Thursday, January 12, 2017

On bad decisions, bathrooms, coffee, and the manifestation of our Lord Christ . . .

     Manifestation.  Showing forth or revealing.  We are here today in observance of the manifestation/showing forth/revealing of Christ to the Gentile world.  Nearly all of us present here today at Advent are glad for this event, as it was the event which ultimately led to our grafting into the people of God, the new Israel, the Church.  But what does it really mean?  And like so many of our other stories, there is so much added by tradition that we can barely recognize the Biblical story.  We just sang “We three kings.”  It is a well-known song.  Heck, it is well known enough that there are parodies of the song in the secular world.  Ask any child about rubber cigars or any World of Warcraft player about “Beer of wonder, beer delight,” and you are likely to get a knowing chuckle.  Yet, were they kings?  No.  They were just wise men who recognized the sign in the heavens and followed it.
     Earlier this week and along those lines, I was settled on preaching about the gifts.  I know.  Our tradition is that the Holy family was given gold, frankincense, and myrrh because Jesus is the King and the Priest and will die.  I was going to disabuse us of the notion that that such was the meaning behind these gifts.  I do not think it accurate to say that these wise men recognized Jesus as the Incarnation of God, so I think the meanings we impute are not what they intended.  But God, being sovereign, can take our gifts and use them in ways we do not intend, right?  We call that providence.  As I said, I was well pleased with that sermon.  Then Friday happened.
     Those of you on Facebook already know I lost another off day.  Karen and I awoke to some earthy language in our front yard.  We looked out, as many did in central Tennessee this past Friday, to discover it had snowed a fair amount.  Snow, of course, is the bane of all who live on the hill accessed via Lakemont.  Four cars were already in the ditches in front of the rectory.  Karen decided they needed help.  Since I am old, she tossed Nathan and David out into the snow to help those stuck.  Nathan put his rugby muscles to work pushing cars, and David got a shovel to help with traction for the cars.
     While the boys were able to get some cars out, there was a steady stream of those cars that could not be pushed out by human effort.  Nathan, of course, realized that some of those trapped needed warmth or a bathroom or coffee/hot chocolate.  So we opened up the church and parish hall to those who were stranded.  I had planned to write thank you notes, so I was not as aggravated by the turn of events as some might think.  It was not as if I would not be able to write my notes in the office as well as on my couch at home.  My thought was that we would be a good neighbor.  Heck, if I got lucky, maybe the angry person who is vandalizing our church would be one that we served or would love one of those whom we served.  Maybe he or she would stop as a result.  Boy, did I miss God’s plan in the beginning.  In many ways, I was like the priests and scribes in today’s narrative.
     To explain what was going on, I need to take a step back into Matthew’s narrative.  Why do we honor the magi?  What is it about them that cause the Church to recognize their pilgrimage, their gifts, and their wisdom?  I have probably told you enough that you are tired of hearing it, but the cosmology of the Ancient Near East was anything but comforting.  What happened on earth reflected the happenings in the celestial spheres.  What happened on earth caused similar acts in the celestial spheres.  Another axiom that governed many in the ANE was the belief that matter was yucky.  This stuff here was corruptible.  Gods and goddesses would not want to spend much time with us because spending time with us forced them to experience that yucky feeling or corruption.  Oh, to be sure, the gods or goddesses sometimes came down to dally with a maiden or hunk or to visit their wrath on some uppity mortal.  But those gods and goddesses never stayed too long because they did not want to have to deal with what you and I might call the human milieu. 
     It is against that understanding of the gods that the Incarnation speaks.  The Incarnation is a polemic against the idea that the gods want nothing to do with us, that the gods cannot stand our yuckiness, and that the chasm which exists between us and them (really, Him) was whet He intended.  God has pitched His tent here among us.  He has enfleshed Himself even as we are enfleshed.  Those who study the Scriptures ought not be too surprised by the idea.  When God created everything, He called it good.  It took our sin, our disobedience, to begin to mar the work of His magnificent hand.  It also took our sin to separate us from Him and to require this rescue, this re-establishment of the intimacy that was offered us in the beginning.
