Sunday, December 17, 2017

What can we say January 20? 2nd after Epiphany

  If you studied the book of Isaiah in seminary, you learned that Isaiah, the 8th century prophet, was responsible for most of chapters 1-39. Then “deutero-Isaiah,” that eloquent, inspiring prophet of the exile, continuing Isaiah’s tradition, could be heard in chapters 40-55. “Third Isaiah” felt like a weary afterthought, speaking up after the Israelites had returned home.

   But oh my: the passion of these prophetic words in Isaiah 62:1-5! “I will not keep silent!” “Salvation shines like the dawn, like a torch” (and what a vivid image, in the darkness). “Forsaken? Desolate? You will no longer be called these things.” Instead, from now on you’ll be known as “Delight!” or “Married!” The arresting image of the groom rejoicing over his bride: this is how God feels about God’s people, and the joy we might similarly know when God’s light dawns.

   I always wonder about matching the Bible author’s time of day: I will go out early, while it’s still dark, and light a match or a candle, and feel the light while I wait for the dawn. Life with God is like that.

   Who feels forsaken or desolate? In your church? in the community or world? in your home? in your own head? Go there. Name it – or peel back those labels, those defining moods, and replace them with “Delight” and “Married.”  The marriage image is dicey, as it might feel stuck, or a deep wound. But “marriage” is only a disappointing image because we know it should be grand and glorious.”  Think of the greatest wedding you’ve performed – or been in.  The hopes, the giddy laughter, and kinds of tears.  An image of God’s way with us, and our buoyant new hope.

    I might tell about a wedding or two, with some humor (funny things do happen…), and yet with some solid dream of joy. And maybe Lewis Smedes’s lovely thought that when we make and keep promises, we are like God.

    I love the way 1 Corinthians 13 (often read at those weddings) is sandwiched between 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, which speak of the Body of Christ – which really is what that love chapter is about anyhow. Paul speaks of spiritual gifts – and what a not-to-be-missed chance to speak to your church family about God’s gifts to them. We do spiritual gifts inventories and such.  Fine and good! They worry me a little, in that it’s all about me and what I’m good at, and isn’t very attentive to the strange, surprising work God might do in me, and in my church family.  Sometimes the gift is realized only if we get out of our comfort zone and do something hard, something I’m not good at.

    Or more importantly, we discover the Spirit’s place in those places where we have been broken. “The world breaks everyone, and then some become strong in the broken places” (Ernest Hemingway, in Farwell to Arms). If I could sing more off-tune, I might in the pulpit try Leonard Cohen’s “There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in” (and really the rest of the song is powerful too).

    The larger point, whether we’re into strengths-finders or brokenness, is that whatever is in us is not for us, for our own personal use, but for God, and for the good of the Body. 
Understanding this changes everything.  This weekend we ponder Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - and how much more interesting is it to see him, not as a great speaker or political visionary, but as one gifted by God's Spirit - and those gifts were given to him not for him but for the building up of the Church and by extension the mission field of the Church, the whole country.

    Finally, John 2. Picking up again on the wedding image of Isaiah 62: Jesus’ first miracle was… at a wedding he attended with his mom.  How lovely.  When I take groups to Israel, we stop off in Cana and offer a service of the renewal of wedding vows. The story, as I preached on it a few years back, is about disappointment. John Cheever, the novelist, suggested that disappointment is the predominant mood of Americans during our era.  Intriguing too, as we have so much. Advertisers and the media feed and grow a sense of disappointment.

    Jesus was there when there was not enough. And he produces wine from mere water. I’ve been given (quite a few times now) a greeting card where a pastor has been pulled over by a policeman, who asks “Have you been drinking?” “Just water, officer” is his reply. The cop asks “Then why do I smell wine?” The pastor: “Good Lord, he’s done it again!”

   Wine has its dangers, as the Bible knows (Proverbs 20:1). And yet God has destined us for joy. Jesus’ miracles declare he’s onto something amazing, that he’s amazing, that he’s the one – but also that he has come for joy. “My Father is glorified when you bear fruit… I have said these things so my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:8, 11).

