Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Becoming Children of God

Scripture read on the 1st Sunday after Christmas includes Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25 and 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

Today, St. Paul tells us that God became a child in a manger so that you and I might become children of God.

And today, St. John tells us that all who receive Jesus, who believe in his name, are given power to become children of God.

Who says it’s so important to act like an adult?

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of God.” That’s Jesus weighing in on the question.

Change how? This question seems to dance throughout our readings today.

Recover our ability to play. Adults play to compete, and I doubt that’s what Jesus has in mind for the skill set needed in God’s kingdom. I also doubt whether children need to be taught to compete—they come by it naturally—but the kind of play adults might recover for God is marked by imagination, simplicity, making do with what’s at hand, delight, self-expression, and openness to one another.

Recover our ability to play. And realize the importance of our senses. Seeing and feeling color and texture and form. Smelling the frankincense, letting the myrrh drip through our fingers. Vibrating our voices in song and appreciating music made by others. Hearing one another. Listening in silence. Moving and reaching in rhythms of sharing, giving, receiving.

Recover our ability to play. Realize the value of our senses. And rely less on analytical thought. Not that it’s unneeded in the kingdom of God—it’s surely needed in ordering the life of the Church, and in understanding the faith of the Church, and in achieving the work of the Church to bring justice and peace on earth. But adults practice compulsive analysis, while the central power of a child is impulsive trust. Which of these powers leads you to God?

Recover play. Realize senses. Rely on trust. And recognize true wealth, replacing money and things with roots and wings. That’s from the old Shaker saying that there are just two lasting gifts that our children need, roots and wings. If a pot of gold and a retirement plan lie at the end of the rainbow for adults, for children it’s belonging that balances them for becoming, exploring, and engaging life.

Recover play-- organize less.

Realize senses-- let them illuminate words and thoughts.

Rely on trust-- value questions more than answers, reach answers through the heart.

Recognize true wealth-- and share it.

The Love Song of God

I wonder if you recall reading about a proposal that a new generation of astronauts may have to be willing to accept the ultimate mission of landing on a distant planet without any prospect of returning to earth.

The general drift of this concept is that soon we’ll have the technology to get you there, but we don’t yet have the know-how to get you back. We’ll get you there so you can lay claim to some portion of this vast new territory, start a base of operations, and conduct amazing experiments (one of which is you), but we can’t get you back. We know lots of ways to support you, but at the start it’s going to be you and a brave new world.

Whereupon a political wag was heard to comment, “We already have this system in place. It’s how we send a President into the Oval Office.”

Does that harrowing job description of a future astronaut help us comprehend the mission Jesus accepted in being born of Mary? “Thou didst leave thy throne and thy kingly crown when thou camest to earth for me,” sings a 19th-century carol, when space flight couldn’t have been imagined. The carol evokes a sense of exile: does Jesus come to earth to be strategically stranded like that future astronaut?

Theologians among you will recognize that this comparison doesn’t work. An earthling on Mars would be an alien invasion. An earthling on Mars doesn’t belong there. The incarnation of God in Jesus is not the result of an extra-terrestrial mission injecting alien life into our world; it is the result of our world groaning in travail, yearning for healing, reaching for reconciling love, birthing in new creation. Jesus doesn’t come from heaven: Jesus comes from a fertilized egg in Mary’s womb; and while tradition explains this as miracle by the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary, that spiritual “how” doesn’t contradict the physical “what” that we hear in the opening chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. There we find a long genealogy showing Jesus to be descended from wise Solomon and charismatic David and obedient Abraham—and it is Joseph’s genealogy, it is his seed that generates Jesus.

