Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What Do We Value?

Scripture for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany includes Deuteronomy 18:15-20; I Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

My first impression, reading these appointed lessons today, was to wish I’d invited someone else to preach. Slim pickins’, I thought to myself. But since God gets to hear those first impressions, it didn’t take me long to wonder if it might be arrogant (even offensive) to be slamming the book shut solely because I couldn’t feel a stirring of my imagination. I found myself wondering if God wasn’t holding me to a higher standard than my first reactions.

At work in both first and second lessons is the ancient belief that there are many gods, many lords. All three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam—insist that there is one God, only one God. Our Abrahamic bunk-mates, both Jewish and Muslim, find fault with us in our doctrine of the Holy Trinity, asking if this doesn’t smack of polytheism. But we quickly remind them of the missing word: ours is the doctrine of the holy and undivided Trinity, and we pound the table as hard as they do in asserting there is one God who presents in more than one way, but one God, by God!

Our readings today show how hard-fought and hard-won was the rise of the new belief, monotheism—one God. The nations neighboring ancient Israel had their fertility gods and goddesses, their martial gods, their tribal gods, worshiped at many altars with the flow of much blood, some of it human. Worshiped also on the high places with cultic prostitution, and in temples with food offerings. There was a certain libidinal appeal to how these gods were worshiped—never a dull sermon—and thus it was that the worship of one God in ancient Israel faced chronic competition, a recurring theme throughout the Hebrew Bible. As we heard today, the vestiges of polytheism could bring out the worst in the followers of Israel’s one God, including threats to murder any prophets who spoke in the names of other gods. Gosh, what kind of religion is that?

Fast-forward many centuries to the first in the Common Era and find St. Paul counseling the church at Corinth on the knotty question whether Christians were allowed to eat meat that had been offered in sacrifice at a pagan temple. Some things just don’t change. The old-time religion of many gods had a long shelf-life.

Today, I suppose our assortment of idols, household gods, and lesser divinities could include fame, wealth, beauty, athletic prowess, popularity, tenure, retirement… And, in our national pantheon, what? Nuclear supremacy? Single-party control of the House, Senate, and White House? A balanced budget? Winning the race for outer space? They all have their worshipers. And what is worship—worth-ship—but the repeated actions we take in service to what we value most?

That could be a sermon for another time. Let’s return to Paul. His answer to the Corinthians’ question carries a message that would outlast anything we think we know about the idolatries of his time. Paul constructs a careful argument asserting that idols have no real existence beyond the way that carved wood or hammered metal occupies space on a shelf, so it ought to make no difference whether the food offered to please the idols gets sold at the back door of the temple and taken home by Christians… or not. More important, he insists, is what message is heard when new Christians, in whom a fresh new conscience is being formed, converts from those pagan temples, watch church leaders serve up that lamb stew at the potluck supper as if it doesn’t matter.

Mattering, in other words, can’t be determined by logic alone. Compassionate thoughtfulness trumps reason in how believers treat one another within the intimate community of the Body of Christ. “Getting it” matters more than getting. The knowledge we claim must be a knowing of people, a knowing of God, more than a knowing of principles. And if we forget that, and make decisions and choices that wound our newest, weakest, youngest members, then we sin against Christ. The church family is that intimate: What we do to one another we do to him.

What made the apostolic community known and respected in Paul’s time was the way their communal intimacy trained them to be that way in the world. They didn’t just take care of themselves: they were generous neighbors and gracious citizens, a powerful antidote to the brutality and cynicism of imperial Rome, the force that occupied their lands. They practiced what their teacher Jesus had modeled: table fellowship that set equal places for poor and rich, Greek and Jew, female and male, free and slave, mainstream and marginalized. They took him at his word when he instructed them to treat the poorest and sickest as if they were treating him. They found their fulfillment in what he had announced he had come to fulfill: the binding-up of the broken-hearted, release of the prisoner, bringing good news to the poor.

“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Paul’s words, but they surely were Jesus’s words, too; at least they spoke his Spirit.

In the civic and political life of our nation in a year of presidential campaigning that puffs up anyone aspiring to lead, in this long season of partisan wrangling, listen, watch for anyone who demonstrates love that builds. Vote for that person!

Be astounded when you encounter such authority, as Jesus’s first hearers were at Capernaum, when he did much more than speak. In the same intimacy that marked his table fellowship and would characterize his Church, Jesus fully encounters, entirely engages a very troubled man.

If there are many gods in the background of our first two readings, here in the Gospel stands someone with multiple personalities. The result is not dissimilar. What is inherently one, meant to be one, necessarily one, has become fragmented, fractured, chaotic. In place of a confident, centered, peaceable, creative spirit there is about this man a constant competition within him, a being-at-odds with himself that consumes his vitality, distracts from pleasure and joy, an endless appeasing of conflicting demands.

