Monday, December 31, 2012

Tigers, Elephants, and Lobsters at the Creche

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

I’m going to start this sermon with a poem.

“The Nativity”

Among the oxen (like an ox I’m slow)
I see a glory in the stable grow
Which, with an ox’s dullness might at length
Give me an ox’s strength.

Among the asses (stubborn I as they)
I see my Saviour where I looked for hay;
So may my beastlike folly learn at least
The patience of a beast.

Among the sheep (I like a sheep have strayed)
I watch the manger where my Lord is laid;
Oh that my baa-ing nature would win thence
Some woolly innocence!

C. S. Lewis

What do you make of the presence of barnyard creatures at the manger? The greater surprise is the presence there of a birth-weary human family, isn’t it? Not to mention assorted angels and eastern sages. It’s a farm, a barn, a manger, for heaven’s sake! The ox, the ass, the sheep are right where they belong: it’s their neighborhood, and they are at home. Their presence at the incarnation of God in Jesus reminds us that God is entirely at home with all creatures where they live, and while God enters human flesh, this is for the purpose of redeeming, hallowing, healing all the species of life. God initiates the new creation with the help of human DNA, but as in the first creation human beings were entrusted with the care of all manner of beings, so in this new created order God’s purpose exceeds us and our salvation. We sink or swim, burrow or fly, hand in paw with all God’s precious beings.

When we get to the feast of St. Francis in early October and the church announces its intention to bless the animals, each time we do we discover all over again that at the heart of that ceremony is the gracious truth that our animal companions bless us. They are God’s agents in blessing us, and blessing always has its way of eliciting blessing from the blessed. Look your animal companions in the eye, and remember your calling to live your life in such ways that you actually do bless them. As St. Paul says somewhere, we are all of us members one of another, living links in an astonishingly rich and diverse chain of being.

By that awareness, we weren’t all that surprised to see among the dramatis personae at our Christmas pageant this year a tiger and an elephant. Last year, I distinctly remember a very green frog and a totally pink pig. A penguin makes an occasional appearance at our altar crèche. In the plotline of the film “Love Actually” a London church’s pageant includes two lobsters and one octopus. I’d expect a good backstory to that… but if anyone contacts us to ask why a tiger and an elephant here in the Berkshires, in quiet little Williamstown, what will we tell them except that we have learned in Christ to welcome all as we all have been welcomed by Christ? And given the prophet Isaiah’s riff today on robes of righteousness, if you’ve got the costume, wear it!

Reinforcing the justice that many species should be present at the holy nativity is the view of Christ expressed in the sublime language of St. John’s preamble to his Gospel, where we are told, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life…”

I hear C. S. Lewis treating life humbly and reverently as he confesses his own animal traits on the deficit side of his ledger (he is slow like an ox, stubborn like an ass, straying like a sheep) while quickly naming what he admires in each animal and hopes will be his: the ox’s strength, the ass’s patience, the sheep’s innocence.

If we heard our animal companions and our other-species neighbors speak about the humans they observe, what might we learn? If the animals admitted to having certain less than admirable human traits, what might those be?

I imagine the animals saying that we humans are so darned busy, so distractible that we fail to give time just to play, to adore, to cherish, to hold and caress. Diana reminds me that our sweet old English setter, Abby, used to step on our feet when she wanted our attention. She would put her paw down on the foot of the person, as if to say, Don’t leave—I want you. In more recent times, our entirely trusting cat Bindhu, surrounded by people busily moving about the kitchen, would lie down on the floor—preferably the center, or right in front of the refrigerator—making himself a being to reckon with, transferring to us the responsibility to notice and respond.

While we have neither of these wonderful companions with us any longer, the memory of how they communicated with us makes us think of God. “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given…” How busily, how busily, we humans fill our moments and our days, and often miss the opportunity, the blessing, the grace, to be still… to adore… to hold and be held, to play, to be present.

Isn’t that what the creatures convey at the manger? Isn’t this how they—and the poet—invite us to treat life humbly and reverently? And isn’t the new year a perfect time to hear and welcome this invitation, all over again?

(Lewis's poem can be found in "Chapters Into Verse", volume 2, edited by
Robert Atwan and Laurance Wieder.)

