Sunday, December 30, 2012

Let Your Heart Be Light!

Christmas 1C * John 1: 1-18

The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Timothy’s School for Girls, Stevenson, MD
Let Your Heart Be Light!
Love Christmas. Love this Gospel. For this is John’s Christmas Story. Or, perhaps it makes more sense to say that this is John’s version of the Incarnation. No shepherds, no star, no kings, no Bethlehem, no manger, no Joseph and no Mary. Had John been Rogers and Hammerstein he would have started his version of the good news of Jesus with the words, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start…”

And so we are transported way back to the beginning of time. To before the beginning of time. Before anything at all was created, before the world began, the Word, the logos, the Christ, was with God and was God.

Was God. In the beginning, the Word was God. Astonishing! We are meant to be astonished. We are meant to be hushed. All our fumbling theologizing about Christmas and the Incarnation is silenced by this pushing back of the story to the very beginning of all things.

For the very next thing we are told is that “all things were made through him….” That would be as in all things, every thing and every one. Simply breathtaking.

Which would explain everything about who we are. We are those people who have promised, and continually promise over and over again to seek and serve Christ in all persons. Not some people, not most people, but all persons.

Most unfortunate, this good news John is proclaiming at the outset of the fourth gospel. Unfortunate because very often I do not want to recognize the Word, the logos, the Christ, in all persons. There are some persons I want not to be of Christ so as not to have to serve them!

So I wish John had not started at the very beginning. The beginning is not a very good place to start at all. It is hugely inconvenient to start there because it leads to all this seeking and serving of persons, quite frankly, we just would rather not seek and serve.

Christmas is so much easier if you just stick to the nativity scene and think about cuddly sheep, and a cow in the background, and hay in the manger, and shepherds falling all over themselves with excitement like so many children under the Christmas tree, which, just as inconveniently, does not seem to be a part of the story.

Until you get to the part about light. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Martin Luther is said to have lit the first Christmas tree with candles so as to make it look like the stars in the sky!

Now when you light a candle you tap into an ancient and nearly never ending cycle of life giving energy. The chemical energy of photosynthesis in plants is passed up the food chain, for instance, to grazing cattle and then on to tallow in a candle. When the candle is lit in the gloomiest of nights, it releases “cryptic sunlight” and returns the complex fat or wax molecules to the form in which the plants found it in the first place – water and carbon dioxide that can be incorporated into living things all over again. (Roger Highfield, The Physics of Christmas [Back Bay Books, Boston: 1998] p.29)

And here’s the kicker: the Word, the logos, the Christ is in all of that. The logos is in the photosynthesis and the cryptic sunlight.  “Without him was not anything made that was made.”
Oh, my. That no doubt includes fruitcakes, that awful necktie from Uncle Joseph and every one of the Pittsburgh Steelers in town for one day only to make or break the Ravens season.

This is more complicated than Christmas ought to be. But here it is, in black and white, Christmas as seen through the eyes of the fourth Gospel, John. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…and from his fullness have we all received grace upon grace.”

“Dwelt” means something like “pitched his tent” among us. This means that when we pick up our tent stakes and move on, the Word can pull up and travel with us. And the fullness of this Word from which all life, all things, all light doth proceed, is shared with us all. As in “all.” Not some, not a lot, but like creation itself, all persons and all things receive this grace. Have received this grace. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound….”

So here in this corner is the Word, and all that he has done since before time, in time and beyond time. And in the other corner is John, the man who was a lampstand. “He was not the light but came to bear witness to the light.”

So now, maybe we could do that too. We could bear witness to the light that comes from the Word who was with God and was God in the beginning. Maybe we could be like John and be a lampstand from which this light that comes from the Word who was with God and was God in the beginning can shine forth. Think here The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings: think Bilbo Baggins, Frodo and Sam, think Gandalf and Aragorn, think Pippin and Merry, think, yes, even Boromir and Gollum.

We might ask, which character in The Lord of the Rings is most Christ-like? But then, that would be the wrong question. Each character of Middle Earth fighting the forces of darkness carries something of the light, the logos and the Christ within them. All together they are the body of Christ. Alone none of them can get the job done, move history and the world forward. Together the world is saved. Changed, but saved.

This is what we are called to be and do: bear witness to the light and do all in our power to help others do so as well. This is best done by seeking and serving Christ, the Word, the logos,  in all persons, everywhere at all times.