     And lest we think this separateness is something from the distant past, we Americans need only to look to ourselves.  Our friends may fight on FB about whether we are God’s chosen nation, but we know many of our founders had no such illusions.  Deists were not unlike our ANE counterparts.  Famous founders such as Jefferson espoused the view that God cannot act in the world because He is outside the world.  Were He to reach in and affect the world, He would destroy the wonderful system, the wonder cosmos, He created.  The Incarnation testifies that God is not out there watching, observing, powerless to do anything as the cosmos runs amok.  He is in the midst of us!  The Epiphany simply revealed to the Gentiles what the Jews understood about Yahweh.  He was not a far off god.  He was a God who was near!  Present!  Acting for our good!
     For those of us who think 240 years is a long time, we have our neighbors from Friday.  Now, before I go any further, I get that I have a unique role and unique gifts.  I get it.  People are disarmed around me and eventually ask the hard questions.  I experience that in nearly every tragedy into which I am called to minister.  It may be hard to think of these wrecks as tragedies, but they were incredibly painful to a few of our neighbors.  Not all of them had the $500 deductible right now needed for repairs.  They spent too much on Christmas.  A couple were seriously worried about getting to work this coming week.  “And if I can’t work, Father, I can’t eat!  I can’t pay my bills!”  They wanted to know where God was in the midst of their suffering, their tragedy.  Ironically, they were in a church, talking to a pastor, groping in the darkness, on the day we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany!  You all know where this is going, right?
     Like the Jews to whom He came, those on Friday had preconceived notions of how God should work.  None of them told me they deserved to crash.  None of them thought that the inconvenience of sliding into a ditch, another car, or a stone wall was their fault.  It was the world conspiring against them.  If God was good and loving, He should have stopped their slide or kept the snow from falling in the first place.  So we chatted a bit about free will.  God is the ultimate natural consequences parent, to a point.
     Not to be harsh, but every single one of them decided to drive their cars on that hill on Friday.  We had an inch of snow fall on a steep slope on untreated roads.  What was the wiser course Friday?  Stay in!  Right.  A few had to work to get paid.  They may look like upper middle or lower upper class to our eyes, but their bank accounts know better.  No work?  No pay.  So some headed in to work because they had to.  But most were just following their normal routine, even though they have lived on that hill in winters past.  They knew the hill had no salt.  They knew cars would end up in off the road.  They knew.  And still they drove.  So I asked what they expected should have happened.  Most laughed at me ruefully.  My questions reminded them of times when they questioned their kids about their own thought processes.  And they should have.  Who loves us more than our Father in heaven?  Who is pained more by our stupid, selfish desires than He is?
     I shared with our neighbors that I have seven kids.  After the initial shock wore off and the worries about my poor wife, I reminded them how many of us parent.  I used the electric socket example.  My kids were all fascinated by the socket as toddlers.  Eventually, in their quest for knowledge of their surroundings, the kids would stick a finger or something in the socket, or get another to do it for them, and get zapped.  What did they all learn, except of course, Robbie?  It hurts to stick your finger in there, right?  Like you, many laughed.  Some had their own Robbie’s.  Some were Robbie’s.  We are all bad parents, right?  We all worry about the hours of therapy that we have visited on our children, and we are trying to do a good job.  How do we teach them so that they internalize the wisdom we are sharing?  It’s tough.  Had God stopped their slide, the snow, or intervened in a way that they thought they wanted, what would be the chances of these conversations?  Would they recognize His gracious hand if they simply stopped moving?  Or would they think their driving skills were mad?  They wanted to be rescued from their stupid decisions, and God realized they needed to learn more about Him.  This was a gentle way for God to parent each one of them.  He had their undivided attention for a few hours, and they had a clergy who was willing to entertain their questions, their rage, their hurt, and their longing without the judgment they feared or had experienced in their past.
