Wednesday, November 1, 2017

God Became Small: Preaching Advent

     Preaching is so very different during Advent.  For years, I felt like I had to battle the vapid Christmas culture out there, or I knocked heads with musicians infringing on my sermon time.  But I have come to embrace the challenges, which can become peculiar delights for the preacher.

     In most churches, Advent is a music-dominant season.  Instead of competing with the music, join forces.  I can think of no richer season to talk about the music; I wrote a whole book (Why This Jubilee?) on the theology and poignant phrases in our carols.  Don’t we want to guide our listeners into praying “Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay close by me forever, and love me I pray; bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.”  “Why lies he in such mean estate?”  Unpack that one and you’ve got a sermon.  Even “All the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names” has social justice implications.

     With cantatas, advent candle lighting, children’s montages and more, there is frankly less time for the sermon.  Do I say Dang! in frustration? Or is there a kind of relief?  I only have to fill seven minutes.  The shorter sermon requires more discipline and focused preparation 
– but remember that America’s greatest speech ever, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, was a mere 272 words.  At my place, December Sundays are more crowded, and there’s more racket – all the more reason to keep it brief and to the point.

     I suspect that fewer words are more fitting given the two predominant moods of the season.  There is of course, all the frivolity, the silliness, usually with some trite Christmasy sentiment pasted on: “Jesus is the reason for the season!”  “Keep Christ in Christmas!”  “It’s Jesus’ birthday party!”  A focused, crisp alternative to the froth – not scolding, but offering some richer fare – is more likely to be heard in 10 minutes than in a 25 minute monologue.  Think of the impact of Mike Slaughter's simple and direct Christmas is Not Your Birthday.  5 words, covers a lot of ground.

     And of course, the other, weightier mood?  The grief, the loneliness, the dysfunctional families, the infertility, the brokenness: the darkness people bear, hidden, is most acute when “Tis the season to be jolly.”  Grieving people cannot bear many words.  Comfort comes in few words, staying with the silence, listening, showing in the eyes and body language that you understand, you love, you share the sorrow.

     Some churches do a “Blue Christmas” service; we call ours “Hope and Consolation” – a time for those feeling intense grief to gather, light candles, cry and hug.  I think it’s important that not be a one-off.  Every Sunday in some way I name the ache, the darkness.  Christmas is just an inch after the longest night of the year, and there was much fear and then horrific grief that accompanied Jesus’ birth.  I send a piece I wrote about “Grief and Great Loss in the Season of Joy” to everyone who suffered the death of a loved one in the past year; use it yourself if you’d like, or create your own.  It’s important.

     In Advent preaching, it’s crucial to settle on what’s important and what isn’t.  Early in my ministry, I was a zealot for Advent – as in no Christmas carols, etc.  Not only was I banging my head against a wall and needlessly exasperating my people, I realized that my liturgical correctness after a while didn’t make sense even to me.  I try to pretend Jesus hasn’t come yet; but we’re doing this because he came.  Even the most Christmasy carols have an Advent longing: “O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray.”  “Let every heart prepare him room.”  Sounds like Advent to me.  I can’t be sure, but I’m betting Jesus doesn’t mind us singing about his birth before the 25th.

     I’d also say dogma matters, and enormously – but it’s not a season for theological explication in preaching.  I need to have my theology of incarnation worked out – and the sermons I read and hear (from students and colleagues) tend to underattend to the robust wonder that the incarnation is.  It is not that Jesus got born as a necessary step toward teaching, healing, dying and rising.  Sam Wells, in his fabulous A Nazareth Manifesto (which is maybe the most important theology book in a decade), explains well what I’ve touched on for years: God’s saving comes primarily in the Incarnation.  What makes Christianity unique is that God entered into our fleshly life.  God is with us – Immanuel at his birth, and then in his parting words at the ascension – and this is the ultimate truth for us.  Otherwise we get into thinking of Jesus as fixer of our problems, and the churches constrict mission to fixing somebody else’s problems.  The Gospel is simpler, better, weirder, and finally more merciful: God in Jesus is with us.

     But Advent isn’t the time for long, complex sentences or dogmatically shrewd paragraphs.  We go short, we go small.  During December I keep Rembrandt’s “Adoration of the Shepherds” as my computer wallpaper to remind me: only a few words, in the dark, like a candle.  Martin Luther’s revolutionary thought was that God became small for us in Christ; he showed us his heart so our hearts might be won.  It's the God hidden in weakness - or the God who quite genuinely is tender vulnerability.
Or perhaps it was St. Francis who created history’s first manger scene at Greccio.  Before that, if Jesus were ever depicted as an infant or child, he looked like a powerful potentate simply painted littler.  Francis understood the tender vulnerability of Jesus.  He preached at that moment, and listeners said his voice sounded like the bleating of a lamb.  He ordered that all the animals, cattle, livestock, sheep, dogs, be given a double portion to celebrate Christ's birth.

     We get at this through stories.  Not corny, sappy stories, but those fraught with joy, fear, darkness, delight. 

