Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Holy Name of Jesus

Monday, January 1, on the church's calendar is The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. The readings for the day can be found here. 
Eternal Father, you gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation. Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of Him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. 
Shakespeare had Romeo say that “a rose is still a rose by any other name”—and I suppose that it is. But names nevertheless do convey something. Our names literally tell us who we are, and how we are called tells us something about our relationship with the one calling us by name. So I respond differently to the names Richard or Rich or Canon or Dad or "My Love." Years ago when I was the Campus Minister at Central Connecticut State University, our landlord in New Britain insisted on calling me Dick, no matter how many times I corrected him! 

Tomorrow is the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. I know it's also New Year's Day, but again, what's in a name? It's true that we are about to turn the page of a calendar and have to remember now to write 2018 on our checks, but it's also the eighth day of Christmas. And on the eighth day, little Jewish boys get circumcised. In the same way that we Christians are officially “named” at Baptism, so, too, are little Jewish boys named at their bris

The name given to this newborn child is Jesus. It is a transliteration of the Greek name, Ἰησοῦς, which is itself a Hellenization of the Hebrew name,יְהוֹשֻׁעַ Yĕhōšuă‘ or Joshua. In any of those languages the name means "YHWH delivers" or The LORD rescues.” This name appears to have been a fairly common name in Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. And it is, of course, an old Biblical name that goes all the way back to the end of the Exodus story, to the days when Yĕhōšuă‘ fought the Battle of Jericho and the walls came tumblin’ down!  

In Luke 1:26-33, the angel, Gabriel, told Mary (Miriam) to name her child Jesus and in Matthew 1:21 the angel told Joseph to name the child Jesus: “you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." That sort of takes the fun out of the back-and-forth most parents go through in considering names, but that is what the Bible says: Mary and Joseph didn’t have to fight over that one because they both got it on good authority that this would be his name.

Luke tells us that “after eight days had passed it was time to circumcise the child…” Circumcision is a sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. Luke wants us to know that Jesus is a child of that covenant, a faithful Jew. Jesus is born into a tradition that goes back to Moses and the Exodus, to David and the Psalms, to Jeremiah and the Exile, to Isaiah and Homecoming. Jesus bears the name of God. His very name includes the name revealed to Moses at the burning bush: YHWH delivers. Jesus bears that holy name in a special way, but the point of circumcision, as with Holy Baptism, is that we all bear the image of God and therefore the name of God. 

We who have been marked and sealed and claimed as beloved children of God through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism carry the name of Jesus.  We bear the name of the One who has claimed us and marked us and sealed us and loved us into this new resurrected life. And we are called to live into the truth of that claim on us. Perhaps as we come to the end of 2017 and put up new 2018 calendars it is worth remembering that holy name and renewing our commitment to live more fully into the claim that name has on us. We are invited to make a new beginning, so that along with any resolutions we may be making to lose weight or exercise more or spend less time playing computer games, we are invited to renew our commitment to Jesus. 

May the year ahead be another year of grace for each of  you reading this post: those who have been reading it faithfully for many years now and those who have stumbled across it for the first time. May this new year be filled with possibilities, a year of peace and health and joy. 

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Grace has appeared. And we wait

Merry Christmas! The readings for this holy night can be found here. I am glad to be with the faithful people of All Saints, Worcester tonight. 
O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: grant that we who have known this mystery of that Light on earth may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven, where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Like all of us, St. Paul had his good days and his bad days. When he was good he was very good. Though I may speak with tongues of angels, but have not love I am nothing but a clanging cymbal… faith, hope and love, these three, but the greatest of these is love. That was a really great day when he offered that wise counsel to a beleaguered first-century congregation in Corinth. Amazing stuff.

Generally, though, I’d rather teach a class on Paul’s letters than try to preach on a little snippet wrenched from its context. And besides that, we often find ourselves in the midst of an eighty-seven word run on sentence with Paul! He can be a challenge for preachers (or at least this preacher) and tonight, especially, the epistle reading may almost feel like “filler” between that poetry from the prophet Isaiah and the birth pageant as told by Luke. Maybe you even missed it…

But these are interesting times, all saints. And it’s been a difficult and strange year in so many ways, near and far. So I found myself coming back all month long, as each candle on that Advent wreath was lit, to these words from the Letter to Titus. I think the main reason is that the epistles were written to particular congregations in particular places and times, struggling with what it meant to be faithful. Just as we are in this time and place. So in case you missed it, one more time:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: the Pastoral Epistles – I and II Timothy and Titus – only claim to have been written by Paul. Almost all serious scholars agree that they were written after he was dead. It’s not as bad as it sounds today; it wasn’t considered to be plagiarism. But these later epistles were written by someone who was trying to “channel” Paul in a new situation. By that later point in the first century they were beginning to ask more churchy questions in congregations beginning to come of age about church order and the role of bishops and about how faithful people ought to relate to political authorities.

