Sunday, December 28, 2014

Holy Innocents

Icon commissioned in 2010 by Church of the Holy Innocents in Atlanta
We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Christmas is not over yet.  In spite of popular opinion and a culture that ramps up toward December 25 and then suddenly stops, for those who mark liturgical time, Christmas Day is the beginning of a twelve-day season. On January 6, we'll celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany—the arrival of those wise guys from the east. St. Matthew will tell us (and James Taylor will remind us) that they went "home by another way." (For those who may not remember, the reason they do this matters.)

Today marks the Feast of the Holy Innocents, a day that challenges all of our sanitized and idealized visions of what Christmas is all about. (Technically speaking, since December 28 falls on a Sunday this year, the feast will be transferred to tomorrow; so I'm a little bit early.) The gospel reading for today picks up where that Epiphany gospel will leave off, telling us that while the magi found their way home and the holy family escaped to Egypt, the children who lived in and around Bethlehem were not so fortunate. (See Matthew 2:13-18.) According to the story, Herod is a cruel dictator - hardly the first or the last in the Middle East or in the world. And he’ll do whatever it takes to hold on to his power. 

Two years ago I was serving as a parish priest when these readings came up not very long after the tragic shooting deaths at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It was the first and only time in my life as a parish priest where these words seemed to hold within them, if not exactly "good news," then at least some deeper understanding of what it means to claim Jesus as Emmanuel, God-with-us. It was the first time that I was able to see that this story of Herod’s rage can be a kind of vehicle for exploring the mystery of the Incarnation and offer a way of hearing the familiar Christmas story at a much deeper level. 

Most historians agree, by the way, that this probably didn’t happen - at least not in the sense that historians mean "happened." From an historian's viewpoint, the far more likely scenario is that nobody really noticed when Jesus was born, at least nobody important. Maybe a few unnamed shepherds and a few odd stargazers from the east. The earliest of the four gospels (Mark) doesn’t even have a birth narrative and the last one (John) opts for a theological prologue. The birth narratives that Luke and Matthew construct for us decades after the crucifixion and resurrection to “fill in the blanks” do not claim to be eyewitness reports of Jesus' birth. 

The larger point is this: at the actual time of Jesus’ birth the government probably wasn’t too worried about the government being on the shoulders of a nobody from a small town on the outskirts of the empire. No one expected the king of kings to be found in a manger. It was only much later—after he was all grown up—that he started making the powers-that-be nervous.

So if it didn’t happen, this rage of King Herod, then we might assume it isn’t true. But here is the thing: stories can be true even if they didn’t happen historically. In fact, this is what great literature does over and over again. We go to see a play or we listen to a song or we read a poem because it conveys a deep truth and invites us to ponder our own reality in deeper ways. I have always appreciated the insight of Marcus Borg about the Road to Emmaus story; Borg concludes: "Emmaus never happened; Emmaus always happens." I think this is the same kind of story.

Over the years I've done a fair amount of interfaith Bible study with Christians and Jews. I can't speak to what it is that Jews might learn from Christians but I can say that the most important thing Jews have taught me is about how midrash works. Sometimes to get at the truth you need to tell a story and then sometimes even another story about the story. Something does not need to have happened for it to convey truth and meaning. (Jonah does not have to have literally lived in the belly of a whale, for example, for that story to convey a deep theological truth about inclusion and the breadth and depth of God’s love for all people, even Ninivites.) Jews just seem more practiced at embracing this reality than most Christians are; but we are getting better at it with a little help from our friends. 

In this case, Matthew’s Gospel (the most Jewish of the four gospels) wants us to know that Jesus is a kind of “second Moses.” And every Jew knows the central story of the faith is the Passover story—the journey from slavery to freedom as told in the Book of Exodus. Part of that story is about how old Pharaoh refused to let God’s people go. Part of that story is about how the male babies in Egypt were killed, but Moses was saved when he was placed in a little ark (that’s the precise Hebrew word, the same word used in the flood narrative.)  Moses is put in that little ark/basket and placed safely where Pharaoh’s daughter goes to bathe and then...well, you know the rest of the story...