Every year I re-read Walter Wangerin’s marvelous “The Manger is Empty” for myself – and have even read it to my people as a sermon.  The pastor's daughter suffers the death of a beloved friend just before Christmas - and then she has to play Mary in the pageant.
I keep going back to the novel I read in high school but couldn’t really comprehend until I had many more years on me:  Silas Marner.  Let me excerpt some of it: George Eliot told us of this reclusive miser, left utterly wretched and desolate once his stash of money was stolen.  But when he came home one evening, he found, “instead of hard coin,” some soft curls on his floor - a sleeping child.  Eliot magnificently portrays his reaction, a response akin to what we might sense when we contemplate the coming of God into our world as a child.  “He had a dreamy feeling that this child was somehow a message come to him from a far-off life; it stirred old quiverings of tenderness, old impressions of awe at the presentiment of some power presiding over his life.  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.”

     Marner took the little girl on his lap, “trembling with an emotion mysterious to himself, at something  unknown dawning on his life.  He could only have said that the child was come instead of the gold - that the gold had turned into this child.”  This child, whom he named Eppie, loved sunshine, sounds, and every other thing in God’s world.  “The gold had asked that he should sit weaving longer and longer, deafened to all things except the monotony of his loom; but Eppie called him away from his weaving, and made him think all its pauses a holiday, reawakening his senses with her fresh life, warming him into joy because she had joy.”  Wow.  Let it linger as is; don’t rush in and say Jesus was like that!  or Give us your gold so we can meet the budget!

     The stories that work, those you borrow or your own, always keep a tight grip on both the joy and the sorrow.  To get the hang of it, dig up or google Simon & Garfunkel’s “Silent Night/7 O’clock News.”  It’s always both, and into such a lovely but chaotic, painful world Christ comes or not at all. 

You can look to Stanley Weintraub’s terrific Silent Night: the Story of the World War I Christmas Truce – and how on Christmas Day, soldiers started lobbing, not grenades but bottles of rum, cakes, tobacco and even a Christmas tree across No Man’s Land.  They came out of their trenches, sang Silent Night / Stille Nacht – until generals on both sides issued directives unequivocally forbidding fraternization, “for it discourages initiative and destroys spirit in the ranks.” 

    Advent is actually a good time to appeal to treasured moments in books and films – so people already have the memory and resonance. 
One year I propped a nice full-length mirror front and center in the sanctuary, and in my sermon spoke of Harry Potter and the mirror of Erised (and this scene, not coincidentally, happened at Christmas at Hogwarts!).  Younger folks will recall that the backwards writing on the mirror reads I show not your face but your heart’s desire.  Then explains, It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts.  Preacher: don’t over-explain it; just let it be.  We invited people to come forward for communion, and each one saw himself in the mirror at God’s altar.

     Humor is fitting – but never the main thing.  During Advent every other year or so I’ll allude to the crackpot scene in the “Life of Brian” where the wise men show up at the wrong house. 
 The best, most hilarious and psychologically profound humor though is in John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, where he brilliantly dovetails a Christmas pageant at the church (where so much goes comically wrong yet thereby fixing our attention on the underbelly of the Christmas story) with the school production of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which underscores joy, grumpiness, death and hope.  I reread this every year, even if I don’t use it.

     During Advent, the more personal the better.  I have regularly told how our family gathers every Sunday evening of Advent (even by Skype now that the kids are grown), light a candle, read Scripture, and listen as my wife reads a children’s Christmas book (hence, without advising, setting a potential example for families hearing me!) – and that our favorite is Raymond Alden’s Why the Chimes Rang, a story well worth making into a sermon.

     But even more personally, tell your story.  I recall being four or six maybe, sitting under my grandparents’ tree after all the presents had been opened, and my father laying a hand on my shoulder as he said “Son, it’s time to go; Christmas is over.”  I still shudder over the ache in that. 
     And my best ever story (which I tell only to prompt you to remember yours) came when my own son was five.  I was working at home, under great pressure to prepare some Advent sermon or whatever.  Noah kept tugging at me to come and play.  I politely, and then more firmly, kept saying “Dad’s got to work now.”  After Noah emitted a bunch of gurgling sounds and more whining, I’m embarrassed to say I wheeled on him and shouted, “Son, get out of here!  Dad’s trying to work!”  I saw him hang his head, turn, and walk out of the room.

     And as I watched him in some horror of realization, I saw myself, as a little boy, turning and walking out of a very similar room.  I hung my head in shame – and then recalled an idea I’d been putting off forever.  I pulled down those accordion steps into the attic, and pulled down an old, mildewed Atlas packing box.  I ripped off the browned, brittle tape and started pulling out the packing paper – crumpled up newspapers from 1962, with stories about JFK and Mickey Mantle and astronauts.

     My son came into the room.  “What are you doing?”  “I’m unwrapping something.”  He peered in and saw an engine, a caboose – my Lionel train set I’d found under the Christmas tree when I was his age.  Noah’s eyes flew wide open.  I said, “This is my train.  No, wait, this is our train.  Let’s set it up!”  He said, “Wow, dad, this train must have cost a lot!”  I was tempted for a nanosecond to calculate the resale value of a vintage train set – but then I said, simply, “No, son, it was free.”

     The first time I told this in a sermon, I probably over-explained it, with something like Just like Jesus, God’s gift to us busy, harried, easily angered and frustrated people, it’s free… but as I get older I trust my people to make their own connections.