   And Jesus - to those of us who have so much but are afflicted with a sense of scarcity - is all about abundance. God gives us more than enough of what we need, an overflow of love, purpose, hope, compassion, mercy, wisdom and community. Jesus' new wine, scholars estimate, is 120 gallons.  A LOT of wine, plenty, more than could ever be required. This miracle, after all, did happen "on the third day," a tease, a hint, a foreshadowing of the ultimate gift God will give God's people.
  Hard not to retrace my steps to Frederick Buechner’s thought on what we drink at Communion: After noting how bland grape juice is, he contemplates that “Wine is booze, which means it is dangerous and drunk-making. It makes the timid brave and the reserved amorous. It loosens the tongue and breaks the ice. It kills germs. As symbols go, it is a rather splendid one.”

Saturday, December 16, 2017

What can we say January 13? The Baptism of the Lord

    The Baptism of our Lord. How intriguing, looking closely into Luke’s peculiar way of narrating this dramatic moment, so different from Matthew’s and Mark’s. We get the ferocious mood of John the Baptist more clearly.  And then, almost with an Oops! in the chronological story line, Luke has John arrested before he skates back to the Baptism.  Was it a booboo, an afterthought, a Dang, forgot to mention he baptized Jesus before his arrest? Doesn’t it heighten the stark reality that Jesus’ Baptism happens in the thick of intense political and religious opposition, downright belligerent and not shying away from the use of brute force?

    Alexander Schmemann reminds us that 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.  Historically, and now in the full liturgy, Baptism is accompanied by exorcism: “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!”

    The Good News isn’t obviously good news for those out of sync with God’s kingdom.  God is pleased with Jesus – and the implication is that Jesus is also pleased with his allies who mortify the powers of this world. The Jesus of Luke 3 certainly doesn’t strike us as a sweet, benevolent Mister Rogers type of guy. He is winnowing, he is a raging fire.

    Luke explains that the people were “in expectation.” The Greek, proskokōntos, means to live in suspense.  It was more of a desperate yearning, a fretting in the dark, than some pious awaiting of predicted fulfillment.  They “questioned in their hearts.”  The Greek is dialogizō, a dialogue, a conversation, batting around questions and possible answers.  This is Christian formation, and even worship – not sealing off questions, but opening them up, starting a robust conversation among people and inside people’s own souls.

    David Lyle Jeffrey shares a longish comment about John’s mysterious remark about “loosing the strap of his sandal.”  He persuasively links this to levirate marriage, that he is implying that the bridegroom (Jesus) is coming to claim his bride (Israel); John is, as Jeffrey cleverly puts it, the “best man” at the wedding.  The preacher can play with this image: Jesus’ Baptism, this odd interaction between John and Jesus, as the ramping up to a wedding commitment, full of love, drama, romance, peril, permanence.

     And then we understand the trouble with Herod, who has obscenely corrupted the institution of marriage – and John’s critique of his ruining marriage is what lands him in prison.  The preacher will need to take care not to lambast marriage in our culture – but it’s so clear, such an easy target, so much trivialization, so much abuse, so much infidelity and marrying for less than holy reasons. What we need is for Christ the bridegroom to come down to the riverside and reclaim us as his people, as his holy bride.  “She is his new creation, by water and the word, from heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride; with his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.”

     Jesus’ Baptism has been painted, frescoed, sculpted and mosaiced so many times – usually near the church’s font, to indicate how our Baptism is like his, is one with him in his. But Jesus’ was peculiar in so many ways – including that a dove descended “in bodily form” (Luke’s intriguing clarification). Recently I was reading a book that pointed out how Giotto’s fresco of St. Francis preaching to the birds is paired (in the basilica in Assisi where he’s buried) with a fresco of Pentecost, which also involves a bird. Real birds, which Francis loved, a real but holy/mysterious bird at Jesus’ baptism, and the bird of the Spirit swooping down on the church at Pentecost.  Can a sermon just tease out these similarities, these evocative images, without explaining or drawing some sort of take-away or moral?

     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.”

     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.

     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.”

What can we say January 6? Epiphany

    How blessed, Epiphany falling on an actual Sunday! Our texts are magnificent. I’ll spend a bit of time with Isaiah, probably skate on past Ephesians, and focus on the Gospel.

