Saturday, February 6, 2016

Who Are These Guys?

Transfiguration
As the Epiphany Season comes to a close, a season that highlights the many ways in people began to recognize who Jesus is, we always conclude with the scene of his Transfiguration. It’s like that scene in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid when Butch and the Kid are being chased by Pinkerton Agents are hiding behind a rock looking back at the cloud of dust relentlessly approaching them and they say, “Who are those guys anyway?” The Transfiguration is meant to be at least one answer to that question about Jesus: who is this guy anyway?  

The thirteenth century saint, Richard of Chichester, offers the following prayer:
Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ
For all the benefits Thou hast given me,
For all the pains and insults Thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother,
May I know Thee more clearly,
Love Thee more dearly,
Follow Thee more nearly.

The final three lines are a hymn. As a mentor of mine, The Reverend William Caradine, once observed, Richard offers a very western way of looking at the life of faith:  first we must know Jesus clearly, then love him dearly so that we may follow him more nearly.

As Bill would point out, however, that’s just not the way it is in the Gospel accounts. That is, at the outset of his ministry, he does not go down to the shore of the Sea of Galilee, hold up the Hebrew Scriptures and say, “OK, boys, read, mark and inwardly digest these stories of our people. Then tomorrow morning I will come back and give you a quiz on all of this. If you do well enough on the quiz I will let you follow me.” No. Instead he simply says, “Follow me,” and they put down their nets, leave their boats and families and follow him!

He never even asks them if they love him until after the resurrection when he asks Peter, “Do you love me?” This he asks three times.  Yes, Lord, says Peter. “Then feed my sheep…tend my flock…lead my sheep…” replies Jesus.

And arguably, given the number of books, articles, movies and what-not that fly around especially around Christmas and Easter, we are still trying to know Jesus “more clearly.” If knowing Jesus were the first required step, we would never get around to following Jesus.

A similar sentiment has been making the rounds on Facebook recently from Richard Rohr:
We worshipped Jesus instead of following him on the same path.
We made Jesus into a mere religion instead of a journey toward union with Him and everything else.
This shift made us into a religion of “belonging and believing” instead of a religion of transformation.

And after all, transformation is one way of saying what Transfiguration is all about. Peter, James and John accompany Jesus up a mountain to pray. Suddenly Jesus is radiantly glowing bright white like no white ever seen before. And that’s not all. He is suddenly accompanied by Moses and Elijah, two of the great prophets of Israelite religion. He is one of them. They are talking about “his departure” – his “exodos” as the text has it. Like the Hebrew people passing through the sea from bondage to freedom, Jesus will pass through crucifixion and death into New Life. Peter wants to preserve the moment, build some dwellings so they can all camp out for a while, but before he can do anything a cloud covers the mountain and a voice declares, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”

We may recall that we have heard this voice once before at his Baptism by John: “You are my Son, my Beloved; I am well pleased with you.” These are the bookends of Epiphany.  It is important that we listen to this voice because by water and the Holy Spirit those who are baptized are “fully incorporated into the Body of Christ.” That is, this voice says to each and every one of us, “You are my beloved; I am well pleased with you.”

This is the Good News we hear so much about. This is what God wants all of us to hear and to accept. This is what we are meant to believe. This is who we are. This is who we are called to be – God’s Beloved.

It could have been otherwise. The voice could have said, “If you are very very good I will be pleased with you.” Or, “If you are very very sorry you’re not very very good, I will be pleased with you.” Or, “I am pleased with you. Now get back in line before I change my mind!”

The source of our personal Transfiguration, the basis of our journey toward union with God and everything, the foundation of our personal transformation and the transformation of the world is accepting this Good News. Nothing is as important as hearing this and accepting it. All kinds of messages tell us not to accept this – messages from others, messages we tell ourselves – messages that say God cannot possibly be pleased with us.  Hearing this voice is what set Jesus on his journey and mission. Hearing this voice is what inspired him to call us to follow him. Hearing this voice makes us who we are created to be: God’s Beloved community of Faith, Hope and Charity.

