Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Light of Christ

The Visitation of the Magi – Matthew 2: 1-12
What we do and do not know about this story which has been re-imagined into something that it is not. Nowhere does the text mention three visitors – three gifts, but simply no number of visitors are mentioned. Some traditions simply assume three gifts must mean three visitors. No doubt this was a caravan including the magi, servants, drovers, animals.

And the Greek text calls them magi, not kings. Elsewhere in the New Testament magi is translated as magicians. Only in Matthew are they referred to as “wise men,” which undoubtedly magi of those days really were. Typically in those days, magi referred to followers of Zoroaster, but then, we don’t want to open that door since it would suggest some sort of inter-faith cooperation and recognition. Although it is worth observing that at the moment in time described it appears as if there may be only Jews and Zoroastrians present in the house.

That’s right. A house. No stable, no inn, no cave. This group of however many magi enter a house where they find only two people: Mary and the child. No Joseph, no shepherds (only in Luke), no animals. Mary and the child. In the house.

These magi have somehow divined, we are not told how (Tarot Cards?), that this child is to be King of the Jews. Herod, we are told, is frightened by this news. We are not told why. It’s assumed that the reader/listener would know: Herod, and line of Herods at that, has been appointed by Caesar to be just that – King of the Jews.

What often reads as a lovely story of searching, seeking, finding and gift giving suddenly turns dark. There is a pretender to the throne? Herod, his family being converts to Judaism, seeks counsel with those who actually know the ancient scriptures. Snatching a verse from the prophet Micah, chapter 5, verse 2, the counselors suggest Bethlehem may be the place to look.

Is that what Micah says? Well yes and no. Bethlehem literally means “house of bread” since that region was the breadbasket of Israel. Bread, manna, has always been at the center of the story. And what does the child who is called by some “The Bread of Life,” teach us to pray for? Bread that is given daily. Bethlehem,also the home of King David, which is pointed out by the prophet to be “the least of the clans,” in Matthew’s hands becomes, “by no means least,” which suggest greatest. David was the least of his brothers, a ruddy little runt of a shepherd, yet a mighty and revered king. Flawed for sure, but less so than others and a sure improvement upon his predecessor and Israel’s first king, Saul.

Herod, upon hearing that there is some possible scriptural warrant for a new King of the Jews commissions the magi to seek out this king and report back on his location “so that I may also go and pay him homage.” Can we imagine the sneer on his face and the menacing tone in his voice? The darkness thickens. The plot takes shape. The magi see through this ruse. They are very wise indeed, for after visiting the mother and child and offering their peculiar gifts, “they left for their own country by another way.” They know what is in the cards. Not only will Herod kill every available child in the region in hopes of denying this new king from displacing him, but surely the magi know already how it’s seemingly going to end on a cross outside Jerusalem on Mount Calvary.

The star. Perhaps the star is the star of this tale. This mysterious star by which light the magi make their journey. It’s light shines through the darkness to reveal the child who is light and life for the world. Whose light shines in the darkness and which the darkness did not and does not overcome. Was the light in the sky over the house? Or, did this light emanate from the child himself to show them the way? To show us the way? We will just have to accompany the magi on their journey and see for ourselves.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Love Came Down and Moved Into The Neighborhood!

Christmas 2016 - Christ Church Rock Spring
'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there….”

St. Nicholas was a real person. A bishop in what is now modern day Turkey. A man of faith who cared. Nicholas cared for others the way God in Christ came down on Christmas morn to personally care for others – all others. So when St. Nicholas heard of three young maidens who were too poor to get married for lack of a proper dowry, he came to their aid. One story says he threw three bags of gold coins in the window for them. Another says he dropped the bags of gold coins down the chimney.

Then there’s the time Nicholas was on board a ship headed to the Holy Land. Nicholas had a dream that the ship would sail into a violent storm. The next morning he awoke as the ship was being tossed to and fro. A sailor climbed the mast to tie ropes to secure it when a wind blew him to his death on the deck. The sailors begged Nicholas to pray for their comrade and for them. As he prayed the storm subsided and the man was revived.

What is important to remember about St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus as he now is known, is that he was inspired by a story – a story that says into a world of darkness Love came down to live with us. God came down to live with us to show us the Light and the Way. The God who is Love came down to be closer with us; to give us faith, hope and charity – the Way of Light and Love.

Nicholas continued his pilgrimage to the Holy Land to see the place in Bethlehem where Love came down and moved into our neighborhood. Love became flesh and blood, like Father, like Son, to show us the Light and the Way. God became one of us – Immanuel: God with us.

