Sunday, December 24, 2023

Christmas, 2023: The eternally happening birth of the Christ

Lectionary: Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

En el nombre de Aquel que es Padre y Madre, Salvador y EspĂ­ritu Sagrado: el Uno y el Tres. In the name of the One who is Father and Mother, Savior and Sacred Spirit: the One and the Three. Amen.

Christmas blessings to you all!

Each year, as we read this story from Luke, a video plays in our minds and it goes something like this: Joseph and Mary set out on a long journey - 90 miles - to Bethlehem so that Joseph can register in the census according to his family lineage – being from the house of David. They need to find a place to stay quickly because the very pregnant Mary is about ready to deliver her baby.

In the Latin American tradition of Las Posadas, which means, “the inns,” Mary and Joseph knock on door after door seeking safe shelter for the birth of Jesus, but no one admits them. As a result, they end up in a stable, where the Messiah is born.

The video continues with the baby Jesus, wrapped in bands of cloth, lying in a manger on top of hay, with Mary and Joseph kneeling beside him, an angel behind or above them, and above the angel is a huge star shining in the dark night pointing to the place where the newborn Savior rests.

Shepherds show up and join the animals who are quietly present, and all gaze with awe upon the Holy Family before them. In some of these mental videos, a little boy plays a drum – which is the subject of many hilarious memes on social media.

The videos we play in our minds reflect the traditions from many nations that we’ve learned and incorporated into our spiritual experiences. They aren’t literally true, in fact, much of Luke’s gospel story of Jesus’ birth isn’t literally true, but they aren’t meant to be. They are meant to teach us important lessons about this momentous event in human history and what it means for us today.

For example, in the first part of this mental video, Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem for the census. There is “no record of a general census of the Roman Empire under [Caesar] Augustus, nor… any record of a census of Judea at the time of Jesus' birth, and Quirinius wasn’t even governor until years later, and Roman registration did not generally require people to return to their place of birth.” (Dick Donovan) Yet our story includes these things. Why?

Stories teach us important truths and one truth this story offers us is that our journey to life with Jesus involves living in the real world and doing our duty within it. It also involves a willingness on our part to go from where we are to where God is calling us to be, as tempting as it is to stay put, believing what we already hold to be true.

The story also affirms for us that as we journey, we may not be welcomed by others who don’t want to know the transforming truth being born in us. They may judge us and close their doors to us because of our life circumstances, our sexuality, our gender, or the color of our skin.

We may reach the point of feeling desperate and unfairly treated, but our faith assures us that God will provide us a place for our new birth. It may be humble, but humility is an important lesson for us all as we journey into life in Jesus, who is the icon of humility.

Another lesson is the affirmation that we don’t do this journey into life in Jesus alone. The family unit of Joseph and Mary was part of a larger family whom they went to connect with as part of their preparation. Their lineage was part of their journey.

We too are part of a larger family: the church, which is part of the Judeo-Christian tradition that is our foundation. Every step we take in this journey continues the steps our ancestors took first. We carry them in our hearts and they continue to guide us as part of the communion of saints.

Journeying into life with Jesus requires community. We don’t do this alone. One of the most destructive beliefs of the modern era, imho, is that Jesus is my personal savior, but our Scripture and tradition tell us that salvation is for the whole world.

Isaiah talks about people who have seen a great light, it's a kingdom of God being established, and in a later chapter, God speaks through the prophet saying, “It is too small a thing for you to… restore the tribes of Jacob and… Israel... I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

Today’s psalm instructs us to declare God’s “glory among the nations and his wonders among all peoples… In the letter to Titus, Paul says God is bringing salvation to all the world. In Luke’s gospel, when the shepherds see and experience the infant Messiah in the manger as the angels told them they would, they rush out to share broadly this good news of great joy and all who heard them were amazed.

The lesson is simply this, as said by N.T. Wright, former Bp. of Durham in England, “There are no individual Christians.”* Christians are, by definition, a body – the body of Christ in the world. Salvation is for all of us.

As the mental video continues, we see the typical creche scene with Jesus in the manger, Mary and Joseph at his side, animals peacefully present with shepherds nearby holding their crooks – all gazing in awe at the baby before them. What is the lesson of this part of the story?

When we open our eyes to see Jesus we will recognize his divine presence and be overcome with a peace that makes no sense in the world but is real in our bodies and spirits.

As for the drummer boy, really, the memes are hilarious. My favorite one says, “Mary, exhausted, having just gotten Jesus to sleep, is approached by a young man who thinks to himself: what this girl needs is a drum solo.”

