Saturday, December 29, 2018

Yet Another Christmas Story

Another Christmas Story
Every year the First Sunday of Christmas we read John 1:1-18. It is a lofty and mysterious text as it begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

We are so used to Matthew and Luke describing Christmas “from below,” with Mary and Joseph, shepherds, Magi, Angels everywhere, a Star in the sky, that it is difficult for us to recognize that what John is describing is the First Christmas – the Christmas before Christmas if you will. It is a view from “above it all.”

I say “First” because as anyone can see, John begins with the very first words of The Bible in Genesis 1: “In the beginning…” That is, we are meant to recognize that the story of Jesus begins before creation – for as we learn later this “Word,” which in the Greek text is “logos” - a word itself rich and complex with meaning to those who first read or heard this story of Jesus – this Word becomes a body, a person, flesh and blood like all of us. Like the very first person we read about in Genesis 2, created from a handful of mud or clay into which God breathes and it comes alive. The Bible, as many other ancient texts, understands that life begins with breathing, and that this breath comes from the same place as everything else – God. It is also understood that as we exhale, we share God’s breath with the rest of creation. All of life is made possible by our receiving the gift of inhalation, or the inspiration of God’s breath, God’s spirit,  and then sharing this gift as we exhale, or expire, God’s breath with the rest of creation. How often do we think of ourselves as “sharing” with the whole world every moment we live and breathe?

This Word that becomes flesh is life, just as the breath is life, and this life is “the light of all people.” Like the Word, all people are light, even, we are told, in darkness. We forget that in the story John references, Genesis 1 and 2, light and darkness are both created to balance one another. And for the Jewish people of Jesus’s time, darkness, night, is believed to be the beginning of the day when people can rest and be restored to go back to work when the light returns. That is, for most Jews darkness is as good as light, and represents a Sabbath time of rest, the commandment that consists of nearly one-third of all the text of the Ten Commandments.

Yes, there were those at the time of John’s gospel who saw the world as divided, not balanced, between Light and Darkness. They saw themselves as Sons of Light preparing for battle against the Sons of Darkness, which for them was Rome, an Empire and Power Structure arrayed against God and all things good. They had plans of action and plans for battle and a view that the Light will eventually slaughter the Darkness. It’s possible John also envisions such a view, but then he introduces John the Purifier who gives testimony to the Light and is to draw all people to faithfulness. The Greek word pistis could mean other things, but normatively suggests faithfulness of practicing Torah, a life that acts out God’s “nurturing love for creation.” As Richard Swanson observes, “This will finally fit badly with the notion that Torah observance requires the sharpening of swords and the arranging of pikemen along the line of battle. John testifies to the light to draw all to faithfulness, because the muddle of human life had prevented people from seeing the Light that limits the darkness and from living lives of faithfulness. The one not recognized is apparently Jesus.” [Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of John, p 97]

The Gospel of John lies between the two failed revolts against Rome, first in 70 AD and later in 135 AD. The Rabbis at the time when asked why the revolts failed wisely answered: factionalism, taking a shot at zealotry in all forms, and at the resisters who failed to join with the zealots. When we are fractured, said the rabbis, we fail.

Into this scene the Word which is Life and Light becomes flesh and blood, sets up a tent and comes to dwell among us. This Word which is God, is not a cute and adorable God in diapers in the hush of a quiet stable with just a mother, a father and a few animals. This is one of us stepping into the chaotic mixture of religion, politics, economics and warfare that was first century Israel. The same chaotic world in which we all live. He arrives, John tells us, to reveal Grace and Truth into a world that has been divided and factionalized by a ruthless Empire that has appointed equally ruthless men to squeeze every last ounce of wealth out of its client states, in this case, Israel. This Grace and Truth is meant to order the chaos of our lives just as In the Beginning God ordered the chaos of creation itself.

Grace and Truth. Commodities in short supply back then and to this very day. Jesus, the Word made Flesh, sets up shop among us to begin the work of faithfulness to the kind of nurturing love God intends for all people, all creatures and all creation itself. Jesus, the Word, involves himself in all the challenges and controversies of the day and works to bring people together so that divisions and factions will cease.