In following we will come to love him and know him. And as the gospels portray, there are so many different ways of knowing Jesus. But it all begins with knowing ourselves – our true selves. And our true self is grounded in being God’s Beloved and knowing that no matter what, God is well pleased with us.
As we live out of our belovedness and follow Jesus people will say, “Who are those guys anyway?” and want to join the beloved community of God’s people. Amen.
You are my beloved/I am well pleased with you
I am God’s beloved/God is well pleased with me

I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be
God’s gonna give God’s love to me
I’m gonna love God night and day
You know our love not fade away

Our loves bigger than a Cadillac
God ain’t never gonna take it back
Our love’s bigger than an SUV
No one can take it away from me

If you don’t believe I’ve been redeemed
Then come on down to Jordan’s stream
Up in the sky what do I see

The Holy Spirit coming down on me

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Weltanschauung

Weltanschauung
Jeremiah 1:4-10*Psalm 71:1-6*1 Corinthians 13:1-13 * Luke 4:14-30
As I ponder these readings for this Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, I find myself recalling one of the first words I encountered as an undergraduate student of religion: weltanschauung.

Weltanschauung is a German word that often is translated as “worldview” or “world outlook,” but just as frequently is treated as a calque or left untranslated. A Weltanschauung is a comprehensive conception or theory of the world and the place of humanity within it. It is an intellectual construct that provides both a unified method of analysis for and a set of solutions to the problems of existence.
[International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences | 2008 COPYRIGHT 2008 Thomson Gale.]

It was once thought, by thinkers like Immanuel Kant, Renee Descartes, and more recently Whilhelm Dilthy, that with due diligence we could perceive a single, unified world view – an historical, objective and singularly truthful world view. More recently, however, in science, philosophy and religion, the role of the individual observer, the subject, and the influence of one’s culture and language, makes for a variety of world views, or ways of seeing the world we live in and our place in it. As it turns out the Buddha was quite right to observe some six hundred years before Jesus that things are changing – nothing remains the same.

For instance, we now know that every cell in the human body is replaced approximately every seven years. I am not physically the person I was seven years ago, and in fact by now have gone through a number of physical transformations. The fact of change has led some, like Hans Georg Gadamer, to conclude that “there can be no final interpretation of reality because new life-worlds or world pictures will cause future interpreters to see and experience the world differently.” [Ibid] As some might say, circumstances alter cases.

In this age of immediate information overload driven by an insatiable devotion to electronic devices, we find ourselves flooded with a variety of vastly differing world views multiple times per day if not per hour or even per minute. All filtered through “our own” world view, and interpreted from our own particular point of view. This has become particularly important in our interpretation of scripture and religious texts like the Bible, the Quran, the Sutras of the Buddha, the Mahabharata, the Analects of Confucius and the Dao De Jing (Tao). Each of these texts, and hundreds of others, offer a particular weltanschauung that came into existence in particular historical circumstances, regions and cultures and compiled in regional languages.

The texts before us center on a world view that, as Paul says in perhaps his most famous chapter in his letter to the church in Corinth, may be summarized by the virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity. As the first Christian witness in the New Testament, Paul stands upon a tradition and world view that claims that the Lord God of the Exodus is “our stronghold” and source of our Hope (Psalm 71), and that we know this because it is the Lord God himself who puts “my words in your mouth” of those he calls to announce his emerging world view (Jeremiah 1).

I say emerging since throughout the Bible from beginning to end the world view of the Lord God of the Exodus is always based in Faith, Hope and Charity, but is given new interpretive meanings in the differing historical and cultural circumstances of God’s people. By the way, in High School we had to memorize chapater 13 in the King James English for our English Lit class with Clara King. A number of us Boomers petitioned to be able to use the Revised Standard Version which replaces Charity with “Love.” I have since learned that the Biblical concept of Love really is more like what we call Charity: doing something useful and helpful for others whether or not we even like them. It seems to me it is what Jesus is all about. Besides, it rhymes: Faith, Hope and Charity, abide these three, but the greatest of these is Charity!

So we have Jeremiah, and quite possibly Psalm 71, commissioned to remind the people in Exile not to let go of the Hope that their God will find them a way out. Indeed, they are to sing and pray, “In your righteousness, deliver me and set me free; incline your ear to me and save me.” (Psalm 71) Some six hundred years later, under the military occupation of the Roman Empire, the people still seek deliverance and freedom when Paul writes to Corinth about the necessity to maintain Faith, Hope and Charity in spite of the current crisis – that is, to adopt and maintain a positive world view no matter what the circumstances on the ground might suggest.

Some thirty or forty years after Paul we get Luke’s portrayal of what is often referred to as Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown synagogue in which he radically reinterprets the God inspired words of another prophet of the Exile, Isaiah, to fit the ongoing crisis: God wants to set us prisoners free, give we who are blind new vision, and the cancelation of all debts! Note carefully that when asked how to pray Jesus instructs his followers to forgive debts: and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. (Luke 11) I say radical, for as it dawns on the people just what kind of Faith, Hope and Charity is being demanded of them (“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing!”), they conspire to hurl him off a nearby cliff, only to have him “pass through the midst of them,” the way Moses and the people passed through (exodos) the sea, the exiles returned to Jerusalem, and Jesus passes through death back to  life.

