Saturday, December 30, 2006

This Is Christmas

31 December 2006
Christmas 1C
John 1:1-18

This is Christmas. This is Incarnation. No shepherds, no angels, no crèche. The stories we read this time of year attempt to explore Jesus’ origins. No two Gospels agree on this. In Mark Jesus just comes walking into the story fully grown up seeking to be baptized by John. In Matthew his origins are traced back to Abraham and Sarah, establishing his Jewish identity. In Luke his origins are traced back all the way to Adam, establishing a more universal identity – Jesus for Jews and Gentiles.

Then there is John. These eighteen verses push Jesus’ origins back even further than the first person. Note the opening words: “In the beginning….” The first to hear or read John’s Gospel have heard these words before. The entire Bible begins with these words, “In the beginning….” Jesus’ origins are cosmic – at the very root of the universe, all that is, seen and unseen.

John puts Jesus present before anything was made. Before God said the words, “Let there be….” 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 like the Stoics. Logos was what they called the principle of reason that ruled the universe. In Hebrew the word dabar carries a similar meaning – dabar describes God’s activity in the world. Logos could also describe the Hebrew idea of wisdom – hokma in Hebrew, sophia in Greek . According to the rabbis, wisdom was responsible for creation.

All in all, the power of the poetry of these opening verses of John’s Gospel resides in his choice of this one word, logos, for it has universal, multi-layered meanings hidden within itself. To identify Jesus, as eventually John does, as the logos is to say that God in Jesus comes to Jew and Gentile alike. Gentile, of course simply means anyone who is not Jewish.

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.

In the Word is life, and this life is light, and this light is a beacon of light that shines and cuts through all darkness – and darkness has not overcome this light. That is there is evil, not just in people but in all the created order. But this evil has not overcome or absorbed the light. So 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, this sophia, this wisdom, 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, hangings, capital murder as retribution, bombings, not to mention hunger, loneliness, hatred, bigotry, poverty – can we really believe it pleases God to let a man hang from a rope? 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. No shepherds, no angels, no kings, no manger – but rather 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 a pageant, does not need a tree, 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, says John, that 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. Amen.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Mary's Song For Today

24 December 2006
Advent 4C * Luke 1: 39-55

Mary’s Song For Today

One of the Gospel of Luke’s great gifts to humanity is the Magnificat, or The Song of Mary. It is poetry, and thereby it is an act of imaginative creativity. As such it is meant to move to the deepest places in our hearts and souls to inspire us – literally to breathe into us – the Miracle of the Incarnation – what the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451 describes as The Definition of the Union of the Divine and Human Natures in the Person of Christ.

From page 864 in our Book of Common Prayer it reads in part, “…as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer (Theotokos)…” Theotokos – God-bearer, this young woman who so dominates our liturgy this morning and our church at all times.

There she is in stained glass standing guard over one of the entrances to our little church. She is back in the corner, waiting patiently to hear our prayers, as she waited patiently for nine months to see God’s promise made true in flesh and blood. She is cast in bronze at the base of our Paschal Candle stand kneeling beside the manger. She appears in no fewer than four of our terra-cotta depictions of the Stations of the cross, none more poignant than the scene we know as Pieta, Theotokos the God-bearer holding the crucified body of her son just as she had held him as Baby Jesus some thirty years before.

And of course in Advent, here she is among the animals in the Lenox Creche, while the entire church is adorned in Blue – the color of hope, the color of distance, the color of the sky to which he ascends, the color of the sea in whose sacred surf we are baptized into his life, death and resurrection, the color of Mary, his mother – Mary, Theotokos – Mary, the God-bearer.

There is so much that is odd and yet wonderful about this story. Mary set out – or was she sent – to visit a distant relative, Elizabeth. Elizabeth, who like Sarah before her, finds herself suddenly with child at an age thought to be impossible. Zechariah, Liz’s husband and priest of the Temple, has been temporarily struck mute – that is he is unable to comment on the extreme social and religious difficulties presented by this Mary, a young girl who is unmarried and yet with child. Who in a less sensitive time would be called an unwed mother with an illegitimate child.