This text from John suggests that the Grace and Truth of Christmas does not need a creche, does not need shepherds, does not need angels, 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. Literally, we are to see the light! There is no way we can ever know all there is to know about God – but in Jesus, the logos, the Word, we can see the light and the logos, and he will lead us in the work of faithfulness, the work of Christmas. This is Incarnation. This is Christmas. It is time now, writes Howard Thurman, for the Work of Christmas to begin. It is time to share God’s breath, God’s spirit, God’s Grace and Truth with all creation.

The Work of Christmas
When the song of the angels is stilled
When the star in the sky is gone
When the Kings and Princes are home
When the shepherds are back with their flocks
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoners
To bring peace among sisters and brothers
To make music in the heart
                        -Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas

Monday, December 24, 2018

A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story
Christmas is a time to remember. Remember that Christmas morning years ago when as a child of nine or ten after all the presents are opened, wrapping paper all over the living room, dad is in the kitchen making the traditional Christmas breakfast waffles when suddenly it all grinds to a halt. He had forgotten to put the butter in the batter. The first batch that Christmas would be the last for that old waffle iron as the batter was now stuck to it like cement or wall paper paste never to be removed. And we all laughed. That was my dad, and I cannot remember a thing I got from Santa that year, but we still laugh in our family at what we still call “The Christmas of the Goofed-Up Waffles!” The gift we received is the gift of laughter. That will get you through bad times and good more often and better than any other gift that may be under the tree.

Then there is the story of this old stole I wear for Christmas and Easter, the two principal feast days of Church Year. It’s old, it’s tattered, but it was the stole my first rector and life-time mentor, The Reverend Frank Mauldin McClain, wore at his ordination, throughout his life in parish ministry, and was vested with on the day of his funeral, December 18, 2000. When I had heard of Frank’s passing, I got on a train from Baltimore to Charleston, SC to be with his family, a family that had all in one way or another contributed so much to the earliest days of my priesthood – and there was much for me to learn. And still is!

Frank was so gracious as to assign me to celebrate the Christmas Eve “midnight service,” 1983. I had been ordained just days before. Now, instead of being the deacon at the side of the celebrant, I was setting the table to celebrate Christmas Mass! After carefully setting the corporal out, the chalice and paten, had received the bread from Taylor Stevenson, the Associate Rector and another mentor and friend, I returned to receive the water and wine. I walked over to the far side of the altar where he was standing, and then the most surprising thing happened. As I reached out for the two cruets the rope cincture that held my cassock-alb in place, and my ordination stole tucked in it around my waist, fell. Suddenly I could feel that it was on the floor encircling my feet. The look on Taylor’s face was priceless as he whispered, “Just go on ahead as if nothing has happened.” Which I did. A few weeks later Frank invited a member of diocesan staff out to Christ Church to teach me, among other things, a more secure way to tie the rope around my waist.

Most of us have heard countless Christmas sermons, but the one I remember most was the one Frank had just preached that evening. I had asked him for a copy, and I re-read it often. After recalling his most memorable Christmas morning as a young boy when there was a motion-picture projector under the tree, and the journey through feeling joy, to almost embarrassment and unworthiness to get such a magical present, and finally back to joy and gratitude, he wrapped things up in these words:
            “Christmas, we have often emphasized, has been and is a time of giving. The letters that come in the mail, stack upon stack of them, tend to underline those words of Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” This is recorded in the Book of Acts and not in the Gospels. That of course is true – and yet, never forget it, Christmas is also a time to receive a gift, wonderful truth.
            “We will each of us receive some special gift tomorrow from someone who loves us. More wonderful even, we will each of us, singly and together, receive a gift from someone who loves us even more, from God.
            “In any of our lives there is a manger, now doubtless empty, cold, malodorous, surrounded by beasts – the heartbreaks, tragedies, and disappointments of our lives. But it is there that you will find the child, new born, if you will look on him and be open to receive God’s gift.
            “It can come to you this Christmas, that gift, that birth within you of the Christ Child, when you become aware of and touch, perhaps only fleetingly, the whole and complete person God intended you to be; that God intends you to be. It can happen when you are alone or it can happen when you are in company. It can happen here, at this present Bethlehem, this Holy Table, when and where you receive tangible evidence, symbols of bread and wine, God’s Body and Blood, God’s life.
            “As in receiving any real gift, your response will be astonishment, humility (Why me?), and deep, restorative joy – to which you can only say Gratia, Thank You, Eucharist, Grace!
            “Be open tonight/today to receive that gift, open-handed, offering nothing but your need, your empty manger. Centuries of experience assure you that God’s gift is being offered, God’s Son, born within you. Arise and go out into the world with astonishment with humility, with joy. Respond in whatever language you may know, Thank you, Eucharisto, Gratia. Your gratitude will show forth – and – a Merry Christmas.”