For many indigenous cultures, however, the drum is an important spiritual tool that manifests the divine heartbeat in all of creation for those who learn how to listen. There are also the more traditional lessons that we give from the gifts God has given us, gifts don’t have to be expensive, and giving of ourselves makes every gift we offer a gift of great value.

The shepherds teach us that God chooses those whom society wouldn’t: the poor, dirty, uneducated, and unimportant. Without any theological education, these first evangelists, the shepherds, witnessed with great effect, therefore, so can we all... so can you.

As Episcopalians, we don’t read the Bible literally. We open ourselves to the truths it offers by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, eternal truths that guide us in the 21st century as effectively as they guided the believers in the first century BCE.

And the truth of Christmas is this: today we celebrate the birth of new life - the Christ. This new life has been conceived by God, is God, and has been made manifest in the world. 

It starts small, this new life. It’s as delicate and vulnerable as it is beautiful. The people given to care for this new life know they’re going to have to tend to it for a long time before it comes into its fullness. This means they have to commit long-term to doing the little things, the every day, inglorious things, so that, when it comes to its fullness, this new life, conceived by God, will have its effect.

For Mary and Joseph, that meant breastfeeding a crying baby Jesus, changing his dirty diapers, schlepping back and forth between Bethlehem, Egypt, and Nazareth to keep him from being destroyed by insane, earthly power, teaching him to be a carpenter, and taking him to church to learn his faith.

For us, it means doing the everyday, inglorious spiritual and worldly work that feeds and nurtures the new life of Christ God is giving us. Practicing the disciplines of daily prayer, attending weekly corporate worship, caring for our bodies as the dwelling places of the Holy Spirit of God, and being patient, loving, and hope-filled even as tensions rise and compassion disappears in the world around us. As Marianne Williams says in her poem, "Our Greatest Fear." "We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us."

One of the reasons the Christmas story never gets old, I think, is because it is so deeply within us, because Christ is so deeply in us. This isn’t just the sacred story of the birth of Jesus to Mary and Joseph, it’s the sacred story of the eternally happening birth of the Christ; the continuing birth of new life in all humankind, redeeming life conceived by God, and made manifest in us, who share this good news of great joy with the effect that one day the whole world will be reconciled to God.

May the blessings of Christmas be lavished upon us all and through us, the world. Amen.

* Wright, N.T., What St. Paul Really Said, Was Paul of Tarsus the real founder of Christianity? (Wm B Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI, 1997), 158.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Advent 3-B, 2023: Our reason to rejoice

Lectionary: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8,19-28 

En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

Happy Gaudete Sunday! The Latin word 'gaudete' means ‘to be filled with joy.' The form of the word is the imperative. It’s critical – a matter of life and death.

The mandate of Gaudete reminds us that, no matter what has us weighed down, brokenhearted, angry, or hopeless, God is with us. Christ’s spirit is in us, and so, the joy that anticipates the saving action of God who will come with great might and bountiful grace to help us; the joy that trusts that nothing is impossible with God is already ours. We need only claim it.

Joy is different from happiness and one of the best resources I’ve found about this is in the collaborative book by Archbishop Desmond Tutu (God rest his soul) and the His Holiness, the Dali Lama, called, “The Book of Joy.” There they discuss 8 Pillars of Joy. I’ve linked a webpage to this sermon that summarizes these well. 

These pillars include: 

  • PERSPECTIVE – a God’s-eye perspective that enables empathy. 
  •  HUMILITY which opens us to right relationships where everyone matters. 
  •  HUMOR which diffuses pain and connects us in our common humanity. 
  •  ACCEPTANCE which frees us from the illusion of our control. 
  •  FORGIVENESS which enables us to take our power and our life back from those who have harmed us and frees us to seek true justice. 
  •  GRATITUDE which opens our hearts to all that connects us, shifting our focus from what we lack to what we have. 
  •  COMPASSION - the unifying force that recognizes we are all one and enables us to love one another and ourselves in all our imperfection. 
  •  GENEROSITY which connects us to abundance - returning more to the one who gives, rather than depleting resources.

The bottom line is this: joy is not attached to circumstances. It is an inner state of being that persists in every circumstance.

One sure sign of joy is in the freedom from jubilee: the ancient Jewish practice of the forgiveness of debts, freedom from slavery, and resetting of access to resources. In the reading from the prophet Isaiah, we are called to proclaim both the year of the Lord’s favor, that is, the time of jubilee, and also the day of vengeance of our God.