I am pretty certain I’ve never preached a sermon on any of the three Pastoral Epistles, and certainly not on Christmas Eve. Even so, the whole of the meaning of this night, and one might argue even of the entire gospel itself is found in those three verses, in those fifty-six words, which I think can be distilled down even further to just six. Grace has appeared. And we wait.

This is the good news that I want to proclaim to you on this holy night, all saints. Grace has appeared. And we wait. That’s it. I am going to talk a while longer but really, literally, this is what I’ve got for you. The times we are living in encourage us to keep it simple. Never simplistic. But it is a gift to be simple, as the old Shaker song puts it: ‘tis a gift to come down where we ought to be.” Tonight we come down where we ought to be as we gather around this mother and child in a barn in the city of David. Here we find the clarity we seek in the midst of great uncertainty and we behold him who lived with authenticity and purpose.

Over the past four years I’ve enjoyed sitting in the pews with my family at this liturgy and taking it all in. I’ve been a Christmas and Easter Episcopalian at All Saints during this time and I’ve enjoyed that, since my responsibilities as a member of the Bishop’s staff take me all over the diocese on Sunday mornings. But these past few months among all of you, even in challenging circumstances, have been a gift to me. Hospital visits and baptisms and funerals have reminded me of what being a priest is all about. Preaching on this holy night is a bigger challenge however, as I’ve been remembering all this week, because of all of the emotions that accompany this season, including all of those ghosts of Christmas past, present and future who like to show up when we least expect them. December is a complicated month. And these are challenging days for this parish. So I think it’s wise on this holy night to keep it simple and if you remember just this much tonight it will be enough: Grace has appeared. And we wait.

Grace has appeared, bringing salvation to all. That is the meaning of the Incarnation. The Word became flesh; not just for some. Not just for those in our theological “camp” or our political party, but for all the world. Even the folks who most annoy us and push our buttons. Especially them. On this holy night if we dare to pray for peace on earth then we need to also pray for the courage to hear God’s response: let it begin with us. Let it begin here, and now. Let us not sow division, but love.
Jesus is born in a little town on the far outskirts of the Roman Empire. To get to the Church of the Nativity today you’ve got to go through a wall that separates Palestinians and Israelis, a symbol of all the walls of this world that separate and divide and enslave the peoples of this fragile earth, our island home. I’ll be there again, God willing, in just a month. Grace has appeared in that little town of Bethlehem right smack dab in the middle of all of the messiness of this world.

This birth intersects with an even older wisdom about light and darkness that Isaiah spoke about tonight and that Handel imprinted on our hearts when he set those words to music; mythical language familiar to our Jewish and pagan forebears and to modern readers of Harry Potter or fans of Star Wars: this cosmic struggle between light and darkness. Even now as the earth orbits around the sun we are moving toward the light and the days are getting just a little bit longer. Tonight as we come here to adore him, we turn together to the Light.

You don’t need me to tell you that long after childhood we can get scared of the dark. But we need to learn to walk in the dark and toward the light, especially in these times. These are dark days and we cannot afford to be paralyzed by the dark. So we let our eyes adjust and we keep on keeping on, together, holding hands and seeking the light, and refusing to curse the darkness. That’s why we lit those candles on our wreaths one at a time this month here and at home and that is why we will light our little candles tonight before we leave: to remind us to let our little light shine in our homes, our workplaces, our neighborhoods.

Grace has appeared. Jesus started a movement and even death on a cross could not end that movement, because you cannot keep love down. And because the light really does shine in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. And cannot overcome it. And will not overcome it. I know that it feels pretty dark in the world right now. Maybe even as dark as that Friday in Jerusalem so long ago. But as we gather we remember that the dark of Friday never, ever, gets the last word. Even tonight, even as we remember the dear Savior’s birth, we also remember his death, and those women who came to the tomb early on Sunday morning when the light shone once again to a people who had walked in darkness.

Grace has most definitely appeared. And yet, we yearn for even more. We need more. We prayed all through Advent for peace on earth and good will to all and yet some days we can’t even find peace at a vestry meeting, let alone in Washington or in Jerusalem or in the DMZ between North and South Korea. We wanted good will to all and some days good will seems short even in our own households and among our own Facebook friends on a simple post that ignites fury. Grace has appeared, but we wait for more. We yearn for more. We need more.

