wisdom, was because he was a “righteous man.”

How can it be that a person makes a decision that is counter to the Law, and that he is still considered to be a just person? Matthew seems to be suggesting here that it is. That doesn’t mean that he is dismissing the Law entirely. It doesn't mean Joseph or we can or should do whatever we want. More than any of the four gospel writers, Matthew writes as a Jew, to Jews, with the utmost respect for Torah. In Matthew’s telling of the story, Jesus comes not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.

But Jesus will remind his disciples what is spelled out in the Old Testament itself: that the whole of the Torah is about love. The whole of the Torah can be summed up in the command to love God and to love neighbor.

If we want to “do the right thing,” we can’t just go in search of one Biblical text to tell us what to do. We have to engage in prayer and discernment with a living, holy, merciful God. We have to learn how to trust the Holy Spirit to form and guide our conscience and to guide us into all truth. We also have to be self-aware, because the potential for self-deception is always great. But above all else, we need love. The fourth candle on our Advent wreaths is the candle of love and we are reminded today that righteousness and love are inextricably bound together.

Joseph seems to believe that a “respect for the dignity of every human being” includes even the woman he feels has betrayed and deceived him and hurt him. His “righteousness” is tied to preserving her dignity. He choose mercy and love rather than public humiliation, because he was a righteous man…

Now that isn't the end of the story at all but it's a part of the story I think we do well to linger on, because it reveals a great deal about Joseph's character. But the story gets even wilder from there: because no sooner has Joseph made up his mind than it all becomes moot: his decision has been made when out of nowhere the whole story shifts and an angel appears to Joseph in a dream. (Poor Joseph; unlike Mary and the shepherds and even George Bailey, he doesn’t get a real angel—with or without wings; just a dream angel!)

But what he learns from this dream-angel is huge: he has it all wrong. He thought he had the facts right and his decision seemed compassionate based on a logical reading of the evidence. After all, Mary is pregnant and he knows he’s not the father. But then the angel tells him that this pregnancy is the work of the Holy Spirit and not of an adulterous affair at all. Mary has in fact not betrayed him. And that changes everything.

This, too, is a part of the moral life, is it not? We make ethical choices not as people who are omniscient, but as people who come to decisions based on the best information we have available to us at the time, information that at best we see through a glass darkly. And sometimes we are just plain wrong. Sometimes we leap to the wrong conclusions. Often when we do (and especially if we feel hurt or vulnerable or angry) we act less nobly than Joseph was about to act. But now Joseph changes his plans based on a dream.

And here, too, he had choices. After waking up he very easily could have said, “I’m never eating stuffed peppers again!” He could have told himself: “it was just a dream, and what a bizarre one at that. I can’t wait to tell it to my therapist!”

But that, of course, isn’t what he does. Joseph acts and does the two things his dream angel tells him to do: he takes Mary as his wife and then he names the child Yeshua—Jesus—Savior. In so doing, Joseph is claiming the child as his very own son.

Sometimes we have a hard time connecting to the people of the Bible. But we should be clear that regardless of what we say about the peculiar nature of this particular birth, Joseph was neither the first nor the last man to ever find himself in a situation like this. He is, I think in a real sense, a regular Joe: an ordinary, everyday hero who is just trying to do the right thing.

How do you know when to trust your dreams and act on them? How do you discern what is a message from God, and what is really a temptation from the Evil One? I don’t have any easy answers for you on that. All I can tell you is that Joseph trusted his dream as more real than what his rational brain told him and as more important than what all the gossiping neighbors were whispering about Mary. Maybe the dream confirmed what his heart was telling him and he wanted to live into that reality.

What does seem clear, at least to me, is that Joseph acted out of love when he could have chosen to act out of fear and anger. He stuck with Mary in spite of any lingering doubts he may have had. He gave her son his name and then raised him his own. Adoptive parents know well both the challenges and potential joys of such a decision. But do well to remember that this decision will almost certainly be costly to Joseph’s reputation and his standing in the community—and very few people beyond Mary herself will ever be able to appreciate the sacrifice he has made in doing the right thing, the hard thing. It will win him no medals, and almost certainly the whispering will go on in that small town for decades. Mamzer—they will call Jesus, in spite of Joseph’s actions: illegitimate.