Facing this splintered person, Jesus unifies him, reconciles his oppositions, speaks into his chaos the Word of re-creation.

I want to say that we need Jesus to do much the same thing for our fractured dysfunctional nation, for we are in the grip of our oppositions and show signs of having an unclean spirit.

But as I hear myself say those words, I shudder at sounding like a right-winger who would insist that the United States of America is a Christian country that must become an entirely Christian country… and I recognize how easy it is turn a source of unity into a disintegrating influence that could shatter the very equilibrium we need.

So I will ratchet down my rhetoric, having heard a certain degree of puff in myself, and ask that we keep committing ourselves in this parish family to allowing love to build up an intimate community where taking care of one another informs not only our religious life, but also our citizenship in this country and our role as good neighbors beyond our borders.

To commit ourselves to this caring will keep requiring us to examine our little shrines, our household gods, to answer unafraid the question: Just what do we value?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Where Are the Cartoons?

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany includes Jonah 3:1-5,10; I Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

I can’t hear these scripture readings today without imagining how they might look as cartoons in The New Yorker.

Jonah would be sulking as he obeys God’s order to summon to repentance the people of great urban Nineveh (the New York City of its day). There’s a particular cartoonist I have in mind. He would make Jonah squat and stout, a protest sign over his shoulder with “REPENT!” in bold letters—I’m betting the cartoonist would make those Hebrew letters, knowing that Jonah had no intention of making it easy for these pagan Assyrians to escape divine judgment. Jonah is sulking because of what God has directed him to say, words that Jonah was eager to see come true—“Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”—but to be shouting them as a warning that Israel’s adversaries might heed and change their ways and remain the annoyingly greatest city of that time, to have become an agent of Nineveh’s brighter future… that would really have frosted Jonah.

That’s one cartoon. The next one I can’t see yet, but surely someone in that talented department would know what to do with St. Paul’s peculiar words—peculiar, at least, these 20 centuries after they were spoken—“The appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none…” (You know, I could swear we never heard this passage when we were using the Prayer Book table of Sunday readings; but now that we follow the new Revised Common Lectionary, we’re hearing some fresh language!) St. Paul’s outburst sounds like the Gospel of Click and Clack, the Car Talk brothers, whose lives came to grief when they married and acquired mothers-in-law.

And if there’s a third cartoon to be had out of our Gospel from Mark, I imagine it focusing on old Zebedee, father of the suddenly-missing fishermen James and John. “Where ARE those boys? They were here just a minute ago…” Perhaps he would be shown grumbling something like, “Must be that Occupy Galilee movement…”

I don’t mean to diminish the message today, when I imagine rendering these readings in less-serious ways. Cartoons are highly effective vehicles for revealing meanings and messages.

At St. Luke’s, Worcester, where I served before coming here, there are two stained glass windows in the church. One is located just to the right of the preacher in the pulpit. It is full of cartoons, drawn by Al Banx, former cartooner for Yankee Magazine. He taught Sunday School at St. Luke’s, and there are his drawings of all the stories unique to Luke’s Gospel. The Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, and more. And there they were. If the preacher proved dry that day, your eyes had only to shift left and you’d be in the Funnies.

Cartoons invite us to cross from one side of our brain to the other. They spark our own imagination. And they tap the deep well of humor that can free people to consider life in a fresh way, uniting them in a moment of laughter.

Laughter is often what I hear in the background when scripture is read aloud. Sometimes, laughter takes us right to the heart of what Jesus means, right to the edge of what the Spirit of God has for us… and wants of us. You might call this the Norman Cousins approach to scriptural hermeneutics.

Applying this to today’s readings yields mixed results. There’s no question that as the Book of Jonah spins out the huge fish story of Jonah, someone’s tongue is in his cheek. This is pure unalloyed yarn-spinning—but purposeful. One purpose is to poke fun at the tribal instinct and xenophobic biases of human beings who are geographic neighbors on planet earth, but act as if they aren’t and shouldn’t be. And the greater purpose of this little book in the Hebrew Bible is to bear witness to the universal mercy and grace of God. The Book of Jonah presents a Deity Without Borders. And if its author gets us chuckling at ourselves (that we can be as narrow-minded and self-willed as Jonah), he’s doing that to persuade us to do some reappraisal of our own theology and ask if it’s broad-minded enough to represent the heart and will of God. The spirit of this little book is much like that old hymn: “For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind, and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind…”

Is anyone chuckling in the background of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians? Not so much, no. His puzzling words seem to devalue the marital bond and contradict our priorities. But priorities—establishing and honoring faithful priorities—is a central theme in Paul’s correspondence with the Church at Corinth. In today’s brief portion, he unsettles every form of settling that church leaders might be tempted to treat with priority. “For the present form of this world is passing away,” he declares.

