Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Why the Incarnation?

     We come to that awkward Sunday in the season of Christmas when we find ourselves out of touch with both the rest of the world and much of those in the wider Church.  The wider world, of course, has moved on to New Year’s Eve celebrations and meaningless bowl games on New Year’s Day.  The after Christmas sales have been pillaged.  The trees have been put away.  And most folks have their heads in the sand about their upcoming credit card bills that will arrive later this month.  In some ways, those who self-identify as Christians are indistinguishable from the wider world.  I have friends in other denominations who have put away their decorations, after having taken part in the same sales and observing the same bowl rituals.
     Some years we get two Sunday’s in Christmas, if the calendar falls just so.  This year, of course, we get only one.  When next we gather in 2019, we will celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany.  Christmas is, even for us, all too brief.
     In the grand scheme of things, I often wonder why the awe and wonder of Silent Night, Holy Night was not celebrated a few weeks more.  I mean, we are talking about the Incarnation here, the Holy Mystery that God became fully human, born of the flesh of the Virgin Mary His mother.  Maybe we should make it a bit longer to fit the absolute magnificence of the event?
     I’m guessing the early Church figured out we were pretty much like the early Apostles and disciples.  They wanted to spend more time in the mountain top experiences, and Jesus consistently sent them back into the valleys of death to proclaim that He, and His kingdom, had come near.  And, truth be told, the real awe and wonder of Jesus’ presence among us might not be the Incarnation.  Some may be more overwhelmed in thanksgiving for His willingness to suffer for us and to die for us, and that is totally understandable.  It’s kind of like arguing over whether this Belgian chocolate or that Belgian chocolate is better or, since we are Episcopalians, arguing over whether Dom Perignon or Taittinger champagne is more appropriate for celebrating the New Year.  Great, you look at me like I’ve lost my mind on the chocolate but totally get the meaning thanks to the champagne?
     I know those questions have buzzed about me this week as I have had conversations with folks in the secular world and in the church world about Christmas.  Most of my secular conversations have been at Publix and Kroger.  While my kids and Karen and I love a great roast beast Christmas dinner, the leftover sandwiches with Havarti cheese and homemade horseradish sauce.  Each day, it seems like, I have been at one place or the other.  As I have checked out with ladies with whom I speak all the year round, I have wished them a Merry Christmas.  The first couple days they did not want to tell me my business, but Christmas ended Tuesday.  With all four ladies I tried the whole Christmas is a season in the Church that runs from the Nativity to the Epiphany, the coming of the Wise Men.  That got me all kinds of blank stares.  So, I resorted to the secular proof of the Twelve Days of Christmas.  They know I am a priest.  They think I am nice enough to engage them on anything and, for the most part, give Godly advice.  But I cannot know what I am talking about when I say Christmas is a season and not a day in the Church.  But, the Twelves Days of Christmas song?  That’s better than Wikipedia once they realize it’s about the season!  I take it as a small victory that one of the ladies at Publix asked me if I got Karen five gold rings for yesterday.
     Within the Church, the conversations are far more nuanced.  Friends in other denominations have remarked that our wreaths are still up, that our poinsettias are still out, that we use the candelabra like it’s a catholic feast, and all those kinds of questions.  Usually, the questions come back to some suggestion that we are lingering too much on the birth of Jesus and not enough on His death and Resurrection.  I try to explain we remember it all each and every time we celebrate the Eucharist, that for us it is all intertwined for most of the year.  But, we in the Church, every bit as those without, need to be reminded of why we are so awed, so overwhelmed by the idea that God would become human, what the Incarnation really means to us and for us.
     Even Episcopalians and Adventers, though, have had their opinions about the season.  I have had several conversations about why the Church celebrates the martyrdom of Stephen on the 26th and the Feast of the Holy Innocents on the 28th every year.  For those who like to observe a nice, quiet, joyful Christmas, those celebrations and remembrances seem more suited to other times of the year, like Lent.  I’ve had to remind folks here of Carola’s teaching when she was with us, and folks in the wider church about the fact that we are living in that tension between the “already” and the “not yet.”  We know how this story ends; we just don’t know when it ends.  And we who are God’s heralds, His sons and daughters, recognize that we live in a world that still fights against Him, that tries hard to overcome His light with its darkness.  And so, those feasts call us back into the world.  Like the Apostles who viewed the Transfiguration of our Lord, we are not allowed to bask in the glory of the promise.  We are sent back out into a world wrecked by sin, by guilt, by shame to minister in His Name and to proclaim the truth Monday night makes possible.
     Speaking of which, if you have been visiting with family for a couple weeks and you have expressed a wonder about the comforting and afflicting natures of good sermons, this will not be one of those, at least I hope it will not be one of those.  This is a day about comforting His people and focusing on the glorious calling He has offered each of us – there are no intended spiritual wedgies on my part this morning!
