Monday, January 1, 2018

What can we say November 25? Christ the King

     Pentecost (or “Ordinary Time”) ends with anything but an ending. The long story of the Christian year “ends” with a crowning – reminding Tolkien fans of the grand climax to The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn is finally the king, although he and the rest bow to the smallish hobbits, who are the true heroes of the story. Tolkien totally got biblical royalty and theology.
     Jesus’ kingship was the one he declined to describe to Pilate, the one that refused power “over,” the royalty whose palace was a manger, whose regiments were missionaries, whose attendants were the unwanted, whose throne was a cross, whose crown was made of thorns, whose treaties were with the needy. On the road to Jerusalem he’d spoken of those who lord it over others: “but it shall not be so among you” (Mark 10:43).

    Revelation 1:4b-8 is a stunning passage, inviting us to marvel more than to explain or preach. In the days when there were as yet no Christian scriptures besides to Old Testament, there were Christian prophets, who would be inspired by the Spirit to stand up and reveal God’s powerful and ultimate intervention to beleaguered, persecuted believers. Jesus, just a few years after his crucifixion, was extolled as “the one who was, who is, and is to come, the faithful witness” (the Greek here is martus, martyr!), “firstborn of the dead, the ruler of all the other kings.” Investigators poking around to expose Christians who refused to bow down to the emperor must have laughed their heads off at such chatter. Again, the earliest Christians followed what we now call George Lindbeck’s “rules” – to say as expansively as possible how great Christ really was, is, will be.

     How subversive was their worship of Jesus? It could cost you your life. It did cost them ridicule, and business suffered. Yet for those who attached themselves to this alternate king, “they loved not their lives even unto death” (Rev. 12:12). Hard to envision in our world where being a Christian, or going to church, elicits a yawn. And yet aren’t people looking for something costly? Something worth dying for? Something painful? Is this why so many get tattoos? – to be marked, to endure pain? Jesus was, after all, pierced.
     Jesus’ tattoos (thinking imaginatively here!) might be conceived as the Greek letters Alpha and Omega. God in Christ overflows all language, he exceeds creation itself, even as he embraces all of creation. He even embraced all those powerful images of the emperor the Christians saw daily – in architecture, iconography, statues and public festivals. Into such a world, Christ spoke and then the Christians spoke simple words, “Grace and peace,” not as a polite greeting, but as the very irruption of God’s way into the world.

     Fixated in awe and wonder as we should be on Jesus, he came, and now rules, so we might be his Body, or as Revelation 1 puts it, “a kingdom of priests.” I am a priest. My job is to help my people live into their own priesthood. The Latin pontifex, “priest,” means “bridge-builder.” We build a bridge to God, not merely for ourselves, but for others. Can I be a bridge to God? I might get walked all over – which is the goal, right? And anybody can be such royalty and priesthood. The Roman emperors claimed the title pontifex; we rules with Christ legitimately in this way. I love the moments in John Irving’s Cider House Rules when Dr. Larch would read Dickens to the orphans at night, and then leave the room just after saying “Good night, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.”
     John 18:33-37. How fitting then that we also read the pathetic yet glorious moment from Jesus' trial before Pilate. Was Pilate a sniveling miscreant, as he is cast so often – as in the 1973 Jesus Christ Superstar
I vastly prefer the portrayal in the 2000 video production in which Fred Johanson masterfully and movingly portrays Pilate as physically imposing, muscular, powerful – and yet with deep emotion, a huge, troubled heart: watch his “dream” and also the absolutely stunning “trial” scene. 
    Jesus’ comment, “My kingdom is not of this world,” has given much solace to overly-spiritual people who prefer a Christianity that is unpolitical, nonphysical, an unhinged from the realities of a world needing change almost as much as the spiritual people do. But his kingdom is so very relevant precisely because it has a different, holy, eternal origin, and paradoxical, inverted strategies of implementation. 
Listen to Raymond Brown: “Jesus does not deny that his kingdom or kingship affects this world… but he denies that his kingdom belongs to this world” – and “Jesus does not deny that he is a king, but it is not a title that he would spontaneously choose to describe his role.”

     Jesus’ vocation is truth – which is always sacrificed in the world’s securing and application of power. 
I love Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel image of Jesus before Pilate – whose face is at once etched in frozen rage and yet a puzzled intrigue. We too should be fascinated, not having Jesus figured out at all, waiting longingly to see what this rule will be like. Advent and Christmas will be the answer to Pilate’s query – and ours.

 Looking toward Advent: My book, Why This Jubilee? Advent Reflections, has much of what I've used as preaching material over the years, and also serves as a good group study for your people.