Perhaps Mary heads for the hills to avoid all the talk on the street, the disapproving glances and possible punishment back home. But Liz is six month’s pregnant and Mary leaves before the child known as John the Baptizer is born. Odd that she does not stay to help with and after the birth. Odd that she returns home just as she would begin “to show” as we say. When she returns is just when people on the street will begin to draw their own conclusions. How surprising that she stays so long and leaves so soon. How courageous to go home when she does. This is not a woman who submits, but rather a woman who is strong in the Lord – the God of her people who delivers on his promises.

After all she is named after Miriam, the sister of Moses, a prophet in her own time, a liberating leader in her own right, and primary celebrant of the Exodus, leading the women in the wilderness to dance and sing and play on their tambourines the Glory of the Lord whose mercy and loving kindness is beyond our knowing . Not only is Mary a God-bearer, but she bears the history, promises and hope of her people throughout the ages in her very name.

Put Elizabeth’s song alongside Mary’s song and we have before us two very strong women, both well rooted in their people’s history, rooted in hopes that have kept their families alive for millennia, and both well prepared to give birth and training to babies who will grow up to be leaders – leaders not just for Israel, but for all the world.

These two women bear the hope that God will turn the world right-side-up again. In their bodies they carry babies whom they will raise to carry out that task. Perhaps Mary goes home when she does because she and Elizabeth have created a foundation on which Mary can stand in the face of the very real dangers and misunderstandings that shall form the basis of the rest of her life – and that of her son, Jesus.

Mary’s song proclaims what God has done for Mary, what God does in history, that God’s mercy endures throughout history, what God does to establish justice, and a final declaration of God’s mercy as witnessed as far back as Abraham and “his descendants forever." As we heard last Sunday from John, Mary declares that through her God is acting decisively with mercy for the vast majority of the world’s population, but which is decidedly bad news for the proud, the powerful and the rich who are to be scattered, torn down and “sent away empty.” Mary’s song is a prophetic warning. One might even say it is revolutionary.

Two women, two strong and faithful women, join together with God to turn the world right-side-up again. Two women who remind us of the centrality of women in God’s story and our history – women with names like Sarah, Miriam, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Deborah, Hannah, Ruth, Jezebel, Huldah, Esther, Mary of Magdala, Martha and the assortment of Mary’s to name just a few. Under the present circumstances in our church it is crucial to remember that at key moments in our tradition’s history, the historians of our faith have placed crucial verdicts on the lips of an authorized woman. Mary continues this tradition, just as The Most Reverend Katherine Jefferts Schori holds a similar place in our tradition.

I would simply conclude with the observation that when Archbishop Cranmer put together the first Book of Common Prayer, it was by his design that we should pray the Song of Mary at least once a day in our evening prayers. Each revision of the prayer book has retained this intent. Mary, Mary’s song, and all that it represents of the reconciling desire of all God’s mercy and work, is to be for us a kind of mantra. I believe the intent behind our daily praying of the Magnificat is to make us all Theotokos – God-bearers – in a world that increasingly appears to be looking for a miracle.

Another one of God’s strong women, Maggie Ross, a hermit and modern day saint, has put it this way: “The Wrath of God is his relentless compassion, pursuing us even when we are at our worst. Lord, give us mercy to bear your mercy.”

Like the prophets and those who fear God in every generation, like Mary and Elizabeth, we have been chosen by God to be baptized into the Body of Christ. Like Mary, we too are called to be Theotokos – God-bearer. We are to bear and bare her child to the world. It is not our choice, but God’s will that we do this. Armed with just these words Mary faced a dangerous and unforgiving world. We can too. Amen.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

I Wonder

17 December 2006
Advent 3C * Luke 3:7-18
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills

I Wonder

Advent and Christmas are times of wonder. And so I find myself wondering.

I wonder what we know about Luke’s first audience – who it was first heard and read this gospel – where they found themselves – what their circumstances were – and how that would help us to understand the strange, even alien, world and language of John the Baptizer?