In the definition battled-out at the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451, the “Definition of the Union of the Divine and Human Natures in the Person of Christ,” he is said to be “truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood…”

Jesus Christ is like us in all respects, except that he is not exiled from God, not stuck in sin as we tend to be (though he knows what such exile feels like, he has gotten so close to the margins we have crossed). Reading again from that 5th-century definition: In him are held together, perfectly blended, “two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation… coming together to form one person and subsistence…one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ…”

I never thought I would be using the words of the Chalcedonian Definition in a Christmas sermon, but they eloquently express what I’m trying to say: Jesus is not an alien stranded in another world than his own: he is the most truly native son of earth, fulfilling the mind of its maker. Which means that his mission is to draw into unity all things, all people, all the created order into unity with God in himself.

The stranded astronaut, to the contrary, divides the planet he invades by claiming a portion of it as his, belonging to his country. He is exiled from earth but carries with him the earthbound sin of claiming what is not his to own.

As this is not the way of Jesus, how will he gather into one a fractured creation? By claiming what is his to own, his truth resonating with what is true in us, his love recognizing what is love in us, his mercy reaching to renew our integrity, his wisdom building with the wisdoms of diverse humanity, his self-giving encouraging and inspiring the generosity of all brave hearts.

Here is good news, sung like a lovesong from God, to all who carry in their bodies, minds, or hearts wounds from being exiled from home…, exiled from innocence…, alienated from God…, alienated by religion…, separated from a loved one (or a once-loved one)…, disillusioned by politics…, all who feel they are refugees from a dominant culture…, strangers in a changing world…

He knows all about our exile. He comprehends it all. He is at work there, on those frontiers of our own alienations, offering sanctuary, offering repair, offering renewal in his own body and his own Spirit and in the community that bears his name.

Here is good news, sung like a lovesong from God. How shall we sing back?

Our Longing, God's Longing

Scripture for the 4th Sunday in Advent includes Isaiah 7:10-16; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Christmas (twelve days) and Advent (four weeks), even when combined, are the shortest seasons in the church year. So short… and yet they are all about longing. Our longing, and God’s longing.

What are you longing for? Go ahead: say it out loud!

Light in a dark season? Warmth in the cold? For Christmas Day to come? For Christmas Day to be over? For all the clutter of a material holiday to disappear? For your loved ones to be happy? For you yourself to feel joy?

Are you longing for God?

What is God longing for? If answering that question is central to our experience of Advent and Christmas, the material clutter of the holidays will not reveal the answer. We’ll have to step back from the Christmas tree with hands in the air, leave the crime scene of the kitchen, silence the computer’s siren seductive last-minute shopping opportunities, and go take a walk. If it’s on a star-bedazzled night, we might look up and dare to hear the answer: What God longs for, God whose name is Emmanuel, is to be with us.

How many times have you looked up, looked out a hospital window, raised your eyes from a graveside to see through tears darkly, in your solitude searched the heavens and asked, “God, where are you?”

And to think that simultaneously God yearns to be with us! Such a disconnect just sharpens the edge of the Collect we prayed: daily God visits us to hum near our ear the lovesong of heaven, shaping in us both conscience (the voice of God within) and consciousness (awareness of God, reverence for life), and it is for us to prepare more and more a place for the Christ God sends. Sharpened by this short sweet season is the Prayer Book’s lesson that the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

Our Christmas observance, in church and at home, should advance this mission. Our Christmas celebration can be the lovesong we sing to God, what we send our children home humming after their pageant is performed, the music of the spheres globally repositioning us, preparing us to slough off the skin of an old year and find ourselves new.

With Jesus Christ at the center of it all, no wonder Matthew’s Gospel, the very first page we meet in the New Testament, is all about who Jesus is and how God comes to be with us in him.

We’re given only the second half of Matthew’s first chapter. Do you recall what’s in the first half? Yes, all the begats. That we don’t get to hear all those generations today suggests that our church elders may have thought there isn’t enough time in Advent for that kind of thing.

But the question of who Jesus is gets answered in part by a genealogy covering forty-two generations in three sections with fourteen generations in each. The first starts with the Hebrew patriarch Abraham and goes fourteen generations to great King David. Then come fourteen generations from Solomon to the time of the disaster, the sixth- century BCE, when Israel’s leading citizens were forced into exile by the Babylonian emperor. In the last section of this genealogy, fourteen generations bring us Joseph “the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.”