None of us can be Christ-like unto ourselves. Yet, we each carry some particular Christ-like characteristic. We each carry a piece of the light. All together we can make up a Christ-like community. That is why when we baptize new members of the Body of Christ the whole body is changed and made new. That is why it is so important to take the promises we make in baptism seriously - especially the promise to do all in our power to support one another in our lives in Christ. Because the piece of Christ that I need is the piece you have and the piece you need is the piece I have. Together we can strive for justice and peace for all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. We are the body of Christ.

Together we make up the mosaic that is the Word, the logos, the Christ, for the world. Merry Christmas!  God bless us every one. Amen.

Monday, December 24, 2012

We Are Starlight

Star of the Nativity – Joseph Brodsky
In the cold season, in a locality accustomed to heat more
to cold, to horizontality more than to a mountain,
a child was born in a cave in order to save the world:
it blew as only in deserts in winter it blows, athwart.

To Him, all things seemed enormous: His mother’s breast,
                                                                                                the steam
out of the ox’s nostrils, Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior – the team
of Magi, their presents heaped by the door, ajar.
He was but a dot, and a dot was the star.

Keenly, without blinking, through pallid, stray
clouds, upon the child in the manger, from far away –
from the depth of the universe, from its opposite end – the star
was looking into the cave. And that was the Father’s stare.
                                                            December 24, 1987

In times like these I keep thinking. Judging from the state of things, not much of that is going on these days, there being so many many distractions demanding our attention every moment of every digital day, that collectively we seem to have lost our ability to think, to reflect, to remember. Sure, the story itself makes little or no sense – God comes down to the Third Rock from the Sun, landing in some undistinguished locale in an outlying suburb of the Roman Empire, not for anything we have done to deserve such a visit, but simply as a gesture of divine love for one’s own Creation – and no doubt as a warning that he is serious about how things ought to be? Can be? Might be, if only……

In times like these I keep thinking. Reflecting really.  Pondering. When was the last time you just sat and pondered without the clik and clak of the keyboard, or point and touch of the touch pad, while scrolling through endless lovely thoughts and diatribes on facebook, coming up with a clever repost, which inevitably bursts into a flaming war of words, when all you need to do is to ponder, reflect, think? In the silence, in the silence.

In times like these I keep thinking. It takes perseverance when one considers the losses of the past year, the past months, the past weeks. Amidst such losses, thinking hurts. Thinking becomes hard work. Thinking morphs into grieving, mourning, saddening, angering, and just plain too much feeling.

So in times like these I try to remember – the Father’s stare, that star, that starlight from the farthest opposite end, depth, dimension of the universe, comes to enlighten me, us, we, all, of, humanity -traveling at the speed of light, racing to greet us this new day, every day.  When do we ever have time to stop and just think about it? I wonder on this day of wonder. I marvel on this marvelous day. So transcendent, so far away, yet yearning to be so near, to us, creatures made imago Dei, in the image of God were we created, male and female, created in God’s image. Try to think on that. Try to remember. And wonder. What does that mean?

It is Richard Rohr, I think, in his book The Naked Now, who reflects on the absolute nearness of God. He reminds us of the ancient Hebrew command, Thou shalt not take God’s name in vain. Recalling that in that venerable Hebrew tradition, the tradition of Jesus, the name of God is literally not to be pronounced, so sacred is the name, so sacred is the command. It is formed of four letters, four consonants really: yodh, he, vav, he – which transliterated looks like YHWH. Attempts to force a pronunciation in the 19th century botched it into Jehovah, which is probably not a word at all – or at least, not that word. Now a longstanding assumption is that it is something more like Yahweh. When encountered in the sacred texts in public and private reading it is rendered Adonai, or Elohim, out of respect for the holy name, out of respect for the mystery at the opposite end of the universe that stands behind the name, the name in itself, it’s self, as perhaps someone like a Martin Heidegger might have put it.

Yet, Rohr teases out the current thinking – this collection of consonants, YHWH, were never meant to be spoken, let alone in vain, but rather were meant to be breathed. That is, YHWH is thought to be mimicking the sound of breathing in and breathing out, inhalation and exhalation. That is, says Rohr, the name of God is something we “say” every moment of every day. It is the first word we say at birth, and the last word we say at our death.