Therefore, travel light, he urges. Find and use your freedom to follow and obey the Holy Spirit, whatever may be asked of you. Let nothing tie you down or tie you up, nothing—not your marital status (whatever it is), your emotional state (whatever that may be), your daily work (whatever it is), your possessions (whatever they are or are not), or your dealings with the world (whatever they are)—let none of these distract you from your highest and deepest allegiance to the Spirit of God.

Paul does not say, “So get rid of all those lesser allegiances.” In the chapters around our little portion today, he says clearly, “I don’t want your many allegiances to make you anxious. I don’t want you worrying. Use your present circumstances, whatever they are, to glorify God. In his own words, “In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God.” And, arching over all his words like a rainbow, is his proclaiming of good news: “Remember that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God. You are not your own. For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.” In your present circumstances, your present condition.

This is not the stuff of laughter. But it is the stuff of fulfillment and joy.

Paul’s pastoral advice is that we should bloom where we’re planted. This makes eminent sense in a religion that starts among fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. Yes, Jesus calls them away from their boats, but he casts their higher calling in terms of their day jobs. “Follow me, fisherman Simon and fisherman Andrew, and I’ll make you fish… (and the pause here is important)… for people!”

That, by the way, is for me a laugh-aloud moment in the reading of that Gospel. Can’t you picture Simon and Andrew at least snorting a chuckle at Jesus’s promise? Surprise can do that to a fellow. “What? You see us doing what? You’re kidding, right?”

In another story, Jesus does something very similar. When he calls Matthew, he goes right to the tax accountant’s desk and couches his call in the imagery of his prospect’s day job: “Follow me, and I’ll make you account… for the boundless generosity of God!” Now, I know I’ve taken some liberties in retelling that moment, but something like that happened, and can’t you hear laughter igniting within earshot as Matthew’s friends and foes find their own reasons to picture it hard to imagine a tax man as an apostle? Even more unlikely than expecting a fisherman to become an ambassador.

How did you first hear him call you? How might he call you now… to bloom where you’re planted, to glorify God in your present circumstances… and to laugh at the surprises that come in company with the Christ who works extraordinary results when the ordinary is honored and fulfilled.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Martin Luther King: What Might He Say Now?

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany includes I Samuel 3:1-20, I Corinthians 6:12-20, and John 1:43-51. On this Sunday before Martin Luther King Day, a Williams sophomore (Corey) selected and read an excerpt from one of Dr. King’s sermons, in lieu of the second scripture reading.

We’re grateful to Corey for helping us today to hear the voice of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Hearing a portion of the Drum Major Sermon was both stirring and challenging. After that, with what temerity would a preacher try to preach more?

Perhaps to briefly imagine what Dr. King would be paying attention to today, if he were alive. I’ve thought of him three times this past week. Each time I’ve said to myself, “He would be speaking to this situation.”

First was signaled by the headline, ”Social tensions rising,” reporting that relations and perceptions between the rich and the poor in the United States have reached an intensity of antagonism not seen in a quarter century. “Americans now see more social conflict over wealth inequality than over the hot-button topics of immigration, race relations, and age,” writes AP reporter Hope Yen. She expects we’ll hear more, as this issue moves to the forefront of the presidential campaign.

Dr. King would speak to this. What might he say? In the sermon we heard today, he spoke to those ambitious disciples of Jesus, John and James, the Sons of Thunder, who wanted to be greatest among the twelve. His words could be directed today to people at both ends of the socio-economic ladder, and all in-between: “You want to be great? Wonderful. You want to be important? Wonderful… I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity.” Dr. King would, I believe, issue a unifying challenge like that. And wouldn’t it be good, right about now, to hear a unifying voice in our land?

The second time I thought of him was hearing of the alleged defilement of Afghan corpses by United States Marines. Dr. King would speak to that. He might remind us of a man who was spat upon, beaten, and nailed to a cross, a man who fulfilled the role of the suffering servant foretold by the prophet, a man who was despised and rejected. Dr. King would remind us that this man “stands as the most influential figure that ever entered human history,” affecting the life of the human race more than all the armies, all the navies, all the parliaments, all the kings, by modeling and teaching reverence for life, even, as Dr. King said in his sermon, “when we will be victimized with what is life’s final common denominator—that something we call death.”

And the third time I thought of Martin Luther King, Jr., was reading the article “Humankind’s Most Savage Cruelty,” written by Williamstown resident and King biographer Stewart Burns, published in the current issue of Sojourners Magazine. Burns, who has spoken here and is known to many of us, writes in this article about human trafficking of children.