In hindsight, as followers of Jesus, it’s easy to see why Joseph deserves to be called a “righteous man.” But what truly amazes me is that Joseph was able to get it right the first time around, without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight—even before he ever held that babe wrapped in swaddling clothes in his arms.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Happy Holidays!

I realize that as a Christian pastor, in a liturgical tradition that takes its time in getting to Bethlehem, that my experience in December may not be quite the same as that of others. Still, they do let me out of the church every now and again and I am, by nature, not a terribly "sheltered" or "parochial" person.

Signs of Christmas are all around me. No one, as far as I can tell, has declared war on Christmas. There are wreaths aligning Main Street in the town where I live. This weekend I went to the campus of Harvard University (that bastion of liberalism!)- to the Memorial Church, located in the heart of Harvard Yard, to worship at the 101st year of their "Service of Lessons and Carols." Absolutely lovely, but no "war" there as far as I could see.

We were at Harvard to hear my oldest son singing in the choir. Tonight we are headed to Wachusett Regional High School--our local public school--to hear our younger son sing. It won't be a worship service, but Christmas will be more than recognized through beautiful, and dare I say, "sacred" music.

I could go on: the Christmas tree at the White House, the music on the radio, the decorations in the drug store... But my point is simply this: where the front lines of this "war on Christmas?"

Or is it possible that it is just imagined? Is it possible that where there is smoke there is in fact, no fire at all?

I know that the old Protestant hegemonic powers are coming apart, and as an old Protestant I have to be honest: I am glad for that. I think Christians have done much better, historically, when we are a little bit under the radar than in the halls of power. But in the month of December, I just don't feel under attack. If anything, I find myself wondering what it is like to be a non-Christian this month: what it feels like as a Jew or Buddhist or Muslim, what it's like to have it "beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go" when it is not your tradition. Do we really think that "real" Americans celebrate Christmas?

As a Christian - as a follower of Jesus - I feel compassion for those whose holidays are not so supported by the culture. (Although I also feel just a twinge of envy sometimes too, because I think it's hard for Christians to separate out the cultural parts from the faith parts. But that's another rumination...)

I don't need to tell my non-Christian neighbors, "Merry Christmas." It feels, quite frankly, rude to me. Literally, of course, wishing them well as they attend the Christ-Mass...really? Why would I want the clerk at the Walmart to say this to me, unless she happens to be someone I will in fact see in the pews at the Christ-Mass on December 24?

These are holy days for many, a season of celebrating light in the darkness. Happy Holidays! That includes my faith but it also shows respect, and hospitality, and friendship to those whose beliefs differ from mine. I don't think it is even remotely disrespectful to Jesus.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Advent is a coming...

"Advent is a coming, not our coming to God, but his to us. We cannot come to God, he is beyond our reach; but he can come to us, for we are not beneath his mercy. Even in another life, as St. John sees it in his vision, we do not rise to God, but he descends to us, and dwells humanly among human creatures, in the glorious man, Jesus Christ. And that will be his last coming; we shall be his people, and he everlastingly our God, our God-with-us, our Emmanuel. He will come, but he is come already; he comes always: in our fellow-Christian (even in a child, says Christ), in his Word, invisibly in our souls, more visibly in his sacrament. Opening ourselves to him, we call him in: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; O come, Emmanuel." From The Crown of the Year, by Austin Farrer, as quoted in Christopher L. Webber's Love Came Down: Anglican Readings for Advent and Christmas.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

I Love You, You Love Me...

This morning I was channel surfing and when I say that I stumbled on some mindless television, I mean that quiet literally. There he was; and here I had just assumed he died some years ago. It was Barney, dancing with his friends and singing about books, hoping to brainwash the youngest generation into reading: I love stories all day long/in books, in pictures and even song... I mean I agree with the message completely; I've made a living telling stories as a preacher. Even so, it almost made me want to burn some books.

Now I realize that paragraph is grossly unfair. I also realize that I had some PTSD that emerged when I stumbled across that purple monster this morning. When my children were little I tried to steer them to Sesame Street: clever, interesting, wonder-filled and geared not only to children but to their captive parents as well. Sesame Street is Bruce Springsteen singing "Born to Add;" Johnny Cash singing "Nasty Dan" with Oscar the Grouch; and a whole array of stars singing "Put Down the Duckie."