What can we say December 2? Advent 1

   Last year, I wrote an all-purpose blog “Preaching Advent,” looking at how preaching in December is so different: you get less time, the quiet calm in worship, music dominating the season, stories figuring in more than ever, the critical need to account for grief and loneliness in a season of froth and jollity, with thoughts on St. Francis at Greccio, Wangerin’s “Manger is Empty,” Silas Marner, Harry Potter, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and even The Life of Brian, stuff that might fit any Sunday during Advent. I’d commend it to you again.

   This year, I do want to go week by week looking at specific texts. So, Advent 1: Jeremiah 33:14-16. So lovely. God fulfills God’s promises – an idea we individualize way too much, making it all about us. It’s God’s promise for the people of Israel, God’s promise to fulfill God’s large plans for the redemption of all of creation. The Hebrew for “promise,” incidentally, is “the good word,” and I like that a lot. It’s less God committing to some prescribed pattern or timeline, but God being true to God’s own good speaking.

    The pledge is that “a righteous branch will bring justice and righteousness.” The Hebrew is so very rich: righteousness (tzedekah) is way more than good behavior, but enters into the Christian lexicon as dikaiosune, a right, a righted relationship with God. And mishpat, justice, isn’t fairness or just desserts, but rather the poor being cared for.

    Jeremiah’s laconic vision is stirring, and unforgettable. Judah will be saved, and with poetic genius, Jerusalem (zeroing in on the city dominating Judah) will “live in safety.” So basic, something we take for granted but most people in the world cannot. Simple safety, not secured by policies and guns, but only by God’s redemptive healing. The city is even given a new name: Adonai zidkenu, “the Lord is our righteousness.” Try city council where you live and see if you can get this name change! How lovely, such a holy, trustful identification of who we are!

    In Feasting on the Word, Gary Charles cites Heidi Neumark who professes to love Advent because “it is a reflection of how I feel most of the time” – and that is a mood of longing. Indeed. Your people, no matter how cocky or self-assured they may pretend to be, are longing people. And they know despair, which Reinhold Niebuhr described as “a failed attempt to secure security for yourself.” Bingo. This is where we live, all of us, all of us longers.

    And then we turn to 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, a similarly brief, laconic expression of intense faith. Acts 17 narrates how a riot was touched off there when Paul came! – and now Paul is grateful for them. He should be… And gratitude is linked to joy, as it always is and must be.  Joy isn’t fun or happiness times seven.  It is the grateful life, understanding how in the thick of trauma and sorrow there is light, and goodness.

     Most interestingly, Paul tells how he is praying for them. We say “I am praying for…” with little to no specificity. Perhaps we are asking God just to help the person, or to further what the person needs or wants.  Paul prays that they will see one another (relationships are everything – and imagine such a prayer in a world without iPhones, Facetime or even a decent postal service!).

    And then Paul tells them he is praying that “what is lacking” in their faith will be restored. I recall in seminary learning the distinction between fides qua and fides quae, between faith as the content of what we believe versus faith as the mood, the posture of faith in the believer. Is his prayer that they will be doctrinally advanced? Or that the intensity of their faith will be augmented?

     Pretty clearly, Paul is obsessed with their total response to God. He piles on adjectival terms: “increase and abound.” Is he being redundant? Or trying in words to capture how fabulous, how deep, how extravagant it all can be? What is lacking (hysterema) is the polar opposite of fullness (plerouma). And what is this “fullness” he’s after in his prayer for them? It is love – not a feeling you have or don’t, but that agape love that is grounded in God’s love, a deep and unflappable commitment. And he prays that God will “strengthen their hearts in holiness.” Do we ever pray for holiness in ourselves, or others? What a perfect prayer! Instead of asking God for favors in our unaltered lives, we pray for ourselves and for others simply to be holy.

     And why? As a bracing for, and an embracing of the Lord’s coming. If the Lord is coming, if we believe such a thing, then do we pray for trifles, success or comfort? or something far larger and more enduring?

   And then we come to the un-Christmasy Advent reading, the apocalyptic Luke 21:25-36. Jesus, on the Mt. of Olives, overlooking the holy/unholy city of Jerusalem that will be his doom and glory, Jesus envisions… what? The obliteration of history? N.T. Wright has persuasively argued that Jesus was expecting judgment on Jerusalem, not an end to history.

    Jesus uses typical language, signs in the sky, what Fitzmyer calls “apocalyptic stage props,” signals to the reader that we are into bizarre, symbolic territory far beyond the realm of the doable, the practical, the historical. I wonder if we experience some of these (the confusion and distress, the natural calamities like “the roaring of seas and waves,” with our climate issues and perilous changes! – all reminders that this world is temporary and not to be relied upon all that much).

