Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Fresh Look At Christmas

Christmas 2008 – Luke 2:1-20 * The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, St. Peter’s at Ellicott Mills
Details, Details, Details

It’s all in the details of this story, but they are so easy to miss. Yet, attention to the details can completely change the way we enter into this story

For instance, Luke tells us that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus. What do we know about him? As founder of the Roman Empire, Augustus brought Peace to the world by putting an end to the wars after Julius Caesar was murdered. The Age of Augustus was called the Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome. He was hailed as, “Savior of the World.” Also regarded as a god, one ancient inscription reads, “The Birthday of the God was for the world the beginning of good news (ie tidings, gospel, euangelion) of Joy on his account.”

Place that beside the greeting of the angel to the shepherds in Luke, “Be not afraid, for behold I bring you good news (tidings, euangelion) of a great joy which will come to all people ; for to you this is the birthday in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

A little counter-point to the Pax Romana, which of course was enforced by military might – if you are looking for a savior, writes Luke, you now have a choice: Augustus the “savior of the world,” or Christ the Lord, the savior of “all people.”

Sounds as if Luke is doing more than setting the time and place – by mentioning Augustus he is making a political statement as well. Not all that much has changed in two thousand years. Those of us who desire to live into this story of Christ the Lord still have a choice to make as to just where our commitments lie: Caesar or Christ. Those in Luke’s original audience who did not have the benefit of the crèche or the Christmas Pageant to domesticate what from the git-go can be seen as a test of wills: the will of the Empire versus God’s will, God’s Son, God’s Savior. It’s all in the details.

And what about “the inn?” I am embarrassed to say after four years of an undergraduate degree in Religion, three years in Seminary, studying both Hebrew and Greek, only recently did I discover that the word in chapter two of Luke translated as “the inn” really means “the guest room.”

You know, that spare room where you store all the extra stuff that doesn’t fit anywhere else in the house, but that you clear out every time a relative or guest shows up from out of town? Remember, Joseph was from Bethlehem, the City of David the Shepherd King. As a young man he moved about as far away from home as one could get and still be in Israel – Nazareth. Nazareth was not just a few miles down the road from Bethlehem as it is in Pennsylvania! It was about 70 miles as the crow flies, four to seven days journey by foot and donkey, with possible stop-overs in Megiddo, Ibleam, Shechem, Shiloh, Ai and Jerusalem. That’s Megiddo as in Armageddon, Shechem as in where Abraham sat ‘neath the Oak at Moreh and where the tomb of Joseph was located, and so on – tourist stops and shrines for a traveling Israeli.

Of all the relatives of David the Shepherd King, it seems as if Joseph had the furthest to go to report for the census of Augustus, god and savior of the world. No doubt by the time he and Mary arrived all the guest rooms in all his relative’s homes were already filled with a great many other cousins, aunts, uncles and the like. The homes were often built in a square around a central courtyard, with the animals living in one side of the square. Evidently one kindly relative, not the long-reviled inn-keeper, said, “Look you guys, even though the guest room is filled, the room with the animals is probably the warmest place in the house on a cold December (which of course had not been invented yet!) night such as this. Why don’t you snuggle up with those wooly sheep and goats, burrow into the straw, what with Mary in the shape she’s in and all.” Kind of changes the whole scene when we see how it is that family takes care of family. With Jesus it seems it is always that way: a few days later total strangers like Anna and Simeon act like family with him, and all throughout Luke’s good news of Christ the Lord He seems to adopt everyone as family - even you and me through Baptism and Eucharist.

Which would be the last detail we will touch upon. (Whew, it’s almost over and time to head back to the egg nog!) As you know, they place the baby Christ the Lord in a manger, which is a feeding trough. In nursery school Chapel we call it “a cow’s cereal bowl,” which is not too bad a description of where the Son of God lies. I cannot hear the word “trough” without recalling Kurt Vonnegut’s image of people slurping at the money trough – an apt metaphor what’s going on all around us today!