If the most important thing we know about slavery is that it is a thing of the past, then we are ignorant about the world we inhabit. “Enslavement of children and adults, mostly female, has spread to virtually every country in the world, with the number of host nations—slave states—doubling since 2001. Worldwide at any given time, Burns says, more than a million children are trapped in some form of trafficking. He speaks of the 300,000 child soldiers who are fighting in more than a dozen countries, and he estimates that there are as many as 100,000 girls trafficked as sex slaves within the United States, “truck stops are the most lucrative 21st-century brothels,” he says, in “the land of the free whose (amended) Constitution prohibits slavery.”

“What is the responsibility of a great nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to equality—yet drenched for much of its history in the blood and tears of chattel slavery—to destroy once and for all the global holocaust of labor and sexual servitude? What is the moral mandate of a great, if imperfect, people who eventually vanquished their own slavery, to apply similar democratic and nonviolent tools to fight the modern slavery that has spread wildly with the collapse of the Soviet empire, the dominance of the globalized free market, and the entrenchment of desperate poverty? What is the responsibility of an American citizen, a global citizen, who can no longer tolerate the hollowness of easy human rights pledges while millions of children and women are raped and wrecked as disposable commodities?”

Dr. King would have ready and demanding answers to these questions raised by our neighbor Stewart Burns. Perhaps King’s sermon that we heard today guides us to our own answers, if I may paraphrase the question he put to himself: “What is it that we would want said of us?” Not so much as eulogy, but as commentary on us and our society in this 21st century that is as much in need of emancipation as was the 19th century, as much in need of achieving universal human rights as was the 20th.

Don’t we want it said of us that we were willing to be united, to care less about our place on the socioeconomic ladder, to extend our passion and compassion beyond our own most hotbutton issues, and be united “so that we can make of this old world a new world”?

(Stewart Burns’s article appeared in the February 2012 issue of “Sojourners”.)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Copying the Christ

Scripture for the 1st Sunday after the Epiphany includes Genesis 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7, and Mark 1:4-11

“Into what then were you baptized?”

Paul’s question just begs to be used by the preacher today.

But first, did you hear about the association of 3000 file-sharers in Sweden who successfully petitioned the Swedish government to be declared a religion? Every week, they encourage their members to gather to share music files, video files, whatever—they consider their files to be holy, and they consider copying to be a sacrament. Their 20-year-old leader announced last week the success of their petition, and the name of their religious movement: Koptimism.

Into what then were you baptized?

In fact, Christian baptism , to a large degree, encourages—even mandates—copying. The same words constitute the same covenant, each time the sacrament is administered. What has stood the test of time by demonstrating fidelity to the vision and teaching and Spirit of God in Jesus Christ remains the standard to which members of his body are held, not by the requirement of law but by grateful response to gift, by grace. Mystical expression is given to this central process of imitation in the question and answer in the baptism of a child: “Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ? …I will, with God’s help.”

Into what then were you baptized? Paul needed to ask that question because God’s Spirit was causing the earliest Christian movement to evolve, and Paul would be among its catalysts and midwives. But into what would the Jesus movement develop? In the encounter we heard today, he had found in Ephesus a small house church of a dozen or so disciples of Jesus who apparently had first been disciples of John the Baptizer. Notice how quick they are to describe their baptismal experience as being John’s baptism.

Without demeaning that experience, Paul simply tells them that as strong a foundation as John’s baptism was, baptism in the name of Jesus Christ does more for people. That could sound arrogant, but the utter simplicity of Paul’s language suggests that he is dealing with facts on the ground.

Fact: the movement led by John the Baptizer preceded Jesus’s public ministry—more accurately, the Jesus movement overlapped the John the Baptizer movement and may be said to have come out of it. The Baptizer’s movement was so significant that it is where we first meet Jesus in the Gospels of Mark and John. While the opening salvo in Luke and Matthew is the dramatic birth at Bethlehem, what reveals Jesus as Son of God in Mark and John is his baptism by John the Baptist.

Fact: John’s baptism called people to repent of their greed, their me-first-ism, their brutality, their cynical going-along-with-the-crowd. John’s baptism called them to repentance and to ethical awakening, persuading them that the prophetic call to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with God was the divine call to them, was within their reach, and to reach for this God-given power would save them and their society from its worst fate. John’s baptism was a wake-up call to confront a corrupt culture by daring to recognize and take best ethical choices.

Fact: John got specific about that. When he preached to the crowds, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance!” they shouted back, “What should we do?” “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Act like family, especially with strangers; where there is need, meet it and meet in return the coming of the kingdom of God.