    Reflecting on the nature, sky imagery, Kathy Beach-Verhey (in Feasting on the Word) spoke of Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.” He began as a pastor himself. The preacher might ponder the apocalyptic sky, the small town, the church steeple, and Kathy’s words: “The famous painting elicits differing reactions from those who admire it. Some see it as a daunting image of a frightening sky, others as something bold and beautiful, others as a glimpse of God. Like van Gogh’s great painting, Luke’s apocalypse elicits different reactions… and this is what Jesus offers on this First Sunday of Advent.”

    I love Luke’s capture of Jesus’ courage, and encouragement: “When these things happen” – so terrifying to the world – “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” We are those who need not cower. We can embrace trauma and hardship and horrifying uncertainty, because we know God’s “got the whole world in his hands.”

     It’s way bigger than me and my salvation. Sharon Ringe suggested picturesquely that “the ‘redemption’ that is promised is not a private lifeboat to save a few privileged folk while everything else is destroyed. Rather, redemption is equated with the coming of God’s reign, which spells transformation, healing, and wholeness for all of life.”

    How do we live in the meantime? We should “be on guard,” “not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness, and worries…” – reminding me of the interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the sower (Mark 4). 
My daughter and I visited the Bolton Priory in England – a lovely place, with a ruined gothic sanctuary. As we entered to take photos, a woman handed us a prayer card and invited us to something higher than tourism. The card contained this prayer:

  “Humbly and sorrowfully I crave thy forgiveness ... for every weakening thought to which my mind has roamed ... ” This notion of weakening thoughts bears some examination and pondering – perhaps especially during this season of preparing for the coming of the Lord.

  My little book of Advent reflections, ruminating on various theologically poignant phrases in carols and secular Christmas music, Why This Jubilee?, has lots of preaching stuff.

What can we say December 9? Advent 2

       {Last year I published a generalized “Preaching Advent” blog on the nature of homiletics during this season, with lots of illustrative material that could work any Sunday; and also a general “Preaching Christmas” blog}

   How odd for us who are Protestant to see Baruch 5:1-9 as the Old Testament lection for Advent 2. What a lovely, profound, hopeful, memorable text! I might read it to my people to let them know what they’re missing, and what their Catholic friends may delight in: elegant clothing images (“Take off the garment of your sorrow, put on forever the beauty of the glory from God; put on the robe of righteousness; put on your head the diadem of glory”), seasonally-appropriate directional stuff (“Look toward the east!”), and that “God will lead Israel with joy” (God’s joy?).

    The Protestant canonical Old Testament reading, Malachi 3:1-14, is itself rich in possibility. The name Malachi isn’t really a name; it simply means “my messenger” or “my angel.” God sends messengers, angels, and they are God’s (“my”). We’ve trivialized angels, at Christmas more than any other season – and yet “angel” means “messenger,” and God sends them. 
Who could forget and not use in a sermon Elie Wiesel’s famous remark, “If an angel ever says ‘Be not afraid,’ you’d better watch out: a big assignment is on the way.” I think I heard Will Willimon say that if you’re “touched by an angel,” you might wind up pregnant… Karl Barth pointed out that angels are there at the birth of Jesus, and then at his empty tomb – as witnesses to ultimate truths. Angels praise God in heaven all the time, and our songs of praise, especially during Advent, join their voices as one holy choir.

    God sends “my messenger” to people who doubt God’s care, who are cynical, hopeless. As such, they invert good and evil. Their most woeful characteristic is they are indifferent to God’s will. In the thick of World War II, to would-be isolationists, Eleanor Roosevelt said “Wishful thinking is one of our besetting sins.”

     They go through the motions of prayer and worship, but do not really expect anything from God (sound familiar?). Malachi thus speaks of “the God whom you seek, in whom you delight” – but they don’t really, and so Elizabeth Achtemeier spoke of these words as “ironical.” 
For them, talk about God’s covenant, chatter about God’s promises of old, is mere talk, empty words.

    God’s response isn’t scolding or smiting. And God doesn’t float down a new covenant of words on stones, or scrolls with more promises. What God gives is quite simply… God. God gives God’s own self. This is the heart of Advent. The gift God gives is the gift we want in our deepest heart of hearts, not anything you could jot on a list, or purchase in a mall, or wrap and place under a tree. We want God. And what we desire is what God gives: God’s own self.

    Malachi pricks the imagination by declaring that “the Lord will come to his temple.” He’s thinking the sanctuary in Jerusalem. As readers and believers, we know Jesus did come there – but actually he became the temple; he became God’s presence, he was in his flesh the way to God, God’s way to us, God with us.

    Mind you, the consequences of this coming are misconstrued. We think of comfort, or maybe forgiveness, or our dreams coming true. Malachi speaks of the “refiner’s fire” and “fuller’s soap.” We want forgiveness, maybe a healed relationship with God. We forget that God’s ultimate purpose for us is that we will be holy, pure, clean. C.S. Lewis (in Letters to Malcolm) envisioned showing up at the gates of heaven: “Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy.’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know’ – ‘Even so, sir.’”