     First, Isaiah 60:1-6. The prophet goes was deeper than “So rise and shine and give God the glory, glory.” In his eschatological vision, it’s not sunny optimism, or fun in worship. It’s standing, rising, as a people from the dead, as the downtrodden about to receive extraordinary news. And they shine, not because their faces are pretty, but reflecting the glory that is God’s alone, like Moses did in Exodus 34. I love Oscar Romero’s words – which I might cite in my sermon, but then I might use them as my benediction at the end of the service: “When we leave Mass, we ought to go out the way Moses descended Mt Sinai: with his face shining, with his heart brave and strong to face the world’s difficulties.”

     Classic, this text’s playing on the image of light in the darkness, frequent in the Old Testament, and anticipating the New, especially John’s theological slant on the coming of Christ (“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”). I wonder about going out into the dark one night, or maybe in my basement where it’s really dark, chilling in the dark for a while, then turning on a flashlight or lighting a candle – and noticing what it’s like, what I feel, what I think, what I envision darkness and light are like for others in my parish and in the broader world. Try this and see what dawns on you. Pun intended…

     Isaiah 60’s eschatological vision involves a great gathering, not some solo, you get into heaven affair. Nations, kings gather – and they’re still coming. I want to create the feel of the dramatic ending to “Field of Dreams.” No need to get corny – but why is that movie so moving? What does it touch inside even hard-crusted cynics?

    The prophet dreams of a day when wealth will pour into Israel. This isn’t prosperity Gospel. Israel, ridiculously impoverished, their hard earned cash having flowed out of Israel for decades, will receive the wealth. And not so they can be rich. So they can have enough, yes – and so the needy and disenfranchised of the world will have enough, yes – but also for the same reason the Egyptians gave the Israelites their jewelry before they took off on the Exodus: the stream of gold is for God, for God’s temple, for the proper worship of God.

     That focal point of the life of the world will then be fully about people, all people, gathering for worship, praise, love and fulfillment. John August Swanson’s great painting, “Festival of Lights,” is lovely and evokes the hope of Isaiah 60.

     As a footnote: Isaiah adds camels to his scenario, highlighting God’s lordship over all creation, and providing an exotic touch – not to mention one of survival in a parched wilderness. That these camels come toting gold and frankincense isn’t a prediction of a manger scene 500 years in the future. Fascinating, the way this text shaped the way we think of the magi (featured in our Gospel lection). Notice the myrrh isn’t mentioned here. The notion of suffering being the centerpiece of the dawning of God’s kingdom was the one real surprise in the way God wrought redemption through Jesus.

    Matthew 2:1-12. On the heels of the Christmas story, there’s no eluding Herod, the nastiest of all nasty kings. He would die soon: on his deathbed, he ordered the elite of the city to come to the hippodrome, had the gates locked behind them, and ordered that they be executed to guarantee an outpouring of grief when he himself died. The magi were lucky to get away after riskily saying to his face “Where is the king of the Jews? We have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2).

     Sometimes Bible readers get mixed up about which Herod was which. Herod the Great ruled when Jesus was born. But it was Herod Antipas, his son, who reigned when Jesus was crucified. There also was Herod Archaelaus, Herod Philip, and not one but two Herod Agrippas in the Bible! But really, Herod, Herod and Herod are the same guy. All were egotistical, insecure petty potentates, in bed with the Romans, and clueless about God.

     “We three kings of orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar.” At the very thought of them, I barely stifle a chuckle. My mind rushes to the hilarious scene in the Monty Python film, The Life of Brian, where the magi mistakenly show up at the wrong house, and then to John Irving’s novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany. Owen never liked “We Three Kings,” especially with its gory fourth stanza (“sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying”): “Doesn’t sound very Christmasy to me.”

     Then there are the pageants we’ve all sat through. Three dads pressed into duty, wearing bathrobes and cardboard crowns you assume were giveaways at Burger King, squinting a little, gazing slightly upwards, nodding, trying to look wise and regal processing to the manger. I witnessed one pageant where the narrator reached the moment in the story when “they fell down and worshipped him” – and one of the magi slipped and fell flat on his face, his fake gold coins clattering across the floor.

     Matthew tells us they came “from the east,” perhaps Persia or Arabia or the Syrian desert. The Bible does not tell us they were wise (as in “Wise men still seek him”). Traipsing off after a star seems rather foolish – and I can only hope to be yet one more fool traipsing off after the Light of the world. They certainly were not kings, although all the mighty kings chronicled through history will one day bow down to this King of Kings.