     If you have a picture of Jesus’ birth, it comes from Matthew and Luke.  Mark, as many of us should know, jumps into Jesus’ ministry as an adult.  Mark is mostly a crucifixion and resurrection story with a bit of an introduction.  Matthew and Luke are the ones who provide us with the Annunciation, with Joseph’s doubts, with Elizabeth’s baby leaping in the womb at Mary’s voice, with the manger, with the shepherds, and with the angelic choir.  Those “earthly” details are largely eschewed by John.  John places Jesus’ birth in the cosmology of salvation history.  John argues that this Birth was the Birth to which and for which all Creation pointed and longed.
     If I asked you to name the most famous verse in John, most of you would probably cite 3:16.  It’s understandable.  We can’t go to a basketball or football game without seeing the verse.  For God so loved the world . . . .  What is the second most famous verse in John?  My guess is that many would argue that 1:1 is the second most famous.  I did have someone argue in favor of the unity prayer from chapter 17.  I must confess, it was a good argument.  We both finally agreed that it might be more important, but not as well known to folks in the pew.
     Part of the reason that you know this passage so well is that you get to hear it t-2-3 times every year, depending on the cycle and the number of times you attend church.  Those who attend church only on Christmas each year get to hear it at the end of the service as they light their individual candles, reminding them of the truth of this passage.  All that we are is based in Him.  He is the true light, but He promises to plant a light in us, if we allow.
     But that light planted in us, that calling us to be heralds of His Gospel, is for a glorious purpose.  We might think it cool to remember that Jesus came down from heaven and became fully human, but the truth is that He did it for far more significant purposes than just to be “cool” or create in us “warm fuzzy feelings.”  And, although Jesus died that we might be reconciled to God, there is something else at work in this Holy mystery we call the Incarnation.  We pass over it because of its familiarity; we often ignore the Gospel aspect of the prologue of John’s writing because it is buried in the middle of this paragraph.  Why did God do this?  Why did God come down from heaven?  Why do we remind ourselves of the mystery and awe each and every year?
     Look at verses 12-13.  But to all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.  Look, I get that our adoption cannot be completed without the Passion and Death of our Lord.  I understand that as well as anyone here.  But it is this feast of the Incarnation which we celebrate and whose purpose is revealed to us in John’s writing.  All this, all this described in the wonder and majesty of John’s Gospel was for the glorious purpose of making it possible for those who desire so to do, to become children of God.  We know, of course, how that is finally accomplished, but this day we remind ourselves of His glorious purpose and our glorious calling!  Our backgrounds do not matter.  Our skin colors do not matter.  Our ethnic or tribal allegiances do not matter.  Our past failures do not matter.  Our self-loathing does not matter.  This day, we remind ourselves that THAT NIGHT happened so that we who desired it could become children of God!
     Whatever strikes against us because of our flesh, because of our mortality, because of our sins and shortcomings are begun to be erased, if we but want them erased.  Jesus came at this point in salvation history for the express purpose of making it possible for us to become children of God.  In this day and age of broken families, in this day and age where we read and hear and know all too well the failures of human family members, how freeing, how hope-planting is the certainty that we can choose to be children of God?
     Of course, there is an obligation that comes with our choosing to be a child of God.  You and I, by virtue of our desire to be His child, are called to witness to His love.  You and I are called to bear little crosses even as His Son our Lord Christ bore the Cross, but even that is done in the shadowy glory of the Empty Tomb.  We are, like the angelic choir that glorious night, heralds of His Gospel in a world that still rejects Him, in a world that would rather choose darkness than His light.  We know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that God can redeem all our sufferings and even our death.  And so we lift those crosses, we witness His Gospel, knowing that the world in which we live is not the world to which He finally calls us.  We feed the hungry and clothe the poor and pray for the sick and support one another through whatever trials certain that one day, one glorious day in the future, we will see Him face to face, as a friend and not as a stranger!  We welcome all who come seeking Him and seeking to be His child, just as those before us welcomed us in all our tattered clothing with all our emotional baggage.  And, much as that Christ candle flame passes from that white candle from person to person during the singing of Holy Night in our liturgy, His love, His Gospel, passes from person to person thanks to His intervening grace and will.
     More significantly, even though the world covets the darkness and rejects Him at every turn, that light planted in us helps point those living in darkness to the One who created them, the One who redeemed them, and the One who has greater plans in store for them than they can ask or imagine, if only they would seek Him.  And that, my friends, is why the world needs to spend a bit more time in the season of wonder; that is why we would do well to consider the seriousness of our calling.  That my dear Adventers, is herald we are called to be not only in this season, but throughout the year and throughout our lives, until He comes again and completes the work He started in a little town called Bethlehem two millennia ago!