So where do we find him, this child who is God? How do we recognize him? In 1998 I was attending a Stewardship conference in Syracuse, New York. I was leading some music in a room of about 60 people. At a table in the front of the room was a group of deaf Episcopalians. Someone was signing the proceedings for them. As we sang, Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God, they were all signing the song as we sang. One by one people behind them began to join in signing the Alleluias, until soon everyone in the room had left our world of hearing and entered into their world – the world of American Sign Language. Finally, the person signing for them urged them to turn around to see what was happening. The looks on their faces was the Light of Christ shining into our darkness. We were no longer singing about seeking the kingdom of God, we had entered into God's kingdom, God's world, God's rule of love for God and neighbor.

We need not look for faith, hope, light and love - we need only recognize that He is already here and submit ourselves to Him; to allow Him to give us a new life of Love and Light. For He is here. He is wherever there are people who are shut out of the usual structures of power. He is wherever people are lonely, in need of feeding, healing or a helping hand to reach out. He is wherever we enter into the lives of those who are broken in this world. God will accomplish God's purpose with us or without us. Come closer to the God who comes even now to be closer to us. To show us the way of Light and Love. God bless us, every one! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Stepping Out of the Box

Step Outside Of The Box - Advent 4A
John Shea, a Catholic priest from my hometown Chicago, tells a story about a teacher who at Christmas-time would get presents from her students. She soon learned to tell what was in a box by the shape of the box, with handkerchiefs most often in the long, narrow flat boxes. Since thank you notes were not expected, and having enough hankies on hand, she began to stack the long boxes in her closet. Whenever she needed some fresh new handkerchiefs she would take out a box and open it. One year after she had retired, she was getting down to the last few boxes. She opened a box. Instead of handkerchiefs she found an antique gold, woman’s dress watch decorated with precious stones. All this time, she thought, I possessed a beautiful and precious antique watch and never knew it!

We have a vintage wine cellar, but we never drink from it, said the great medieval mystic and priest, Meister Eckhart. We have an inner fountain that springs up into eternal life, says Jesus, but we are so out of touch with it we continue to draw from outer wells for water.

All of these images suggest that we humans are very valuable and loved, but we are somehow not in touch with the treasure that lies within us, the riches that are already ours. We tend to identify ourselves with our outer attributes – nice hair, a good job, great talents. And we are afraid or just plain uninspired to think outside of the box as they say. Or, to look deep within. This all raises the obvious spiritual question: why do we not know who we really are and what gifts we really have deep inside ourselves?

Enter Joseph. In the context of Jewish marriage rituals of the first century, he and a young woman named Mary are married, not engaged. Yet, young women married at such an early age they continued to live with their own family for a year or two. Joseph is faced with a dilemma. Mary is obviously pregnant and has not yet lived with Joseph. In biblical language, he has not known her.

We are told that Joseph is a righteous man – meaning he is faithful in following the commandments and traditions of his people. After all, he is a descendant of Israel’s most illustrious king, King David. He has family traditions and heritage to uphold. As Mary is understood to have committed adultery, he must dismiss her, which is bible speak for divorce.

Joseph is compassionate and wishes to do this quietly so as not to attract attention to her “condition.” It is the right thing to do, although it will end disastrously for Mary – her family will reject her, people in town will reject her and she will most likely become homeless and a single mother.

Fortunately for her, and for us, Joseph is a dreamer. If your name is Joseph and you are in the Bible you quite naturally are a dreamer. In Matthew’s gospel Joseph has three dreams. In this first one an angel of the Lord appears to him and says, “Not so fast, Joseph, son of David, with keeping the traditions. Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child she bears is conceived of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

This is where Joseph suddenly realizes who he is and whose he is. As a son of David he is one of God’s beloved. And he suddenly realizes that he does not need to act out of fear due to tradition. He reaches deep inside of himself. As God’s beloved, he remembers he is to be merciful and compassionate as God is merciful and compassionate. He takes Mary as his wife and does not know her until after she bears a Son – The Son, The Son of God! Mary gives the child a life as God’s own; Joseph gives the child membership in the family of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Joseph gives Jesus his Jewishness.

I wish I could say that right then and there the story ends happily ever after. But Joseph’s next dream warns him that Herod, the appointed King of the Jews, is going to kill all the young children in the area so as to kill the child Jesus. So he is instructed to take the child and Mary to Egypt. The third and final dream of Joseph comes long after Herod has died and it is safe to return home so the child might live up to his name -  Yeshua, Joshua, Jesus who will save us from our sins. As we know, however, this too is dangerous until the day of resurrection.