When I got off the train, I went straight to the McClain home in Charleston and shared with the family the whole of Frank’s Christmas Sermon, which some of them had not heard that late night on Christmas Eve, 1983. Later that day they gifted me this stole which at once surprised, humbled and filled me with joy – it was just as Frank had said it is when we open our hearts to receive as well as give.

A Christmas Coda. When I returned home from Charleston, we were opening Christmas cards, and among them was a note from Frank. It read,
            “Bless you all! You can never know how much your e-mail correspondence has meant to me, particularly over these last months. Now let us all have a wonderful Christmas. Your Christmas should certainly be bright with all your little (now not so little) ones. And you have yourselves. We are now entering a new phase of getting back to the fullness of life. And doing what we can to do the same for John V-H. [A mutual friend]
            “May your coming year be bright and the kind of world you deserve.
            “With love, Frank/Missie”
It was posted December 6, 2000 – nine days before a sudden heart attack sent Frank to eternal life with his Savior after just finishing a long period of radiation for cancer. At the funeral, his friend Alanson Haughton said, “I can almost hear Frank saying to me, ‘Dear boy, its true! It’s true!’ That inner voice has given me new hope in the promise of Resurrection and reconfirms that we may have lost a friend for the moment but when our time to travel comes Frank will be there to welcome us in.”

And that’s why I wear this well-worn old stole on Christmas. It helps me to remember the gift of the Christ Child that Frank had given to us Christmas Eve, 1983. Yes, it is blessed to give, but it is just as blessed to receive – “We will each of us receive some special gift tomorrow from someone who loves us. More wonderful even, we will each of us, singly and together, receive a gift from someone who loves us even more, from God.” Merry Christmas – God bless us every one!

Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Song of Mary

`Magnificat anima mea Dominum'
My soul doth magnify the Lord. 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 in us – literally to breathe into us – the Miracle of the Incarnation. In the Orthodox tradition she is known as “Theotokos” – God bearer. Like Mary, we too are to become Theotokos, God Bearers. Her song is meant to be our song. [Luke 1:39-55]

This is surely why Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, when arranging the Book of Common Prayer, means for us to say Mary’s Song at least once a day in our evening prayers (BCP 65&119). And of course, in Advent here she is among the animals in the Creche, 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 sets out to visit a distant relative, a kinswoman, 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. Related to Elizabeth, Mary must also be of the priestly household of Aaron, Moses’ brother, the Levites. Her child will also be of the priestly household.

Elizabeth begins to sing, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! …As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy!” Both women acknowledge that the children they bear are God’s own. Perhaps Mary heads for the hills to avoid all the talk on the street, the disapproving glances and possible punishment back home. Liz is six months pregnant, and yet, 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 she goes 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, Mary of the line of Aaron, is named after Miriam, the sister of Moses, a prophet in her own time, a liberating leader in her own right. Miriam was the 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. Miriam leads the singing that the powerful Pharaoh has been brought down from the power of his throne. She not only is Mary Theotokos 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.