    What do we sing? “Pure and spotless, let us be,” and “And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.” More on this in the Gospel lection…

     Advent is a season of purification, of asking for cleansing. “Let every heart prepare him room.” The preparation begins with God’s sending of “my messenger” to “prepare the way of the Lord.” We will probably use that cute but moving grand opening from Godspell. Probably without the splashing in the fountain though. The phrases are dramatic, and involve all of creation. Now is the time to get ready, to wait, to expect, to dream. Like a pregnant woman also, who’s in labor and shown up in the delivery room, we aren’t leaving until the new life has come.

    Philippians 1:3-11 illustrates what we might do for others for Christmas. Paul bursts forth with immense, personal gratitude – a virtue downright counter-cultural in our culture of entitlement. Jesus came to create grateful people. Gratitude banishes resentment, selfishness, and a bevy of other ugly personality quirks.

   Paul prays for his friends (this is what friends do!) – and his prayer is stunning. Not for their health or jollity. Rather, he’s fixated on the “work God has begun in you.” It’s like you’re an old house, and God is engaged in an extensive renovation project, yanking out old flooring beneath your feet, rewiring you, giving old rooms new functions, beautifying, cleaning. The coming of the Lord? Marianne Williamson suggested that you invite Jesus into your life, expecting him to show up like an interior decorator to spruce the place up a bit. But then you look outside one day, and a wrecking ball is swinging, about to demolish the thing and start over.

     The disciples came to Jesus and asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). Did Paul’s listeners ever ask him to do the same? Pray! – but how? and for what? Paul’s prayer is “that your love may overflow with knowledge and insight.” What a prayer for others, and frankly for ourselves! - and all these intertwine in intriguing ways, as Stephen Fowl captures it: “The love, prayer, knowledge and wisdom needed to live faithful lives are not separable components… but a set of interconnected habits that we must cultivate over a lifetime. Growth in one of these habits will lead to growth in the others. Failure in one will manifest itself in a more comprehensive failure.”

    Would the preacher dare suggest an alternative Christmas, where we offer to one another words of gratitude, and prayers for overflowing flow, knowledge and insight?

    Luke 3:1-6 reminds us that the Gospel is a real thing that really happened in real time in real history. Note the details about the feared, power people of the day, and the timelines: the 15th year of Tiberius, when Pilate was governor, when Herod ruled Galilee (with Philip and Lysanias thrown in for good measure). Politics isn’t part of the proclamation of the Gospel? The key players in what will be the crucifixion are named at the outset – including the religious leaders, Annas and Caiaphas, portrayed as sinister and conniving in Jesus Christ Superstar. They are “holy” men – but they are in cahoots with the powers that be, as religious leaders are so often. Witness Nazi Germany, and frankly our own country. Luke 3 names them all, the pretenders, the foes of God’s humble, hidden way.

     But a hidden, truer, alternate plot is unfolding. Albert Schweitzer famously envisioned Jesus’ insertion into history: “There is silence all around. The Baptist appears, and cries: Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Soon after that comes Jesus, and in the knowledge that He is the coming Son of Man lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes Him. The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to think of Himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to His purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is His victory and His reign.”

    We could adduce St. Augustine’ complicated, profound reflections on the two cities, running in parallel… but more simply: Jesus comes in the thick of great, seemingly invincible powers, all named in Luke 3. But he is the one. He is the true savior, the real power, the true ruler. His rule is one of humility, love, compassion, sacrifice and holiness. You preach to people whose political ideology is their idolatry; the preacher is to point the way to the true God, exposing the idols for the paltry, transient fakes they are.

    John the Baptist, who would be a laughingstock, or someone to be dispensed with by the powers, comes on stage, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance.” The phrasing fascinates. It’s not a demand but a gift, right? Without trying, John fulfills the Isaiah quotation about preparing the way of the Lord, about the valleys and hills, all of creation being transformed. When Isaiah spoke of “the Lord,” John himself thought of Yahweh, Israel’s God. But the readers, in the wake of Christ’s resurrection, realize the Lord whose way is prepared is none but Jesus himself.

    Again, in keeping with the Malachi 3 reading, repentance is way more than mere remorse, even with shades of reconciliation. It’s purification, holiness – maybe a re-holying.

  My little book of Advent reflections, ruminating on various theologically poignant phrases in carols and secular Christmas music, Why This Jubilee?, has lots of preaching stuff.