We all know that the Season of Advent that came right up to this morning is about watchful expectation, but let me let you in on a little secret tonight: that doesn’t end a few hours later on Christmas Eve. We talk so much about waiting in Advent because so much of our lives is about waiting. On this holy night we keep waiting as this adventure in Christ continues: not passive wishful-thinking waiting but lean-in-hopeful-expectant-eager “all in” waiting.

St. Paul – the original – wrote to the first century church in Rome that the creation was groaning in travail. It was one of his good days. Looking around him at a world that seemed to be coming unglued, Paul refused to see the decline of the Roman empire as an ending, but rather as the sign of a new beginning. He invited those early saints to wait in hope and expectation even as they began to beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

All Saints: grace has appeared. And we wait. We wait for justice to roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. We wait for women to be safe in the halls of Congress and in Hollywood and in workplaces closer to home. In Holy Baptism we’ve been claimed as Christ’s own forever and we, women and men, have promised to respect the dignity of every human being and to work for justice and peace among all people. And so we wait for and we dream with Martin of a day when people are no longer judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. We work in racially diverse congregations like this one to build bridges and to speak the truth in love and to listen in love as we move a little bit closer to the beloved community. We look for the work God has given us to do.

My friends, all you sinners and all you saints: on this holy night we give thanks that grace has appeared. And we wait. We wait as best we can without anxiety, listening for the angels who remind us not to be afraid. We wait in hope and we wait in courage and we wait as a people seeking the light. We wait as a people committed to the gospel work of reconciliation, which is just another way of saying that we are trying to be a people who are willing to be vulnerable enough to open our lives to one another, even now, even in this parish, in this great city. 

Merry Christmas, all saints. In a new year of grace, let us get busy living, by letting our light shine for all the world to see, so that others may believe through us. 

Friday, December 15, 2017

Holy Mary

This is the second of two Advent reflections. The first was focused on John the Baptist. This one is focused on Mary, the Christ-bearer. 

It has been my experience that when people start talking about “tradition” in church they are rarely referring to anything that goes back more than fifty years, let alone to that great river of tradition rooted in the holy catholic and apostolic faith. What we really mean when we speak of tradition is “the way we did things in my church when I was growing up.”  Far too often that is way more about nostalgia than tradition!

William Faulkner once wrote that the past " never really dead; it's not even past." 

So here's the challenge: if we turn the “tradition” into a yearning for the Eisenhower administration and the Church of our baby-boomer childhoods, then it can be a real challenge for us to hear the words of Holy Scripture through fresh ears. That is especially true as approach Christmas, because the ghosts of Christmas past loom large in our lives! If we think we already know what all of this means, then it is a challenge for the good news to break through.

If you were raised in the Roman Catholic "tradition" then you can perhaps close your eyes and see a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the front of the parish church where we grew up. If your family was really religious then maybe Mary was on the half-shell in your front lawn. On the other hand, if you grew up Protestant, then you may never have spoken a word about Mary; not ever! She was just way too Roman Catholic!  Of course these biases many of us have carried into adulthood take us back only about as deep into the tradition as those pre-Vatican II congregations that shaped and concretized many of our biases and prejudices. That past is not dead; it isn’t really even past.

For a while, Hathy and I were really into a television show called “Madmen,” set in the very early 1960s. Whether or not you’ve seen the show (or remember living through those days) perhaps you’ve had the experience of watching “Leave It To Beaver” and thought (as I sometimes have) “Really: those were the good old days?” For whom exactly? Ward Cleaver? Gender roles were pretty rigid, to say the least, and from this vantage point that can lead both women and men to a whole range of reactions. In the greater scheme of things, it really wasn’t that long ago. It turns out the “good old days” had some really bad shadow sides, especially if you happened to be female, or black, or gay. 

So what about Mary? In that American cultural context, Mary became the “ideal woman” – or at least the ideal woman in a male-dominated Church. In that context, Mary was perceived as very quiet and very passive and very obedient and very submissive. Let it be with me…whatever you say boss.  I don’t mean to trivialize this. I mean to challenge myself and anyone reading this: because at some level this part of the "tradition" isn't really past. 

Even so, there’s something about Mary. There is something in Mary’s willingness to say "yes" to God and something about her song, the Magnificat, that invites a closer look, something that challenges us to dive deeper into the tradition. 