When tax collectors came to be baptized and asked John what they should do, he didn’t miss a beat: “Collect no more than what the law allows.” Soldiers likewise, when they were still wet from the Jordan, heard this challenge: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

Wouldn’t you love to see God send John the Baptizer to Washington, to our members of Congress and then down to K Street for a chat with the lobbyists?

Fact: John knew his place, knew his role to be an agent of change. He was not the One, capital O, to be believed-in, trusted for all time as Savior and Messiah. John made it clear that this anointed One was coming, and John wasn’t worthy even to wash his feet. Which is a way of saying what Paul communicates to that little gang in Ephesus: What you hear first when you are baptized in Christ is not what you must do or must stop doing; first, you hear what God in Christ is doing for you, and that is giving you the very Spirit that unites the heart of God with the heart of Jesus, the very Spirit that makes Jesus who he is. Out of that incalculable gift flow all sorts of ethical promptings and passions, yet what is primarily happening in baptism is that God is giving God’s own self to people; and out of that inestimable gift flow spiritual gifts, spiritual powers, and these are what unite people to comprehend and practice not their own self-invented missions in life, but to imitate the great mission of God, to restore all people to unity with one another and with God.

Paul has a shorthand way of summing-up all that by asking, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” “We’ve never heard of that,” they replied. What lies behind Paul’s question is his confidence that his calling, his part in the mission of God, is to make sure that people aim high enough—and deep enough—in identifying who it is they are to emulate, and what it is they are to copy.

Into what then were you baptized? Into an association of file-sharers who say the same prayers and sing the same hymns and copy cultural customs that they consider to be holy?

If we’re tempted to think that Koptimism misses the mark of religion, let’s keep making sure that our association in the name of Christ aims higher and deeper. Let’s consider more critically the cultural copying we do in the name of being Episcopalians, and put to the test of God’s central mission our beautiful liturgy, our comfortable words, our familiar agendas and ways of doing things, saying things, accumulating things.

Because, in case we haven’t noticed, the world is not beating a path to our door. And, judged by how we’re inclined to spend our time and our money, the path the church beats towards the world is too often paved with good intentions, and our GPS too often programed to keep us on familiar pathways while the central mission of God mandates our embrace of unfamiliar ways to reach, say, twenty year olds.

Perhaps what persuaded the Swedish government to recognize their newest religion was the sharing. Maybe the Koptimists have it right, not about copying being a sacrament, but about sharing being the foundation of religious life. In our me-first world, sharing what is valuable is exactly what we all most need to emulate and excel in. Baptized into the life of Jesus Christ, we are called to share what we value more than files, more than second coats and surplus food. We are called to share the Holy Spirit, the faith that is in us, and the central mission of God.

The church that equips her people to do this sharing copies the Christ, and beats a broad path to the world.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Word Into Silence: Three Christmas Homilies

Three Christmas homilies are grouped here, from Christmas Eve 2011, Christmas Day 2011, and the Feast of the Holy Name 2012. Each relates to Dom John Main’s rich little book, “Word Into Silence” (Continuum, 2005).

I. Christmas Eve

Readings for Christmas Eve include Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20

‘Tis the season to give a gift. And it’s no secret that giving a gift may be its own reward. We are gratified when a loved one’s delight, a receiver’s pleasure, shows us we’ve gotten it right. We have it on high authority that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Many an offertory in many a church has opened with that message, the pastor hoping it will be taken to heart… but inherent in the story of this holy night is the deeper truth that without mindful honest appreciative receiving, a gift gets tossed out, the baby with the bathwater.

We all get gifts that we struggle to receive. Each Christmas, a dear friend sends Diana and me a cd, usually a recording of esoteric music that has spoken to his heart. Sometimes, it doesn’t ring our bells, and that cd finds its way onto a shelf but not often into the player. I will admit that when that slim package arrives, I wonder what century it will take me back to, and do I really want to go there? It is not always easy to receive a gift mindfully, openly, appreciatively.

I suspect that Christmas comes to many of us in a like way. We think we know what to expect, and while we’re willing to be surprised we tend to play the disc as background to our own busyness. If there are surprises given with the gift, if there’s something that would be of inestimable value to us, some movement, some sweet harmony or graceful passage of light, we may not notice it. We play the disc, judge that it is much what we thought it would be, and shelve it for another year.

To receive anything mindfully, openly, appreciatively, I might have to trust that the giver knows me and might have a clue about what will benefit me—perhaps what I like, but likelier what I could rise to and learn from and try. After all, friends who keep feeding us the same-old same-old don’t help us grow.