Friday, December 28, 2012

Triumph of the Innocents

Scripture for Christmas Eve and Day include Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

On Saturday afternoon, our children staged their annual Christmas pageant. Some of you were here to enjoy that yearly adventure when kids slip on the sandals of shepherds, put on the robes of kings, and get fitted out with angel wings. It’s such a visceral way to claim the story as their own, because it is our story, not just about first-century characters caught in the headlights of a mighty surprising midnight tale, but the story of our redemption, our salvation, our humble and puzzling place in the new creation God brings to birth in Jesus Christ.

We dedicated this year’s pageant to the twenty children cut down in their classrooms at Sandy Hook Elementary School. We did that to affirm that their story is also our story. The inexpressible losses suffered by their families have diminished us, too, and require us to keep expressing these losses until we have figured it out as a nation what is to be done to prevent this happening again.

You know it is only St. Luke and St. Matthew who get Jesus onto the stage of human history by telling stories of his birth. St. Mark has him emerge full-grown as an itinerant preacher. St. John introduces him with the song of a philosopher, that great Prologue about the Word becoming flesh.

And Matthew goes to a place in his story that Luke doesn’t seem to know about. This is a dark place of great anguish, the holy family’s night-time escape to Egypt, and King Herod’s vicious slaughter of the innocents, his maniacal ethnic cleansing, massacring all the children in and around Bethlehem two years old and younger, attempting to make sure that he eliminates the prophesied king of the Jews, the one whom eastern sages have come to anoint.

These episodes do not make it into any Christmas pageant that I know of. It’s not because there’d be any shortage among the boys to play the parts of Herod’s soldiers. It’s that even grown women would recoil from having to take the parts of all those mothers. Matthew respects their privacy, refusing to narrate the carnage and instead obliquely cites scripture: “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’”

We don’t know what to do with this part of the Christmas story. But it is no less our story. Especially this Christmas.

Without this bleak and haunting part of the Christmas story, we miss how broad, how deep, how relentless the love of God in Jesus Christ really is. The insane violence of Herod, the suffering of those children, the bottomless anguish of their parents, all depict accurately the world into which Jesus was born, as they depict our world into which God’s Word must be made flesh even now.

The full Christmas story tells us that Jesus is not immune to injustice, violence, and sorrow. It is into these conditions that he is born; it is within these experiences that we shall continue to find him. As a child, he escapes Herod’s plot, at the price of the holy family’s becoming refugees for a time in Egypt; but there will be another Herod, another plot in the time of Jesus’s young adulthood, that will place our Lord’s life on the line and this time he will know exactly what he must do to redeem the human race from its ancient bondage to sin and death. He must take on himself the brunt and burden of the evil that faces him, and by doing that show how the way of the cross is the way of life. Precisely this is what his friends continue to do, as teachers did in the hallways and classrooms of that school on December 14th, his Spirit empowering their spirit, his courage undergirding theirs, his embrace drawing them through the eye of the needle, the time of trial that we pray to avoid by God’s grace but more maturely pray to meet by God’s grace when we must.

There is a painting by William Holman Hunt, one of the British Pre-Raphaelite painters of the last quarter of the 19th century. He titled it, “The Triumph of the Innocents.” It’s not as well-known as his earlier painting “The Light of the World,” which you have seen (Jesus stands at a shut door, a door unused and covered with vines, a door that appears to have no outer handle; it is dusk, and Jesus stands knocking with one hand and in the other holds a lit lantern… a direct encounter with Jesus awaits, if the believer will open that door).

A reproduction of “The Triumph of the Innocents” is in the display cabinet at the back of the church for you to see. Hunt shows the holy family crossing the wilderness of Judea by night, Joseph leading the donkey on which Mary is seated, holding Jesus who is straining to reach out to clusters of young angels. There are no wings on these toddlers; but each head has an encircling ring of light—in fact, each of these fourteen children is bathed in light, and while they all look to be about two years old, there is nothing toddling about their gait. They walk with confident stride, and with arms linked (and it’s that vibrant fellowship that Jesus seems to be reaching for). And there are beautiful mysterious bubbles on the road, each holding what might be a little parallel universe… it is as if to say that while Herod has put these children to death, they now push the boundaries of reality. It is as if they are much more real than Herod is; as if they, released from his iron grip, are now free to lead and safeguard and bless the holy family in their migration.