But back to Barnie. My kids, especially Graham, went through a stage where they just loved that purple freak. "Clean up, clean up, everybody do your part..." Good message, for sure; but designed to drive you insane and make you want to start throwing things across the room...

I really had thought Barney was dead. He was dead to me, anyway. I don't know if I came across an old re-run or if he's still at it day after day. I don't know because my kids are now twenty and sixteen and I have not had to watch Barney for years. He is not on my radar anymore. He's out of my life...and yet, there he was this morning: I saw him, as purple as ever.

It got me to thinking about the circles we move in, the information we receive: what we literally see and don't see. Most of us live in echo chambers, some of our own choosing but much of it related to where we live and how much education we got and whether or not we have children and what we do for work. We don't think about it most of the time, but the information we take in forms and shapes us in ways we are rarely conscious of. We are like children watching Barney, receiving subtle and not so subtle messages that we just assume are "true." The philosophers speak of epistemology and that is what I am really ruminating about here. How do we know what we know? What do we see, and not see, that is happening all around us? Literally we inhabit different worlds.

When liberals and conservatives start talking about tax cuts for the wealthy, and whether or not it was a good idea for Obama to compromise with the GOP (or whether he should have drawn a line in the sand and gone down fighting) we would do well, I think, to realize that most of us (and most of our politicians) are pretty inept when it comes to macroeconomics. Our "decisions" are based on the messages we take in--and here is my Barney point: most of them as insipid and mind-numbing as a Barney song. Liberal Democrats say this is really, really bad; the country will go to hell if people making over a quarter of a million dollars get any more breaks. The secret message is not only that they are doing very well and need to pay their fair share, but that the rich really are (most of them anyway) like Mr. Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life." More or less conservative Republicans, not likely to ever give Obama credit, can now gloat for having outflanked that evil socialist president of ours once again, but not until they have reminded us that really small businesses run by hard-working "real" Americans like Joe the Plumber make $250,000 a year and if they don't get their tax-cuts they'll start firing the help and all the jobs will go China...

Personally, it seems to me that if these tax cuts didn't work for ten years then it is unlikely they are suddenly now going to save us. On the other hand, if the economy is trying to rebound now and "increasing" taxes slows down that growth: doesn't that affect everyone adversely - including and especially the poor? I suppose I am a liberal in many ways: theologically and on most social issues. But on economic issues I'm far more "moderate" and even "agnostic" in that I often don't know the right answer. I'm curious.

But of course our politicians and the current political climate doesn't really allow for or encourage curiosity or wonder or debate or conversation or ambiguity. We aren't allowed to say "I don't know." We don't allow our leaders to ever say that; we'd perceive it as a sign of weakness. We like our politicians to "draw lines in the sand" and to posture and to be certain; certain even when they are wrong. We have little tolerance as a nation for ambiguity, subtlety, questions, compromise, curiosity.

I blame it all on that purple freak. We are, I think, increasingly more Barney than Sesame Street as a nation. And that's not a good thing in my book.

Saturday, December 4, 2010


Like hope, joy, and love, peace is an Advent word, and this is a season for preparing our minds and hearts and souls for peace on earth, and good will to all.

You don’t have to read very much of the Bible to know that the Middle East has always been a violent place, certainly as far back as the Exodus when the ex-slaves from Egypt finally reached the “Promised Land” and wanted to claim the Promise. There was just one problem: there were people already living there who hadn’t been let in on the Promise. In fact, they rather liked living there. That’s why Joshua had to “fit” the Battle of Jericho, and that’s why the walls came “a tumblin’ down”–so that some could be pushed out in order to make room for those who had been promised “milk and honey.”

When we read the Bible, or the newspaper, we find that that was pretty much how it has been ever since. A few years of peace, under David’s reign, when things went pretty well...but in the scheme of human history not much. Israel and her neighbors – the Iranians, the Jordanians, the Egyptians, the Iraqis – under various aliases throughout history have not had an easy time of living together. After World War II the world community once again carved out a Jewish homeland. And once again we discovered (even when we tried to deny it) that there were people who had been living there for some time who had grown quite fond of doing so. We still haven't sorted out what that means but one thing is certain: we will never have peace if we can't be honest.