     Of course, the abiding, consistent mood of it all through the Sundays of December is longing – and I can think of no wiser probing of what this longing is like for the Christian than Henri Nouwen’s moving “A Spirituality of Waiting.”  It’s been excerpted or printed partially various places, but I’d advocate listening: you can download an mp3 here.  Nouwen’s voice and inflection and stunning, and he draws you into the experience, exploring how we hate to wait, what underlies that anxiety, but then how Mary and Elizabeth waited – and did so together.  And the distinction between waiting for and waiting on – and how we might wait on God while we wait for God.

     Yes, the texts proceed Sunday by Sunday in the lectionary.  I find myself least comfortable with the selections during this season I would expect myself to be most at home with them.  Seems like the main things get squeezed into the final week – and some years we have not one but two John the Baptist weeks.  He matters… If the Gospels are any clue, you can’t get to Jesus without going through John. 
I heard in a sermon years ago these words: “You never see John the Baptist on a Christmas card.”  After repeating this, and playing on the idea that John is pleading, perhaps even hollering for us to repent – which doesn’t feel Christmasy, and yet is at the heart of “Let every heart prepare him room" - a woman in my church created history’s first John the Baptist Christmas card.  Lovely.  Here's my sermon on John the Baptist.

     I’ll start with the apocalyptic Gospel thing – which suits our emphasis this year, which is something around how we find God not merely in the light but also in the dark.  Mark 13:24-26 somewhat surprisingly, if you read slowly, speaks of the sun being darkened, and the stars and moon failing – and that then they will see the Son of man coming.  In the dark.  Just as in creation (again, reading slowly): “Darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving” (Genesis 1:2) – in the dark, before the light.

    Many years I focus on Old Testament texts during Advent - which makes sense.  Israel's Scriptures, pre-Messiah, Mary's Scriptures while Jesus was in utero.  You can see/hear my sermons on two of this year's OT lections, Isaiah 61 and Isaiah 40.

     I also am determined every year to work Mary in on Advent 3.  Protestants, maybe determined not to be Catholic, way under-attend to Mary.  Finger a rosary and quote Scripture, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.”  Read Catholic devotionals.  Ponder paintings of Mary, so holy, so gentle, undoubtedly strong and courageous.  Talk about her – and without takeaways or morals.  We simply look at this human being, the best of us all, who was the first to know and feel Jesus, who heard his first cry (which Madeleine L’Engle said sounded like the ringing of a bell), nursed him, taught him to talk and walk, and to pray.

     St. Ephrem the Syrian understood her and the moment well:  “Fire entered Mary’s womb, put on a body, and came forth. Through Mary the whole world is illuminated.  There entered the shepherd of all, and in her he became the lamb, bleating as he came forth.  He who is the Word entered and became silent within her; thunder entered her, and made no sound.”  Perhaps this Advent, the word will enter the preacher, and it will sound like a little bleating, or just the sound of silence.

What can we say come Christmas Eve/Christmas?

     Christmas Eve.  On Sunday.  We’ve agonized over what kind of schedule to offer.  But then: how to preach?  Advent 4, and then Christmas Eve?  Some key questions and thoughts I’ve assembled over the years of preaching Christmas Eve and/or Christmas:

     (a) What do they come for? I try to remember what people came for – and precious few would say We come on Christmas Eve to hear Rev. Howell’s sermon.  They come for the music, and at our place for that magical moment when we sing Silent Night, lower the lights, and raise our candles.  It’s hokey – and I love it.  I’ve tried to name the wonder so it isn’t just “pretty.”  If it’s beautiful, it’s because it happens in the dark.  Lots of darkness in the world, and in our lives; so the little candle is a promise, a pledge, a defiance.  It’s a parable of a faithful life of resistance to evil. 
Gandalf (Lord of the Rings) said it well: “Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”  Or this, from the medieval Franciscan, Giovanni Giacondo: “The gloom of the world is but a shadow / Behind it, yet within reach, is joy / There is radiance and glory in darkness, could we but see / And to see, we have only to look / I beseech you to look.”

     It’s also helpful to help them hear their own music.  We have a soprano sing “O Holy Night,” and there’s much in there (“chains shall he break…”); last year I drew their attention to “Then he appeared, and the soul felt its worth” – suggesting that the order matters:  it is the appearing of Jesus that defines our worth.  We sing “Away in a Manger,” and I’ve invited them to pray the last stanza (“Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay close by me forever, and love me I pray; bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and fit us for heaven to live with thee there”).

     (b) Who comes?  It’s a cheap shot to ding the C&Es.  We aren’t crowded on Dec. 24 because of them.  Rather, everybody comes – and they bring visiting parents, aunts, grandchildren, etc.  But you do have the very occasional attender – and how to speak to them invitingly?  I’m fond of what the novelist Julian Barnes said:  “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”  I believe the most adamant atheist, and the most casual spiritual person have a deep-seated longing for home – for Christ.  Name the hollow place for what it is.