Jeremiah, Psalm 71, I Corinthians and Luke offer an emerging world view that is grounded in Faith, Hope and Charity to withstand the competing world views of exile and military/political oppression. We can safely conclude that those who have lived out of such a world view have made it through to our present day.

I say all of this because I am aware that every day we are being courted by other world views, other weltanschauungs if you will. They come in the guise of political ideologies, scientific and anti-scientific assessments, religious and atheistic pronouncements, and of course the managed world views of Television, Movies and Advertising, to name just a few. Some are positive, many are negative. Most are seductive world views based out of the seven deadly sins: greed, envy, gluttony, lust, sloth, anger, and of course, pride. We are in an election year and weltanschauungs are flying literally left and right!


As Paul asserts in his majestic 13th chapter of First Corinthians, most of these world views will pass away. The world view grounded in Faith, Hope and Charity shall endure. Buyer beware: the trappings of world views competing for our allegiances are indeed seductive and clever. As the Lord says to Jeremiah, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” There is nothing clever about Faith, Hope or Charity. In any and all historical and cultural circumstances, these three virtues always survive. Amen.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

It's What We Do

It’s What We Do
Nehemiah 8:1-10/Luke  4:14-21 - 24 January 2016

It is ironic that on the Sunday that we are given these two passages for our reflection that the delivery of 30+ inches of snow in our region makes it impossible for us to gather to hear them read and to find an interpretive edge that we may embody them in our own time.  I say ironic since both the passage from Nehemiah and the one from Luke portray the community of God’s people gathered, listening to the reading and interpretation of earlier texts that had inspired and sustained them throughout centuries, and now millennia, of life’s challenges.

Nehemiah was a court administrator for the King of Persia in Susa. A Jew himself by ancestry, he had heard of the difficulties the people were having in re-establishing Jerusalem after returning from the Babylonian Exile. He received permission to go to Jerusalem where he led the reconstruction of the Second Temple and the walls of the city for protection from neighboring threats.

When the construction was complete the people gathered outside the gates of the city, and at the instruction of Ezra, a scribe and priest who led the return to Jerusalem, listened to Nehemiah read the Torah, the law of Moses. Nehemiah was instructed to interpret the readings. This would sound very much like the fifth book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, which depicts Moses sitting the people down and going over in some detail the lessons learned in their 40 year wilderness sojourn before entering the land of promise. That is, God’s people gather periodically to hear the texts of the tradition and find ways to apply them to the current circumstances. It’s what we do.

The largesse and generosity of the Persian Empire ought not to be overlooked: Cyrus, a Persian gentile, released the captives to return to their homeland, and his successor allowed Nehemiah to go and help his people, Israel, as they sought to renew their commitment to being God’s people and demonstration community in an increasingly hostile world.

Fast forward 500 years or so. Jerusalem is now an occupied territory of the Roman Empire. A corrupt aristocracy in Jerusalem is aiding and abetting the Roman enemies. A young man from Nazareth returns to his hometown synagogue having already earned a reputation as a teacher, healer and possible modern day prophet. He is handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah, a prophet of the Exile some 600 years earlier. Isaiah was one of a few prophets in that day that helped the people to understand the circumstances of their captivity and maintain the hope for an eventual return by the hand of their God. Little had they thought that God would use a gentile like Cyrus to orchestrate their exodus and return!

Jesus takes the scroll and opens it to what we now recognize as chapter 61 in Isaiah. He stands to read, very much like Nehemiah, very much as Moses had done, and the people hear the Word: God has anointed me to bring good news to his occupied people. Those who are blind shall receive sight, captives will be freed, the oppressed shall go free, and it is time for the year of the Lord’s favor. This last pronouncement was quite extraordinary. The year of the Lord’s favor, or the Jubilee year was to be a time to cancel all debts and allow the bonded debt slaves and servants to return home to begin again.

Then, like Nehemiah, he offers an interpretation of what was just read: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Yes, this is the crucial distinction. For those of us listening to such a recitation of the essence of who we are it is incumbent that we hear and embody the Word. That is, the role of the hearer of the Word is to both “hear” and “fulfill” the Word. This is our task. It’s what we do.