     You see, a kind of bonding was forced onto us.  I offered warmth, coffee, a snack for a diabetic, bathrooms, and other physical comforts.  What they needed was to wrestle a bit with God.  For a while, they sat in the pews.  Eventually they snooped.  As we chatted, they shared things their “friends” had experienced or needed help with.  We spoke of what their friends thought about God, about how He related to us, about how they were disappointed at Christmas, and tons of other questions.  Everyone strained to hear everyone’s questions, no matter where they were standing or sitting.  As people listened to the answers and internalized them, the questions got more personal.  The wreck on the hill was, as you might expect, the breaking point.  This idiot clergy was showing them that God loved them dearly, that God’s ways were not our ways.  Each of them, or in some cases the friends of each of them, had a deep hurt, a deep distrust, a deep misunderstanding about God.  Some of those wounds were self-inflicted; some were inflicted by us, The Church.  Thankfully, none were inflicted by Advent.  Of course, neither had Adventers really gone out of way to be inviting.  Those who trudged over here for warmth or coffee or a bathroom came grumbling and worried.  And on Epiphany of all days, God had used their bad decisions to speak a redemptive word in their lives.  It was glorious!  I had physical, intellectual, and emotional discussions about God with people who had forgotten His love of them!  I had people afraid to step inside the altar rail because, well, that’s for holy people who did.  Guess what?  No lightning bolt fell from the sky when they did.  I had people raise the specters of their failures before God, who assumed He hated them because they sinned again, who got to be reminded of the stories of Abraham & Sarah, David, Samson (I stole that from Bishop John before Christmas), Jacob, and Paul.  I had people who hate sermons, who told me over and over how they hated sermons because we only ask for money, who sat for a couple hours listening to me answer their questions about their friends and the questions of others!
     Whatever else they heard, I am confident of two things.  Each of those in our neighborhood who walked through our doors heard that God loves them dearly, dearly enough to die for them, and that God’s perspective and God’s ways are not our own.  Nor am I illusioned by my work.  I scattered seeds; I watered the soil; I worked in some manure.  There was no harvest as evidenced by their lack of attendance today.  Nobody had a Damascus Road experience and needed me to pray the scales out of their eyes, though in truth that was a bit of what I was doing Friday.  But it is a start, and it is a great message for God’s Church on this day when we celebrate the manifestation of our Lord to the world.
     More excitingly to me, this was a parish effort.  Wow, you should see some of your faces.  I did not misspeak.  This was a parish effort.  Heck, to the extent that I borrowed from Bishop John’s sermon on Sampson, it was a diocesan ministry.  I may have been the vocal leader on Friday, but each of you who attends here had a hand or more in that effort, that ministry.  It is your faithful giving and the stewardship of the Vestry that makes it possible for me to be paid to be here.  It is your faithful giving and the stewardship of the Vestry that makes is possible for this building, this sanctuary, to be here.  It is your gifts, your tithes, and your offerings that keep the heat on, that keep the water flowing to the bathrooms, and that keep the coffee supplied.  How many of you pray for me, for Advent, each day?  Your hand, your voice, and your heart was in that work on Friday.  How many of you come to me with the tough questions of your life, seeking God in the midst of the vicissitudes of your life?  Your work with me has kept me sharp and kept me cognizant of the need for me to help you and others see Him at work in your lives.  How many of us have longed for, dreamed of Advent being that light on the hill, of being that beacon in the darkness?  Many of those who had that vision have gone to their reward, but even they share in the events that happened Friday.  It was a parish effort that transcended time.
     Brothers and sisters, you and I gather here for worship, for study, and for prayer during the week.  We, both of us, are fortified and equipped for the work that God has given us to do.  We end our celebration asking God to send us out and to equip us for the work He has given us to do.  That work, brothers and sisters, is largely Epiphanic.  You and I are given the privilege, the honor of being the light in the dark place that draws other to THE Light of Christ.  Sitting here today you may be arguing with me or with God in your head.  You may think there is no darkness in the lives of those with whom you come into contact each day.  Trust me.  There is more than enough darkness in their lives.  Ask them.  You may think that you are the wrong person to be the one to light the way to God through Christ, that you lack some kind of training or some kind of ability to shape words.  Even if you are the barest spark on a wick, your feeble light, rooted in His, can light the darkness around you!  Be the one who allows those in your life to speak to their hurts, their fears, their disappointments, and their pains.  Be the one who lives his or her life as if those hurts, fears, disappointments, and pains are real.  Let them know and see that you have experienced those same worries about provision, those same fears about dreaded diseases, the same hurt over broken relationships, the same loss over death, the same critical evaluation of your own self-worth.  More importantly, be the one who lives a life certain in the knowledge that Christ has taken all those negatives upon Himself and offered every single one of us and them love, and hope, and, yes, even power to represent Him to the world.  Be the one who speaks to His power over death, His ability and willingness to redeem all things, and to draw all of us into His loving, saving embrace.  Be the one who manifests His love to the world around you.