It turns out that Mary isn’t a Roman Catholic girl (of course!) but a first-century Jew. Her parents and friends and husband would never have dreamed of calling her “Holy Mary, Mother of God.” Just Miriam. This glimpse of her in Luke’s Gospel is of someone maybe fifteen years old—a sophomore at Nazareth High. Her Song—the Magnificat—is about what is possible for all human beings, female and male, young and old, with God’s help. Her soul magnifies the Lord. Think about what that means. I think it means something like, with God we can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. I think it means that when we do a little thing in the name of Christ, it ripples out to change the world, magnified by the grace of God! It turns out that there is a way older tradition that Miriam draws on for strength as she sings this new song to the Lord, which is really a riff on an old song first recorded by Hannah. (That song can be found in I Samuel 2:1-10, sung at the birth of her son, Samuel.)

Mary pre-figures Pentecost: the day when the Holy Spirit breaks down all walls that divide us into "us" and “them.” In truth there is only us, beloved children of God. Mary models for us what it might mean to let the Holy Spirit blow through our lives and make us new in spite of the dominant culture’s expectations. She knew, as Hannah knew, that God cares about justice and cares especially for the poor. She knew that the deck is stacked and that in this world kids attending inner-city schools or growing up in the third world do not have the same opportunities that as kids living in the suburbs. 

This is why I shared the icon (above) of Our Lady Mother of Ferguson. God loves us all, but God wants the playing field to be more even, and so somebody has to take the side of the underdog. That is what the liberation theologians mean when they speak of God’s preferential option for the poor and I think Mary is doing liberation theology in the Magnificat. Like the other great figure of Advent, she is about the work of making a more level highway through the wilderness. I wonder how the woman who sings this song would feel about a tax plan that rewards those who have more than enough and further penalizes those who are at the economic bottom? 

When she riffs on Hannah’s Song, she stands in a long line of Biblical prophets, female and male,  who know that God has no problem knocking the proud and arrogant and powerful down a few pegs, a God who rejoices in bringing up the lowly to fill the hungry with good things. This is not because God plays class warfare; it's because we do, every day. It's not because God hates the rich. It's because we keep building systems that make the rich richer and the poor poorer. And God really does love the poor, the ones who in the Bible are called God’s anawim—God’s little ones. In this dog-eat-dog world the anawim need God on their side because the rich do quite well taking care of themselves. 

Mary will teach her child, Jesus, to love the poor as God loves them; and as she loves them. She will teach him how to read the prophets, so that when his public ministry begins his first words will sound a lot like the song we heard his mother singing today.  The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Mary is called by God through the very same pattern that we find throughout the Old Testament whenever God needs to have a job done: from Abraham to Moses to Samuel to Isaiah with his “unclean lips.” The angel says, “I’ve got a job for you.” Like those who have gone before her, she is initially fearful and confused. “How can all this be?” she asks. The angel insists that it can be because with God all things are possible. That’s when Mary sings: I am fully open to the will of God for my life. That is not "submissive" but empowering, for everyone who responds to God's call, female or male. Mary has a choice. I love the lines in Denise Levertov’s poem, The Annunciation, which go like this:  

…we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent. God waited.
She was free
to accept or refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

Mary is free to say, “get lost angel!” Instead, she chooses freely, to say: Here I am! Send me! In so doing, she is the first and model disciple. She is bold and courageous and strong in this moment, and not this one only. She will have to be bold and courageous and strong to raise a son like the one she raises. And she will have be bold and courageous and strong when her son walks the Via Delarosa some thirty years later, as her heart is pierced and her son dies on a tree. Mary has to bury her child, something no parent should ever have to do.

There is nothing passive or submissive about Mary. And while she may not have a starring role in the Bible—her role is crucial in the deeper, wider, tradition. Roman Catholics may well say too much about her, but Protestants have not yet said nearly enough. Mary says “yes” to God and the world is changed. She is Christ-bearer, which is precisely the ministry that you and I are called to: to make room in ourselves for Christ to be born; to take on our flesh.

The life of faith is not without its questions, struggles, uncertainties and fears. But with God, all things are possible. God comes to us, as to Mary, not because we are perfect, but because we are willing to open our lives to the radical transformation that the Spirit brings. As we prepare our hearts for Christmas we look to Mary as one who shows us what is possible, even now. May Christ be made manifest, and even magnified through us, for the sake of this world. 

Friday, December 8, 2017

John the Baptizer

In some circles people like to say that "Jesus is the reason for the season." (I don't tend to travel much in those circles!) In Advent, however - in this season of preparing for Christmas - Jesus barely makes an appearance. While we wait expectantly to celebrate the dear Savior's birth, the two central characters of the Advent Season are John the Baptist and Mary, Jesus' mother.  