The implications of this are enormous, almost as immense as the entire universe itself. There is no American, Asian, African or European way of breathing. There is no Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist or Jewish way of breathing. There is no male or female, no young or old, no right or wrong, no left or right, no liberal or conservative way of breathing. We are all breathing the same air, recycled endlessly through photosynthesis and other natural processes, so that we are all breathing one and same breath. The air we breathe, that literally is life for all living things, travels on the wind, and like the wind blows where it will, we know not from whence it comes or whither it goes. This wind, this breath, will not, cannot, be controlled by any one group, any one religious tradition. By this simple act of life, breathing, we are all one, we are all united, we are all in this together – together we breathe the name of God every moment of every day.

Breathing connects even the earliest caveman to the most modern of astronauts and cosmonauts circling this fragile earth our island home on the International Space Station. And modern science has determined that the very atoms we breathe every moment of every day all come from the first moment of the Big Bang, such that we are breathing this eternal stardust as we say the name of God with each inhalation and exhalation, making it no longer a mysterious desire, but rather our unity with God and one another is an irreducible scientific fact!

In times like these I keep on thinking. Try it, you’ll like it. You need no internet connection to do it. Perhaps like me you might conclude that Christmas has little to do with Christianity, the Church and all that. Christmas has everything to do with who we are, where we come from and how we are united one to another, in the light of the Father’s stare. Look into that cave. And what do you see?

Merry Christmas! God bless us, every one. Amen.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Evergreen People

Light in the Darkness/Greenness in the midst of Barrenness. That is what we seek right now. That is who we have been created to be: Light in the Darkness/Greenness in the midst of Barrenness.
And the Darkness seems so very dark. The Barrenness seems so bare. Christina Rossetti said it and expressed it when she wrote, “In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone …”
Not only the Earth, but our hearts and souls stand hard as iron, frozen like water as we collectively seek comfort and understanding against the backdrop of yet another tragedy that thrusts us into the deep darkness and barrenness more bleak than midwinter itself.

I have been touched by similar tragedy as a lone gunman walked into the office of my parish home and shot my two closest colleagues in ministry and subsequently took his own life. And we lived for five years just a few miles from Sandy Hook/Newtown, CT. How often I exited I-84 at the Sandy Hook exit on my way home from meetings in Hartford. For several years Harper and Kirk Alan attended Fawn Hollow Elementary School in nearby Monroe, CT, just minutes down the road from Sandy Hook. How is it that it was not Fawn Hollow then rather than Sandy Hook now?

People ask me, “How do you keep your faith amidst such terrible and senseless tragedy?” Or, they say to me, “This is why I don’t believe in God – to have created such a world of endless tragedy and darkness is just a cruel joke.”
There are days, and there are days. I spend time several days a week asking myself just those kinds of questions, expressing just those kinds of doubts and abject frustrations as I journal about May 2nd, 2012. I run across poems like this one from Jane Kenyon and know just how it is:
The cicadas dry monotony breaks
over me. The days are bright
and free, bright and free.

Then why did I cry today
for an hour, with my whole
body, the way babies cry?
-               - From Jane Kenyon, Three Songs

It is Advent – a season of longing, waiting and hoping during the darkest, coldest, most barren time of year. We read passages such as Luke 3:7-18 where we hear John the Baptist addressing the gathering crowds in words that seem hauntingly appropriate for a weekend such as this, “You brood of vipers!” A lone voice in the wilderness, railing against the system! Railing against the ongoing tragedy of military occupation and religious collaboration with it. Railing against a world gone mad with Sin, capital “S”! Sin simply being all those ways in which we separate ourselves from the love of God – most often by what we say, think and do about others. All others. You know, those not like ourselves. We may as well face it – at the end of the day we are all narcissists – why can’t everyone be like me, think like me, and believe like me?. Then, and only then we convince ourselves, the world would be a better place. As one wag put it long ago, “Sin, n. An act one is sure he or she will never commit. v. The act of reaching that assurance.”

And so it is Advent. And what do we do? Each week we light another candle on the Advent Wreath – an ancient, pagan and pre-Christian symbol of increasing light just as the world is literally getting darker and darker with each successive day. Rarely do we consider the lighting of each candle as an act of defiance, but it is. Week by week, day by day it is our way of saying, “The darkness will not overcome us.” And we are those people who believe that – that the Word was with God, that the Word is God, that all things are created through the Word, and that the Word is life and light, and that the Light shines in the darkness, and that the darkness cannot, has not, and will not overcome the Light that is the eternal, everlasting Word.