Richard Rohr observes that Mary’s Song is consistent with her own son’s teaching and actions. Both declare that there are at least three major obstacles to the coming Reign of God and turning the world right-side-up again: power, prestige and possessions. Or, as Mary refers to them as the proud, the mighty on their thrones, and the rich. These, she declares, God will “scatter,” “cast down,” and “send away empty-handed.” This prayer and song of Mary has been considered so subversive that the Argentine government banned it from public recitation and prayer during protest marches!” We can easily take nine-tenths of Jesus’ teachings and very clearly align it under one of those three categories: power, prestige and possessions are obstacles to God’s coming. Why can we not see that? … for some reason much of Christian history has chosen not to see this and we have localized evil in other places than Jesus did…Mary seems to have seen long, deep and lovely.” [Rohr, Preparing for Christmas, p 62-63]

These two women, Elizabeth and Mary, 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 vast assortment of Mary’s to name just a few. Under the present circumstances 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 has Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa and Malala Yousafsai, to name just a few.

Each revision of the prayer book has retained Cranmer’s intent that we sing this song daily ourselves. The Magnificat, 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.

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 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 15, 2018

The Rule of Arrogance

The Rule of Arrogance
"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." [Luke 3: 10-20]

“So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.” Here endeth the reading! If this is the “good news” we shudder to think what the bad news may be. But of course, like the people who fled Jerusalem and all the surrounding countryside to hear John preach, we already know what the bad news looks like. We see it, hear it and live it every day.

For John and his followers, it was what they at the time called “The Rule of Arrogance.” According to Richard Swanson [Provoking the Gospel of Luke, p 68] this is what the people of Israel called life under Roman Rule. It included, as John goes on to say, the attachment to and hoarding of wealth and possessions, collecting more than required by Roman appointed tax collectors, and extortion, bullying and even death by Roman soldiers.

John calls all to repent – a technical term meaning quite simply to turn one’s life around. It implies a kind of withdrawal from the dominant culture and re-turning to “the Way of he Lord.” It suggests that we all do as John has done – return to the wilderness where, over forty years, the people of God learned that for life in the greater community to flourish, those with more food and clothing than necessary must share it with others who do not. For Jewish faith, poverty is a sign of greed, something which the Lord does not approve. Tax collectors were considered traitors working for Rome. How amazing that they come to John to repent and be baptized! He says they can join the resistance to the Rule of Arrogance and still collect the tax, but to do no more than the Roman’s tell you to do. Not a thing more. Even more amazing is that soldiers come to John. He tells those who “carry disruptive power in their weapons and social position something very simple, ‘Do not use your power to injure.’” [Swanson p 67-68]

That is, as we await the coming of one who is “more powerful than I,” says John, we need to turn back or re-turn to ethical behavior. This, along with the teaching of the “one whose sandal I cannot untie” will bring the Rule of Arrogance to a halt. Not revolution. Not a return to a monarchy. As we turn back to the Way of the Lord we hasten the arrival of the One who will baptize you with Spirit and Fire – with holy Wind and Fire – to refine us and purify us once again.

Buried amongst the eschatological rhetoric of John’s preaching is a warning: Do not presume your religious heritage, whatever it may be, will protect you from the “wrath to come.” Do not say, “But we are sons and daughters of Abraham,” or “We are followers of Christ, or Buddha, or Socrates, or Zeus!” Just as God formed a people in the wilderness long ago, our God is able from mere stones to raise up a new people. God has done it before. God can do it again, and now is the time to let yourself turn and be made such a new people.

For Luke, the power of God, already enacted in the miraculous births of John the Baptist and of
Jesus, here serves to remind the people that they exist only as a direct result of God’s will. Forgetting this can only lead to even more Rule of Arrogance and a world that destroys itself with “unquenchable fire.” Today, even the forests themselves issue such a warning.

Amidst all the shopping for gifts, wrapping of gifts, lights strung every-which-where, the holly, jolly tunes of the season, baking of cookies and all the activities that typically mark the Advent Season comes John’s good news, which can sound like bad news, until one embraces it, lives it and discovers what truly good good news it is. All this turning will be hard work. But it is the kind of work that will turn the world right-side-up once again.