John and Mary are different in so many ways. But one big thing they have in common is that both were faithful Jews. It is tempting to see John as, well, a “Baptist” I guess, and to see Mary as a good Roman Catholic girl. But of course even to say it aloud is to know that this is silly. Both are rooted in the customs and faith practices of first-century Judaism, not Christianity and especially not denominational Christianity. To understand them we need to appreciate what Christians call the "Old Testament" as the scriptures that shaped their faith as well as the first-century context of Jewish practices.  

As we think about John, it helps to remember his parents: Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah is a priest who belongs to the priestly order of Abijah, according to Luke. (Luke 1:5) According to II Chronicles, back in the days of King David, the priests were divided into twenty-four different divisions. The eighth of these were the order of Abijah. These priests would serve in the Jerusalem temple for two weeks each year. Elizabeth traces her family lineage back to Aaron, Israel’s first priest. So Luke is suggesting that John is a “PK”—a priest’s kid; on both sides of the family. 

I think it’s kind of fun to think about that for a little bit. The guy we meet at the Jordan River is usually interpreted as a prophetic figure—a second Elijah or better still, second Isaiah, crying in the wilderness, preparing a highway in the desert, making the crooked places straight. There he is: dressed in his camel hair and his breath smelling of wild locusts and preaching repentance. 

But the tradition suggests that he came from a more "traditional" family. What might it be like to imagine how it is that John moves from what was no doubt an expectation that he, too, would become a priest to the journey that got him out there in the wilderness? How might his "roots" help to give him those "wings?"

Elizabeth and Zechariah are an older couple who’ve not been able to have kids. That rings bells for those who know the Hebrew Bible. We know about Abraham and Sarah and the promise delayed, and Sarah’s laughter when she finds out she is pregnant. We also know about Elkanah and Hannah, crying in the temple because she is distraught about not having children. And then Samuel is born. It might be interesting to think about Isaac and Samuel—two kids born to elderly parents. Most of us probably can think of at least one friend, an only child born born to parents late in life. It is a different kind of upbringing than people who grow up in larger families with younger parents; usually it's a very grown-up world. 

So when Luke tells us that Elizabeth was "barren" (that is of course the only way that first-century people could describe a childless couple, even if old Zechariah had a low sperm count) we are meant to remember these other old women who became mothers. Elizabeth herself tells us when the EPT turns blue that "she had endured disgrace for years." So few words, and yet it doesn’t take much imagination to enter into that world. These two people, getting on in years with their morning rituals: Zechariah puts the water on for tea, Elizabeth makes the oatmeal: morning liturgies and rituals that seem like they will continue until one of them dies, without interruption. And then all of a sudden their world is turned upside down. 

Zechariah is at work—on duty in the temple where it is his turn to enter the sanctuary of the Lord, the holy of holies. I have a little note in one of my Bibles that this is a privilege that would be afforded to a priest only once in his lifetime. So Zechariah is going about this holy work when an angel appears to him on the right side of the altar of incense. And as always happens in the Bible, Zechariah doesn’t say, “hey Clarence, how is it going?” He is scared out of his wits. Fear overwhelms him. You know what is coming next of course, it’s what angels always say in the Bible:  fear not Zechariah. And then the message:

  • Your prayer has been heard. 
  • Your wife, Elizabeth, is pregnant. 
  • Name the kid John.
The message continues: this grandchild of priests will have the spirit and power of Elijah and will turn the hearts of parents to their children and of children to their parents.

There is one more thing. Zechariah is speechless. Literally. As a sign that all this will come to pass, the poor guy comes out the temple and isn’t able to speak for nine months, until the child is born. When his son is born, however, he sings this amazing song. (See Luke 1:67-80) Luke then goes on to tell us that “John grew, and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to lead Israel.”

We meet him again every Advent, dressed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and preparing the way for the one who is coming after him. But I wonder what his life was like in kindergarten or if he had a date to the senior prom. I wonder what was going on in his life in his early twenties that led to his sense of vocation and how his parents felt about all of that.

I'm not preaching this Advent on John (nor on Mary for that matter) but both are shaping my prayers. With John, it's his commitment to the truth and his awareness that his job is to point to the one who is coming - to Jesus. He prepares the way; he isn't The Way. I don't look or sound much like John the Baptizer, but I think this is what I am called to as a twenty-first century priest as well: to tell the truth, even when people aren't interested in hearing it. And to point to Jesus. It's not about me. It's not even about the Episcopal Church I love. It's not about building a fan club - or seeking approval. It's about Jesus. Our job is to prepare the way.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Nicholas of Myra

December 6 is the feast day of Nicholas of Myra—Saint Nicholas. He was a real person: a fourth-century bishop of the Church who may have attended the Council of Nicaea (from whence we get the Nicene Creed.) He is remembered as the patron saint of seafarers, sailors, and children. 