In Christ’s Peace,

Monday, December 31, 2018

On suffering and loss and the Holy Innocents

     In some preparation for this service, I did some extra reading on the Feast of the Holy Innocents and its place in the Church.  Some of the things I read were unsurprising.  There is thought that the day was remembered with the Feast of Epiphany for the first couple centuries, but by the fifth century, the feast was celebrated on its own.  The babies and toddlers slain by Herod in an attempt to keep the king of the Jews from usurping his place were considered by the early Church to be the first martyrs for Jesus.  Because of their deaths, Herod presumed he’d gotten the child the wise men sought to visit, so he was able to drop his guard.  They were not martyrs of the Church, like Stephen on Wednesday, but they died all the same for Jesus.
     Some of the traditions around the feast did surprise me.  In monasteries and convents, the youngest monks and sisters ruled for the day in place of their abbots and mother superiors.  Bishops took to selecting a youth to serve as the diocesan for the celebration of the feast – sometimes this seems to have gone on for a week.  Of course, sin being ever present, these ideas of elevating the ministry of children were corrupted.  What was meant to honor these slain children and Christ’s teaching on children eventually became a mockery.  By the time the 15th century rolled around, the Council of Basel had to outlaw the practice.  Another practice that has fallen by the wayside, thankfully, over the years, was one developed by our British ancestors.  Parents or pastors would wake the children this day by beating them in their beds, thereby putting them in the appropriate somber and reflective mood of what had been suffered by the Holy Innocents so many years before.  Yep, like y’all, I’m thinking maybe there’s a place to revisit that practice!  For some reason, my kids disagree.  They’d much rather serve as bishop, rector, or parents for the day!
     In the modern Church, and in particular our Anglican church, the day is increasingly being used to remember those children or youths who have died untimely deaths.  I know my sermons and Randy’s on Job this past fall caused the subject of miscarriages and stillbirths to be discussed in many quarters.  A few Adventers even lost growing children due to accidents or diseases.  I know my pastoral conversations that month convinced me that Liturgy & Worship had done a great thing in adding this feast to our parish calendar.  I had hoped two or three dozen folks would come tonight.  I certainly figured it would be far better received than a Bible study on Job.
     In other corners of the Communion, the feast is used to commemorate those who suffer any injustice in the world.  I can well imagine our brothers and sisters lamenting the deaths of two children in our custody while their parents tried to claim asylum.  I can certainly imagine our brothers and sisters around the world using a similar liturgy to mourn those who lost their life due to natural disasters such as floods, fires, or tsunami.
     What we celebrate tonight was approved at General Convention this summer and, for what it is worth, has intrigued the bishop.  If you are new to us tonight, the idea of complaining to God and lamenting before God may seem out of place in a church service.  Many in the wider church community buy into that narrative that everything that happens to us God planned for us.  It may seem a subtle difference to some, and crazy to others, but God is working to redeem us and all that we suffer.  He is not some omnipotent monstrosity sitting up in heaven saying “Billy needs to lose his job today at Christmas so that he learns to trust Me,” “Susie needs to come down with cancer so that she learns to worship and pray to Me,” “Fred failed as a husband so I need to punishing him by doing this to him.”  Those things happen, as part of life, but only because we rejected God and allowed sin to enter into us and the world around us.  The Litany of Complaint reminds us that we can rail at God about our life’s circumstance.  Not only is such complaining NOT a sin; God encourages us to complain to Him.  Think of the psalms of Imprecation.  Think of the complaints of the prophet.  God has given us those examples in Holy Scripture Himself.
     The same is true of laments.  An entire book, albeit rather short, is devoted to lamentation.  It is more than appropriate that we share in deep sorrow with God with the events that beset His beloved children.  Laments recognize at a fundamental level that things are not as they are supposed to be.  And so, tonight, we use a liturgy that formalizes that understanding, encourages us to cry out to our Father in heaven to make it right, whatever the right is, and to remind ourselves to trust in His grace.  The liturgy we celebrate tonight is specifically designed for those who suffered the loss of children, in that we share with the Psalmist and the prophet, but there may be lots of other appropriate losses or sufferings that cause deep suffering within us.  We are reminded this night that our Father, Whose only Son we killed, knows all too well our pains, our hurts, our anger, our raging impotence, and our need.  Like all those who suffered before us and threw their cares on God, we, too, will ask God for the grace the bear the cross we have been given. 
     One such corporate suffering is the loss of babies.  We live in a culture that takes for granted the idea that women get pregnant when they want and have babies when they want.  I shared with Adventers over the readings on Job how that illusion was smashed by my experience in seminary.  I think at one point seminarians had suffered something like fourteen miscarriages.  We also had a couple babies die at birth.  I shared at the time how one of my children refused to get excited about pregnancies because “what’s the point, they are going to die anyway.”  I think the stories resonated with Adventers because ordinands, those seeking to become priests in Christ’s church, ought to be the ones most protected by God in the minds of many.  Yet here seminarians were, toiling for God and suffering similar loss.