Luke reminds us at the end that this turning of our lives comes with a cost: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.” It turns out that John the Baptist and Jesus have one more experience in common. Both are rejected for their proclamation. The One whose coming Advent anticipates is also the One the world and the Rule of Arrogance continues to reject.
Bad news, bad news comes to us where we sleep
Turn, turn, turn again
Sayin' that this world of ours is in trouble deep
Turn, turn to the Son and the Wind

Walk with Jesus wherever you may be
Turn, turn, turn again
May he find good fruit growing on your tree
Turn,  turn to the Son and the Wind

Walk with Jesus wherever you may go
Turn, turn, turn again
Bear good fruit with the seeds that he sows
Turn, turn to the Son and the Wind

My ax is set to the root of your tree
Turn, turn, turn again
Turn back to me and let yourself be free
Turn, turn to the Son and the Rain

“And it's a hard, and it's a hard,
it's a hard, it's a hard
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall”

Good news, good news comes to us today
Turn, turn, turn again
Jesus is coming to lead us in The Way
Turn, turn to the Son and the Wind

What should do we as we wait for him to come
Turn, turn, turn again
Share what you have with those who have none
Turn, turn to the Son and the Wind

-Anon Two Sisters, Paul Clayton, Bob Dylan for the tune and structure of Percy’s Song

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Mercy Now

Mercy Now
Do you ever think the world has flipped upside-down? Malachi [3:1-4] did. Malachi, the unknown prophet from an unknown era was hoping, waiting for the coming “day of the Lord” to set things right-side-up once again. In fact, the Hebrew prophets in general noted that the world which God created “is good,” with all the resources necessary for all people and all creatures to thrive, had ended up with most of these resources in the pockets of a few powerful people through theft and hoarding leaving little else for everyone else. Malachi was particularly hard on the Temple priests who had become corrupt and lazy. Malachi is confident that that will all change on the day of the Lord, and that a messenger shall come first to “prepare the way.”

The central question, says Malachi, is: “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” When he appears to turn things right-side-up again with the “goods” of creation falling out of the hoarder’s pockets to rain upon the poor, the widow, the orphan and the resident alien. A return to the day when the world was “good.”  Many wait for that day!

So also an old priest, Zechariah in Jerusalem during the time of the Roman occupation, is going about his priestly duties one day in the Temple when an angel appears to announce that his wife, Elizabeth, heretofore barren, shall bear a son, name him John, Yohanan, “YHWH is gracious, and that John will be filled with the Holy Spirit and will “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” The old man stutters in disbelief. The angel assures him it is true, but for his disbelief Zechariah will be mute until the child is born. [Luke 1: 5-20]

Sure enough, the boy is born. On the eighth day at the babe’s circumcision they are asked for a name and Elizabeth says, “John.” But you have no relatives named John. You should name him Zechariah, they say. The old priest takes a tablet and writes, “His name is John!” Immediately his tongue is loosed and he begins to sing and praise God for showing “mercy to our fathers” and to us. “This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, to set us free from the hands of our enemies,” and turn the world right-side-up again! “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.” Suddenly, after months of waiting, the old man is a poet and a prophet himself. [Luke 1:68-79]

The text concludes, “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” [ibid v.80] It was in the wilderness that YHWH, the God of the Exodus, forged a disparate band of peoples into a people, a people of God, strong in spirit. The wilderness is where Israel becomes Israel. The wilderness will be that place that the young man Jesus will go, “driven by the Spirit,” to become strong in spirit and discern what it means to be God’s Beloved as the voice proclaims at his baptism by Yohanan.

Yes, at the appointed time, when hoarders of fortune and power like Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias were ruling over Israel, and Annas and Caiaphas were the Temple priests, the people heard “Thunder in the desert!” Yohanan, like his father before him, began to speak. And the first words out of his mouth were those spoken and sung centuries before as Isaiah announced the liberation of God’s people from the wilderness of Exile in Babylon:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God!” [Luke 3: 1-6] John demonstrates real power and strength against the so called “rulers of the age,” the thieves and hoarders of the Empire and the Temple. The very Temple priests whom Malachi had called to repair and reform their ways.

And all the people left the city and the towns to stream out into the wilderness to be with Yohanan, the strong man filled with the Spirit preparing the people and the way for the one to come who will set the world right-side-up once again. The one who will shower the people with God’s Mercy – a mercy so wide you cannot get around it, so high you cannot get over it.