     (c) What do they need to hear?  I’ve chided the sporadic attenders and pleaded with them to continue coming.  Not helpful.  I do suspect Christmas Eve isn’t a bad time to quite gently take on popular atheism.  Among the many anti-Christian bestsellers was God is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens (may God rest his soul…).  I’d play on that and say, Correct, God is not great.  God, rather, is quite small, vulnerable, a God who doesn’t conquer everything but gets defeated in the most profound embodiment of suffering love ever.  Jesus did not rise up miraculously in the manger and denounce his foes.  Jesus has a tender place in his heart for Christopher Hitchens.

     And Bart Ehrman.  Amazingly, and weirdly, a few years ago I received an email from him – on Christmas Eve.  I had been trying to connect with him on something – and he finally responded around suppertime on 12/24.  I had reviewed his book, God’s Problem, which is an embarrassingly vapid regurgitation of the most simplistic, easily answered critiques of Christianity – and his email to me said he didn’t like worshipping with his Episcopalian wife on Christmas Eve, because they raise all those candles.  “If good Christians would do something for the poor instead of raising those candles, I would think more highly of Christianity.”  I replied to him that, yes, a few thousand would raise candles at my place on this evening – but we also would raise over $100,000 for the poor.

     (d) What mood are they in?  Some are sentimental, some are giddy, some are edgy – facing family dysfunction.  Some have already been drinking.  I think almost all are in a bit of a “What really matters” mood.  If you’ve never read Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales, you should.  He says this: “One Christmas was so much like another… I can never remember if it snowed for 6 days and 6 nights when I was 12 or 12 days and 12 nights when I was 6… All the Christmasses roll down to the sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street.”  I’ve used this tactic: I’ll ask, What did you get for Christmas in 1998? Or in 2004?  No one can remember, of course.  Then I ask, Whom did you love in 1998?  Who was with you in 2004?  “Through the years we all will be together.”  It’s not the stuff.  I giggle when I recall my girls getting bikes on Christmas Eve.  But what year was it?  And where on earth are those bikes now?  It’s the people, the love, the relationship.  That’s all we have to give, all we really want to receive.  And that’s what God gives.  Not this thing or that answer to prayer.  God gives God’s own self at Christmas.

     (e) What is my tone?  Of all preaching moments, my tone on 12/24 had best be gentle, slower than usual, resonant with wisdom, patience, kindness and wonder.  Sighing is in order.  If you have a smart-alecky voice like mine, you have to practice.

     (f) Where do I go first?  Since homilies on Christmas Eve should be short, you have to take people somewhere quickly.  Not a lot of reiterating the text, or ramping in with chit-chat.  And you have to take them to a very different place quickly.  Could be your grandparents’ Christmas tree.  I like a couple of historical moments.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife died in 1835, he remarried in 1843, then she died in a house fire in 1861; shortly thereafter his son was wounded in the Civil War.  With war raging, and bearing so much loss, he woke up on Christmas day and wrote, “I heard the bells on Christmas day Their old familiar carols play, and wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, good will to men.  And thought how, as the day had come, The belfries of all Christendom Had rolled along the unbroken song of peace on earth, good will to men.  A voice, a chime, a chant sublime of peace on earth, good will to men. The cannon thundered in the South, And with the sound the carols drowned of peace on earth, good will to men. And in despair I bowed my head ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said, ‘For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.’

     This sequence moves me every time.  There is sorrow and good cause to feel forlorn at Christmas – but Longfellow continued: “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail With peace on earth, good will to men.’”  That was my sermon one year.

     Or you have Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s amazing letter from a Nazi concentration camp:  “I think we’re going to have an exceptionally good Christmas.  Since outward circumstance precludes our making provision for it will show whether we can be content with what is truly essential.  I used to be very fond of thinking up and buying presents, but now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious; the emptier our hands, the better we understand what Luther meant: We are beggars, it’s true.  The poorer our quarters, the more clearly we perceive that our hearts should be Christ’s home on earth.”  The image of no presents, empty hands, in poor quarters, even being apart.  Christ comes to humble hearts.

     (g) What about the text?  If you follow my blog, you know I’m big on attention to exegetical detail.  I think I am less so on Christmas Eve – although there are little details in the texts that intrigue and could be lingered on to make a whole homily.  The name Augustus – who promised everything Christ came to deliver: peace, salvation, good news, unity.  You could cite historians regarding the situation when Jesus was born – but it would be hard to top Madeleine L’Engle: “That was no time for a child to be born / With the earth betrayed by war and hate / In a land in the crushing grip of Rome; / Honor and truth were trampled by scorn / Yet here did the Saviour make his home. / When is the time for love to be born? / The inn is full on the planet earth, / Yet love still takes the risk of birth.” The phrase, “No room in the inn”: easy to spiritualize, and I’d commend Frederick Buechner’s eloquent lament over the fate of the innkeeper.  Mary “pondering” in her heart.  So much in Luke 2, much less John 1…

     (h) Anything you might report on?  I think of the prophets and their symbolic actions: is there something you can do and then just tell about it?  Two years ago, in the gap between Christmas Eve services, I drove to inner city Charlotte just to see what if anything might happen, if I might notice something.  I parked, and immediately (as if God set it up) a city bus stopped where I was standing.  An older woman, looking utterly exhausted, got off with a battered, rolling suitcase.  She sighed and looked at me.  I innocuously said “Merry Christmas!”  She moaned a little, and said, “Not for me.”  I said, “Tell me about it.”  She squinted, looked me over, dressed as I was in dress shirt, wool slacks, and with my very Caucasian complexion, and said, “You don’t look like the kind of fellow who would understand.”  I hung in there and said, “Try me anyway.”