Note the odd character of Matthew’s telling of the story of the birth of Jesus. Joseph, not Mary, not Jesus, is the main character – the protagonist. And only because of a dream, only because Joseph steps outside the box of tradition and commandment, are we even here today – a community of God’s beloved – a beloved community of God.

This story is meant to remind us of just who we are and whose we are. And that deep inside we have the gifts of faith, hope and charity that call us to step outside the box and do something that is beyond “the right thing” for others – all others.

So often we identify ourselves with the outside trappings of tradition and societal norms. We forget that the stories of faith over and over again depict our ancestors in the faith stepping beyond the accepted commandments and norms so as to do extraordinary things on behalf of God and on behalf of others.

That is, we often are more aware of our outer life than we are of our inner life. We are more aware of the handkerchief box than the beautiful, precious antique watch inside. Advent and Christmas invite us to step outside the box and do something beautiful and meaningful with our lives so that others might live safe and meaningful lives as well. We are called to draw upon the hidden gifts and attributes deep inside ourselves, not just the more obvious outer gifts and attributes.

Remember Joseph throughout this fourth week of Advent. For without Joseph and his dreams and his courage to step outside the box, we would not be here as members of that same holy family – the Holy Family of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus; the Holy Family of the One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Stir It Up!

Do Something New In My Life, O Lord
You’ve got to watch what you pray for. The Third Sunday of Advent always begins with a prayer for God to, “Stir up thy Power, O Lord, and with great might come among us!” I picture God’s people like a giant kettle of stew – a great variety of kinds and flavors of people held together by a broth of breath – the holy and live sustaining breath of the Holy Spirit – warming over an open fire. Everyone, everything in the stew settles, falls to the bottom, where it all is in danger – danger of burning or sticking, getting stuck at the bottom of the kettle. Stuck in the way things are, the way life is, the ways in which we treat one another, impatient with one another, impatient with the ways of the world.

So we begin to imagine. That’s what Isaiah and the prophets are all about. With the people stuck in Exile, strangers in a strange land, trying hard to remember – remember what home was like, remember what it was like to be at home, remember what it was like to be free. So the prophets, like Isaiah, like John, help us to let go of our impatience, help us to practice a new kind of patience, a patience that imagines – imagines an escape from Exile, imagines new ways to become un-stuck, imagines flowing streams and flowers in the desert, imagines a highway, a Holy Way, a way to return home again, home with our God and One Another.

Our prayer asking God to “Stir up your power and with great might come among us” inspires me to imagine God with a long handled-wooden spoon in his hand, dipping deep into the kettle of our settled existence and begins to stir, and stir, and stir up all that has fallen to the bottom to the surface again.

Stirring things up until the words of Mary Theotokos, Mary the Mother of God, become the way, a new way, a new life, a new world. With his long-handled wooden spoon:
“He has shown the strength of his arm, * he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, * and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, * and the rich he has sent away empty.”

The prophetic imagination calls us to a new patience, a patience like the farmer who waits with patience for the early rain and the late rain to deliver his crops. A patience that does not cause us to grumble against one another. A patience that calls us to something new, wonderful, marvelous, beautiful and heavenly in our life!

Are we ready? Have we had enough of impatience? Are we tired of being stuck in the same old places, the same old ways? Are we ready to pray for a mighty stirring up? Are we ready to enter into a new way of doing things? A new way of being a marvelous and wonderful mixed up stew of people, all kinds of people? Are we ready to be patient with one another and put an end to our grumbling? Are we ready to imagine with Mary and John and Isaiah that eyes that have been blind can be opened? That ears that do not hear can be opened? That we truly want to live in a world that lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things?

If the answer is yes, then it is time to dance and sing our imaginings into reality! And to ask the Lord to: Do something new in my life, something new in my life, something new in my life, O Lord! Do something new in my life, something new in my life, something wonderful in my life, O Lord!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

You Are A Godsend

You Are A Godsend   [Matthew 3:1-12]
If we have not all said it we have all heard it – “You have been such a godsend to us…,” “She is such a godsend...”, “It was such a godsend that we found our way out of the woods.”

Surprisingly it is a rather “modern” 19th century phrase. Not at all theological, so it is un-freighted with any theological baggage. But, while on silent retreat this past week we were asked to consider a deeper meaning for “godsend” – to begin to see ourselves as “Godsends,” with a capital “G” who by our immersion in God and God’s yearning, God’s desire, are sent to bring God’s yearnings and desires to others. We are to be godsends.