     If God can manifest Himself to our neighbors using a bit of snow, a bathroom, and a cup of coffee, just imagine what He can do with a willing servant, a willing servant such as you!

In His Peace,

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Word became flesh . . .

     Those who pay close attention might think we spend a bit too much time in John’s prologue.  Even those who do not pay close attention to the readings, though, may well feel that we hammer the “In the beginning was the Word” passage of John a bit too frequently this time of year.  We usually read it before the singing of Silent Night and the lighting of the candles on the Christmas Eve service.  We also have it as a reading for one of our Christmas Day readings.  We also get to read it a third time on the first Sunday after Christmas.  Why, do you ask, do we spend so much time on just this passage?
     Part of the reason, I think, is that John serves as a theologizing counterpoint to Luke’s historical narrative.  Luke points us to the history of Jesus’ birth: Cyrenius is governor of Syria; Augustus is Emperor of the Roman Empire; Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem in obedience to the command of Augustus; the Messiah is entering the history of Israel not at the head of a legion of soldiers or of angels, but into a manger; his clothing is by no means royal; and the first heralds of this confirming miracle are shepherds, a group that would have been viewed with suspicion by the city-folk.  The Incarnation happens in the real world, among real people, at a real time in history—that is part of the focus of Luke.
     John, though, places the event in the cosmic span of God’s plan for the world.  We cannot read John’s prologue without thinking back to the creation account of Genesis 1.  In the beginning.  Of course, John switches the focus from the author of Genesis to His own focus on the Incarnation of God, Jesus.  You might be sitting here this morning, a bit sleepy because you were up late putting together gifts, and wondering how do we get from the Word to Jesus?  In fact, though of you who have studied John extensively or taken local theology classes or maybe even EFM know that John never again refers to Jesus as the Word.  Why does John choose that description for Jesus?
     What’s in a word?  How do we understand the importance of a word?  Some years ago, when I was still serving on a Vestry, I had occasion to hear a young boy come to my sending rector a bit on the freaked out side of things.  Week in and week out this little boy heard Father Dan pray for the angels and dark angels and all the company of heaven.  The little boy did not want to pray for the dark angels because dark angels had to be bad.  You are laughing, but think of how easy a mistake.  Thousands of times Dan stood before that altar and prayed each time “ . . . joining our voices with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven . . .” but the little boy heard something different, something that scared him.
     Word is important in the Jewish understanding of God and a polemic against all the other Ancient Near East gods and goddesses.  One of the chief distinctions that separates God from the throng of other gods is His ability and willingness to speak to His people.  Lips they have and cannot speak; eyes have they and cannot see.  In fact, the first theophany among the people of Israel was the giving of the torah to them by God.  The people wanted to know what it meant to be a redeemed, holy, righteous people living in communion with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  What they got was the instruction given Moses.  Moses came down the mountain with 611 instructions.  365 don’t’s and 246 do’s – yes, I know I am excluding the Two Great Commandments which sum up the entirety of the torah according to Jesus.  God revealed His character and His expectation for His people in those words.  In essence, God was saying to His people, Want to live like Me, here you go.  Follow these instructions.  Those of us who have studied those words, of course, know the difficulty.  We are like toddlers when it comes to the don’t, and sometimes we are lazy or fearful when it comes to the do’s.  The great news, of course, is that we are in the same boat, though.  We all fail the various instructions at various times in our lives.  We are all, like Israel before us, terrified to hear His voice or to see His glory reflected in the face of another.
     Then, along comes this Jesus.  Want to know what torah living is like?  Look at Jesus.  He keeps the entirety of the torah?  How do we know?  Because He was raised that Easter morning!  By virtue of His ability to keep the torah, Jesus is that firstborn without sin – the very sacrifice demanded of the torah for sacrifices.  That birth we celebrate last night would have no significance were He unable or were He unwilling to keep the torah and face His passion and death during Holy Week.  Why do you think Satan tempts Him so?  Why do you think we tempt Him so?  If You are the Son of God, come down!  But that discussion is for another time.  For now, we are looking at Jesus as one who shares the mind of God.  For John, this is best expressed by the understanding of the Word, and so he uses that word to describe Jesus.  Jesus keeps the mind of God.  If we have seen Him, we have seen the Father, right?  This is not new or isolated understanding.  The early Church did not sit down and say “Hey, let’s think up a theology to explain what we saw and heard.”  No.  It was revealed by God.  We have seen His face . . .