Mercy comes and calls us all to join in a life of mercy for all people; a life of enough resources for all people. And the question of Malachi remains: “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” The old man had sung that this mercy will consist of teaching and forgiveness – that to prepare for that day of the Lord’s arrival is to become a people schooled in the ways of YHWH’s Covenant and who know how to forgive as God forgives. Forgiveness is love, love is forgiveness. John, no doubt, had learned this in the solitude of his wilderness years.

John went into the wilderness to be emptied so as to be filled with God and the Spirit, so that he might become, as Jesus says after John’s death, a lamp to shine the path, the way, for us to welcome the coming of the Lord. John wants us to be prepared to welcome Mercy and Love as he comes to greet us. John knows, just as the Lord knows, sometimes this Mercy and Love can be unbearable. We all know what it is like to be in a supermarket as a child, having a tantrum with our mother’s or father’s arm around us, loving us at our worst, writes Maggie Ross [The Fire of Your Life, p 136-137]. “We remember the rage, not only the anger at being thwarted, but the even greater rage at being loved all the same. It is the hardest thing in the world for that little kid to pass through the terrible loneliness from rage, to the grief that burns the anger from us so that we can accept our parent’s love. Or, Gods… 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.”

Malachi, Isaiah, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary and Jesus all lived in some kind of upside-down world of their own. They all spent time in some kind of wilderness. They all experienced some kind of solitude before accepting words like, “prepare the way of the Lord,” “do not be afraid,” “make the rough places smooth.” As Malachi envisions, God’s wrath, God’s love, God’s mercy are all the same thing – and that the Lord is like a “refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify” us, and refine us like gold and silver, until we present offerings of Mercy and Love to the Lord in righteousness.

We all live together in the wilderness where we are made into the Lord’s people. We do not flee the wilderness, we go into it as John did, or we are driven into it like Jesus. We go into the wilderness to be enabled to bear the Word, as the Spirit enabled the prophets to endure and bear it; that John might proclaim him; that Mary might bear him. We pray: Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have Mercy upon us. Wherever and whenever we are in the wilderness with John and Jesus and Israel, we become like John, “bearers of the light, lamps in the windows of God’s house, fired with the oil of repentance, keeping us burning as we wait for him. Jesus, Son of the living God, be borne in us today.” [Ross, 141]  Every single one of us could use a little Mercy Now.  

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Advent 1 - Alive, Alert, Awake, Enthusiastic

Stand up! Raise your heads! Be on guard! Be alert! Wake Up! Pray! [Luke 21:25-36]

Amidst a list of calamities and cosmic disruptions, Jesus offers a list of imperatives for Advent for those who “know that the kingdom of God is near.” These imperatives make Advent a call to full consciousness – full attentiveness, or what some may call mindfulness. We are to be fully Alive, Alert, Awake and Enthusiastic! Enthusiasm comes from the Greek roots en theos – to be filled with or inspired by God. Inspire itself means to breath-in. Breathing in means life. The ancients believed that what we inspire is the breath or spirit of God and it is this breath and spirit that sustains us so that we might be Alive, Alert, Awake and Enthusiastic – filled with the Spirit of God. Attentiveness to our breathing is what brings the awareness or consciousness that the reign of God is near – in our midst.

This being attentive, mindful and alert is what it means to be a people of faith – “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” [Hebrews 11:1] We would like to believe that the world, this Earth we live on and the entire universe, is stable and predictable. We would like to believe that others, those others among whom we live our lives, can be stable and predictable. Whereas hope, suggests Richard Rohr, “is the patient and trustful willingness to live without closure, without resolution, and still be content and happy because our Satisfaction is at another level, and our Source is beyond ourselves.” [Preaching for Christmas, p 5]

Just as Jesus came into our past, so we trust he will come again into our private and public suffering world. What sounds like the beginning of an apocalyptic disaster movie in the 21st chapter of Luke is really meant to be words of assurance – yes, these things are happening all around us, and yes so am I – I am all around you, I am near, and I am returning even now as all this is going on. Bonaventure, a Thirteenth Century bishop and theologian, understood that God is “the one whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” Those who practice Advent mindfulness know that all things, including you, live happily inside of that one good circle. [Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, Joy and Hope, 11/27/2018]

This time of year, we find ourselves thinking of children. We want them to experience the receiving of gifts. We spend weeks, even months, searching for just the right presents. We collect Toys for Tots. We find ways to give gifts to people we don’t even know through a variety of charities and organizations. Advent and Christmas represent one enormous push to provide gifts for children both nearby and far away.