This painting speaks to me, this Christmas when the slaughter of the holy innocents must be part of the real Christmas story. The twenty children of Newtown are leading us as a nation to figure out what we must do to make daily life safer for the innocent. What is happening through them is like brilliant light piercing the dark of our national failures and fears, and we must walk in that light. The Word of grace and truth is being made real in our experience of their deaths, and we must find what is required of us—and do it, that the Word be made flesh among us now.

Monday, December 24, 2012

What the World Says about America and Guns

Scripture for the 4th Sunday in Advent includes Micah 5:2-5a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-55

The world’s attention remains fixed on Newtown, Connecticut. As Advent opens onto Christmas, our own attention is torn between there and here, where the season of waiting, the season of training to welcome the Christ, wants to give way to celebration and pleasure. Yet it seems that the only way to there is through here, our present pain and struggle. So even as we may border on feeling some degree of compassion fatigue, I think we might do well to hear what people in other nations are thinking and saying about this American tragedy. I want to harvest a few comments from The Christian Science Monitor and Yahoo News.

In a nutshell, there has been an outpouring of sympathy from the international community, inevitably followed by utter bewilderment at America's continued obsession with lethal weapons.

The U.S. is home to 270 million privately held guns, which equates to an average of nine guns per 10 people. (In second place, with roughly one gun for every two people, is Yemen, "a conflict-torn Arab nation still dealing with poverty, political unrest, a separatist Shia insurgency, an al Qaeda branch, and the aftereffects of a 1994 civil war," notes Max Fisher at “The Washington Post”.) It is no coincidence that the U.S. also boasts the highest rate of gun-related deaths among developed countries — an American is 20 times more likely to die at the hands of a gun then another member of the developed world. Here, some reactions from around the world:

In Moscow, dozens of Russians spontaneously placed flowers at the US Embassy over the weekend in memory of the 26 victims who were killed on Friday. News of the tragedy was shared across the Internet in China, which witnessed its own school attack Friday. From Germany to Britain to France, heads of state expressed their grief, shock, and horror.

With their empathy, however, came an apparent mounting frustration with a US political system that has left weapons like the Bushmaster AR-15 – the civilian model of the M-16 that law-enforcement officials have said the shooter used on his victims Friday – legal and accessible to the public.

Canada's “The Globe and Mail”:

'There is something inexorable about the phenomenon of mass shootings in the United States. We have been forced to write about it with tragic regularity for years. We have exhausted adjectives to describe our horror and revulsion. We have stated and restated the problem…

'The time for platitudes is past... It’s time the U.S. cured its gun sickness.
(Steps Canada has taken include a 28-day waiting period to buy a handgun, and the clever safeguard of requiring gun buyers to have the support of two people vouching for them.)'

Anne Davies at Australia's “Sydney Morning Herald”:

(In Australia, following a mass killing of 35 people in 1996, a national firearms agreement was reached, banning certain rapid-fire guns and using a buyback program that removed 650,000 firearms from public hands.)

'To Australians it seems incredible that U.S. politicians will not move to control guns. It seems illogical in the face of global statistics and our own experience of the success of the gun amnesty.

'The bigger task for America is to become a gentler, more trusting society, so that school children do not have to be drilled in cowering in store rooms.'

Tzipi Shmilovitz at Israel's “Yedioth Ahronoth”:

'America is not ready to talk about how it is easier to get a handgun than it is to see a doctor, not ready to speak about the video games that have extreme violence. It is just willing to sweep up everything under the carpet of tears.'

India's “The Times of India”:

'For those griping about the American right to bear arms, wake up. This is the 21st century and America's a settled state, not the rough-edged, wide open spaces of the 1780s when the Constitution was framed and everything, from land to liberty, was based on violent contests. Bearing arms then might have made sense — doing so today is swallowing the nonsense posed as liberty by commercial lobbies. Some argue weapons empower victims against aggressors. If so, should second-graders pack pistols in their schoolbags? Such shaky logic simply intensifies dangerous situations.'

You probably heard that exactly such shaky logic moved the Michigan state legislature, the day before the Newtown massacre, to approve a bill that would have eliminated "gun-free zones," effectively allowing concealed pistol license holders to bring their guns onto school grounds across the state. The Atlantic Wire reports that this move, unsurprisingly, led to immediate outrage. Governor Rick Snyder had the good sense to veto the measure. Presumably, those legislators intended that their law empower adults to become vigilante intervenors. That fine point was lost on an eleven year old Michigan boy who was taken into custody early last week. He had packed a handgun in his backpack, in case his school was invaded by a deranged gunman. He may have been showing it to his buddies on the playground, but he was charged with pointing the weapon at other children.