     I reported this in my homily that evening – and tried gently and briefly to explore who’s hurting out there, would we understand, and how Jesus came not so much for us but for her and her kin, looking very much like someone who would understand.

     (i) The main thing, the only thing.  It’s the Incarnation.  God became flesh; God came down; God is as close as my own heartbeat and the breath I just took.  God understands us, and redeems us from the inside out.  This is why God’s revealing of God’s heart and mind came through an infant – something we all once were, something that elicits tenderness from even the hardest among us.  This is the only real unique thing about our faith.  Hans Urs von Balthasar: “Only the Christian religion, which in its essence is communicated by the eternal child of God, keeps alive in its believers the lifelong awareness of their being children, and therefore of having to ask and give thanks for things.”


What can we say come January 7? Epiphany/Baptism of the Lord

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    If you are a lectionary preacher and a tracker of the Christian year, you wonder:  should we mark Sunday, January 7 at Epiphany (or first after…)? Or as the Baptism of the Lord?  Most likely, I will somewhere in my sermon mention that yesterday (Saturday the 6th) was Epiphany…  but then my focus will be Mark 1:4-11.  Below I have some cool stuff from The Life of Brian, Karl Barth, O Brother Where Art Thou and The Shack – but first:

     We do a renewal of baptism on this Sunday each year – a lovely way to kick things off.  I have to admit that when we did it the first time, I had much fear and trepidation, and we didn’t really know what we were doing or how to do it – but it has become a big, meaningful thing.  Here are my homilies, and then moving video of people renewing their baptismal vows (including overhead shots where you see the rippling in the water), from 2016 (at the 17 minute mark) and 2017 (at the 26 minute mark).

     And I’m okay with the fact that very few who come forward to dip a finger in the water and touch it to forehead or lips could articulate the meaning in any coherent, sound manner.  “Meaning” happens at many levels – and in this case, it’s the tactile thing, the sensation, and the impact of moving forward with a crowd of others who can’t be sure what it means, but they all know they need something… and it’s somehow up there, at the altar, in the water. 

     When the magi appeared with gifts, did Joseph understand?  Did the magi?  Or even Mary, really?  I try to read Mary's face in Rembrandt's "Adoration of the Magi."  I am thinking that, when preaching in 2018, I will leave more room for mystery, for the unexplained and inexplicable, and preach more questions and trust in the power of movement and water and such than the compelling logic of my verbiage.

     Even the “meaning” in processing to the front. I’ve often quoted Dom Jeremy Driscoll: “Monks are always having processings. Whenever we go from one place to another, we don’t just do it helter-skelter. We process into church; we process out. We process to a meal. We process to our cells…  I am glad for all this marching about. Of course, it could become too formal; we could make it over-serious, and then it would just be weird. But I experience it as an extra in my life, something in my day that I would not have were I not a monk. And so I am reminded again and again that I am not just vaguely moving through life. In my life I am inserted into the definitive procession of Christ. I am part of a huge story, a huge movement, a definitive exodus.  I am going somewhere.”  

     Or maybe better: Martin Sheen, the great actor and devout Catholic, told Krista Tippett (in his fabulous interview with her in On Being) how he felt about standing in line in worship:  “How can we understand these great mysteries of the church?  I don’t have a clue.  I just stand in line and say Here I am, I’m with them, the community of faith.  This explains the mystery, all the love.  Sometimes I’m overwhelmed, just watching people in line.  It’s the most profound thing.  You just surrender yourself to it.”

     First, the magi.  So many corny options – like “wise men still follow him.”  I’m fond of Amahl & the Night Visitors, and various other pageant settings… although nobody sees them in early January.  My mind drifts toward that hilarious scene in The Life of Brian where the magi show up at the wrong house – understandable, if their pointer is a star far up in the sky!  There is a hilarity in Matthew 2 we easily miss: these guys are astrologers – a pseudo-science, a “fake religion” not just today but back in Bible times!  And yet God uses their bogus discernment to lead them to the Christ child, while Herod and his henchmen, well-versed in Scripture, are left clueless.  I think of that line in The Shack: Mack asks Jesus, “Do all roads lead to you?” He replies, “Not at all. Most roads don’t lead anywhere” – and then adds “I will travel any road to find you.”  Even bad, false religion?  You have to love Matthew’s (and God’s) good humor here.

     And just as The Shack begins with the murder of a young girl, the cutesy magi story segues into the brutal slaughter of innocent boys in and around Bethlehem.  From the outset, proximity to Jesus is perilous – light years from the kind of piety that presumes God’s job is to keep us safe.  It’s a cosmic battle that’s been launched, with the forces of evil already in knee-jerk, violent recoil to God’s incarnate invasion of what the evil one counted as his stronghold.  The preacher is wise to understand and dare to articulate the larger theological stakes in this story – and in the long history of violent reprisals to the good even into our own day.  Reni's "Slaughter of the Innocents" captures a bit of the horror that we continue to experience too regularly in our world.