Sometimes this impulse to give weighs us down, as Jesus says, with “dissipation.” Can we buy enough of just the right gifts to make everyone happy? Dissipation, the squandering of money or resources, often in the pursuit of happiness. We are urged to shop-till-we-drop. It’s good for the economy. There will be a figure published at the end of the Christmas Season letting us know if we exceeded the previous year’s expenditures, or whether we have fallen short. Either way, we take this measurement of our dissipation as a sign. We’ll end up feeling good about the number, or bad about the number. All of which, warns Jesus, diverts our attention from the awareness of the nearness of God and God’s love and compassion for all the world. It’s like a trap, he says!

Being trapped never feels good. Again, think of children around the world and here at home. Those who have no home tonight. Those who are in detention camps. Those who were tear-gassed across the border last week. Those who are in refugee camps all around the world. Or, those living in group homes here in the U.S because their family homes are unsafe. Children and families trapped in cycles of poverty, warfare, gang violence, hunger, political and economic upheaval. Does being Alert in Advent beckon us to ponder just what they want and need for Christmas? Is there even any space and time in their lives to even know that it is “the Christmas Season”? What does our being a community of faith, hope and charity call us to do for these children? What gifts do they need from us?

The last thing Jesus urges is that we pray that we might have the strength to “stand before the coming Son of Man.” That takes some prayer! Prayer. How does being Alive, Alert, Awake and Enthusiastic shape and inform our prayer? Remember, being enthusiastic, filled with God is connected to the “inspiration” of the Spirit, the Breath, of God.

The most basic form of prayer is to be attentive to our breathing. Breathing in, I dwell in the present moment. Breathing out, I know it is a wonderful moment. Present Moment/Wonderful Moment. Letting go of closure, letting go of control, letting go of dissipation, letting go of worry, just breathing can in itself be the prayer that helps us to be Alive; to be Alert; to be Awake; to be Enthusiastic, filled with the very spirit of God, that which enlivens us and inspires us.

In 2015, Archbishop Desmond Tutu spent a week in dialogue with the Dali Lama at his exile in India. The Dali Lama has been a displaced person since fleeing the Communist Chinese as a child. Their dialogue is recorded in their book, Joy. Near the end of their time together Bishop Tutu offered the following blessing:

“Dear Child of God, you are loved with a love that nothing can shake, a love that loved you long before you were created, a love that will be there long after everything has disappeared. You are precious, with a preciousness that is totally quite immeasurable. And God wants you to be like God. Filled with life and goodness and laughter—and joy.

"God, who is forever pouring out God’s whole being from all eternity, wants you to flourish. God wants you to be filled with joy and excitement and ever longing to be able to find what is so beautiful in God’s creation: the compassion of so many, the caring, the sharing. And God says, Please, my child, help me. Help me to spread love and laughter and joy and compassion. And you know what, my child? As you do this—hey, presto—you discover joy. Joy, which you had not sought, comes as the gift, as almost the reward for this non-self-regarding caring for others.” [Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, Generosity of Spirit, 11/29/2018]

We have come to know that the world, indeed the entire universe, seen and unseen, is unsettled; expanding; evolving; in a constant state of creating and re-creating. Advent can be a time caught up in the trap of endless activity and dissipation. Or, it can be a time to reclaim the essence of being Alive, Alert, Awake and Enthusiastic. To Stand Up, Raise our Heads and Pray. If only we will stop and take the time to simply breathe in and breathe out. Present Moment/Wonderful Moment. As we do, we will be inspired, led by a Spirit far greater and beyond ourselves to find ways for all the world’s children to be embraced by Bishop Tutu’s blessing. Our future life together depends on our response to their lives. They are essential to our faith, our hope, and our future. Come, Lord Jesus, come.