The word translated here as “vengeance” also translates as “to be reassigned.” Isaiah is describing a process of divine jubilee by which God restores shalom: the wholeness and completeness of creation as intended by God from the beginning. As God restores shalom, it will be liberating for the oppressed, the brokenhearted, and the captive, but for those who hold and hoard power, privilege, or wealth, it will feel like loss and punishment – at least at first. Once right relationships are restored in the shalom of God, however, it will be clear how cherished all are to God, and that there is enough for everyone in the abundance of God, and there will be rejoicing in that truth.

Rejoice, St. Paul says, … for this is the will of God, in every circumstance.

When we rejoice, we relax in our bodies and souls. We anticipate being cared for by God whose power is love, whose gift is grace, and whose mercy is like arms outstretched drawing us into a divine hug. We are safe and at peace. In that state, we can listen because our minds are finally at rest, and we can take in the message being given to us.

This is the message of today’s gospel story about John the Baptist. John came to testify to the light, who is Jesus. The specifics of the reassigning God is doing in this story are kind of fun, so we’ll look at a few of them.

The Jewish people had been anticipating the saving action of God through the arrival of the Messiah who would deliver them from their oppression, brokenheartedness, and captivity, in this case to the Romans. John shows up preaching repentance instead, exhorting people to go a new way, and baptizing them with water – a practice usually reserved for Gentiles who were converting to Judaism. The people are eating up his message and following him in droves.

This, of course, makes the religious leadership nervous. John isn’t doing anything technically against their law, but he is becoming a powerful voice in their community – which is starting to feel threatening to them. They also worry about the Roman response to John – which as you know, ended up being a legitimate concern. More importantly, however, was that the people were conflating the hope they heard in John’s message with John himself, and rumors were beginning to foment that he, John, was the awaited Messiah.

John makes explicitly clear that he is NOT the light, he is not the prophet, he is not the Messiah. “Who are you then?” they ask.

I am a voice, he says, crying out in the wilderness, which in this case, refers to a place of political disfavor, an inhospitable region, which Jerusalem was. “Make straight the way of the Lord!” which was a quote from Isaiah, chapter 40, which begins: “Comfort, comfort ye my people, says your God.”

In that time, the Israelites were being held captive in Babylon. It was an inhospitable place of political disfavor for them, but God was promising them the restoration of shalom where everyone would be brought to a level playing field, where they would find peace and safety in the bosom of God, and the glory of God would be revealed to them.

Make straight the way of the Lord, John says. God is acting now to restore shalom. Focus your vision. Open your ears to hear the voice of God leading you. Trust in your heart and keep moving through this moment and into the shalom of God. You will find peace and safety in the care of God and the glory of God will be revealed to you.

John also proclaims in this gospel, that he is not worthy to untie the thong of the sandal of the one who is coming after him – which is a task no self-respecting Jew would have done back then. It was relegated to Gentile slaves, in other words, to the lowest of the low.

John says he himself is even lower than that. This is a colorful exaggeration to illustrate how far God will reach to raise us up, to lift us into divine glory. What was so attractive about John’s message, I think, was that he was proclaiming that there was already one among them, whom they do not know yet, who was about to do just that. It was imminent.

As we continue our Advent waiting in this cycle of our renewal, we also must wait and see, focusing our vision, opening our ears to hear the voice of God leading us, and trusting in our hearts. We must keep moving through the current circumstances in our lives and into the shalom of God. For it is there we find peace and safety in the care of God and joy that surpasses all understanding.

For us, the glory of God, the fullness of the revelation of God is found in Jesus. He is the place of our peace and safety. He is the voice that leads us, the light that shines in every darkness, and the love that fills us – body and soul – in every circumstance. That is the promise and our reason to rejoice. Amen.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

Advent 1-B: Our hope is in Jesus

Lectionary: Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37 

As Christians our hope is in Jesus - that Jesus is always coming, always redeeming, always reconciling us back to God. This is the hope we pause to ponder on this first Sunday in Advent.

How do we do that given the pretty terrifying Scriptures assigned for today? It isn’t that hard, but it does take faith.

For example, in the reading from Isaiah, we see the acknowledgment of a God so awesome that the mountains (that is, all creation) and nations (all created people) quake in Their presence. This awesome God moves from astounding in our eyes to formidable, even frightening, as we recognize our guilt and the shame that causes us. We know what is wrong and when we do wrong, we anticipate being punished for it; and when we are wronged, we get mad, and most often, we get even, or at least we try to.