Consider, then, what God gives on this holy night. In a time of protracted war and recurrent terrorism… at a place where displaced people occupy a few square feet they temporarily call their own as they face a system that shows no care for them… in the cold of a night with no fire burning but the stars above… at the crossroads of ancient animosities and culture wars… and imbedded with sentient beings clucking and neighing and mooing their truth that all creation waits with eager longing… in just these ways that seem so slim in hope, in this fullness of time God empties the treasury of heaven into the womb of Mary and there is born not an alien being but one who shows us who and whose we are.

My Advent reading of Benedictine Dom John Main has been helping me appreciate what God gives. God gives us this child Jesus who will show us that we are called to the same awareness, the same knowing, the same union with God that he himself cherishes. Here is John Main’s language:

“When he sends the Spirit into our hearts, Jesus transmits to us everything that He receives from the Father. He withholds nothing, neither any secret or intimacy of personal love. By His very nature He is impelled to give all of Himself, and the power, the urgency of the love-impulse radiating from the Father make it impossible for Jesus to retain any area of special privilege, of non-communication. The building up of the Body of Christ is precisely the consuming desire of Jesus to flood every part of our human consciousness with His Spirit. Nothing can prevent that desire from being satisfied except man’s own unwillingness to receive, to acknowledge, to awaken to this gift of God’s personal love.”

There is the heart of the Christian mystery. To be given Jesus is to be given not a crèche figure to hold, but the very life of Jesus. To be given Jesus is to be given God, not ideas about God packaged as a creed to end the matter, but God to know and love and experience as the beginning and end of all our material being.

John Main’s slim little book is titled, “Word into Silence,” and his purpose is to get us to pray without words, occupying silence because there, he says, we are saved from superstition and from cynicism because there, he says, we find a personal inner balance, a spiritual self-control that emanates from the self of Jesus.

The centering process of silent prayer, he says, is the awakening of our own spirit to the Spirit of Jesus. It cannot be received like a packaged cd sent from outside. “Our awakening is, in itself, the awareness of our participation in the life of God, of God as the source of our personhood, the very power by which we are enabled to accept God’s gift of our being. It is therefore a free response, an utterly personal communication, a free acceptance.”

Imagine God’s delight when we receive this gift on this holy night mindfully, openly, appreciatively.

(The passage from Main comes from pages 45-46.)

II. Christmas Day

Readings for Christmas Day include Isaiah 52:7-10, Hebrews 1:1-4, and John 1:1-14

The four Gospels present the arrival of Jesus in two different ways. St. Luke and St. Matthew tell us the familiar Christmas story, with Luke providing most of the splendor. Luke tells of the birth of Jesus as if he were filming the event for viewing in 3-D. Without Luke, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas.

St. Mark and St. John don’t seem to know the story of Jesus’s birth. The first glimpse of him they give us is at his baptism, when he is a grown man. But about John’s version that we have heard today, it’s truer to say that the first way he speaks of our Lord is to present him as the Word, the Word of God, in one place we hear that this Word is God, at another that this is the divine Word of wisdom as if a personal presence accompanying God at the creation of the universe, the Word that in time becomes flesh, fully human, full of grace and truth. All this John gives us in the first 18 verses of chapter one, the Prologue. Without John, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas.

A prologue is an opening speech or poem spoken at the start of a play, setting the stage for the action. In competitive cycling, a prologue is a short time trial before a race, to identify a leader.

How does John’s majestic poem set the stage for his telling the big story of our leader Jesus?

This Word, this aspect of God’s nature that became flesh in Jesus, is not like the words that we use to speak to one another, or the words that we cannot find to express a mystery, or the words that endlessly lead to more words heaped word upon word in argument or fight or debate or research. The Word that becomes flesh cannot be the words that come pouring out of a singer’s mouth on our i-Pods, or tumble out of our High Definition TVs. Nor can the Word be like those words Jesus told his friends not to babble with, thinking that more or fancier or bigger or better words could influence God to hear them.

What this Word is we’ll find suggested in the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon, where what that writer calls Wisdom is described in a way we can imagine John nodding his head at in agreement. Here it is: “…a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, the image of God’s goodness.” (Wisdom 7:26, paraphrased)

Can we trust human words? In some cases, yes. When two people stand in the presence of their families and friends and declare their will to live together in the covenant of marriage, being faithful to the other as long as both shall live, they trust the integrity and intention of the words, “I will.”

When I know I’m not the one to complete a task that means the world to me and I give that task to someone else to do, I must trust that person’s word when she says, “I will do it.”

In my Advent reading of a little book by Benedictine Dom John Main, I was caught up in his description of what it means to trust. “To trust another is to renounce self and place your centre of gravity in the other.”

What Zen wisdom that is! In whatever trusting life calls on me to do, I don’t lend my hope to the person I’m trusting: I invest it, I give it over, and in that movement from my control to their control, I place my center of gravity in the other.

