Sunday, December 29, 2013

We Are Like You

Christmas 1/2013 * John 1:1-18 – Part II
It’s OK, I Am With You
Was there “sound” before the Big Bang? Before God spoke creation into being by uttering, “Light!” And there was light. Which is pretty much what the Big Bang is, was and continues to be – Light radiating out, ever expanding its reach beyond the 12 or so billion years Hubble can view through its remarkable lens and transmit back to earth.

I imagine it was quiet. In the beginning, that is. These eighteen verses of John push Jesus’ origins, the Incarnation, 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 speaks creation into being. God speaks and things come into being. Before God speaks, however there was The “Word.” In Greek that is logos – word. God is the logos. In the silence, in the beginning.

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 logos, this wisdom. We are called to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.” Christ as logos is in all persons, and in all things. Seek and serve The Word in all persons and all things.

In the Word, we are told,  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. 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? For a woman to receive a lethal 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 are invited to 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. If we pack up and move on, the Word can pack up and move on with us.

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. The hostages 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 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. He will lead us home. This is Incarnation. This is Christmas. Amen.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

And So It Is Christmas

Christmas / John 1: 1-18

The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Timothy’s School for Girls, Stevenson, MD

I love Christmas. And I love this Gospel. 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 Christlike? 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 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.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Time For An Extreme Makeover

Advent 2013 – Baruch 5:1-9/Philippians 1:3-11/Luke 3:1-6
Total Makeover
In the reign of Caesar, Richard Daley the First, I grew up just a few blocks from the Chicago City line. In those days we called it, “The City That Works.” It was not uncommon, especially come election time, for Caesar Daley to order the filling of pot-holes, paving or re-paving of streets, and the demolition and leveling of  derelict buildings just before making a campaign visit to a particular neighborhood. It’s one of the things Mayor Dixon has been particularly good at making happen in Baltimore when not distracted by shopping.

As Luke reminds us, this is a time-honored tradition among those in Power – whole roadways and construction projects would precede the visitation of a visiting Caesar, King, or Emperor to the various outposts of his kingdom.

Over five hundred years before the time of John and Jesus, Isaiah used the image of such Imperial Public Works total makeovers to describe the Hopeful coming day that God would lead the exiled people of God back to Jerusalem from Babylon – Babylon itself a metaphor that from the time of the Babylonian Captivity through the Revelation to John to modern day prophets and poets demanding deliverance from captivity to such things as colonialism, consumer-driven capitalism, red-lining debt and mortgage practices and the like. A quick listen to the likes of Bob Marley, Tupac Shakur and Common, to name just a few, reveals the continued potency the image of Babylon still conjures in the popular imagination. There are those prophet/poets among us who see us still being in captivity.

So the idea in Luke is much the same as Isaiah tells it: a total makeover, a full scale public works project, is needed if it can be hoped that God will again deliver us from our captivity to Sin. That is Sin, not sins. The latter are particular deeds such as appear on Santa’s list of those who have been naughty. Yet, these are merely symptoms of a deeper, underlying spiritual disease that is Sin, capital “S” and singular – Sin is the state of chosen alienation from God, when we turn to ourselves and away from God, insisting on having our own way with no restraint from outside and beyond ourselves. This understanding of Sin, capital “S,” might also be spelled, “Ayn Rand,” or, “Objectivism,” or, any number of other “isms” that we use to disguise this alienation from ourselves.

We may as well admit it though, some see this as “freedom” and “the American Way.” But this is to deny the fact that true human freedom comes from accepting our status as creatures who look to their creator as the source of the fullness of life – the God in whose image we are created. As the Book of Common Prayer puts it, “In whose service is perfect freedom,” which words are engraved on the outside of The Episcopal Church Headquarters at 815 Second Avenue, NY, NY!

My favorite Advent prayer says, “Stir up thy Power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.” I always envision a pot of soup on the stove, all the good stuff falling to the bottom, and needing to take a long-handled wooden spoon to stir it up and put it back together again. We pray for God to stir us up – even though we rarely want to be stirred up at all.

Enter the makeovers. It seems that Cable Television is one long Advent project what with every kind of “Total Makeover” show imaginable. One of my favorites is What Not To Wear, starring Stacy London and Clinton Kelly. They come into your world by surprise, make you throw out your entire wardrobe, and give you a, get this, $5,000 gift card to purchase all new clothes!

As relates to repentance and preparing for the coming of God’s Salvation, Baruch announces: “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction…and put on forever the beauty of the glory of God. Put on the robe of righteousness…the diadem of the glory of the everlasting…for God will show your splendor everywhere..[and] give you evermore the name, ‘Righteous, Peace, Godly Glory!’” Now that is a call for a true wardrobe makeover!

Regular prayer, Bible Study and Mindfulness Meditation can play the roles of Stacy and Clint coaching us on a total makeover, which ultimately is never about clothes at all, but rather helping and empowering people to become the best version of themselves – the people God wants them to be!

This leads us to perhaps the contemporary icon of total personal transformation, Ty Pennington. Yes, he of Extreme Makeover – Home Edition. Many of us are familiar with what he does for other people whose lives are in need of extreme assistance. But what we don’t know much about is his personal transformation. In his own words his childhood was unruly to say the least: “I would strip down naked, and hold on the blinds in my classroom as a child and swear along with that if I didn't get my way. I was just a very bad kid overall, I don't know how my mother raised me!” His mother, while studying to become a psychologist, eventually diagnosed him as ADHD, and in a few years found treatment modalities that has transformed him into what he is now: an American television host, model, philanthropist, and, get this, a carpenter. Beyond the TV show, he works with any number of philanthropic endeavors to make life better for others.

Kind of like the carpenter we await in Advent. Make no mistake about it, Advent is a time to take inventory as a nation and as individuals: are we prepared for that day when we are promised Jesus will come again? Have we prepared a landing strip that is level and straight to bring him all the way into our hearts and souls?

No one can deny, a Total Makeover is in order!

It is what Paul is praying for when he writes: “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the Day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”

To produce such a harvest, it is time to begin a total makeover today!