Little is known that can be clearly distinguished from the many legends about his life, but one thing we are fairly certain we know is that he was tortured and imprisoned for his faith during the reign of Emperor Diocletian. His memory and example was brought to this country by Dutch colonists in New York, who called him Santa Claus.

For my money, Miraslov Volf, who is the Director of  the Yale Center for Faith & Culture and Professor at Yale Divinity School, is one of the most creative theologians of our time. He wrote an extraordinary book a decade or so ago entitled Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. 

Volf makes an important distinction between God and our images of god. (Paul Tillich was making the same distinction many years ago when he spoke about “the God beyond God.”) That is to say there is this God who is beyond all of our knowing—“I AM” who encountered Moses at the burning bush but would not give a name—the God we can only glimpse and never control. And then there are the images we make—some of them iconic and some of them graven—but all of them limited and therefore always needing to be critiqued.  

Two common (but according to Volf false) images of god are god the negotiator and god the Santa Claus. Sometimes we imagine god as the one with whom we can play “let’s make a deal:” god, if you do this for me then I will do that. And conversely, if I do this for you then I want you do that for me.  Even our prayers (especially our prayers!) can become a means to an end: we want what lies behind door number one or curtain number two. If God will make my child better then we will go to church every Sunday. Promise. 

Alternatively, we run to the god of consumerist materialism to sit on his lap: the god who knows when we’ve been bad or good, so we better be good, for goodness’ sake! The god who gives everything and yet demands nothing. We go to this god with our shopping lists: insisting that we have discerned not only what we want but what we need.

I don’t want to caricature these images, and Volf doesn’t either. But they permeate American Christianity. And Volf challenges both images as idolatrous, insisting that the God of the Bible is first and foremost a Giver. He insists that the God of authentic Christian faith is the God who has created us and the world in love. But unlike Santa Claus-god, the Giving God’s gifts require a response in us, because God takes us seriously. God’s gifts, Volf writes, oblige us to a “posture of receptivity.” And once we have received God’s gifts, that marks not an end but a beginning. As we move toward gratitude we move also toward a willingness to respond in kind and to act in a similar way in the world. And so his title: it is not only God, but we ourselves who are called to “giving and forgiving” in a culture stripped of grace.  

I think we need to reclaim the Bishop of Myra as a saint of the Church. The problem for us is that "Santa Claus" has been co-opted to the point where the guy at the mall and coming down the chimneys bears little resemblance to the Bishop of Myra, who knew the cost of discipleship and whose generosity most definitely grew out of his encounter with the Giver of all things, the Maker of heaven and earth. So I think that old St. Nick needs a good press agent, and needs to be reclaimed by the Church.

By this we know that we abide in Christ, and that Christ abides in us: because he has given us of his Spirit. Even in Advent, even as we prepare for the birth of the holy child, we remember that in his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to be with us. We have been given gifts—each of us—to do the work of ministry. Each of our congregations have been given gifts. Some we already recognize and claim and use. Some we are only beginning to claim, or even identify. And still others have been buried deep within us, and remain unacknowledged—these need to be unearthed and discovered like pearls in a field so they can be claimed and used for the sake of God’s reign.

This season of Advent puts in front of us an opportunity to once again encounter the God who truly is beyond God—and beyond all of our doctrines, all of our images, and all of our language. It gives us an opportunity to be still in the presence of this God who refuses to be used by us or domesticated by us or co-opted by us: this God who is the Giver of all things.

My prayer is that this Advent season we might each encounter this living God anew—the One who so loves the world that he sends Jesus into it in order that we might have life and have it abundantly. And that in a couple of weeks we might recognize the Gift that comes to us wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. When we do, I pray that we might receive the Gift with gratitude and then respond with our lives. Or as Christine Rosetti put it:

What can I give him, poor as I am?
                        If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb
                        If I were a wise man, I would do my part;
                        Yet what can I give him, give my heart.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

The readings for this day, including the text from the sixty-fourth chapter of Isaiah, can be found here. This sermon was preached at All Saints, Worcester

The first words of this Advent season and of this very first day in a new liturgical year come from the prophet Isaiah. They are a desperate plea addressed to God, words with great pathos: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…

Have you ever prayed such a prayer? Or perhaps knelt next to someone who has? Perhaps you were at the grave of a loved one who died before her time? Or maybe you have gone through a rough divorce or lost your job right before the holidays? Or maybe you are still having a hard time sorting through the range of emotions you feel even here, even now, at All Saints? After all, you come here to get your bearings, to get centered, and it may not feel like that right now. What do you do with all that emotional energy? Push it down? Rage against the machine?