If we read these verses from the second chapter of Matthew as midrash, then Herod is playing the part of Pharaoh and Jesus is playing the part of a new Moses, sent to free God’s people. Joseph, the father of Jesus is warned in a dream to take the family to Egypt—reminiscent of the original Joseph in the Book of Genesis who was also a dreamer and whose many dreams led the Hebrew people into Egypt in the first place.

Now maybe it all happened that way and maybe the History Channel will some day find evidence of the holy family escaping to Egypt in just that way. I am not insisting that it didn’t happen, only that it isn't necessary to prove that it did. Either way, our work is to ask what it means. And I think the reason Matthew goes there is because it is true that the birth of Jesus does in fact threaten the powerful and does confront evil head on. Always. And when the powerful are threatened, almost always it is the innocent—especially the young and the vulnerable—who suffer. This we know and see, because it plays out again and again in our own world. A corporation chooses profit over the sanctity of human life and starts dumping toxins in the water - and children die. Congress lacks the political courage to act because they are afraid of the NRA, and two years after Sandy Hook there have been 95 school shootings across 33 states. 

Matthew is right to include this part of the story because it keeps us from sentimentalizing the Incarnation. It reminds us that the world that Jesus comes to save is not ready for salvation or for the costs of discipleship or for the justice that is required if there is to be peace on earth. I find this commentary from theologian,Rita Nakashima Brock incredibly helpful: 
If children are the heart of the meaning of Christmas, the message of the full story of Christmas is what adults must do to keep children alive and help them thrive. If we had the moral courage of mothers, we would not only stop gun violence, but also guarantee universal health care, assure parents living wages for all work, provide excellent schools for every child, and care for families struggling with mental illness. Without the message of Christmas for the world, its meaning for children is thin and hollow.
This, I believe, takes us very close to the true meaning of Christmas which is not a warm feeling in our hearts, but that Christ is born in our bodies again and again until we say yes. Until we really do get what John of Patmos got in his Revelation: that we are part of a people who follow the One who will ultimately wipe away every tear from every eye. And that in the meantime, we are called to be a people who sit with those who weep and help wipe away those tears and then get up and act in ways that imitate Christ. The Christmas story is not some fairy tale, but a truth that keeps changing us and demanding action on our part. The point here is the same as in John’s Gospel: God has become human so that human beings can remember that we have been created in God’s very own image, and then live like we believe that is true. 

As we embark upon a new year of grace, we are reminded that the God we get at Christmas is not an interventionist God who waves a wand and makes the world a better place to live. The God we get is Emmanuel: standing with us through it all, so that we never walk alone. God-with-us as we seek to be repairers of the breach; and instruments of God’s peace in a broken world. 

Step one is in acknowledging that the world is indeed broken, and needs us to be the Body of Christ.
Like the holy family and the shepherds and the wise men and yes, the parents and children in and around Bethlehem, we need to find our way into the Christmas story again.

Every year during the twelve days of Christmas I return each day to this prayer from the late Howard Thurman, who was Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University from 1953-1965. There he played a role in shaping the spirituality of a young doctoral student named Martin Luther King, Jr. These words continue to challenge God’s people to enter into the pain and brokenness of this world—wherever holy innocents are suffering—as instruments of God’s peace.
When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among people, To make music in the heart.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Sing Gloria!

The Rev'd. Edmund Hamilton Sears was a Unitarian pastor who lived in the first half of the nineteenth century. He was born in the Berkshires on April 6, 1810 and during his ordained life served congregations on Cape Cod and in Central Massachusetts. He wrote “It Came Upon The Midnight Clear” in 1849.

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old;
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold.
“Peace on the earth good will to men,
From heaven’s all gracious King!”
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

Sears suffered from depression, or as it was called in the middle of the nineteenth-century, “melancholy.” At the time he wrote this hymn the world was a mess: Europe was at war with itself, and the United States was at war with Mexico. Of course that was nothing compared to the deep national divide over slavery and the Civil War that was lurking over the horizon. Sears was feeling that the world was “dark and full of sin and strife” and that as such the world was unable to hear the song of the angels. 