As Paul outlines in his First Letter to the Church in Corinth, chapter 12, verses 12-31, we are all given special gifts. According to the gifts given to us, we are to hear and fulfill the Word. We are not asked to do anything more than what God has equipped us, gifted us, to do. Accordingly, we are expected to do no less than what God has equipped us to do.

Read Ezra-Nehemiah. Read Paul’s letters. Read the Gospels. It ought to become evident that the work we are called to do is very hard work. It is also very necessary work as well. The world needs us to do this work. It can be discouraging. It has always been thus. It is no different in our time than it was in the days of the texts we come to hear week in and week out. This is reason enough to come together week after week: to hear the Word we have been given to fulfill and to support one another in the fulfilling of this Word. As we hear these stories, we can only be impressed with the persistence and doggedness with which the Jews of these historical periods – the days of Moses, the days of Nehemiah, the days of Jesus – confronted the challenges before them. We listen to their stories as a model for our own generation. It’s what we do.

As one rabbi, Rabbi Tarfon once said, “It is not incumbent on you to finish the work, but nor are you free to desist from it.” (Mishnah, Avot, chapter 2)


To be among those called to hear and fulfill the Word we must always remember: it is not our duty, it is our privilege. We may not enter the promised land, but we are those who can see it, can imagine it, and can do our own small part to make it one day a reality for all people. It’s what we do. Amen. 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

My Epiphany

My Epiphany - Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Continuing the themes of the Epiphany Season, we hear in Luke the story of Jesus’ baptism by John. It is a remarkable moment in which a voice from heaven announces, “You are my beloved….with you I am well pleased.” Whenever I hear this story I am reminded of an epiphany that occurred after the first baptism I performed as a priest in God’s One Holy and Apostolic Church while curate at Christ Church, Winnetka, IL.

It was a special morning, and all in the congregation were eager with anticipation as I baptized a little girl named Eleanor and her mother, Franny, who had not been baptized. Seeing the mother and daughter baptized together was enough of an epiphany for some, but God was not through with me yet.  Eleanor was about 4 years old and capable of fully participating in the baptism herself.

Afterwards, we were invited back to Eleanor and Franny’s house for brunch. As I stood there talking with someone while having a glass of wine and a piece of quiche (how entirely Episcopalian), I felt a tug on the back of my pants leg. As I looked down, it was Eleanor. I asked her, “Eleanor, what can I do for you?” To which she replied, “Can you still see the cross on my forehead?” Meaning, of course the cross traced with oil blessed by our Bishop, James Winchester Montgomery, marking her and sealing her as Christ’s own forever. This ritual signing also represents her answering, “I will with God’s help” to a series of questions like: Will you continue in the Apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers? Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will all that you say and do proclaim the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, not some persons, not most persons, but all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? And, Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, not some people, not most people, but all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

All this flashed through my mind as Eleanor looked up at me with eager anticipation for an answer to her most wonderful question, and I said, “Yes, Eleanor, I can still see the cross on your forehead.” And you really could in her smile, in her skipping off so pleased with herself upon hearing that indeed, we could still see the cross on her forehead. I thought to myself, what a great question! And then I went back to eating quiche, drinking wine and talking to someone.

The next day I went to church to do such important tasks for the kingdom of God, such as lay out the parish newsletter and deliver it to the printer. I forgot all about Eleanor’s question. But God was not through with me yet!

A week later, as I was vesting in the vesting sacristy getting ready for the family service, I felt a tug on the back of my alb. I turned around only to find it was Eleanor once again. “Can you still see the cross on my forehead?” She still knew. She was still asking the question. This was the beginning of an epiphany for me as I said, once again, “Yes, Eleanor, I can still see the cross on your forehead!”

The gospel for that morning was the one in which Jesus says, “If you wish to be a disciple of mine, you must pick up your cross and follow me.” That is, if you desire to be one of the baptized you must pick up your cross and follow me. Or, to be a Christian, you must pick up your cross and follow me.

I had always thought this meant you had to grin and bear it when life hits you with bad stuff: like loneliness, loss of a loved one, cancer, sanctions from a group of scared Anglican Primates, job loss, …the list could go on and on with the kinds of things that cause us to say things like, “She has had this cross to bear a long time,” “and “He has had so many crosses to bear in his life.”