What can we say December 16? Advent 3

      {Last year I published a generalized “Preaching Advent” blog on the nature of homiletics during this season, with lots of illustrative material that could work any Sunday; and also a general “Preaching Christmas” blog}

    Advent 3. “For lo, the days are hastening on.” Lovely readings this week – well, at least two. I adore this obscure text, Zephaniah 3:14-20. Philippians 4:4-7 isn’t particularly Christmasy but it can be used to great advantage. But the Luke 3? John the Baptist, this late into Advent? Year C bungles this badly I think… so I will use preacher discretion myself and adhere to the pink candle, speaking of Mary, the rose, the virgin, the mother of God so great with child.

     First, Zephaniah 3:14-20. Singing may be the most remarkable thing Christians do together. It’s not because we enjoy songs, or they stir a little emotional flutter in the heart. It’s defiant, it’s gathering up more than spoken prose to extol God and declare subversive realities we grasp eagerly while the world scoffs or just doesn’t hear. Sing! Shout! Rejoice and exult! And why? Not ‘tis the season to be jolly. “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you.” “The King, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear evil no more.” This banishing of fear is the Gospel; judgments on you and others and the world are nullified. “Fear not!” the angels, Paul, Jesus, and Zephaniah sing in raucous harmony. It’s an invitation, a permission, a counter-cultural shocker. Such a relief, and joy.

    “Let not your hands grow weak.” I remember dreading the greeting line at the end of worship at my first two parishes. The men were mostly laborers, with huge, muscular hands, which would inevitably crush my small, weak hands – sometimes making me wonder if they were making a point.

     What are weak hands? Zephaniah is urging the people on in their work, of course – but I wonder if we misdefine hands and their functions. In my first book, Yours are the Hands of Christ, I asked What did Jesus do with his hands? as a clue for what we might do with ours. I told the story of my Aunt Zonia, who had some disability in her hands. They were gnarled, and she couldn’t really hold anything. But I adored her hands. She held mine when I battled a fever while staying with her. She would point to the groceries in the car and ask me to carry them, making me feel useful and needed. She folded those hands in prayer, and managed to flip through her Bible to find stuff. Weak hands? Strongest I’ve ever known.

    Why not let our hands grow weak, but continue to pray, hold onto one another, and do whatever we’re able to do in hope? Zephaniah says “He will rejoice over you in gladness” and “He will exult over you with loud singing.” Our singing echoes not just the angels, and Christian congregations and choirs through the ages. God sings. In my sermon, I’m just going to ponder this, marvel over it, invite my people into a quiet space to relish the thought.

     The power of God’s song, the Gospel music: Martin Luther King, Jr., once preached on “How the Christian Overcomes Evil,” deploying an illustration from mythology. The sirens sang seductive songs that lured sailors into shipwreck. Two, though, managed to navigate those treacherous waters successfully, and King contrasted their techniques. Ulysses stuffed wax into the ears of his rowers and strapped himself to the mast of the ship, and by dint of will managed to steer clear of the shoals. But Orpheus, as his ship drew near, simply pulled out his lyre and played a song more beautiful than that of the sirens, so his sailors listened to him instead of to them.

     Zephaniah’s last word from God? “I will bring you home.” In Why This Jubilee? I wrote a little reflection on “I’ll be home for Christmas,” noting how many of our carols mention “home.” We have a hankering for home. In our uprooted, mobile society, many don’t know where home even is, or parents have died and the old homeplace isn’t home any more. God placed this yearning in us so we might seek after God, realizing at some point that even the best home, the homiest home anywhere here isn’t quite home enough for our rich, God-instilled cravings. We wait, we long, we yearn for God to bring us home. That’s the message of Advent, right?

     Philippians 4:4-7 is my parade example for beginning Bible students on the virtue of reading slowly and interrogating the text as it interrogates us. In quick succession, Paul says Rejoice always. Do not be anxious. With thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. These three are tightly knit together.  Let’s ponder how – now as we prepare to preach, and in the sermon itself.

     Phil. 4:6, the least obeyed command in the Bible:  “Have no anxiety.”  We are anxiety-riddled – and the very demand not to be anxious feels like piling on.  I was anxious.  Now I’m anxious about my inability to be non-anxious and I’m failing God.  How should we have no anxiety?

     “Let your requests be made known to God.”  OK, Lord, cure my anxiety – or fix the situation giving rise to my anxiety.  But read Paul more slowly:  “With thanksgiving let your requests be made known…” Paul must be mixed up: it’s supposed to be we file our requests, and if God complies, then we give thanks – right? No, “with thanksgiving let your requests be made known.” We begin with gratitude.  Jesus invited the crowd to be rid of anxiety by pointing to the birds of the air, and the lilies of the field: they are arrayed in beauty, God provides for them (read Matthew 6:25-34!).  Notice what God has done, feel the blessings you neglected to pay attention to (which is probably why you got into the anxious mess you’re in…). Could it be that gratitude is the antidote to anxiety? What would one ask for during this season of making lists?