The way he wrote the poem makes more sense to me than the version as it appears in The Hymnal 1982, which for some inexplicable reason inverts his second and third verses. He wrote it like this: 
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled,
Two thousand years of wrong.
And man, at war with man, hears not,
The love song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

Still thro’ the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled;
And still their heavenly music floats,
O’er all the weary world.
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

And then perhaps the most poignant and pastoral stanza—one omitted in The Hymnal 1982. It is addressed to all who feel personally exhausted and worn out at this time of year—all who feel just plain tired and lost. But you get the sense that like most preachers, Sears is talking first and foremost to himself.

All ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low;
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow.
Look now! for glad and golden hours,
Come swiftly on the wing;
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing.

Even in the midst of gloomy times, the poet is able to keep the larger vision of Christ’s second Advent in his sights. The mystery of our faith is not only that Christ has died and has risen, but that Christ will come again. Even now—even on this holy night when we celebrate our Lord’s nativity—we remember that promise.  Our hope as Christians is not limited to this night or even to the year ahead but to a larger and more cosmic vision and purpose.

For lo, the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold;
When with the ever circling years,
Comes round the age of gold.
When peace shall over all the earth,
Its ancient splendors fling;
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.
Some have criticized Sears’ poem as being too unscriptural. Others have criticized it for not being Christ-centered enough, pointing out that the Christ-child is not even mentioned. Fair enough. But we should note that in his personal life Sears was very intensely Christ-centered. While nineteenth-century Unitarians challenged the doctrine of the Trinity, they still saw themselves as deeply loyal to Jesus and to the Incarnation. “The word of Jesus opens the heart,” Sears told his congregations, “and touches the place of tears.”

As for scripture, the story as Luke tells it features angels from beginning to end. Literally angels are God’s messengers: they deliver a word between from heaven to earth. And so an angel comes to Elizabeth and Zechariah to announce that she will bear a son in her old age. So, too, the angel Gabriel comes in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy to Nazareth to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, announcing to Mary that she is pregnant. And on this holy night the angel speaks to the shepherds, announcing the birth of the Savior and sending them to Bethlehem to see for themselves. And then there is a multitude of angels praising God and singing: “Gloria in exgelsis deo…”

Sears is claiming that we must be still enough to listen for that song, which goes on and on throughout the ages, but mostly goes unnoticed. It goes unnoticed because the drumbeat of war and strife drown out the song of peace on earth and good will to all. Hush the noise, the poet says: hush the noise ye people of strife and hear the angels sing. They sing Gloria.

Our job—perhaps the first work of Christmas—is to be still enough to hear that angelic song so that we do not lose hope, so that we trust the God who is still at work in the world and in our lives. From there we can take it one day at a time. The poem is addressed to the faithful and those who doubt - challenging us all to listen, and in so doing to enter more deeply into the mystery of the Incarnation. 

It’s far too easy to be living at this moment in human history and to feel the same kind of melancholy and even despair that Sears felt at this time of the year. It's been a tough year from Ferguson to West Africa. It’s easy to feel that we don’t quite measure up, or that the world is falling apart. It’s easy to feel discouraged and then in response to try to numb it all. 

But the word from heaven on this holy night is that a child is born, a Son is given. The good news on this holy night is that the angels sing Gloria, delivering the message of Emmanuel—God with us right smack dab in the midst of all that other stuff. The angels sing “Gloria” and then invite us to join that song. 

The Church’s mission is to keep singing Gloria because the song truly does have the power to heal and transform us and the neighborhood. The prince of peace is born; but the angels’ song calls us to be peacemakers and agents of God’s healing and reconciling love in the world. 

Until when? Until all creation joins the song. Until all creation becomes the song. Until all the world sings Gloria, giving glory to God in the highest heaven and there is peace on earth and good will to all. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Late Advent Meditation

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart and especially the hearts of the people of this land, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer, pg. 823) 
For more than twenty years as a parish priest and particularly as a preacher, I felt like I was in an extended conversation with the congregations I served. My sermons emerged in that intersection between the Word of the Lord that I was trying to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest, while at the same time paying attention to what was happening in the world and in the neighborhood - and in my own soul and those among whom I served. Through this practice and discipline of preaching, I figured out (always with God's help) what I thought, believed, cared about, and considered true. And when I got it wrong, I had enough trust within the congregation to be pretty sure that someone would correct me. Hopefully in the midst of all that, the Good News was proclaimed.