     It is also not easy understanding, right?  How can Jesus be co-eternal with the Father?  How can Jesus be slain in the mind of God before the foundation of the world?  What the heck are these Holy Mysteries really trying to convey?  We understand the challenge, right?  Does Jesus come into the world speaking the mind and heart of God and find the world going “Duh, I get it, now!”  No.  The world finds it a hard saying, a difficult saying.  John says the light shined in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.  Even though He came into what was His own, His own did not receive Him.  This stuff is hard, folks.  The Pharisees and Sadducees and the Temple Elites conspire to kill Him!  They, of all people, should have known who He was; yet they rejected Him!  Without the revealing of the Holy Spirit, you and I would be left to suffer in the same darkness.  Now, though, because He is Lord of our hearts, we have no need to fear the darkness of the world, do we?
     Think of our liturgy last night and how it reflects our understanding of this truth.  As we read this passage, what do we do?  We light our candle.  That’s right.  As we are lighting our candle, what happens?  Good job!  The lights are dimmed.  What is the outward sign of the inward and spiritual grace you and I are proclaiming last night in the darkness?  That’s right, our light is from Him and it will not be overcome by the darkness.  No matter how small our candles and how big the darkness, our flickering flame keeps it at bay!  It’s not easy, no.  The darkness is sometimes massive and threatens to consume us always.  But there, in that tiny wick, His light and life are in us, making us fit vessels for His power and heralds of His Gospel.  We can accomplish great things in His name, and we have no need to fear the darkness.  Holly spoke last night of challenges, of mannequin, ice bucket, and glitter challenges.  She also reminded us that the real challenges of our lives are to be found in how we respond to the darkness.  Will we follow our Lord and bear a cross worthy of Him?  Or will we give up, declaring the cross embarrassing or heavy or the darkness too much?
     Brothers and sisters, the peace and hope and joy of that Rockwell picture we call the Nativity is a fantasy.  Yes, God came into the world.  And for just a moment all creation marveled.  But Jesus came into a world, a Creation that was seemingly out of control.  In reality, we were out of control.  The fears and hurts and pains that were present in the days leading up to His birth still remained.  The consequences of sin were ever-present in the world He came to save.  Tomorrow we celebrate the death of the first martyr, Stephen.  Wednesday we celebrate the death of the Holy Innocents.  In our time we are grappling with the consequences of sin still in the events of Aleppo or, closer to home, the pains of homelessness or mental illnesses or racism or whatever elitism you want to include in this list.  Yes, ever since that Night, the darkness has tried hard to overcome the Light that came into the world, that came into us.  Yet you and I are reminded this day that His light burns in all who proclaim Him Lord!  His light shows the way in the darkness that seeks so hard to snuff out all life.
     And though I have mentioned His passion and precious death, and although I have spoken of the importance of enunciation in the Eucharist, let me speak a moment of what we are called to do in light of this Word becoming flesh.  That little Babe, whose birth we celebrate and in Whose glow we bask, will grow to speak of the food that He offers, His own flesh and His own blood, that we might have life eternal.  His language, and that of the early Church was so clear, that some in the Empire thought us cannibals, that we sacrificed young babes on our early altars.  It was one of the reasons for persecution. 
     If all we feel warm and fuzzy when we celebrate the birth our Savior, then perhaps our understanding of His birth has been domesticated a bit too much.  Perhaps, just perhaps, the true meaning behind the Eucharist has been clouded by scales in our own eyes or by the wisdom of the wise of this world.  That Babe is the Word which both saves the world and judges the world.  That babe is the flesh which both judges us and saves each one of us.  That Babe is the Flesh and Blood we consume each and every time we give thanks to God for passing over our sins and giving us both light and life.  That Babe is the Word of God, become flesh, that you and I might share in His glory for ever!

In Christ’s Peace,