 Despite twelve years of Sunday School, four years undergraduate studies in religion, three years of seminary, nine canonical exams in the Diocese of Rhode Island, vocational testing, psychological exams and a week of General Ordination exams, I thought I was meant to carry a large sack over my shoulder like Santa Claus filled with all the crosses of my life weighing me down as I follow Jesus, and at the end of the line, exhausted, I would open it, spread them all out, and say, “There they are Jesus! I have been carrying this all my life and boy am I tired!”

It took the wisdom of a four year old girl to get me to see that worst case scenario, Jesus would stand there and laugh as he says, “Kirk, I have been carrying these for you your whole life long. This cross on your forehead is the one I want you to carry. It says that you are mine and I am yours. It says you will strive for justice and peace for all people, not some people, not most people, but all people. It says you are God’s Beloved. It says you will serve Christ in all persons. It says nothing can separate you from my love. This cross goes before you wherever you go. It leads you in the life of my disciples. It says I live inside of you. People can see it in all that you do and all that you say. It says we can laugh and dance and sing our way into the life of my father’s kingdom. As +Michael Curry says, ‘We are part of the Jesus Movement, and the cause of God’s love in this world can never stop and will never be defeated.’”

That’s it. That was my epiphany that day long ago as the Curate of Winnetka. Eventually, years later, it all came together in a song. Everywhere I go these past 32 years I share Eleanor’s story with others. We all need to live in ways that people can see the crosses on our foreheads and know who we are and whose we are. It’s Eleanor’s song, and I know it will mean a lot to her later today as I let her know we sang it together.

Can you see the cross
On my forehead
Sayin’ Jesus lives inside of me
Can you see the cross
On my forehead
There for all the world to see

To see how we are meant to love
To see how we are meant to live
To see how we are meant to share
To see how we are meant to give

refrain

That he is Lord of all that is
That he is mine and I am His
As I strive for justice, peace and dignity
I share in his every ministry

refrain

That I am God’s beloved child
That our God is well pleased with me
That we can laugh and dance and sing
Nothing can separate the love of Christ from me

refrain


Copyright Kirk Kubicek/Sounds Divine

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Jesus - The Missing Years

Second Sunday after Christmas C – January 3, 2016 / Luke 2:41-52
Jesus – The Missing Years
As a child I would sit in the living room and listen to records, sometimes all day long. Most were from my parents’ collection like Frank Sinatra, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Rhapsody in Blue. At Christmas time one in particular was a favorite: The Last Month of the Year by the Kingston Trio. One song stood out as strange, but I never figured it out until years later. Mary Mild, a traditional English folk Carol.

Mary Mild, or, The Bitter Withy ca. 1400
As it fell out on a cold winter day, the drops of rain did fall.
Our Savior asked leave of his mother, Mary, if He might go play at ball.

"Go up the hill," His mother said, "and there you will find three jolly children.
But let me hear no complaint of You when You come home again."

But the children said, "We are royal sons and we will not play at ball,
For You are but a poor maid's child, born in an oxen stall."

"If you are Lord's and Ladies' sons and you will not play at ball.
I'll build you a bridge of the beams of the sun to play upon us all."

And he built him a bridge from the beams of the sun, and over the pools they played all three And the mothers called, "Mary, call home your child," ere ours all drowned be.

Mary mild (Mary mild, Mary mild), Mary mild (Mary mild) called home her Child.
And when she asked Him, "Why?" Said He,
"Oh, I built them a bridge of the beams of the sun so they would play at ball with me.
So they would play with me."

Years later I was reading the first of Frederick Beuchner’s books about Leo Bebb, a most unusual evangelist. The book is Lion Country, and the protagonist, Antonio Parr sets out to expose Bebb as a fraud. The book is in turns hilarious, touching and seriously theological. While holed up in a hotel near Bebb’s center of operations in Florida Antonio is reading an Oxford collection of apocryphal stories about Jesus, many of which were unearthed in 1945 in Egypt.

Since our gospel for today is the only glimpse we get of the young Jesus, and he is portrayed as a lot to handle for his mother, Mary, some of these stories that were found attempt to recreate a childhood for our Lord. This song is styled after one of these tales, and the original story and folk song provide more detail and context.

As we heard, young Jesus wants to play with other children. His mother sends him out with a warning not to do anything to cause others to complain. Yet, when he goes out he is met with rejection: we are royal sons and you are the son of a poor maid and were born in an oxen stall. This is consistent with the first chapter of John which speaks of his coming to dwell among us, but is not accepted by others including his own townspeople.