     The psychiatrist Martin Seligman has written (in his great book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being) about anxiety – and shares that studies show how gratitude alleviates anxiety and depression (not entirely, but by a significant, measurable percentage).  My personal observation is that it is impossible to be anxious and grateful at the same time.  Something about gratitude – and not merely feeling thankful but actually expressing it in a note, a phone call, whatever – calms and even reverses anxiety, at least in the moment.

     That’s when the joy comes in: “Rejoice always.”  How?  By not being anxious.  How?  By sharing your requests with God – with thanksgiving.  

     And then, when this becomes habitual, and natural, we get to the goal of the thing: Peace.  “And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7). The Roman emperor boasted that he was the guarantor of peace, the pax romana.  But how did he keep the peace? By wielding a bigger sword than anybody else. If you marshal enough well-drilled troops with clashing armor, you get peace – right? Or was Dorothee Soelle right? “Armed people have no peace.”

     God’s peace is never won when the vanquished cower before threatening spears, or when everybody in the house walks on eggshells, fearing the one who demands on peace at home. God’s peace is a gift, it lifts up and ennobles the weakest, it delivers justice and hope; God’s peace is all love, compassion and that curious strength that embraces rather than strikes.  It thrives in the soil of gratitude; joy is its flower.

     How intriguing that Paul dictates out loud, with the emperor’s Praetorian guard listening through the bars, that God’s peace will “keep” your hearts: the Greek word means to “guard.” Paul is in prison, guarded by men with weapons; but who’s really free, and who isn’t? In God’s hidden script, it’s the armed soldiers, and the emperor himself, who are not free but are in chains, while Paul is free as a bird, protected from them by the peace of God.

     And finally, Luke 3:7-18. Way too late for John (for my tastes); I’m ruminating on Mary (her Yes to the angel, her humility, her holiness, what she felt in her womb, the shame and questioning she surely endured, her journey to Elizabeth). If you do Luke 3, it’s worth noting that John upbraids those coming as a “brood of vipers” – fuming at the very people who came out to be baptized by him, after a hard, hot, dusty journey, clearly buying into his agenda! His “ax to the root of the tree” would push me toward retelling Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (which works well at Christmas with a cut tree in your house, right?).  Hard journey, clearly with his agenda! Then, after his fuming is done, Luke reports that “with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” We sure believe in preaching as Good News – but clearly, for John the Baptist and Luke, the “good news” isn’t something sunny, positive, cheerful, or happy. It’s about vipers and axes, giving away one coat if you have two (so isn’t a closet purge in order?).

What can we say December 23? Advent 4

   {Last year I published a generalized “Preaching Advent” blog on the nature of homiletics during this season, with lots of illustrative material that could work any Sunday; and also a general “Preaching Christmas” blog}

     For me, Advent 4 will be a peculiar challenge this year, with Christmas Eve of Monday! Getting 2 sermons together for back to back days – and then preserving the emotional energy required. We’ll see. I wonder about exploring what it’s like just before a child is born. I remember Lisa feeling profoundly uncomfortable. We were semi-confident, but anxious. New life was almost there, but not quite, well-formed and ready to live but not yet visible to us. An ordeal was coming – yet the promise of wonder. Somehow Advent is like that, the spiritual life is like that. All of life really is like that.

   The texts intrigue. Micah 5:2-5a isn’t merely a prognostication, a crystal ballish prediction identifying centuries ahead of time the location of Jesus’ birth. Back in the 8th century, Micah was from a village (Moresheth-Gath) very much like Bethlehem – lying out in the country not far from the capital city of Jerusalem. The Assyrians rampaged toward Jerusalem and crushed the little villages – because of the idolatry and faithless policies of those in corridors of power in Jerusalem. So Micah is resentful, having fled his hometown, left behind in ruins, to take shelter in the Holy City – which saved its own neck but not theirs. Imagine the welcome when he threatened that “Zion shall be plowed as a field.”

    Hope, Micah declared, would not come from there, but from another little village, another one bearing the cost of shenanigans in the capital. David’s hometown – famous to us, the one we sing about at Christmas, but a backwater in those days. David was the little one, the unlikely choice among Jesse’s sons (1 Sam. 16) – and in the same way, Micah tells the powerful that their only hope is from the small, weak, unlikely place. Gospel logic always works this way. God is ready – indeed, God has always been ready to rectify human power and its foolishness. Micah speaks of this God “whose origin is from old, from ancient days.” William Blake depicted God as “the ancient of days.”