This is what John the Baptist is proclaiming “in the wilderness” – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Or, as the older translations have it, the kingdom is“at hand” – just an arms-length away. Talk about freighted language!

Take “wilderness” for instance. This is Bible-speak. Wilderness recalls the Forty Years of spiritual formation, immersion in God, on the other side of the escape from slavery in Pharaoh’s Egypt – an empire of endless consumption, accumulation and violence. There is a tendency to see the Wilderness-experience as a sort of bad thing – a long delay before arriving at a new homeland – but it is a period of total immersion in the Way of God. It was life in the Empire that was a bad thing. Wilderness is the time and place for hearing God’s desires and yearnings for people, all people – with special instructions on how to treat widows, orphans and resident aliens, all people without resources and without a direct connection to a family, tribe or clan who like the rest of us all need the same basic necessities to thrive in this world.

Wilderness also describes the long Exile from home, another period of immersion in God’s desires and yearnings. Dragged away from home to Babylon the children of Israel, a diverse and cosmopolitan collection of people from all over the ancient world, find themselves remembering what it was like to place total dependence on YHWH, the God of the Exodus, the God of manna. Manna – for forty years everyone had enough, no one had too much, and you could not store it or it would go sour. Only the day before the Sabbath day of rest could one harvest a double portion so as not to have to labor on the seventh day. Manna and Sabbath become controlling metaphors for being immersed in God.

How many of us are so busy that we cannot take one day off from labor to rest, really rest, from our work, even from “working” on things like our backhand, or our approach shot – even in our times of recreation – re-creation – we end up working on things! When the one John announces “in the wilderness” is coming is asked how to pray he says, “pray for manna” – “Give us this day our daily bread.”  Manna is bread that is given daily. God initiates an economic system and bread supply which mandates enough for everyone, no one gets too much and when you store it up it sours. God’s season of manna and Sabbath are utterly unlike life in exile in the Empire.

So just how much consumption, acquisition, hunger, joblessness, racism, misogyny, drugs, guns, violence, greed, destruction of the earth, elimination of whole species of life and just plain hatred does there need to be before a society declares itself to be in Exile from itself?

John calls for repentance – to repent from this Exile. At its simplest in the Bible to repent means to turn around, to change direction, to reorient ourselves to the yearnings and desires of God to care for those with few to no resources. To care for those with no family to fall back on. To care for those who travel through our land looking for honest labor and a place to call home – a safe place to call home.

The trickiest phrase in all of this is “kingdom of heaven.” Heaven is invoked not as a place, but as a place-holder for the holy and traditionally unpronounced name of the God of Exodus, Wilderness and Exile – YHWH. And the word most often translated “kingdom” is not really a kingdom like we know in this world. It can mean “rule,” “reign,” “realm,” or “kin-dom.” That last is most powerful – kin-dom, a place where all are “kin,” even those who have no apparent “kin-folk.” We are all to be godsends and kin-folk to one another and to all others. The operant word being “all.”

So John is proclaiming that we are all kin-folk in God, and that this kin-dom is at hand, so close we can reach out and touch it, so close we can take one step forward and be in it. Who, asks John, is ready to take the first step? Who is willing to turn back to being a realm of God’s kin-dom – a realm of godsends to others, all others? Who is willing to leave the Empire behind?

Note carefully the seeming chastisement of the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to join in the ritual on the banks of the River Jordan. The Pharisees represent the lay and the Sadducees the priestly religious authorities of the day. The Sadducees by virtue (?) of their association and cooperation with the occupying minions of Caesar’s Rome also represent the political establishment – they are cooperators with the empire. John’s “do not presume” is not just aimed at them but at all of us of whatever camp we may associate ourselves with. It is not a statement of condemnation so much as a warning that this realm of God’s kin business is serious business. Step out of the Empire and into God’s kin-dom for it is at hand, but it will be hard and challenging work.  

This is all not something we need to “get back to.” It is here, it is now, it has always been here for those who see it, are aware of it, experience it and know it to be real. This is who we are created to be – godsends.

When in doubt, when we forget that we ever knew any of this it is time to reboot. Restart. Hit the reset button. For the realm of God’s kin-dom, the kin-dom of godsends, is always running in the background. We only need to remember.

John calls us to remember. And to announce that soon and very soon God will send God’s self to show us the way – the way to be so immersed in God that we remember the lessons of Wilderness and Exile and be the godsends we already are. You are a godsend! We are all godsends! The sooner we claim this the sooner we will all find our way out of the woods, out of the Wilderness, out of Exile – and that will be a true Godsend!