Life is not easy, and what is to one person an "answer to prayer" may be another's worst nightmare. This, I think, is what makes peace so difficult and elusive. In the real world it isn’t simply about feeling stress-free, and maybe we need to let go of that false ideal in order to make way for God’s peace: peace that brings with it justice, and that leads us to reconciliation and love of neighbor.

Those of us who claim the name of Christian are inheritors of a violent tradition that nevertheless still dares to yearn for, and dream of, and work towards peace. The prophets dare to speak of a time when “swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks”–that is to say, resources are re-directed from military appropriations to agriculture. It is only once that happens, say the prophets, that a peace that is more than just the “absence of war” becomes possible. God’s shalom is not about a “cease-fire.” It’s about abundance, and gratitude, and hospitality. It's about a a willingness to share and a table set with fine wines and veal piccata for everyone. It’s about a community where trust is a given, and where walls that once divided are broken down.

Sometimes people say to me that the Old Testament is hard to read because it is so violent. There is a great deal of truth in that statement, but there’s another way to look at it – a way that makes it so near and dear to me in fact. The Old Testament (and I believe the New Testament as well!) refuse to be “pie-in-the-sky.” They refuse to live in a dream world. They dare to look squarely at what really is.

The Old Testament especially does not avoid geo-political realities, and whether the super-powers are Assyria, or Babylonia, or Persia, or Rome, or Nazi Germany, or the Soviet Union, or the United States, the Bible insists on being honest about how violence degrades and hurts God’s people, and how even religion can be used to perpetrate violence and to justify power relationships. The Old Testament, and especially the prophets, are honest about what is. But they also refuse to settle for the status quo as what must always be. They dare to dream of the dawn of a new day, of a time when God really is the ruler of heaven and earth, a time when justice and peace go together.

I’ve always appreciated the song, “Let there be peace on earth...” not just for the memories it evokes in my from childhood, and not just because I like the tune, but because of the next clause: “and let it begin with me.” I think that is a very Biblical prayer: to ask God for peace on earth, but in the same moment to also recognize that such a prayer requires a response on our part. “Let it begin with me.” In the end it is not the politicians and the generals who will bring about peace on earth. It’s people like Mary, and Joseph, and the shepherds, and fishermen, and tax-collectors, and teachers and nurses and in-laws and neighbors. Each and every one of us are called to be “preparers of the way” in this holy season.

I think that part of what Jesus does for us is to invite us to look to the little things. Ministry is about “small things.” Jesus talks about things like “mustard seeds” when he speaks about faith, and I think peace as well. We can and should pray “let there be peace on earth” - but only if we are willing to let it begin here, and now, with us on this Second Sunday of Advent.

If and when we can find peace in our own hearts, it will be poured out in our homes. Maybe it is as simple as taking time to pray as a family, or lighting an Advent candle, and building a fire and talking about our days together. Maybe we need less “fast food” this month and more “comfort food.” Maybe we need to let go of some old habits, and begin to cultivate some new ones.

If and when there is peace in our hearts, and peace in our homes, we may very well find that it begins to extend to the neighborhood, because surely peace is even more contagious than dis-ease. That doesn’t mean there won’t be some degree of conflict, or disagreement, or difference of opinion; among human beings there will be differences. But there are healthy and unhealthy ways to deal with conflicts; mature ways and less mature ways. When peace is in our hearts–when it begins there–it can truly spread. We learn to confront one another, face to face (rather than gossiping about each other third-hand.) We begin to learn and to practice ways of resolving conflicts that do not require unanimity, but simply a willingness to listen, and to learn, and to forgive, and to love.

What happens when we take seriously our calling to be “preparers of the way” and therefore allow the peace that Christ pours into our hearts to extend to one another, to soften our hard edges, to make us better communicators and more open to healing, and to forgiveness, and grace? I think what happens is that peace starts to become palpable. I think that people feel drawn into the love of God even more deeply and that mission and vocation are re-energized. And as that happens, we learn (and re-learn)what it means to be salt, and light, and yeast for the sake of a broken world.