This genealogy says that Jesus sums up the longing of God to be with his people in a faithful servant, obedient like Abraham, charismatic like David, wise like Solomon.

This genealogy also says that Jesus sums up the human longing of God’s people, and will carry in his own body the pain and suffering they know in their exile from home.

And this genealogy does a surprising thing. Unusual for a Jewish author of that time, Matthew includes women, a surprising selection of women. Tamar, a Gentile, tricked and seduced her father-in-law, then bore illegitimate twins. Rahab, another Gentile, once worked as a prostitute. Ruth also grew up as a pagan Gentile, and Uriah’s wife Bathsheba committed adultery with charismatic King David. Not a few of the men listed had unsavory pasts. This genealogy says that Jesus had some pretty shady ancestors.

I’m guessing that most of us have a family tree with some dodgey characters in it, and perhaps some births out of wedlock. Guess what? So does Jesus. And who can miss Matthew’s carefully-crafted message? When he says, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way…” he means that God works equally well outside, as well as inside, what we mortals called traditional. God is free to make choices.

A similar point is made when Matthew tells us about Joseph, to whom Mary was betrothed. By tradition, that put them beyond engagement in a formal way that could be dissolved only by divorce. That a betrothed woman was pregnant would be understood as meaning (so long as her betrothed had been behaving himself) that the child did not belong to the husband-to-be. In a strict adherence to tradition, Mary would have been charged with adultery.

But Joseph, being a just man, was not willing to expose her to public disgrace. Or to expose himself? Sure. He must have wanted it all to go away, as in that stage of grief when it hurts so much you lose your imagination, your awareness that you have choices.

Then came the dream. In deep sleep, Emmanuel hums the Christmas message, “Do not be afraid… Do not be afraid to stay the course, to face the world with courage you do not know you have, for there’s something at work here that exceeds all that you long for. But it takes you for it to happen. It takes you making certain very good (and likely very hard) choices.”

What is it about Joseph that is so useful to God? It is that he did not react according to the law when he decided to protect Mary from humiliation and punishment. His sense of justice exceeded the justice of law. This will be the constant message of Jesus in Matthew, that God is shaping in us a higher and finer sense of right and wrong than the standards of the world, the ways of business, and the traditions of culture. God is shaping in us awareness of choices, and the ability to welcome such grace as will show us our best choices.

This higher and finer sense is what we want for Julian, whom we will baptize this morning. We want his senses free and clear to recognize that in the adventure of life there is available to him more than he can desire or pray for, God with him humming in his ear the lovesong of heaven, shaping in him conscience that will seek justice exceeding law, and consciousness that will revere and love and reveal to him his very best choices.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Protecting the House

Scripture for the 1st Sunday in Advent includes Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13:11-14, and Matthew 24:36-44

The rule of thumb in Advent is the same one you hear when you travel by air: When the oxygen masks drop overhead, fasten your own before attempting to help the person next to you.

With that in mind, visit the table near the font and find a good resource for yourself as you step into a new year (that’s what the Church says we’re doing today) and as you face the daily choice, either to ride the escalator that takes you to every floor of the Christmas Extravaganza (from Santa’s lap on the mezzanine all the way up to the credit office, top floor), or to walk and wait and breathe and enjoy and encourage a sweet short season that opens you to the reason we shall celebrate the Christ who comes.

And while you’re selecting a good resource for you, look for something you might give to a friend. Who knows, maybe it will give the two of you something fresh to talk about, some fresh air to breathe together this Advent (whether you’re reading the same daily meditations, or different ones). Who knows?

We notice a lot of not-knowing in today’s Gospel. A decisive moment for the universe is near, but no one (not even Jesus) knows exactly when. Jesus teaches that this sharp turn will affect everyone, and he likens it to the ancient story of Noah and the flood, when Noah’s family obediently (if reluctantly) prepared for the rising of the sea, while just about everybody else partied on, or plodded on, knowing nothing until Noah entered that crowded ark and the flood waters rose.