Road rage is a perfect example. I witnessed a car dual just the other day as I drove to work. I was the third car back at a stop light. The first car delayed moving when the left turn light came on. The second car laid down on their horn and didn’t let up, even after the first car started moving. Then I watched the second car speed around the first car and cut in front of them, forcing them across the double-yellow line into oncoming traffic, which had to swerve to avoid a collision. All of us behind them slowed down too – just in case. Both cars turned off at the next light so I don’t know how the story ended, but based on how it started, I can’t think it ended well. So many lives put at risk, and for what? There’s a reason God admonished us to leave our need for revenge in God’s hands. And seriously, over a few seconds delay at a traffic light? What has happened to our collective maturity?

It’s common to project our responses onto God, as happens in today’s reading from Isaiah, and while the sentiments in this passage are an honest expression of human experience, they are not how God works. God, who formed us marvelously in our mother’s wombs, who led us out of slavery into freedom, who gave his life for our redemption, is not petty or retributive, but just – and God’s justice is always, always bound together with God’s mercy in service to God’s plan of salvation for the whole world.

Our life is sustained by the very breath of God our Creator, therefore, while we live, God chooses life for us. While we live, we are beloved of the one who formed us and promised to be with us in every circumstance in the world around us.

And that is where we find the darkness – in the world around us – and the more we encounter this darkness, the more it enters us, wears down our hope, and displaces our inner divine light. We need only flick on the news to see the devastation war wreaks on the lives of God’s created. We feel our bodies respond by clenching our stomachs, raising our blood pressure, or shutting down our thoughts. In moments like these the ancient words of today’s psalm ring out in our hearts: “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance and we will be saved.” 

…which is the point of Jesus’ teaching today. When darkness steals our hope, we are to awaken to the truth that God is already with us, in us, redeeming and reconciling us – all of us – from the four corners of the earth.

It’s important to note that Jesus was talking to Jewish people using language and concepts familiar to them. Apocalyptic language was a common device used in ancient Jewish religion. The word apocalypse actually means unveiling or revelation, so the apocalyptic teachings were meant to provide hope to the suffering by unveiling the assurance that God will redeem all things in the end.

Jesus was also speaking in this gospel about something very specific to his listeners in their time: the coming destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish people understood the temple to be where the presence of God was found. The hope Jesus was giving them was that their sense of desolation from the absence of their temple would be filled by the light of the truth that Jesus himself, is the temple. In him is the presence of God. The hope Jesus gave them was that what the prophet Daniel had said would be fulfilled: that after the destruction of their temple, God would gather the chosen people, which is what the Jewish people called themselves, from everywhere they had been scattered, and restore them to unity.

That was for them. What about us? What can we understand now in our time as Christian listeners?

We can hear the same truth when we listen with the ears of our faith. Our hope is in Jesus, who gave us his own spirit at Pentecost. Being temples of his spirit, we have been made partners with Jesus in his continuing ministry of the reconciliation of the whole world to God.

In the verses ahead of today’s gospel Jesus describes the human experience of trauma and tragedy reminding us that horrible things will happen: wars, earthquakes, false prophets, betrayal by family, profaning the temple, which happened later, btw, when the Roman guards sacrificed pigs on their temple altars. When unthinkable horrors happen, Jesus says, you will wonder how the stars can shine or the sun can rise the next day as if nothing happened.

But the stars do shine, and the sunrise brings another day – not because of anything we do, but because of what God does. God breathes life into us, and so we have life. And not just life, but abundant life, full of joy as Jesus promised. That is our hope. He is our hope.

When horrible things happen in our lives or in the life of our community, Jesus reminds us to keep alert; to watch for him to show up as light in our darkness. We aren’t good at this. Jesus’ own disciples fell asleep when he asked them to keep watch while he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. When they awoke, they were startled and afraid as they watched the Roman soldiers arrest Jesus and take him away to his trial and inevitable execution.

Like the disciples, we can get lost in the despair that swirls around us when horrible things happen. We tend to ask questions like, “Where is God? Why doesn’t God stop this? What am I supposed to do?”

Jesus teaches us to wait and keep watch. He is coming. He is always coming redeeming and reconciling us back into God. We can’t know when these things may happen, so we must always allow Jesus to wake us up so we can see him and be active partners with him in his plan of salvation.

I close with a short prayer from John Donne: Keep us, Lord, so awake in the duties of our calling that we may sleep in thy peace and wake in thy glory. Amen.