One of the exercises I used as a parish priest to ask of the kids whom I was preparing for confirmation was intended to expand their repertoire of Biblical metaphors for God. The Bible has far more metaphors than our liturgies tend to avail themselves of, and I wanted them to explore that a bit. One of the texts that I had them look up comes from the tenth chapter of the Book of Job, where Job suggests that God is a lion. (Job 10:16) But as we unpacked that image, it became clear that Job wasn’t using it in the flattering way that C.S. Lewis does with his great Christ-figure, Aslan. You will remember that Job was suffering from incredible loss and was in the midst of incredible turmoil. But worse than all of his spiritual pain is that he has come to see God as the cause of all of that suffering, which was almost too much to bear. So when Job says that God is a lion, it’s because he feels like he is a wildebeest that God has hunted down and chewed up and spit out. He is asking a haunting question: “why are you doing this to me, God…You, You…LION!”

It’s hard enough when your life is coming unglued. But you can pretty much get through just about anything if you feel that God is with you, that God is your Rock or the Good Shepherd who will lead you through the valley of the shadow of death to still waters. Even if we know it will be another six months or a year that we have to face chemotherapy or until we find new employment or love again, we can make it if we have hope. We can make it if we feel that God is on our side and working through it all to bring about something good. The good news is that we light that first candle today, the candle of hope, because even if we need to “fake it ‘til we make it” we are a people who hope that the end of this story is in fact heavens torn open so that the Word might be made flesh, and dwell among us.

But I’m getting ahead of myself because we aren’t there yet, and because we live “in the meantime.” And in the meantime, life is complicated. I think our deepest fear comes when, in the short-run – in the present tense—we are no longer certain that God is with us. Sometimes we experience a sense of abandonment, and we feel, as Job did, that God is the source of our pain (like a lion who has hunted us down.) And that may be too much to bear.

And yet these first words of Advent from the Prophet Isaiah are much the same. Isaiah is asking God to open up the heavens and come down because he wants answers. He wants to be heard. For Isaiah, it isn’t personal suffering like Job’s, but a national tragedy that gives us these first words of Advent. He speaks on behalf of an entire nation, out of the pain of the Babylonian exile and out of that feeling of having been betrayed by God. Isaiah poses a profound theological question, perhaps the most serious theological question any of us will ever ask: where’ve you been, God? Isaiah wants to know, given God’s past marvelous deeds, where God is right now? If God could do all those wonderful things “back in the day” (like bring slaves out of Egypt) then why isn’t God doing something now? O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…

It may seem like an odd way to begin Advent. Sorry, I hope you didn’t come here today “dreaming of a white Christmas!” But Advent is about getting real and telling the truth even when it’s hard. It’s about preparing the way with John the Baptizer and about saying yes to God, as Mary did. Let it be with me according to your Word. This is the work of Advent, this season of preparation and of hope, peace, joy, and love.

Maybe some of us here today have prayed this way after hearing yet another report about glaciers melting or when we meet people experiencing homelessness on a Thursday afternoon right in this building, or when we see a family member who cannot afford the healthcare they need. We come here in this month especially when it is all too easy to feel off-kilter. I suspect that your hope, like mine, is to leave here feeling a little more grounded and centered than when we came in. Otherwise why get out of bed to come to church, if it’s going to be so de-centering? One of my former parishioners in Holden used to say this to me frequently. He had a job he didn’t like much and a boss who was not very fair. “The world can be pretty tough, he’d tell me, and I come to church on Sunday to hear some good news. I need good news!” And for what it’s worth I sympathized completely. And for what it’s worth, sometimes my week in the church ain’t no picnic either. It’s not all holding hands and singing kumbaya! But I hope you’ll stay with me because I do think we’ll get to good news, even today, and even in this sermon. It’s just that sometimes it doesn’t come as fast as our chicken McNuggets at a drive-through window…

Advent is about waiting. Not passive waiting, but active, expectant, urgent hopeful waiting. My experience as a pastor and preacher and above all as a fellow traveler is that sometimes the good news just isn’t immediately accessible. These opening words of Advent express extraordinary grief and loss and a sense of betrayal that grow out of Isaiah’s first-hand experience and he needs to take that to God, whom he feels has been M.I.A. He needs to be heard and acknowledged before he can get to hope. But we should never confuse hope with denial nor with wishful thinking.