So the enterprising Jesus offers to build a bridge of sun beams over the pools of water standing from the winter rains. This he does, and in the traditional tale, he dances over the bridge while the three royal sons drown. We are reminded of Peter who begins to sink beneath the waves for a lack of faith.  And again, we heard in Advent in the Song of Mary (The Magnificat, Luke 1: 46-53) that he is born to scatter the proud, bring down the mighty from their thrones and exalt the humble and meek.

The town mother’s beg Mary to call him home, and in the traditional story and song she spanks him with twigs from the withy or willow tree, he who will near the end of the gospel story himself hang from a tree crucified by Rome. In the song, however, he gets the last word: “Oh bitter withy. oh bitter withy / That causes me to smart./ Oh the withy shall be very first tree / To perish at the heart.” To this day the willow is the one tree that rots from the heart instead of from the outside, much like we sinners Jesus comes to save.

It is a cautionary tale to be sure. The lessons are many, beginning with how we treat others who are different than we are – how do we greet the stranger, “the other,” or not. The song calls us to reflect on why we tend to reject some people without even getting to know them. It also means to remind us of many of the core stories and themes of the gospel around following Jesus, having faith in him, and caring for the people he cares for the most, especially those born of low estate as he is. There is also a moral for children not to misbehave, with a reminder that this child can rule the wind, the waves and all of nature when called upon to do so.

Across four books of The Book of Bebb, Beuchner’s Antonio Parr learns similar lessons: he learns to appreciate that the man he took for a fraud really does understand our Lord’s desire to mold us all, from all walks of life, into a community around a common table doing for others as we would have them do for us.

I cannot tell you how many times I have listened to and sung this song. It is part of my spiritual upbringing. I get some comfort knowing that the Son of God was much like any other of us at an early age. And why shouldn’t he be? A principal assertion in our creeds is that he is fully human. I think we can also gain a greater appreciation for his young mother Mary, who is portrayed repeatedly as pondering and treasuring these kinds of things in her heart. Apparently it was no easier raising the Son of God than it was to raise any one of us!

At the end of the day, and the Kingston Trio’s adaptation of the song, Jesus just wants to play with us. He wants to lead us in dancing and singing in the Light, the light that is the life of every person. The light of the world. He wants us to dance on the beams of the sun, not wither up like the withy tree. When we accept Jesus and his invitation to play, life is changed forever Amen.



Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Work of Christmas

The Work of Christmas
This is Christmas. This is Incarnation. No shepherds, no angels, no crèche, no Magi. John’s story is so utterly unlike the familiar crèche or pageant. How on earth could one make this, John’s story of the Incarnation, into a pageant? It begins before time itself.

Note the opening words: “In the beginning….” The first to hear or read John’s Gospel had heard these words before. The entire Bible begins with these words, “In the beginning God created….” Jesus’ origins are cosmic – at the very root of the universe, all that is, seen and unseen. And we now know that fully 95% of the created universe is unseen: dark matter and dark energy. Only 5% is anything at all like us, and animals, rocks and trees and stars and planets, etc. God’s creation is mostly unseen.

John puts Jesus, the Word, the Logos, present before anything was made. Before God said the word, “Light!” and there was light! God speaks and things come into being. Before God speaks, however there was the “Word.” In Greek that is logos – word.

But for Jews and Gentiles alike in the first century, this word logos meant more than what we think when we say “word.” For at least six centuries before Christ came into the world, logos had currency among philosophers and meant something like the principle of reason that ruled the universe. Logos could also describe the Hebrew idea of wisdom – hokma in Hebrew, sophia in Greek. According to the rabbis, wisdom was responsible for creation. So universal is this Word, this logos, that it is in everything that has been created. There is nothing “made that was made” that is not made through this Word. This is why we promise in our Baptism to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.” Christ as logos is in all persons. And in all things. Thus our need to care for the Earth.

The Word is life, and this life is light, This light is a beacon of light that shines and cuts through all darkness – and darkness did not and has not overcome this light. That is there is evil, not just in people but in all the created order. Our redemption in and by the Word – the logos- is a vital part of a larger project – the redemption of the entire universe of God’s creation.

Yet, we who come from this Word, this logos do not readily recognize him. He comes to those of us who claim his name as our own – Christian- and yet we know him not. This continues to be a problem. Just look around us. Two Thousand Years of claiming his name as our own, and just how brilliantly does the world around us reflect this life giving light? In a world of ongoing brutalities – torture, killings, mass shootings, capital murder as retribution, bombings, not to mention hunger, loneliness, hatred, bigotry, poverty and rejecting strangers – can we really believe it pleases God to electrocute a human being? Or, to kill him with an injection? Do we truly believe we can bring about a greater good that reflects the life-light of God in the dark places in the world and in our own hearts through such ongoing brutalities? We are promised that all who do receive him, accept him, follow him, are given power to become “children of God.” We say we receive, accept and follow Jesus, the Word, but is this at all reflected in all that we do or say? Or, in all that is done or said on our behalf by others who claim to know, receive, accept and follow this Word?