     The wider Church and the wider world makes it even harder, doesn’t it?  When folks find out a lady has suffered a miscarriage or stillbirth or some other tragic loss of a child, what’s the response?  My guess is that many of you gathered here tonight have heard those cruel words of comfort: “It’s just as well.  There was probably something wrong with the baby, and you would not want THAT burden.”  “At least the child is no longer suffering.”  “God needed another angel,” as if angels and human beings are interchangeable and God could make the heavens and earth out of nothing but He couldn’t make one more angel?  And my personal favorite: “You are young.  You have plenty of time to try again.”  I see that some of you have heard those words.  No doubt some of you have heard worse.
     And, although only one Y chromosome is represented among you tonight, men have shared with me here at Advent their lack of outlet to mourn that loss.  In some ways it is harder for women, as you ladies feel the new life getting active within you.  For us, it’s a theoretical experience until a doctor places that infant in our arms.  But some men begin dreaming and making plans the moment they find out their wife is pregnant.  Some men begin to plan out sporting events, hunting trips, fishing trips, and all kinds of bonding experiences for that life growing within our beloved wives.  And when that life is lost, what do we do?  Our friends say even meaner things to the guys.  We know intuitively that our wives often feel guilt and worry they did something wrong.  How can we add to her burden?  And so we suffer.  In silence.
     And in that silence, the voice of God’s speaks to our hearts.  “Father, do you think this was God’s way of punishing me for sleeping around when I was younger?”  Father, do you think that was God’s way of trying to get my attention when I was younger?”  “Father, do you think that was God’s way of telling me I really shouldn’t try to be a father?  I mean, it turns out I was not as good at it as I thought I would be.”
     We gather tonight and remember the Innocents who died while the Holy Family fled to Egypt for both comfort and encouragement.  Some theologians and ancient historians like to debate whether the events described in Matthew’s Gospel really happened.  I get the questions.  I understand how some of us might wish there were more sources that described the events of that time.  But God is famous throughout His Scriptures in lifting up the marginalized and working through the lowly.  I read a couple articles this week in preparation for this service that figured fewer than two dozen babies or toddlers were killed by Herod’s men.  Given the size of the town of Bethlehem and human statistics, it is likely no more than 24 toddlers around Jesus age existed.  The killing of them in a backwater province, in an Empire which routinely extinguished lives like we do candles, such deaths could pass relatively unnoticed.  Yet here’s Matthew spending a few lines of his Gospel and relating to us the unimaginable horror experienced by those families at that time.  Could it be a fanciful retelling of Pharaoh’s edict in Exodus 1?  It’s possible.  Once you have accepted that God can create from nothing and raise a dead man to life, though, what need has He of such fanciful stories?  Given that Herod killed three of his own sons, is it really that hard to accept he killed another 15-20 infants and toddlers to ensure that he remained in power?
     I think Matthew includes the story because it is true and it reminds us of the heart and attention of our Father in heaven.  In an Empire where life was cheap, of what value are a few more?  In a kingdom where a king killed his own sons, why do our modern sensibilities find these deaths so shocking?  God, of course, misses nothing.  God sees and knows all.  In His kingdom nothing is beneath His notice.  There may have been as few as a dozen children killed, yet God caused their deaths to be memorialized in the Church as a reminder that He never forgets, He never does not pay attention.  And so we who see or experience such sufferings can take hope and encouragement.  We may have felt alone when we lost a child, but we are reminded in this story that God most definitely was paying attention.  We may think our personal tragedies irredeemable, but God reminds us, through the work and Resurrection of His Son our Lord that nothing is beyond His power or will to redeem.  And, just as significantly in these stories, we remind ourselves that this, all that happens around us, be they good things or bad, are not what He intended for us.
     And so, once again this night, we cast our fears, our hurts, our failures, our anger, and everything else that works to enslave us, that works to seduce us from His fatherly embrace of each one of us, on His most capable shoulders, knowing that He who redeemed sin and death can redeem whatever evil brought us to this service tonight and bend that event, no matter how terrible its impact on us and others in our lives, to the point that He is glorified.  Make no mistake, you will likely still bear some sense of loss.  You will still bear some possibilities of “what if.”  Until our Lord calls you home or until He returns and re-creates everything as it was supposed to be, you may suffer moments of melancholy.  That’s ok.  There’s nothing wrong with your faith.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting God to fix everything.
      But that same God who sent His Son so that we might experience the wonder of that Silent Night Holy Night of Monday night, and the hope we should feel when we recount the story of Easter, is the same God who promises to redeem all things in your life, even that unimaginable hurt you bear this night, that in the end, He may be gloried in you and you in Him.

In His Peace,