     This is why the Baptism of our Lord matters.  Mark 1 depicts Jesus arriving on a hostile scene, being baptized, and then striding into a wilderness to do battle with beasts.  Baptism isn’t this nice rite of passage, featuring lovely gowns and photos for Facebook.  A line is drawn in the sand (or a massive wave is stirred up in the water), a taking of sides in a cosmic battle.  Alexander Schmemann reminds us of the historic act of exorcism in Baptism, and why it matters more than ever: “The exorcisms mean this: to face evil, to acknowledge its reality, to know its power, and to proclaim the power of God to destroy it… The first act of the Christian life is a renunciation, a challenge. No one can be Christ’s until he has, first, faced evil, and then become ready to fight it. How far is this spirit from the way in which we often ‘sell’ Christianity today!”

     In one way, we are baptized like Jesus – but in another way, we merely watch and are awed by what we could never manage.  Karl Barth (in the skinny volume of Church Dogmatics, IV.4, published not long before he died) shrewdly suggested that “Jesus was not being theatrical.  When Jesus was baptized, he needed to be washed of sin -- not his sin, but our sin.  When faced by the sins of all others, he did not let these sins be theirs, but as the Son of His Father, ordained form all eternity to be the Brother of these fatal brethren, caused them to be His own sins. No one who came to the Jordan was as laden and afflicted as He.”

     If you have a joyful, hopeful baptism story, it’s worth telling. I baptized a 45 year old man shortly before he died from pancreatic cancer – in his home, as he’d grown progressively fragile and unable to move about.  Three months earlier we’d started meeting, praying, sharing what Christianity was all about. When I reached out and applied water to his forehead, he bolted a bit and began to shake, and then weep.  After a couple of minutes, he looked at me, smiled, and said “I feel lighter.”  And I’ve been able to take quite a few people to the Jordan River for quite moving baptisms and renewals.

     I love the painting of Jesus’ baptism in the St. John’s Bible – which we might rent or buy for our bulletin cover on January 7.  Of course, we have the unforgettable scene in O Brother, Where Art Thou – which is kooky, but has the lovely “Down to the River to Pray,” sung by Alison Krauss, which I hope my choir or a soloist will reprise.  We have much water/Baptism music on the more classical side, including Aaron Copland’s “Shall We Gather at the River.”  I plan to re-read Flannery O’Connor’s great short story, “The River” – another ominous, hauntingly tragic read of what it means to go down to the waters of baptism.  A young boy, Harry, hears a preacher, named Bevel, who’s baptizing people in a stream, say “Leave your pain in the river.”  The boy has much pain indeed, and the story ends tragically.  Well worth the preacher’s time to ponder – even if it’s not used in the sermon!  We need to experience, know and feel more than we tell.

     If you want illustrative material, it would be hard to top that very sorrowful moment in The Secret Life of Bees, which tells us about twin sisters who were “like one soul sharing two bodies.  If April got a toothache, May’s gum would plump up red and swollen.”  After April’s death, “it seemed like the world itself became May’s twin sister.”  Any word of anyone suffering struck agony into May’s heart.  All her family could do was to build a “wailing wall” in the back yard; May would write down the hurts of the world and people she knew on scraps of paper and press them into the wall.  But over time she could bear it all no longer, and simply walked into the stream below their house and drowned – to the elegiac singing of “Song for Mia” by Lizz Wright.  Moves me every time.

     I’m not sure I would have preached on Mark 1 in such a way twenty years ago.  But I think these sad moments of solidarity with those who suffer cut to the heart of what Mark’s Gospel is trying to tell us about Jesus’ opening salvo in his mission to defeat evil.  The Old Testament for January 7 undergirds this line of thought.  In creation, in the teeth of chaos (“without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep”), God let light come to be – and the waters of the firmament as well.  There’s hope in the darkness, and in the pain.  The Gospel begins there – in the dark, when the earth and your soul are without form and void, in the brokenness, or not at all.

     On the somewhat lighter side, I do plan to explore potential connections between the water of Baptism and all the water we encounter in our daily lives – which occupies a whole chapter in my book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week.  One year on this very Sunday, we gave our people these shower tags (which originated with Adam Hamilton at the Church of the Resurrection) – so every shower or bath is a reminder of baptism and a prayer: “Lord, as I enter the water to bathe, I remember my baptism. Wash me by your grace, fill me with your Spirit, renew my soul. I pray that I might live as your child this day, and honor you in all that I do.”  Any time we drink, or rinse our hands, or see a stream, or clouds – can we think of the life-giving waters of Baptism? 




What can we say come January 14? 2nd after Epiphany

     The lovely vignette in 1 Samuel 3:1-10 probably seems easily comprehensible to naturally spiritual people, but cynics and the less intuitive are likely to be baffled by it.  God speaks, audibly and at some length, to a young boy.  My privately held view is that nowadays, if someone says I heard God speak to me, that person is more likely to be hearing his own hunches or her own preferred stirrings – although maybe not.  How does anyone hear God in 2018?  Not many will hear a valid speech from the Lord at night.  We should recall that Samuel was in the temple – all the time.  Prayers, sacrifices, the retelling of Israel’s old stories: these were constants for him – and so for us, the more deeply we are absorbed in liturgy, daily prayers, weighing Scripture, and conversation with wise people (Samuel did have Eli to test what he heard), the more we hear God, however indirectly.