The manger would be made of wood, which points the alert listener to the cross near the end of the story. The hard wood of the manger is the hard wood of the cross. But of course we are those people who know the cross is not the end of the story by a long shot! Luke may also be signaling the reader of the Good News of Christ the Lord to associate the feeding trough with the table – you know, as in the Last Supper table, which by the way is the one place the word “guest room” comes up again. The upper room of the Last Supper was “the guest room.”

The baby resting in the manger, in the feed trough, is the one destined to become “the bread of God…which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,” He is “the bread of life.” (John 6:33,35) Think of the manger as foreshadowing – since it foreshadows the very fact of our being here tonight and nowhere else to share Eucharist, thanksgiving! Here is yet another contrast: the Bread of Life arrives humble in an animal’s feeding trough while the managers of the Empire slurp at the money trough! Makes one ask, “Where am I fed?”

Someone once wrote that human nature is like a stable inhabited by the ox of passion and the ass of prejudice; animals which take up a lot of room and which I suppose most of us are feeding on the sly. And it is there between them, pushing them out, that Christ the Lord must be born and in their very manger He must be laid – and they will be the first to fall on their knees before him. Sometimes Christians seem far nearer to those animals than to Christ in his simple poverty, self-abandoned to God. The birth of Christ in our souls is for a purpose beyond ourselves: it is because His manifestation in the world must be through us. We are to ponder this truth.

Each time we gather at this table, we come to remember the mystery of the Good News of Christ the Lord, Savior of the world and All people. Without reminders like the manger and the bread and the wine it becomes almost incomprehensible that God took on human form, lived among us, suffered for us, died and was raised that we might know true life in this world and the next.
And so it is on Christmas that we gather at His table, our feeding trough, to feed on his body and his blood in order that we might just as mysteriously live as His Body in the world – the Church. Somehow we become the very means by which he is the Savior of all people, not just the people of the empire.

These details – Augustus, guest room, feeding trough - invite us to join with Mary, ponder these things in our hearts until we know that He is alive in us. Like the shepherds let us rejoice and tell the whole world what we have seen and heard this night. It is just as it has been told to us – the babe in the manger is Christ the Lord! Tell it out to all the world! A world that still yearns for Good News of Glad Tidings waits for us to proclaim the Good News of Christ the Lord in all that we do and all that we say. Merry Christmas! God bless us everyone!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The World As It Should Be

Advent 3B * Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11/John 1: 6-8, 19-28
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland
As It Should Be!

A Sunday School teacher in Kansas reports this conversation in her class:
“If I sold my house and my car, had a big garage sale and gave all my money to the church, would that get me into Heaven?" I asked the children in my Sunday School class.
"NO!" the children all answered.
"If I cleaned the church every day, mowed the yard, and kept everything
neat and tidy, would that get me into Heaven?"
Again, the answer was, "NO!"
"Well, then, if I was kind to animals and gave candy to all the children, and loved my wife, would that get me into Heaven?" I asked them again.
Again, they all answered, "NO!"
"Well," she continued, "then how can I get into Heaven?"
A five-year-old boy shouted out, "YOU GOTTA BE DEAD!"

These Advent lessons lead us to think about such things as salvation and mission. And we may as well admit it, we tend to think in terms of such questions as: From what are we being saved? God’s punishment? The Devil? Our own Sins? Death? All of which tends to make us think of salvation in terms of “getting into heaven.”

Such thinking inevitably leads us to think of mission as the work of getting as many people into heaven as possible! Further, such thinking makes us ask such questions as, “who will be saved,” or “who will be in heaven.” And underneath it all is the little boy’s assumption that the single prerequisite for salvation and heaven is death.

Along come Isaiah and John. Isaiah is a poet. John, in today’s rendering is “a man sent from God,” who came “as a witness.” Both Isaiah and John have something to say about salvation. What they both seem to be saying is that salvation is not another place or time. Both Isaiah and John announce that salvation is the reality of this world as it should be.