    And this whole “origin” business: Rudolf Bultmann (in his commentary on John) wrote brilliantly about the meaning of being “born again.” It’s not an emotional rush. It’s a whole new life – and as he put it, “Rebirth means… something more than an improvement in man; it means that man receives a new origin, and this is manifestly something which he cannot give himself.” 

     In a book I’m working on, I relate this to Francis of Assisi. He had a physical origin, the son of Pietro and Pica Bernardone. But as his passion for Jesus grew, and as his father’s disgust with his son’s choices grew, Francis eventually had to abandon his earthly father and choose instead his heavenly Father – and a new family of “friars” (meaning “brothers”) in his new family of God with its peculiar but life-giving values and habits.

     Francis is well worth exploring on December 23, as he created history’s first manger scene. In my Conversations with St. Francis, I wrote this: A year before his death he was visiting a friend in Greccio. He asked Giovanni to erect history's first manger scene: a straw crib, oxen, donkeys, and an image of the infant Jesus. The townspeople gathered on Christmas Eve, bearing torches. The friars sang hymns, medieval carols – and how I wish I knew what they sang! I try to imagine their voices echoing from the mountain’s edge down through the valley. I especially try to imagine Francis’s voice, for on that night, overcome with emotion, he preached – and listeners said his voice sounded like the bleating of a lamb.
     He picked up the infant figure, held it in his arms, and some said they thought they saw the child come to life. This little town of Greccio had been transformed into O Little Town of Bethlehem, far away geographically but very present in spirit.
     Francis’s devotion to the humanity of Christ was tender; he understood that God was not aloof. God didn’t show off with overwhelming power. God became small, vulnerable, inviting us to love, and to be as tender as God’s own heart, power redefined as affection and song.
     On that glorious night in Greccio, Francis ordered that all the animals be given a double portion of food. How odd for Francis, as he was famous for his fasting. Advent should be something of a fast that ends in a festive banquet come Christmas night.

    Turning to the Gospel proper: Advent 3 has the “Mary candle.” My daughter was given a stole depicting Mary. So lovely! Why isn’t she on more stoles?

     And then our texts for today are about Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. The timing is a little off, as she can’t have been in Ein Kerem the day before she was in Bethlehem in labor! But theologically it’s pitch perfect. Mary, full of God’s tangible grace, visits the other miracle mother bearing John the Baptist. What a tender, beautiful meeting. The preacher can invite people just to ponder them standing there, embracing, gazing, loving, conversing, just sitting together, waiting, anxiously yet hopefully, together. Elizabeth’s words, of course, have for centuries been repeated zillions of times by Catholics praying the rosary.

     And then Mary sings. We have anthems with the fancy Latin title “The Magnificat.” But I love to reflect on the simple fact that Mary sang a simple song of immense trust in God, and hope for the world. What did her voice sound like? Did Elizabeth join in? Harmonize? Smile? If you have a copy of my little book about Christmas music, Why This Jubilee?, you might look through my sections on Mary and her life, faith and hope just prior to Jesus’ birth.

     Again, a short sermon is in order – and let it be reflective, marveling over Mary, her mood, her steady trust, uncertain but confident in God. No takeaway, no moral, no lesson. We ask folks to get “lost in wonder, love and praise” as we linger over the “round yon virgin.”

 For more on Micah, see my little What Does the Lord Require?

What can we say December 30? Christmas 1

   December 30: the proverbial “low Sunday.” The Gospel lection, Luke 2:42-51, fast forwards to Jesus at age 12 – but he was just born 5 days ago! This little vignette is easy to oversimplify. All parents at some point misplace a child momentarily – and panic. But don’t make Jesus a holy delinquent. Mary upbraided him. and he’s not teaching the teachers so much as having a conversation with them: he listens. And the grown Jesus will harbor no great love for the temple, threatening its destruction and purging it of vice.

     For the days after Christmas, I like to ponder the earliest moments of Jesus’ life. Mary tenderly held him. He cried. Visitors arrived. Neighbor boys were slaughtered… Indeed, Rembrandt depicted the nativity with long shadows – and that is how it will be for his entire life.

     In the days after Christmas, I like to reflect on where the holy family went in the days after Christmas - to the temple, and their encounter with Simeon and Anna, which speaks of the dark shadows after the sheer delight of the elderly in their encounter with this child –
 reminding me of something George Eliot wrote about Silas Marner, the reclusive miser who lost his money but then found a little girl: “We older human beings feel a certain awe in the presence of a little child, such as we feel before some quiet majesty or beauty in earth or sky.”

     Then the shadows – from my forthcoming book, Getting Born: Mary and Joseph delivered their son to the priest for circumcision, which for them was a non-negotiable act of obedience and devotion to God. I wonder if Mary felt her first pangs of separation when she handed her infant son over to a priest she’d never met, and if she shivered a bit when she heard his outcry when the knife cut into his flawless flesh. Another unexpected pain was about to hit her.