I wonder what we would think if we were to remember that when this gospel was written, Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed by the Roman Empire in the year 70ce? An empire still referred to by Jesus’ Jewish community as “The Rule of Arrogance.” The Rule of Arrogance – has a familiar ring to it. Jesus’ people, God’s people Israel, believed God had made the world good and plentiful and abundant, and that it was the Rule of Arrogance that had turned the world upside down and made it a world of greed and hoarding and scarcity. They yearned and prayed for God to turn things right-side-up again.

People like John called people to repentance as a means to counter the Rule of Arrogance – as a kind of alternative lifestyle over and against the Rule of Arrogance. Those like John who advocated such acts of defiance against the empire were routinely rounded up and crucified we are told. Yet, how could a people not react in some sort of protest against the very empire that had destroyed the very center of the universe? In fact, the people of Jesus’ community had mounted an armed revolt or rebellion which had resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple when Rome crushed the revolt.

I wonder if we can understand that the Temple was believed to be the still, center point of all creation? That the Holy of Holies, the quiet, dark, still place behind the veil of the Temple was where God, blessed be his name, touched the earth with a finger and held it still? That the world outside could rage and roar with chaos, but Jews knew that the Temple was the safest and most Jewish place in all of creation? That here is where God’s promises to turn the world right-side-up again did dwell in safety? That by later legend it was the place where God had sent an angel to grab Abraham’s hand to stop him from killing his son Isaac?

I once was in one of the ancient cities of the Decapolis – the ten Gentile cities in Israel – and saw the remains of a Dionysian Temple that had been destroyed by an earthquake. This cultic home of a powerful God with its once towering marble columns looked like so many matchsticks scattered on the ground. I tried to imagine the impact on the ancient psyche to see it instantly reduced to ruins.

The people listening to Luke had seen Jerusalem burned to the ground. They could smell the smoke and destruction. They had seen the flames. They had seen the rubble of the center of creation – the place believed to keep Jews safe throughout centuries of external turmoil.

Now here is John talking about “fire.” Fire is a powerful metaphor, a violent metaphor. There is no fire that is not dangerous. But against the background of the year 70ce, words about fire become something they had never been before. They now become associated with the Rule of Arrogance itself. I wonder how John’s words sounded to those who had fled the terror that was Jerusalem destroyed?

And yet, they come to John. As the city empties out into the surrounding region, the people go to John. They are like snakes coming out from hiding, says John. Well, who would not be hiding from the carnage of the Rule of Arrogance? So rather than a charge of vitriol, John’s snake metaphor captures the cautious public gathering of Jews after the carnage, after the danger has passed. There is no city in which to gather, only wilderness and ruin.

So now the plaintive cry of the people coming out to John in the wilderness – the wilderness where their ancestors had been forged from a rag-tag bunch of runaway slaves into a people, God’s own beloved people – begins to make sense: “What should we do?”

What should we do? In difficult, dangerous and chaotic times this is always the question, “What should we do?” What can we do to prepare for God to keep the old promises, for God to turn the world right-side-up?

Amidst all the fire-laden, snake-bitten rhetoric, John’s direct and simple answers are almost overlooked: people ought to share food and clothing; people ought not to defraud one another; people ought not collaborate with the Rule of Arrogance (tax collectors and soldiers); do not use your power to injure. How simple, how powerful.

When asked if he was sent by God to keep the old promises and turn the world right-side-up, John says, “No – another is coming – winnowing fork in his hand…” This is good news - so good that Herod correctly hears it as bad news for the Rule of Arrogance. He puts John in Jail, for when God keeps the old promises and turns the world right-side-up, it will not be comfortable for the people in power. Herod is correct.

Advent and Christmas are times of wonder. And so I find myself wondering.

I wonder if we truly understand this Gospel at all? The people listening to John hear this all as “good news.” I can’t help but wonder if we will too?


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Snow Falls

The snow falls
As if it knows where it is landing,
As if it has direction, purpose,
As if it has been sent

Then blows the wind
Redirecting each flake
Re-routing each crystal
So that suddenly
Without prior notice
Each lands
Just there
And nowhere else

So it is he says
With spirit
For you
For me
For us

And yet
We feel so sure
So certain
So determined

We continue to kid ourselves
Into thinking
That we know
Where we are going

Come Holy Ghost
Our souls inspire
Make us as the snow

8 march 2005