It makes it all the more remarkable that this Word becomes flesh and blood and moves into the neighborhood. The text literally says he “tabernacled among us.” That is, he pitched his tent, this Word, this logos, this divine wisdom, set up shop right in our midst despite our not knowing him. We are meant, of course, to recall that other time in our tradition’s past when God tabernacled among us in the tent of meeting in the wilderness – that place where “the glory of the Lord filled the tent.” Again we behold his glory!

For John, this is Christmas. The Word of God comes and pitches his tent to sojourn with us, giving us another chance to know, accept and follow him. We behold his glory. He adopts us as his own.

A story is told about some Navy Seals sent to free a group of hostages in one of the dark corners of the world. As they storm into the hiding place, they find the hostages huddled on the floor in a corner of the room. The Seals tell them they are there to take them home, get up and follow us. No one moves. They are so damaged by the experience of their captivity that they do not believe these are really people sent to set them free. So one of these Seals does something: he takes off his helmet, puts down his gun, gets down on the floor, softens his face and huddles up next to the captives, putting his arms around a few of them. No guards would do this. He whispers, “We are like you. We are here to be with you and to rescue you. Let us take you home. Will you follow us?” One by one the prisoners get up and are eventually taken to safety on an aircraft carrier and brought home.

Lots of rhetoric and ink has been spilled to explain the miracle of the incarnation – how it is God becomes one of us to take us home – to redeem us as a step in redeeming a broken world and broken universe. God sees us captive to many things, unwilling to simply step away from those things that keep us in prison – often prisons of our own making. In Jesus, God takes off all his glory, gets down on the floor with us, huddles up with us – tabernacles among us, pitches his tent among us – and whispers, “It is OK – I am with you – I am one of you now – come with me, follow me, and I will take you home.”

John tells us that the essence of Christmas does not need a creche, does not need shepherds, does not need angels, or greens, or red bows, or piles of gifts, or carols, or turkeys and roast beefs with all the trimmings. All Christmas needs is for us to know the Word, to accept the Word, to get up and follow the Word. There is no way we can ever know all there is to know about God – but in Christ, the logos, the Word, we can see the light and the logos, and He will lead us home. This is Incarnation. This is Christmas. It is time now, writes Howard Thurman, for the Work of Christmas to begin.
The Work of Christmas
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 flocks
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoners
To bring peace among brothers
To make music in the heart

                        -Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Happy Christmas (War is Over)

Happy Christmas (War is Over)
We need to put the Christ back in Christmas I am told. We need to keep Christ out of the marketplace they say. The War On Christmas is back, they shout. As I ponder these things as we are told Mary ponders things in her heart I surprise myself as I find myself joining in a Scroogian, "Bah! Humbug!"

I may as well admit it: for years I would agonize on what to say on Christmas Eve. It needs to be just right to reach everyone, to touch hearts and set them on fire, to bring the Good News of Christmas alive. I would try so hard sometimes I would make myself sick - literally feverish, bed-ridden sick at just the thought of standing in front of a church full of parishioners, visitors, family and even total strangers, some just by the look in their eyes seeming to say, "Go ahead, try to make me care about this. Yes, I would rather be at, fill in in the blank: home, the party we had to leave early, the corner bar where everyone knows my name, out on the slopes....Give it your best shot!”

So just as I was beginning the annual panic attack I found myself in Towson, MD, with time to kill. Can you really kill time, you might ask? Does time even exist I might reply. So I grabbed a book, The Mood of Christmas, by Howard Thurman, long time chaplain at both Howard and Boston Universities, and an influential African American writer, theologian and civil rights leader.

I sat down at a small table in what used to be called Kenilworth Bazar and I think is now The Shops At Kenilworth. People were bustling around, buying gifts, looking at the magnificent Christmas Garden model trains, buying and eating slices of Pizza (note to self, be sure to get a slice soon), checking out Joe Bank for dads and the Fells Point Surf Shop, one of several pop-up shops for the holiday.