This is what Christmas calls us to do with God. And there is the heart of the Christian mystery. To be given Jesus is to be given not a crèche figure to hold, but the very life of Jesus who holds us, Jesus who is “the reflection of eternal light, the spotless mirror of the working of God, the image of God’s goodness.” To be given Jesus is to be given God, not ideas about God packaged as a creed to end the matter, but God to know and love and experience as the beginning and end of all our material being. God to trust, placing our center of gravity in God in that movement of self-control that is prayer, not to pray in a babbling of words but to pray without words, occupying silence because there we are saved from superstition about words and from cynicism about words. And there we find a personal inner balance, a spiritual self-control that emanates from the self of Jesus.

This is what Christmas calls us to do with God: to place our center of gravity in the most trustworthy Word. This is not an exercise in words: it is a wordless standing in the light, allowing perfect love to hold our off-centered hearts into centeredness, welcoming truth that awakens us to freedom, to love.

(The passage from Main is found on pages 45-46.)

III. Feast of the Holy Name

Readings for the Feast of the Holy Name includes Numbers 6:22-27, Galatians 4:4-7, and Luke 2:15-21

Last night, a wedding happened here. Elizabeth and Mikal made vows to each other, in the name of God and in the company of a hundred or so of their friends and family. Names were central to their entering the covenant of holy matrimony. First, I called them by name as I asked them to make their declarations of consent to have one another as husband and wife. Then they named each other as they made their vows to take and receive one another from that day forward, until they are parted by death.

Before naming the partner, each began his or her vow with the words, “In the name of God,” and then named himself or herself as the agent of the vow. Clearly, names are important to covenants that unite people.

And this day in the Christian year calls us to start the calendar year focused on the holy name of Jesus. We’re told that this name came to him not by Mary and Joseph thumbing through a book with a title like “What Shall We Name Our Baby?”, but by the archangel Gabriel announcing that headquarters had already chosen the name for this baby: Jesus.

Jesus is the English form of the latin Iesus, starting with an I, transliterating the Greek Iesou which gives us the abbreviated monogram that looks like IHS, the Greek e resembling an English lower-case h.

The original Hebrew form of the name was Joshua, or more fully Yehoshuah, a name that mean “God saves.” This name was pretty common in the 1st century. The historian Josephus, chronicler of the 1st century, mentions nineteen people named Jesus. While it’s natural for us to revere that name, the Spanish-speaking world is right not to have retired that number. Keeping Jesus in circulation as a popular name recognizes the fact that God selected a name just as down-to-earth as Henry, or Joe, or Samuel.

The readings we’re given today may be the shortest in the year. Aaron’s priestly blessing, the most ancient benediction we know, is described as the way to put God’s name upon the people. As you consider your own part in the priesthood of all believers, imagine what a whole new year gives you by way of opportunity to bless people you work with, live near, struggle with, admire, know well or barely know. Put God’s name on every person you face, and see how blessing flows, both ways.

Psalm 8, one of my favorites, sketches in awe the whole created order, complete with moon and stars, sheep and oxen, birds and fishes, exclaiming that God’s name is exalted in all aspects, all species, all spheres, all ecosystems, all climates, all continents. Encyclopedic and all-embracing is to be our comprehending love and active stewardship.

St. Paul weighs in, addressing God with a most intimate name, Abba, an Aramaic word meaning “father”, but some would say its meaning is closer to “Dad,” perhaps even “Daddy”, and is meant to be a term of endearment. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Our Father…” (though the word there is the Greek “pater”). Writing to the Galatians, Paul says that God’s Spirit, moving so intimately in the human spirit, liberates us from slavery (whatever has us in its grip), frees us, changes our status to become children of God, heirs of God, bearers of God’s likeness.

My preaching this Christmas has been shaped by reading in Advent the little book “Word into Silence” by Dom John Main. It is a book about prayer, wordless silent prayer in which we turn our whole being towards the Other. He capitalizes the O in Other, as if giving God another important name.

Fully facing the otherness of God, he says, we develop our capacity to welcome the otherness of our neighbor. As we let God just be, so we learn to let our neighbor just be, not to manipulate her but rather to reverence her. For this reason, Main calls prayer “the great school of community.” In prayer, we discover “the true glory of Christian community as a fraternity of the anointed, living together in profound and loving mutual respect. Christian community is in essence the experience of being held in reverence by others and we in our turn reverencing them.” Some of us, on entering church, genuflect. Perhaps we should practice that towards one another, a sign of recognizing the holy in one another, in keeping with what Main is saying.