Isaiah offers a vision of just what salvation looks like: we are to turn our attention to those named as recipients of God’s Good News – the poor, the oppressed, the brokenhearted, captives, prisoners, the mournful and the faint of spirit. Our mission to, with, and among those named in this poem defines God’s people as those people who exist for the sake of others.

Further, Isaiah the poet says we will know we are involved in God’s saving mission work when others, “the nations of the world,” notice that God’s people live differently – that is we live for God and for others, all others. Earlier in Isaiah 49:6 the poet says, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Enter “The Light” from before time and forever. In the first chapter of the Gospel according to John (which would be John the Evangelist, not John “a man sent from God...”) one is immediately struck by the fact that he is not named “John the baptizer” as he is in Mark, or “John the Baptist” as he is in Matthew, or even “John the son of Zechariah” as we find in Luke. John is simply “a man sent from God…as a witness to testify to the Light.”

The Light, of course, is “the Word,” or logos, which has been with God and is God since before creation, and of whom it is said, “all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” (John 1:1-3) This same Word or Light, we are told, “became flesh and dwelt among us – pitched his tent to tent among us.” (John 1:14)

As God’s Word, God’s Light grew up and lived in our midst, he would one day read Isaiah chapter 61 in his hometown synagogue and declare, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21) That is, the time is now to begin living out the vision of salvation and mission Isaiah proclaimed. It is time for salvation as the reality of this world as it should be! It is this vision of salvation and mission John was sent to witness. John is a witness, in Greek he is a martyria, from which we get the word martyr. Witnesses say what they have seen or heard or attest to the truth of another’s testimony.

John’s role is to recognize the true Light which has come into the world – a light which the darkness has not overcome - and to call attention to this Light so that others might recognize it and believe. Belief in this sense means to recognize, trust and commit ourselves to the Light – the Light which is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision.

This in turn means, of course, to commit ourselves to the kind of salvation and mission Isaiah proclaims, John recognizes, Jesus lives and both John and Jesus call us to follow so our lives might become “a light to the nations!”

John was not the light, but came to testify to the light. John did not come to decorate everyone and every thing for Christmas. John did not come to announce the beginning of the Christmas sale season. He did not come to stir us into a frenzy of shopping and spending. He came to remind us and to bear witness to all who will listen that the darkest forces of the world are not as powerful as they claim or appear.

We begin this Third Sunday of Advent praying, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with Great Might come among us.” Will we take the time this Advent to allow God to stir things up within us and within our parishes and throughout the Church, so that we might become more like John, “a man sent from God?” For that is, in fact, who we really are – men and women sent from God as witnesses to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.

And maybe, just maybe, as we testify, bear witness to, and proclaim the glory of the Light, we will embody the Light and become those who reveal the life of Christ anew in the world – a world that increasingly is desperate to see and know the Light. For in the Light is “life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:4) All people look to us to see the Light. When all that we say and all that we do bears witness to the Light, heaven and salvation will be understood not as a time and place after death, but rather the world as it should be here and now! Amen.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Prepare, Prepare the Way of the Lord

7 December 2008/Advent 2B * Isaiah 40:1-11/Mark 1: 1-8
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland

The Beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The Bible begins, “In the beginning….” Mark begins, “The beginning…” Mark means to take us back. Way back to the very beginning. So Mark quotes Exodus, Malachi and Isaiah. Those who first heard this story of Mark’s would know that, would hear that. Standing in the ruins of Jerusalem on top of Mount Zion after the Roman legions had quelled the Jewish revolt of 66-70ce, Mark means to give them a story of hope and redemption: some Good News, or Gospel. As they listen to these opening verses, standing amidst the ashes, this is what they hear.