Thurman writes that Christmas is a mood, a quality and a symbol more than an historical event. The mood is set by thoughts and memories of people here and gone, an angel that crosses one's path, an iridescence that radiates sheer delight throughout the whole world. The quality is the fullness with which fruit ripens or flowers blossom, or a sunset over the mountains seen from the shores of the lake beneath. And the symbol is the brooding presence of the Eternal Spirit making crooked paths straight, rough places smoothed, tired hearts refreshed, while dead hopes stir with newness of life.

I think of my mother who moved on before Christmas last year. I was a confederate in her modest ritual of hope every week: "Please get me a ticket for the Mega Million this week. It’s up to 223 Million this week."  Dutifully I would purchase one for her and one for myself. We understood the odds, but someone has to win, right? It is as close as we ever had to an eschatolgical conversation, but it did sustain a modicum of hope however misplaced it might have been.

As I ponder all this I notice first a group of three, then another of four teenage girls walk by. These, however, are not the usual customers of the Bazar, but rather they all have those small white lace caps and long skirts Mennonites wear, with modest sneakers. No Jordan's to be seen. I look up to see more and more of these young women clutching what look like tattered music folders, while a group of young men set up a stage and sound system. Soon the mall is awash with the sounds of Oh Come All Ye Faithful from about 75 young men and women.

I ask a bearded gentleman nearby where they are from and he says, 'Lancaster, PA. They are going on from here to Keswick Care, The Helping Up Mission and other stops around Baltimore.  "Oh come, let us adore him, oh come let as adore him...." I think, where is this War on Christmas I keep hearing about? It was on the Opinion page of The Sun the other day. Angel sounds from girls in lace caps and boys in Dockers and jeans. No, there is no war on Christmas. He is here in the marketplace, he is here in their singing, he is here in the people who stop eating pizza to stand and do nothing but listen for however long it takes for the Lord to touch us.

"Glory to God in the Highest!" Suddenly without warning the mall is transformed into a mood, a quality, a symbol of Christmas. It is suddenly a way of being. It is a way of being not in the church, but beyond the doors of the church into the ordinary hum-drum activity of people anxiously scurrying about to get ready for the Big Day! Those church doors marked, by order of the Fire Marshall, "Exit" ought to read, "Entrance," for it is beyond those doors Christ calls us to enter the mission field, his people sent, apostles and proclaimers of the Good News of God in Christ by word and deed; everything we say and everything we do.

It is a way of being that is faithful to our story. Why is the story written the the way it is anyway? A couple, at least temporarily homeless, she pregnant, he looking for kinsfolk to put them up. The kid grows up not as a great and reputable citizen of Rome, but rather a non-citizen, a typical Jew, yet atypical in that he intentionally sits to share meals with tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, sinners and outcasts of every possible kind. What I am thinking is that if you wanted to make up a story that would really convince people that he is the Son of God wouldn't you make it up with a more majestic story line?

But this is the God of the marketplace after all. "Repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy, repeat, repeat the sounding Joy!" Listen to these young people. They get on a bus all the way from Lancaster, PA, to perform this pop-up concert among the pop-up shops so that their love of Jesus can suspend time and space for a few moments. So that hearts will be touched, and people moved, and love and hope abound. He is here. He is always here in the market place. As one wag put it, just when you think the last word in the last sentence about Jesus has been read or spoken, someone in the back row stands up, raises a hand and says, "But what about....." The truth about Jesus is not that we can never be through with him, but in fact he is never through with us!

As I hear the familiar carols, as I think about my mother and father and sister and grandparents and aunts and uncles and Christmases past, as I think of all those agonizing nights before the night before Christmas, I realize that were Christ to come back right now, right here, right this minute he would not have one iota of interest about putting Christ back in Christmas! I believe he would be moved to see his mood, his quality, his symbols of hope and care and love for others, all others, alive and well in the marketplace and in the hearts of all those who know him, and more importantly, are known by him! He is all around us all the time, that in fact is the Good News! He is not finished with us yet!

Know my sisters and my brothers, Jesus calls you to be with him wherever you are
He calls you to know, he is here, even now
He calls you to do something beautiful with your life and bear much fruit
The World needs you, The Church needs you, Jesus needs you
They all need your love and your light
There is a hidden place in you heart where Jesus lives
This is a deep secret you are called to live
Let Jesus live in you! Go forward with him!

Since he promises to be with us always, to the end of the age, there is no way that he cannot be in Christmas. He is always in Christmas no matter what, and in every other day as well. Look around this room. Look around the mall. Wherever you look he is there and The Mood of Christmas is eternal.

Merry Christmas. God bless us everyone. Amen.