In my role on the bishop's staff, however, I am an itinerant preacher - which is to say that I am on the road. I still know what's going on in the world - I read the news. And I still meditate on Holy Scripture. But what I don't have is that same depth of relationship with congregations, and so practically speaking my preaching is different. Very often I'm in a congregation because they are in the midst of a pastoral transition and so my attention turns toward the thoughts and feelings parishioners may be having about saying goodbye or hello to a priest.

I've spent this entire Advent season in the pews rather than the pulpit and that has been a welcomed change. But going through Advent and very shortly Christmas without writing a sermon is a disorienting experience, at a time when there is a lot going on in the world. Even so and even now, the light shines in the darkness...and the darkness has not overcome it.

Even as I continue to process the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, two New York City police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, have been gunned down. People like Rudy Giuliani can't get on television soon enough to tell us that this is the fault of the current mayor of New York, or the protesters, or the Attorney General, or even the President. It is hard for me to understand, quite frankly, how the act of a deranged man is the fault of people who are working for racial justice, but I realize there is much I do not understand. I read a lot, yet even in the letters being written by bishops and clergy in my own denomination I think myself thinking, "yes...but." I tend to agree with about 80% of what the wisest of my friends are saying but then there is that last 20% that seems to expose some blind spots. Why is it that so many pro-police people sound racist, or at the very least in denial about what it is like to be black in America? And conversely, why do so many people working for racial justice seem to be suggesting that all cops are racists?  It honestly is beyond my comprehension that the mayor of New York City, who has a black son and has talked about that experience, is being asked not to attend the funeral of two police officers in his city because they feel in speaking up about racism he is against cops? Can we really be this polarized?

This is why I love the image shown above of a Richmond police chief holding a sign that says "black lives matter." It strikes a chord for me, and represents to me the place where I might begin to make sense of this past year and this Advent season in particular. It is an icon of sorts into the depth of what this December has been like. Life is complicated, and at best we see through a glass darkly. But I yearn for more cops to stand up and say "yes, black lives matter." And I yearn for more activists to say, "yes, most police officers are decent people who are trying to serve and protect, and who put their lives on the line every day."

This is one thing I do know: the Brown and Garner and Liu and Ramos families are all grieving this Christmas. And grief can take us in two very different directions. We can get stuck in our hurt and pain and turn to blame. Or it can bind us together, and help us to reach out to others who are hurting.

For many years I served as the volunteer police chaplain in the small town where I served as a parish priest. This included, but was not limited to ride-alongs with officers, and the hard work of making death notifications, and various social events with officers and their families. I got to know and to enjoy the company of the police officers in my town, and to engage in more in-depth and honest conversations with at least a few of them than the average person does. Cops don't, as a rule, talk much about their "feelings." But it doesn't mean they don't have them, so if you hang around for a while you hear some things.

I have a friend who is a member of the NYFD - his father was a NYC cop. He has some theories around the major difference between cops and firefighters. While both groups are made up of imperfect human beings, firefighters fight fire, which as my friend points out, is always bad. If a building is burning, the mission is clear. But the mission of police officers to protect and serve is way more complex. They see the worst in human beings far more often than they see the good and that can leave some cops jaded. It's true they fight crime, but it isn't always clear in an instant who the criminals are. And it's not always clear in a moment when or how a potentially violent situation might be de-escalated.

Like most clergy I know, police officers live in a world of grays. One big difference is that very often they are forced to make life-or-death decisions that do not allow time for careful reasoning. And so in those moments they must rely on instinct and training. To say this is stressful is an understatement. Based on experience, personality, and a whole host of other factors, some officers simply make better choices than others. But on the whole my experience was that most cops are among "the good guys" who are trying to make the world a better and safer place. Most, but not all.

So this month in Rolling Stone Magazine there was an article entitled 6 ideas for a cop free world. And then there is this piece, from Salon, on police brutality. These are hard to read, especially if you like and care for those who protect and serve as I do. And yet, while I surely don't think either of these articles are the final word, I think we dismiss them at our peril. There is at least some truth in them - and it is a hard truth that those who do love and care for police officers need to address. The "thin blue line" can't be so deep into denial (as former Mayor Giuliani seems to be) as to say that there is not a problem, and that the only problem is the criminals.