Once upon a time, in an ancient and faraway country, when there were no cities and no towns, only small tribes and caravans of people living on the land, wandering from place to place, looking for fresh water and green vegetation, there was a mountain top.

Those who climbed up to the top of this mountain said they felt the presence of God. A presence that says, “Love the One God who loves you and cares for you always, and love and care for one another, especially the others, the poor, the widows, the orphans and strangers.”

So they would come down from the mountain and tell others to Love God and Love others, all others. Throughout the years those who would go to the top of the mountain would leave a stone at the place where they felt the presence of God to commemorate their time there. Even those who did not experience God left a stone to remember the stories they had heard of those who had.

Each placed a stone, a token, one atop the other, year after year, until one day a magnificent Cathedral covered the place on the mountain top where God’s presence could be found and felt and heard: Love God and Love Others. People would come to the Cathedral, and entering they would know that something important was there, something sacred and true. They would stop and praise God and remember the stories of all those in the past who had been to the mountain top.

Over the years as more and more people made the journey to the top of the mountain leaving more and more stones one atop the other, soon a city was built around the Cathedral, with long winding, narrow streets, lined with homes and shops and plazas and fountains. People coming to the mountain to experience God and hear the stories of the past would need to stop and ask directions to find their way to the Cathedral so as not to get lost in the back streets of the city. And each in turn would leave a stone to remember the great events and stories of the past.

Soon there were so many stones a great wall surrounded the city with majestic gates and ramparts. People coming to the mountain to go to the Cathedral would have to find a gate they would be allowed to enter. Sometimes the gates were open, sometimes the gates were closed.

For many people, even in the city, the top of the mountain became more difficult to find. It had been covered with so many many stones. The gates were crowded, the streets noisy and narrow, there was so much activity, so many distractions and attractions that no one could hear the directions to find their way to the top of the mountain where God’s presence stood ready to remind them to Love the God who loves and cares for them always, and to love and care for one another, especially the others beyond the walls of the city.

Far away, beyond the walls of the city, was a man, lonely in the wilderness. His name was John. He would cry out loud in the wilderness, “Prepare, prepare the way of the Lord. Make a way for God to return!” High above the crowded and noisy streets, above the gates, above the walls, above the top of the Cathedral itself, his voice could be heard floating on the wind. Some people, discouraged at no longer being able to find the top of the mountain could hear his voice, so loud and lovely was the voice of the man, lonely in the wilderness.

First one, then another went beyond the gates of the city and followed the sound of that voice. They followed the sound floating on the winds. They could hear it like music in the sky! When they found him they listened as he cried, “Prepare, prepare the way of the Lord. Make a way for God to return!”

More and more people came out of the city and from all the surrounding countryside to be with the man, lonely in the wilderness, until soon, all the inhabitants both inside and outside the walls of the city found themselves together with the man, lonely in the wilderness. Soon they all joined in singing, “Prepare, prepare the way of the Lord. Make a way for God to return!” Everyone everywhere could hear the cry carried on the wind to the four corners of the Earth!

Then the man, lonely in the wilderness, led them down to the River – the River their ancestors had crossed long long ago to come to the mountain. John invited them to bathe in the water, confess their sins of forgetting God’s Way, and remember their God – the God who loves them and cares for them always. “Remember to love God and to love the others, all others, especially the poor, the widows, the orphans and the strangers. And I tell you, another will come, stronger than me, who will show us the way back to the top of the mountain, to show us the way back into the Cathedral, to show us the way back to the God who waits to meet us there. Remember, remember, remember today – the one who shall come will show us the way!”

And so it is today. When you listen above the noise of the city, when you listen above the noise of the crowds, when are still and listen wherever you are, a voice can still be heard, floating on the wind, beyond the gates of the city, above the tops of the highest Cathedrals, calling us today, “Prepare, prepare the way of the Lord. Make a way for God to return!”

Remember, remember, remember today – the one who shall come will show us the way! This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.