These defiant candles we light sit in a wreath of evergreens. The Cherokee nation tells a tale. When the plants and trees were first created the Great Creator Spirit gave a gift to each species. But first she set up a contest to determine which gift would be most useful to which plant, bush and tree. “I want you to stay awake and keep watch over the Earth for seven nights,” said the Great Creator Spirit. The young trees and plants were so excited! A contest! And even more so, a responsibility given to them by the Great Creator Spirit herself! The first night it was simply impossible to fall asleep, the young plants and trees were so excited! The next night, however, was not so easy, and one by one a few fell asleep. On the third night the trees whispered among themselves in the wind to keep awake, but for some it was just too much work and a few more fell asleep. So it went, one night after another until by the Seventh Night the only trees still awake were the cedar, the pine, the spruce, the fir, the holly and the laurel.

“What wonderful endurance you have!” exclaimed the Great Creator Spirit. “You shall be given the gift of remaining green forever. You will be the guardians of the forest. Even in the seeming dead of winter your brother and sister creatures will find life protected in your branches.” Ever since that Seventh Night, all the other plants and trees lose their leaves and sleep all winter, while the evergreens stay awake, stand guard, and provide refuge from the cold, the darkness and the barrenness of winter.

John the Baptizer has a rough and peculiar pedagogical method. After calling us all a Brood of Vipers, reminding us that we have all fallen short of our God given gifts and responsibilities, he outlines just how we are meant to live lives of being Light in the Darkness/Evergreen amidst the Barrenness. If you have two coats, give one away. Don’t be greedy, don’t take advantage of others. Share whatever food you have, rob no one by violence or false accusation, be content with what you have. This is what it means to Stay Awake. This is what it means to be a defiant presence as the days grow darker and darker.

How do I remain faithful? I have been fortunate. Every day, as many as five times a day, I sit at a conference table with a dozen or so young women who are seeking answers to the same questions we are all asking right now. We wrestle with the questions, we shed light on things for one another, we find ways to laugh amidst the tears and fears.  One young woman is from Afghanistan – she blogs about the rights of women in a dangerous and politically barren land. Yet, every morning she arrives with a smile on her face as bright as the brightest of lights in the heavens. And despite being a Muslim, she cannot wait to open the next “window” on the Advent Calendar on our bulletin board.

Or, there is last night. As I spent a week in New Hampshire last August attempting to make sense out of the tragedies of May 2nd at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, MD, I was asked if I would fill in on the drums with a group of musicians who devote themselves to continuing a musical tradition that itself attempts to make sense out of living in a dark and barren land. Filling in has become a steady weekly time spent rehearsing, playing, and keeping a defiant music alive for yet another generation of fellow travelers. As a drummer I get to pound out defiant rhythms, or delicately outline sensitive passages while reflecting on the horrors of waking up to a nuclear winter in a song like Morning Dew. I don’t know why, but the exercise of my musical gifts somehow is a healing balm for the still raw and gaping wounds of that day in May when for an interminable number of hours the music stopped and it all seemed nothing more than a senseless world of violence, tragedy and sadness.

But suddenly I found myself surrounded by Evergreen people on all sides, holding one another up, and holding me in their midst. People who had heard about the Word – the Word that is Light in the Darkness – the Word that is life and light – the Word that is Light - Light that is not, has not, and will not be overcome by any Darkness.

This is who we are: Evergreen guardians of the Earth, one another, and all creatures great and small. I thank God every day for those people who know this, believe this, and make it possible to be Light in the Darkness, to be Evergreen in the midst of Barrenness. We all need to know this. We all need to embody these simple truths. Every moment of every day. The World needs us. Newtown/Sandy Hook needs us. God needs us. God needs us as much if not more than we need God. God believes in us enough to make us guardians of this Earth and Guardians of one another. I am convinced that God does not much care if we believe in God.  All God cares about is if we will Stay Awake and be Light and Life and Evergreen Hope for one another. And that will be enough – enough to get us through this weekend together. Amen. 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Voice Crying In The Wilderness

Once upon a time, in an ancient and far away 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 vegetation for their sheep and goats to eat, there was a mountain top.