    Context really matters.  Thumb back 2 chapters to the story of Hannah, taunted by Peninnah, grieving her infertility, thought drunk by Eli.  She pleaded for a son, yet with the promise that if she got one, she would give him back to the Lord.  Samuel is that extraordinary miracle baby – which she didn’t clutch as the fulfillment of all her dreams, but the one she relinquished out of extraordinary commitment to God.  What does such a gifted life look like?

     Then our writer is determined to expose how much of a mess Israel was in.  Eli was getting too old to lead (his loss of vision is what happens to the elderly but also symbolic of the people’s inability to see the things of God), and his sons were wicked.  “The word was rare in those days” – because the Lord was quiet? Or because no one was really listening?  The lectionary lops off v. 11, which picks up on what it’s like when people finally listen: “I am about to do a thing at which the 2 ears of everyone that hears it will tingle.”  The preacher has to play on this business – and I’m reminded of that old baptismal custom in which the priest touches some water to the eyes and ears of the infant and utters Ephphatha, “Be opened” (echoing Jesus’ Aramaic from Mark 7:34).

     As Barbara Brown Taylor explains so eloquently in When God is Silent, prayer should be less “Lord, hear our prayers,” and more “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”  Through all those disciplines the church offers, we may begin to hear – but the ears will tingle.  God won’t speak conventional wisdom, and God won’t pander to our preferences.  Thomas Merton was right about why we don’t hear or have a vibrant spiritual life: “Much of our coldness and dryness in prayer may well be a kind of unconscious defense against grace.”  You can ponder that for days and not unpack it all. 

     That grace may feel like undergoing surgery, or abandoning control – or that cool though from Marianne Williamson: “When you ask God into your life, you think God is going to come into your psychic house, look around, and see you just need a new floor or better furniture, that everything needs just a little cleaning – and so you go along thinking how nice life is that God is there. Then you look out the window one day and you see that there’s a wrecking ball outside. It turns out your foundation is shot, and that you’re going to have to start building it over from scratch.”  For Israel, the building of the whole nation is collapsing and needs radical reconstruction – which may sound like our nation and world…

     Paul provides a way of exploring this more fully in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20.  What word could speak more directly into the sickness of the modern soul than his idea that “lawful thing” are not necessarily “helpful.”  Without castigating hapless people, the preacher needs to expose the common ethic in which we don’t break laws, or if we stretch them we try not to get caught.  I’m a pretty good person because I don’t steal or cheat on my spouse, I pay my bills, I’m nice sometimes to my neighbors.  Paul is obsessed with what is “helpful” – and the Greek συμφέρει means literally “to bring together,” and then if coming together well, the pieces fitting properly, “beneficial” or “profitable." 
    Although Paul is thinking Torah and rabbinic commentary on the Torah when he says "lawful," it's fair for the preacher to explore the ways legality in the U.S. is not only an exceedingly low bar for the Christian to aspire to, but might even be alien to God's will.  As it's the Martin Luther King weekend, we have ready at hand examples of Christians acting quite legally and yet immorally and in unholy ways - which led to a holy, vigorously church-based civil disobedience.  I'll poke around and find a King story or two - and then the newer prophetic words we're hearing about race are very much focused, as Paul is in our text, on "bodies," how they're treated, what we do with them, etc., none more provocatively and wisely than Ta Nehisi-Coates in Between the World and Me. 
 The preacher has to sense how directly or indirectly to share such thinking about how black bodies have been abused... but clearly for God's people, "not all lawful things are helpful."
     Perhaps the preacher can think of a way various things "fit together," or of a time things “came together” and it was thus “beneficial.”  High-control Christians tend to speak of fate-oriented, God-is-in-control notions… but for the rest of us, we can conceive of times I met someone who introduced me to someone who invited me somewhere where I was introduced to a young woman who became… my wife, mother of my children?  Americans think “I can do what I want” – but the most important moments in all of our lives has this unchosen, or rather, very much chosen feel.  Preacher: find your own story of this. 
Since Paul is about to say more about the human body, and since he thinks of the Church as "the Body," maybe the coming together, the "what is helpful," is what builds up the body of Christ.  Lots of things are legal for me - but what can I do that builds up the church?

     How counter-cultural is all this?  “You are not your own, but the Lord’s.”  All political rhetoric makes you master of your body, your self, your life, telling you what you deserve, what’s in it for you; but Paul is all about that you belong to God – which isn’t a burden or threat, but the most liberating news imaginable!

     The constant questions shouldn’t be What do I want to do? or What would be fun? or How can I get ahead? but rather What is helpful?  What might make me holy, or wise?  I said “shouldn’t,” but that’s a tad patronizing and judgmental – and unhelpful!  We can ask different questions – and perhaps the preacher invites people into end of life scenarios, which are our privilege to share with people.  At the hour of death, we dream of having asked the best possible questions – reminding me of Merton’s shrewd notion that you spend your life climbing the ladder, only to get to the top and then realize it was leaning against the wrong wall.