     They were magi, astrologers. There you have it: bawdy, theologically kooky humor at the very beginning of Jesus’ story! A Libra, a Pisces and a Taurus, gazing at their star charts, found Jesus, while Herod’s Bible scholars missed the Messiah entirely! How sobering: how many times I too have flipped through the Bible, holding truth in my hands, yet still missing the living Lord. I know quite a   few Bible things – but am I personally acquainted with the real Jesus? Dante spoke of “the love that moves the stars.” How determined is God to be found? There are no measures God won’t try, even tomfoolery, to reach people.

     What did they see? A supernova? Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction about that time; Halley’s comet passed not long before. Medieval writers believed the Magi saw a bright angel, which they mistook for a star. “The First Noel” seems to think the star was so bright it was visible even by day:  “It gave great light, and so it continued both day and night.” I love the Italian film by Pasolini depicting the Magi showing up in Bethlehem (view here, at the 8:25 mark – 4 minutes well-spent, trust me!). They smile, take the baby in their arms, lift him up, laugh. They greet him as you would any newborn child.

     During December I slip most easily into the roles the magi played. I bear gifts. I traverse afar. The magi popped in with their gifts, then departed. They didn’t stay close to the Lord Jesus like Joseph and Mary did. I wonder if I keep some distance, but feel pretty good about since, after all, I did give Jesus a few gifts. I paid my offering, said some prayers, read about the magi, took canned goods to the food collection – and then I go on my way.

     I fume about the commercialism of Christmas, and I could even blame the magi for kickstarting the whole idea of gift-giving at Christmas. Jesus certainly didn’t remember their visit and command us, “Because I was born, you shall shop for each other on my birthday.”

     Yet there must be something lovely in seizing upon this season of the Lord’s coming to traverse afar and be as generous as possible with those I love. Maybe the magi can teach us something about giving. What would a baby do with gold or incense, much less myrrh? Theologians have suggested the gifts symbolize Jesus’ royalty (gold), his divinity (frankincense), and his suffering (myrrh), but it’s hard to say this was the magi’s intent.

     They brought gifts of immense value; they brought what was precious to themselves. They parted with what they adored to adore the Lord. We are not so wise in our giving. I traverse not far at all when I shop, as I do it online. Why? It’s “easier,” more “convenient” for me. Or convenient for the recipient – hence the bane of gift cards, which say a lot about the giver (who hasn’t bothered to be creative or to think through the other person’s life and snoop around to find something meaningful), and even more about our vapid culture. We give cards… why? “They should be able to get what they want.”  Is life about what I want? What if I can’t get what I want, or if I get something I didn’t want? A friend ruefully told me about Christmas day with his grandchildren, who already owned much stuff before Christmas, unwrapping gift cards, swapping them like trading cards with cousins, and rushing over to the mall to purchase yet more unnecessary items. What do we give one another? What do we give to God?

     You wouldn't need to be warned in a dream not to revisit nasty king Herod!  But God lovingly warns them, and “they left for their own country by another road” (Matthew 2:12).  They took a different highway – but I imagine Matthew winking a little, hoping we’ll notice his subtle clue about what life is like once we’ve met Jesus. Nothing is the same. You find yourself going another way. T.S. Eliot ended his poem imagining the thoughts of the magi:  “We returned to our places... but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.” Jesus does not make my life more comfortable; Jesus doesn’t help me fit in and succeed. We are no longer at ease in a world not committed to Jesus. A strange, unfamiliar road is now our path. But the road is going somewhere. 
Images are from Swanson, Rembrandt, and the mosaic at St Apollinaire in Ravenna.

Friday, December 15, 2017

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}

Thursday, December 14, 2017

What can we say come Christmas Eve/Christmas?

    Christmas Eve.  There's still usable Advent material in my previous blog, "Preaching Advent" - but beyond that, here are some key questions and thoughts I’ve assembled over the years of preaching Christmas Eve:

     (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”). When I wrote a book about Christmas music (Why This Jubilee?) a couple of years ago, I found myself surprised, delighted and moved over and over by the depth of theology and psychology and geography and history in our simple carols; I now try to help people really hear what they've sung by heart forever.

     (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 Christmases 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?  A couple of 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.”


   ** My two newest books, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, and Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership, are available.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

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?