“This reverence for each other reveals the members of the community as being sensitively attuned one to the other on the wavelength of the Spirit, the same Spirit that has called each of us to fullness of love. In others I recognize the same Spirit that lives in my heart, the Spirit that constitutes my real self. In this recognition of the other person, a recognition that remakes my mind and expands my consciousness, the other person comes into being as he really is, in his real self, not as a manipulated extension of myself. He moves and acts out of his own integral reality and no longer as some image created by my imagination. Even if our ideas or principles clash, we are held in unison, in dynamic equilibrium, by our mutual recognition of each other’s infinite lovableness, importance, and essential unique reality.”

There’s a vision of church for the new year. There’s a conception of our baptismal covenant, from when the cross of Jesus was signed on our forehead naming us his. And there’s an understanding of how we practice the priesthood of all believers so as to bless all people we encounter, putting God’s name to worthy purpose.

(The passage from Main is found on pages 78-79 of “Word Into Silence”.)

Conveying the Treasure of God

Scripture for the 4th Sunday of Advent includes II Samuel 7:1-11,16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

The angel Gabriel is a busy fellow. Chief messenger of God, legend also claims that he is guardian of the celestial treasury. As such, I expect we can say that Gabriel is the patron saint of parish treasurers; but I would have thought that God might be above needing a treasury, so let’s take this legend as reminding us that Gabriel got to announce the transfer of God’s greatest treasure from heaven to earth, Jesus, the very Word and will and way of God.

That we have two archangels side by side, Gabriel and Michael, in the windows of our east aisle is intentional and serves the purpose of memorializing Amos Lawrence Hopkins, a Williamstown native who fought in the civil war (hence Michael, captain-general of the hosts of heaven and patron saint of soldiers). After the war, Hopkins became Administrator of Railroads for the entire country, a trustee of Williams College and a member of this parish’s first building committee. (So we can blame him—or give him credit.)

If Michael stands guard as a man of action memorializing another man of action, why is he paired with Gabriel? Remember that Hopkins was in charge of getting the trains to run on time. That takes money and communication, and both are said to be Gabriel’s turf.

While Michael is vested in red of sovereign power, violet of passion and suffering, and gold of sacredness, Gabriel is done out in blue, the Virgin Mary’s color and the color associated with truth, and he’s holding lilies, Mary’s flower. It’s as if his gig in Nazareth left its mark on him forever.

Before he announces to Mary the news that made her weak in the knees, Gabriel the truth-teller makes sure Mary is grounded in truth by reminding her, “The Lord is with you.” This anchors in truth what is being asked of Mary. God does not require without making able. Responsibility is met by grace and exceeded by grace, transforming what feels like obligation into what is privilege.

But Mary is human, entirely human, and Mary is young, very young, and the timing is all out of joint. Gabriel speaks suddenly of conceiving and bearing and birthing and naming, but at that very moment Mary is engaged but not yet wed, and far from settled. She’s temporarily a displaced person, thanks to the new tax program of Emperor Augustus that put families on the road to return to their ancestral towns for a census. Parents hearing the news of pregnancy usually rejoice and start imagining what color to paint the nursery. “We haven’t even slept together,” protests Mary.

And then… and then. Gabriel reaches into the treasure of God and teaches Mary to recognize how in this moment of truth it is up to her whether to spend her heart and soul on the debit side of the ledger, dwelling on all the impossibilities and finding all the reasons to resist what is asked of her, or to invest her heart and soul in the receipts side of the book of life and recognize all that is positive: the favor of God, the power to conceive, a son already named by God, a throne on which he will sit, the Holy Spirit who will work intimate power within her… for nothing will be impossible with God.

She makes her choice: “Here am I,” she exclaims, diving into the deep end of the pool of God’s treasure, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be. Let it be… Let it be with me according to your word.” And with that assent the mystery of incarnation takes hold within her, and the history of redemption is written no more in the terms of law and its commands, but in the language of love unearned and undeserved, grace, the amazing movement of the treasure of God’s love through the womb of Mary.

The Christmas pageant we shall see this afternoon features a number of dwelling places: an inn where there is no room, another inn where Joseph and Mary hear of a poor substitute, the only vacancy remaining in Nazareth, a manger, a cattle shed (or, some would say, a cave). But the prime real estate at the heart of the pageant will be the place within Mary, the mansion her body makes for the Son of God. In her is fulfilled Nathan’s prophecy that we heard earlier, “…the LORD will make you a house…”

So our collect on this fourth and final Sunday of Advent asks God to wipe clean and sweep out and hose down our conscience, our ethical capacity, our moral vision, our reason for being, our mission purpose, that the real estate of our lives may become Jesus’s home.

May you and I and many be open, this Christmas, to the transforming love, the treasure, of God. And may this treasure free and spark our ethical energy, our moral vision, our faithful purpose, so that the earthen vessels of our lives convey divine treasure to this world.