     What breaks things apart, what is unhelpful, is clarified by Paul: “I will not be enslaved by anything.”  We are enslaved by a great many things.  The historic debate over freedom of the will would puzzle most American churchgoers – but then they might be liberated if we help them.  We prize freedom (whatever visceral meaning that has for Americans, with all its vapid slogans and hawkish associations) above all else – so what an affront to us that our greatest theologians (Luther, Aquinas, Augustine, Paul himself) insist we are not free at all.  We feel free, but our freedom is terribly constrained by sin, by habit, by the culture.  I choose to wear unique socks! – but so do the other guys I know. 
Nancy Reagan simplistically told potential drug users “Just say no” – but anything to which you can easily “just say no” isn’t something you crave or would undo you.  Our freedom is like the freedom of a prisoner in a cell.  I’ll go to this side of my cell for a minute and then I’ll freely sit down over there for a bit.  You’re still in jail.  It is not the case that God endows us with freedom so we might choose God – or not.  Our freedom is an illusion.  We are in bondage to sin, self, and habit until God liberates us, sets us free by the miracle only the Holy Spirit can work.  And then, we aren’t “free” as in I’ll do what I wish now! but rather we are free for servanthood, dogged obedience to God.  God liberated Israel from Egypt so they could get to Mt. Sinai and get their marching orders.

     The preacher might explore what enslaves us.  Media culture?  Visions of the good life in America?  Anxiety?  Money?  Self-criticism?  Alcohol?  Look up a list of possible addictions – and you’ll be stunned at how many ways we get enslaved.  Calvin was right: the human heart is a productive factory of idols. 

     The pointed, merciful word God would speak is right there in verse 19: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit in you, which you have from God?”  I think the first few times I used this in preaching, my tone had some scolding in it – like “Bad boy, you’ve polluted the place.”  But it can and should be a compassionate, liberating word.  We struggle mightily with the body.  It’s too fat, not muscular enough, unwieldly, breaking down, sagging – whatever.  What we put in there tells us a lot about our fear – even if we are super healthy eaters, right?  What we do with the body tells us even more about our fears – and where the body goes. 

     Just try googling the word “body” and “temple” together, and you’ll get some lewd stuff.  We glorify unreal bodies; Hugh Hefner got praised in my local newspaper when he died.  Our bodies can feel like enemies, problems; Tertullian pointed out that Plato said the body is a prison, but Paul said it’s a temple.  Scripture here can calm us down, and set us on an alternative path:  “Glorify God in your body.”  What if I thought all day, every day, as much as possible, about my body being this temple, and my goal then would be to worship, to glorify God with the thing? – including being merciful.  St. Francis’s regret late in life was that he had been too hard on his body trying to be holy. 

     How God views our bodies might be illuminated by the Gospel reading, John 1:43-51.  Jesus sees these guys, and invites (commands?) them to follow him.  I’m forever intrigued by what he says to Nathaniel.  Jesus recognizes him, prompting Nathaniel to ask “How do you know me?”  Jesus answers, “I saw you under the fig tree.”  I don’t really know what to do with that.  There’s no moral to it.  Just worth pondering and playing with it:  Jesus saw him under the fig tree.  He noticed him.  Have you ever had that happen? 
Paul McCartney crooned “I saw her standing there.”  Or sticking with the Beatles: “I’ve just seen a face I can’t forget… Falling, yes I am falling…”  Or even their “I’m looking through you, where did you go? I thought I knew you, what did I know? You don’t look different, but you have changed…”  Play around with these and other ideas of seeing, being seen, being noticed.  Why was Nathaniel under the tree?  Seeking shelter from a sweltering sun?  Looking for figs?  Who knows?  I love preaching that just opens up a biblical moment, leaving room for people to find themselves, see something you maybe missed.

What do we see when we see a face?  Martin Luther King (again, his weekend!) dreamed of a day when we could see facial color but also more deeply - into the "content of character."  God sees this clearly; we - and all the others - are seen fully by God.

     This being seen as what we might even consider as the heart of the Gospel lies at the core of this Sunday’s Psalter (139).  Bent on saving time, I suppose, the lectionary oddly lops off “Even the darkness is not dark to you,” and also, more understandably but yet problematically, the curse on enemies in 19-22. 
Psalm 139 has sometimes been used as fodder in the right to life movement (“You knit me together in my mother’s womb”) – but the thrust of the Psalm is being seen, inside and out, everywhere, always.  It’s not a threat, but a comfort, a great joy.  The Psalmist marvels that God knows when he sits, what he’s thinking – reminding us perhaps of the hairs on the head being numbered (Luke 12:7), of Jesus’ affectionate regard for the sparrow.  God’s presence can’t be escaped – and the preacher might benefit from quoting at least a section of Francis Thompson’s old poem, “The Hound of Heaven” (“I fled him, down the nights and down the days; I fled him, down the arches of the years; I fled him, down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from him, and under running laughter…” – but all to no avail, as Love pursued, “with unhurrying chase, and unperturbed pace, deliberate speed, majestic instancy”).

{The image of the Body of Christ is "In His Image" by William Zdinak}