There is in that ancient story more than a hint that people didn’t want to know anything that confronted and challenged their expected daily routine. The partiers wanted to party and the plodders wanted to plod, and it was nobody’s business to sound any alarms. Don’t try to regulate our partying, those partiers might have shouted. It’s not government’s business to interfere with our plodding, argued the others.

Meanwhile, animals were getting restless. Horses pawed the ground, bees looked lost, burrowing creatures skittered uphill—they all knew, they all showed it.

Rain splattered everywhere like a legion of catapults, and still the wise species did not know, except for Noah the awake, Noah the aware.

And that’s all we need from that primeval story. Jesus doesn’t give us all of it, just enough to show us how tempting it is, in anxious times, to bury your head in your party (or in your plodding) and know nothing except what entertains and justifies and comforts.

Quickly he reaches for another metaphor. What’s coming, he says, will separate people from one another, will divide friends and neighbors, fracture society. Imagining this needn’t be like in science fiction, an invasion of body snatchers. Two people could be watching the news, one on PBS, the other on Fox. Are they both seeing one and the same world? Or one will be watching Dancing with the Stars, the other Frontline. One will be here, one will be there, not unlike living on two different planets! One person’s reality is not real to the next: it all depends on to what, and to whom, you’re paying attention.

Two women will be in the workforce, working as they have, side by side, for many years. Suddenly one is laid off. Losing her job, she is taken into a parallel universe of unemployment compensation on which she and her dependents cannot rely, because society is coming apart at the seams of its old safety nets.

Thinking globally, as we approach World AIDS Day, 33.3 million people are living with HIV, including 2.5 million children. Last year, 2.6 million people became newly infected with the virus. 1.8 million died of AIDS.

In keeping with our Gospel’s insistence on awareness, consider two people living with HIV, one in this country, the other in one of the sub-Saharan nations of Africa.

Both will need good nutrition. Eating well can help each of these two people prevent or delay loss of muscle tissue, sometimes called wasting. Eating well can strengthen the immune system, reduce viral mutations, decrease infections and hospitalizations, and lessen the symptoms of HIV/AIDS, and the side-effects of anti-retroviral drugs.

Our two people living with HIV/AIDS need better nutrition than their neighbors have—let’s say 30% better if they’re adults, 100% better if they are children. In this country, better-than-average nutrition may be available. In sub-Saharan Africa? It’s unlikely. There, the rule may be that food goes to whoever is the wage-earner in the family, not so much the young, the old, or the sick.

Of our two people, the African faces at best a 50% chance of getting the anti-retroviral drugs he or she needs. The rule about food may apply to a family’s share of anti-retroviral drugs: if several members of the family need them, they will go first to the wage-earners, a harsh fact of life, a different reality from the American person’s experience.

What else gets in the way of drug therapy? In Mozambique, floods. In Zimbabwe, an unstable political and economic situation. In South Africa, public sector strikes. When society is fractured, people needing health care suffer. And the global recession has seen several western nations cut their financial commitment to equalizing access to drug therapy (though the United States, if I’m not mistaken, has kept on schedule with its aid).

“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready…”

What is the house that we own, that we are to protect?

Is it a fractured nation, needing reunification and brave government?

Is it a society whose safety nets are in tatters, and its values as well?

Is it a global economy requiring worldwide purging of graft and bribery, insider deals and outsized pay disparity?

Is it our one world, comprising the well and the ill, the affluent and the poor, the seas rising on us all?

Is it the kingdom of God, the realm of light where we learn how to beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, technology freed to serve the new creation?

We also must be ready, freed, and prepared.

That he makes us able to be so is good news, telling us that he walks with us and before us, that his grace will meet us and equip us.

But he needs us, and needs us to be ready.