Whenever people climbed to the top of this mountain they felt the presence of God, who would tell them to always love the One God who cares for you and loves you always, and always care for one another, especially the others, those who are poor, have no families, widows, orphans, resident aliens and strangers.

And the people would leave the mountain top and remember to care for others the way God cared for them.

Throughout the years people would come and go from the top of the mountain and return with the message God had given them- to love the God who loves them, and to care for one another, especially others beyond the tribe.

And when the people came back from the mountain, many placed a stone there for remembrance.  In fact, many who came but had not heard God themselves also left a stone to commemorate the remarkable events and stories which they had heard about those who did.

Each placed a stone as a token, and many placed the stones together, one building upon the other, until soon a magnificent Cathedral covered the mountain top where God's presence could be found and heard.

People would come to the Cathedral, and entering they would know that something important was there, and they would pay their respects, praise the name of God and ask favors of many kinds.  And each one would leave a stone.

Over the years, as more and more people came and left more stones one atop the other, a great city was built around the Cathedral on the mountain, with long, winding, narrow streets, lined with homes and shops, fountains and plazas.  People coming to the mountain would need to stop and ask the way to the Cathedral so as not to get lost in the back streets of the city.  And each one would leave a stone.

As the years continued to roll by, and the people continued to come and leave stones, a great wall with majestic gates was built around the city.  People coming to the mountain would have to find a gate they would be allowed to enter.  Sometimes the gates would be open, and sometimes the gates would be closed.

For many, even in the city, the top of the mountain became difficult to find, now that it had been covered by so many many stones.  The gates were crowded, the streets were crowded, winding and narrow, there was so much noise and activity both inside and all around the gates of the city that no one could hear the directions to find their way to the top of the mountain where God's presence would remind them to love the God who always loves them and to care for one another, especially the others beyond the walls of the city.

Far, far away, in a lonely and barren wilderness beyond the gates of the city, was a man.  A voice, crying in the wilderness.  Above the crowded streets, beyond the crowded gates, above the top of the cathedral towers, the voice could be heard.  Some people, discouraged at no longer being able to find the top of the mountain could hear his voice, so loud and lonely and lovely was the cry from the wilderness.

First one, then another went beyond the gates of the city and followed the sound of that voice.  They could hear it floating on the winds, they could hear it like music in the sky.

As they came upon the man lonely in the wilderness, they could make out his cry: "Prepare, prepare, prepare the way of the Lord.  Make straight his roadways, make straight his paths.  Prepare, prepare, prepare the way of the Lord!"

Over time, more and more people came out of the city and into the wilderness, following the voice carried on the wind, until everyone, all the inhabitants inside and outside the gates of the city were there with the man lonely in the wilderness.

And the people joined in his cry, "Prepare, prepare, prepare the way of the Lord.  Make straight his roadways, make straight his paths.  Prepare, prepare, prepare the way of the Lord!"

So that more and more people everywhere could hear the voices of many being carried on the winds to the four corners of heaven and earth.

Then the man lonely in the wilderness led them to the banks of a river, and invited them to all bathe in the waters of the river.  And as they bathed in the waters of the river, he said to them, "Remember, remember, remember.  Our God also speaks to us in the life of the waters of this river.  Remember, remember what he has said: love the One God who cares for you and loves you always, and always care for one another, especially the others, those who are poor, have no families, widows, orphans, resident aliens and strangers.  Remember, remember, remember!"

"And, oh yes!  Another one is coming who will show us all the way back to the top of the mountain.  Yes, you will remember, remember, remember today, but soon he will show us that to find our way back into the Cathedral, we have nowhere to look and nowhere to go.  He will tell us that the Cathedral and the top of the mountain is here, in the midst of us, wherever we are as a community of his people.  Together.  All of us.  Including the others beyond the community. Especially the others.  Here in our midst, wherever we are, God's presence, God's voice, God's message does dwell, God is with us and in us, Immanuel.  Remember, remember, remember today, but the one who shall come will show us the Way."
And so it was, the beginning of our story. And so it is today.

When you listen far above the crowds and noise, a voice can still be heard floating on the winds, a voice so loud and lonely and lovely, a cry from the wilderness beyond the gates of the city, above the tops of the highest cathedral, calling to us, "Prepare, prepare, prepare the way of the Lord. Every valley shall be lifted, every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken."

Remember, remember, remember today, but the one who shall come will show us the Way