I read one commentator on this text who says that “God hides in order to deconstruct a distorted faith.” Now that sounds like the kind of thing a Biblical scholar would say, doesn’t it? But I want to ask you to hang in there with that statement for a couple of minutes because I think it evokes good theology and eventually some good news. And it’s how we are going to get there in this sermon, so please hear me out: God hides in order to deconstruct a distorted faith.

God is beyond all of our language and beyond all of our images. I don’t mean only the false idols. Of course God is not a golden calf or a little statue or a 401-K. But I also mean that God is beyond even the most helpful of icons: beyond “father” and “rock” and “light” and “lion.” At the burning bush when Moses wants to know God’s name, but God insists, “I am who I am.” And “I’ll also be who I’ll be, Moses.”

At best, all of our words and images for God, even our very favorites, can only point us toward the Inscrutable One who is always beyond our understanding and comprehension; the One Paul Tillich called “the God beyond God.” We need human words, of course. But we must always be careful about confusing our words for God with God. They are not the same. God is always bigger.  

I’ll give you just one example. You can come here and hear the image of “Father, Father, Father” in our liturgy and our prayers and our readings and our hymns. And hardly anyone blinks. They will say that they know it’s “just a metaphor” and God isn’t an old man in the sky. But use “Mother” just once and watch people perk up: some with a twinkle in their eyes, and some ready for a fight. We need human words, of course. But our words are not God. At best our words point us toward God.

So when someone tells me that they don’t believe in God (which tends to happen for the first but not last time for almost all kids right around confirmation age) I always ask them to tell me about this god they no longer believe in. And usually if they are willing to talk about it, what I discover is that they are actually beginning to deconstruct a distorted faith. Or to say it another way, I don’t believe in the god they don’t believe in either! They need to let go of some old images that are keeping them from encountering the more mysterious but true and living and real God beyond God. Their crisis of faith is real, for sure. But every crisis represents not only danger, but an opportunity and in this kind of experience there is a very real opportunity to discover God anew. And I think that is why these words of Isaiah may in fact be a very good place to start our Advent journey.

So if I still have your attention, or can get it back now since I’m coming to the end, let me move from preaching to meddling. If we aren’t careful, especially in this month, we will confuse God with Santa Claus. Our prayers will be too much like compiling a wish list of what we hope we’ll get if we’ve been more nice than naughty this year. Sometimes it takes an exile or a crisis in faith or even a crisis in our congregation to bring us to our knees. And then we find ourselves vulnerable and frightened and maybe we cry out for God to make it all better by fixing the ozone layer or cleaning up the oceans or bringing about peace on earth: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down here, God! You LION!”

And then when nothing happens we may begin to wonder, since God clearly hasn’t done what we asked. If God is real, why isn’t God doing what we want God to do? I want to say to you today that in that moment, real faith is born. A distorted faith begins to be deconstructed so that something closer to the real thing might begin to emerge. In that moment, as we let go of those old images, we may well encounter the true and living God in new and fresh ways. Or at least begin that journey with hope.  

Here is the thing though: the process of giving birth is always painful, isn’t it? (Or so I’ve been told!) And if it is about nothing else, this season of Advent is about birth. Not only of the child whose birth we are preparing to celebrate, but also the new birth that each of us must go through to discover or rediscover authentic faith. We prepare ourselves for a king of kings and a lord of lords, a messiah to rule the world and triumph over evil and bring peace on earth and good will to all. And then what we get is a tiny little baby who needs his diaper changed. We find ourselves kneeling before a manger and before a child who needs to be fed and cared for, and loved.

So here is the good news: God meets us where we are. God actually does tear open the heavens and come down; just not in the way we expected. In Bethlehem we see God as a homeless and helpless infant who says, “I am with you always, to the end of the ages.” The irony of this opening prayer of Advent is that it has been answered in Jesus the Christ: the heavens have been torn asunder and God has come to dwell among us, very God of very God, begotten not made. The Word has been made flesh and we have beheld his glory, full of grace and truth. But not as we expected. Brian Wren, in a hymn we’ll sing today at the Offertory, puts it in the form of a question:  

Can this newborn mystery, an infant learning to feed,
defeat the grim and chilling powers of domination, death and sin?

Can he? Is this infant with the tiny little hands and fingers the best God can do? Can he really defeat the powers of domination, death, and sin?  Stay tuned…