     Seemingly by chance, Mary and Joseph bump into an old man named Simeon. And then a woman named Anna who had been a widow for eighty four years. The aged inevitably turn and gaze at an infant, as if the chances to glimpse such precious beauty are numbered – as George Eliot noted when telling us about the reclusive miser, Silas Marner, discovering a little girl in his home after losing all his gold: “We older human beings feel a certain awe in the presence of a little child, such as we feel before some quiet majesty or beauty in earth or sky.”

    Or was Simeon somehow, even if unwittingly, dispatched there by God? “It happened that there was a man.” Chance, maybe. But then verse 27 exposes what even he may not have known – that he was “led by the Spirit.” This “upright and devout” one was not alone in “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Lk 2:25). But some mystical disclosure had come to this man – that he would not die before seeing the Messiah. Do mothers today encounter various older people who figure in profound and surprising ways into the unfolding drama of their children’s lives? Does God send such people into our orbit to shape the puzzled parents’ new world?

     Simeon took the child. Mary would forever be handing her child over to the hopes of others. His prayer over the child must have struck Mary and Joseph dumb. “Now let your servant depart in peace,” for this Messiah (even in infancy) had come, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for Israel.” We deploy extravagant hyperbole when speaking of a newborn, but this is over the top, outrageous, either divinely inspired or sheer craziness. 

     Would that he had stopped with his blessing. In somber tones, Simeon spoke directly to Mary: “Behold, he is set for the fall and rise of many in Israel… A sword will pass through your own soul.” These densely framed words require considerable exegesis, and much pondering from Mary. His destiny involves the “fall and rise” of God’s people. The order should puzzle us. We speak of the “rise and fall” of, let’s say, the Roman Empire, a British dynasty, or a famous politician. With Jesus, as Scripture has tutored us to expect, turns everything upside down. Those drawn into the wake of this child will learn that you fall before you rise, you get emptied of your own goodness before you are filled with the mercy – and the same happens with God’s church, rising like a phoenix only after suffering the worst persecution.

     The pattern will be Jesus’ own. He will fall, flagellated by the soldiers, then beneath his own cross, and finally crushed by death itself, only then to rise, and to reign. This fall will indeed pierce Mary’s heart. Simeon was right: she would barely be able to stand at the foot of the cross, trying to avert her gaze but not being able to do so from the sight of the lifeblood she had given him draining out of his precious, pure body. Whose heart was more crushed than hers? Who felt the piercing of the nails and the spear more than his mother? Who, even after his resurrection and ascension, felt the pangs of missing him more than his holy mother?

     We may pause and consider prophecies, most of them surely unintended, that are uttered over our children. Sizing up mom and dad, the doctor says He’ll be a tall one! Or as a premie beats the odds and exhibits surprising growth, the nurse says She’s a fighter! Or the too-young mother in labor and delivery, with no family hovering nearby, the obstetrician shrugs and hangs her head: That one is already behind the eight ball. I have vague recollections of overhearing awful words in my own house growing up – that when my older sister was born, they had really wanted a boy. So I was their boy! and she was not – a terrible prophecy.

     St. Dominic’s mother, Juana (Jane) travelled to Silos in Castile while she was still pregnant. In the sanctuary there she had a vision: a little dog in her womb, with a blazing torch in his mouth, setting the world on fire. Did that really happen just that way? Or did she understand her pregnancy years later, only in retrospect, perhaps the way Rebekah remembered her twins, Esau and Jacob, writhing in her womb, the earliest sample of the vicious sibling rivalry that was to come (Gen. 25:23).

     Were there prophecies you’ve overheard about yourself? Some are cute, but loaded. We got Duke bibs and socks for our wee ones – so did they feel they failed to fulfill their promise when they didn’t go there? Some prophetic messages that impact our children are entirely unnoticed and unspoken. Like parental anxiety – over what to do with a little one, or over how terribly scary the world is out there.

     Even a parent’s own childhood can function as a prophecy for the new child just born. In Parenting form the Inside Out, Daniel Siegal and Mary Hartzell demonstrate how our brains are wired so that parents quite naturally recreate the emotional interactions and responses experienced when they were little. A parent is weighed down by unacknowledged emotional baggage, and then the child triggers a response that is more about the baggage than the present situation. Pretty soon everybody is confused, upset, and overwhelmed – and that child grows up and repeats the pattern with his own child. I remember my mom, in considerable frustration with me, uttering the dire prophecy, You’ll be hurt by your children just like you hurt me. Weirdly, curses like these fulfill themselves, not because of the curse uttered but because of the emotions buried.
   {images are from Giotto, Rembrandt and Grünewald}