Most white people, even those who have had bad experiences with the police, don't worry when their teen-aged kids are out late that they will be shot and killed. By the police. More and more black people in our society, from all classes and educational levels, carry that burden however. And a society where that is the case has some work to do. It's the place, I think, where a far more serious and intentional conversation needs to begin or continue about race in America. And perhaps here in particular there is a role for the Church - where we are called to a ministry of reconciliation.

We would do well to back up and remember that racism and prejudice are not synonyms. On all sides of our national conversation it is incredibly unhelpful to forget this. All of us have prejudices and biases and blind spots. We begin to overcome those as we learn to listen to the experience of others; and conversely we get more entrenched, literally, when we dig in and ignore the experience of the other. All human beings are susceptible to this. But racism is about prejudice plus power. White racism is about how we got to a place in our society where on average more of the cops in a city are white than the population - and more of the criminals are black. Figuring all that out may be complex, but recognizing that the "system" is broken seems to be an important first step toward healing. 

I remember once being at a concert in New York City where Bruce Springsteen sang American Skin (41 Shots). He got some boos from those who felt he was criticizing all police officers. I think we have to figure out how to respect the vast majority of cops who put their lives on the line to protect and serve enough to hold those who fail to do that accountable. That isn't easy. But it is why we have laws in the first place, and no one must be above the law.

Black lives matter. All lives matter, but at this point in time, in the history of a nation whose national sin is racism, white people need to say it, and mean it. White congregations need to say it and and act on it, until there is peace on earth, and good will to all.

This is the challenging context into which preachers must speak this Christmas as we pray for both peace and justice, and as we look to the God who is with us through it all: Emmanuel. Our work is not to return to first-century Palestine to celebrate a birthday, but to be open to the ways the the living God takes on flesh to be among us right now.

Here is a prayer that still seems as relevant as it was in 1966: Silent Night/7 O'Clock News. We won't make things "calm and bright" by drowning out what makes us uncomfortable or challenges our firmly held "positions."  We need to go more deeply into the pain of it all, and we need to listen to the experience of both police officers and of African Americans. We can pray for the Brown, Garner, Liu and Ramos families - and for all who experience loss this holiday season. God is with them all, and we should be too. Come, o come, Emmanuel. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014


One of my favorite things about going on retreat at the monastery of St. John the Evangelist is that most days one is read to at lunch. This is a wonderful thing that has, over the years, given me many tips on books - even over the course of forty-minutes or so somewhere in the middle of the narrative there is often enough of a "hook" for me to go chase down the book and read it.

Today one of the brothers was reading from A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir. I don't yet know if I'll read the book or not but the context for what I heard today was in the wilderness of Alaska, about a Presbyterian missionary, and the comment that struck me was that as he entered that context he "knew he had a lot to learn, and even more to unlearn."

As I return from a brief Advent retreat, I bring these words with me. I have always considered myself a life-long learner, but I realize somewhere deep in my brain is a bias toward learning as "cumulative." That is to say, everything I learn (regardless of whether I can remember it or not!) gets filed away into some category in my brain. We keep learning because there is so much more to learn.

But unlearning seems counter-intuitive. I think in context the point being made here is that what this missionary thought he knew about faith, people, culture not only needed "more" but needed "less" - some things needed to be unlearned to be open to the new experience. And I think this is right, but I also think it's much harder than learning.

How do we know what we don't know and how do we know when what we know is no longer relevant? How can we unlearn those things that need to be unlearned, in order to open ourselves up to a new thing that God may be doing in our lives?

It's be easy to say that this is limited to the bad habits we've picked up along the way - we need to unlearn racism and nationalism, for sure. But I wonder if it isn't deeper than that. The book I am reading right now is called Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People. I may have more to say about that in days to come, but it fits here in this sense: sometimes we may learn the wrong lesson from an experience and then turn it into a "universal truth" that blocks us from learning anything that runs counter to that "experience." But what if we had the experience and missed the meaning? How does our "meaning" get unlearned - even when the experience cannot be undone?

Deep thoughts for a cold and rainy New England day, but thoughts that I think have big implications for the work I'm engaged in these days. What unlearning do congregations and clergy and dioceses and bishops need to do, in order to be open to new learning that draws us in the Spirit's tether?