Our Gospel today makes clear how central children are to the Christian experience of God. Two babies in utero are cradled in their mothers’ wombs, and before their births these little ones are seen to be great. Only Luke and Matthew begin their Gospels with high visibility of Jesus’s holy childbirth. Mark joins them, though, with the story of Jesus drawing to himself a child (doubtless one of the very children his disciples had tried to shoo away from him), dramatizing his teaching that the Kingdom of God belongs to children; which we take to mean that such qualities as trust, wonder, spontaneity, imagination, humor, playfulness, generosity, expectancy, and use of all our senses are essentials in our spiritual practice—and conversely, that fear, pretentiousness, over-intellectualizing, prejudice, alienation, and other adult pursuits can shut us out of the Kingdom of God. The Gospel message that children rule rings true in John’s Gospel, too, where the great Prologue promises that all who receive Jesus receive also power to become children of God, born not just once of blood and flesh, but born twice, born again of God whose Word, having become flesh, lives among us, full of grace and truth.

As we prepare to welcome the gift of the Christ child, we will honor his coming by recognizing how the children of Newtown are now leading us to make our nation a safer society for all children, and a society more alert, more effective, and more compassionate in treating children of God—and their families-- who live with mental illness. So must the Word be made flesh to dwell among us now, full of grace and truth.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Heeding Advent Coach Luke

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday of Advent includes Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

I’ve been talking about Advent as a training season preparing us to welcome the gift of the Christ who comes to us cloaked in humility and paradox. If the evangelist Luke is our coach, whatever is he up to?

Week One of his training regimen had us picture an apocalyptic scene of distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and its waves. On the heels of Superstorm Sandy, with mayhem throughout the Middle East and political gridlock in Washington, this was not hard to visualize, even before Friday’s devastating news from Newtown.

Week Two had Luke setting our sights on a certain moment in history when Tiberius was emperor, Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee—a nasty trio we’d all have avoided like a plague of plagues, but representing just the right moment, says Luke, for God to act, and to do so through an unforgettable fellow named John, who emerged from the desert on strategic assignment.

So far, you might wonder what any of Luke’s agenda has to do with Christmas. But wait: isn’t Luke the Gospel writer who gives us most of what we know about the birth and infancy of Jesus? He must know what he’s up to… but what is it?

If we cheated and jumped ahead to next Sunday’s Gospel, would it help? There we’ll find two women and the babies they’re carrying in utero, Mary chambering Jesus in her womb and her relative Elizabeth sheltering John in hers—the same John we meet today, nicknamed the Baptizer for his trademark experience that aligned people with the religious movement he would lead. And when next Sunday comes, we’ll hear Mary sing her song Magnificat, extolling
God for what will come through Jesus her son: scattering the proud, lifting up the lowly, feeding the hungry, comforting the afflicted. Week four will show the central place children occupy in God’s work of redemption, and the divine importance of parental love.

But first, today’s training drill sets us on the banks of the Jordan River, among the crowds who came to John the Baptizer to make a fresh start of life. Except that he knew the scent of falsehood, and could sense the deceit about which T. S. Eliot would write in “Murder in the Cathedral”, “The last act is the greatest treason. To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

John was offering a breakthrough experience based on repentance, a change of heart showing itself in countercultural behavior: putting my second coat on someone else’s shoulders, ensuring that no food goes stale or wasted by sharing it with the hungry, finding contentment in what I rightly have, not grasping what belongs to someone else. These are fruits worthy of repentance, he says.

Scanning the crowds, he knew there were some who would make no such commitment. They had come to be baptized the way people line up for flu shots, to avoid what they fear, but at no great cost to them. He minced no words with these folks who feel entitled to safety because they participate in a mass ritual, or because they come fortunately born from a good upright family—or both, as may be the case with how some Episcopalians see themselves.

John says these self-excusing folks are like snakes slithering away from a woodpile when it’s set on fire. And yes, if that’s not hard hitting enough, poisonous snakes, vipers—to make no commitment to change, no commitment to bear fruits worthy of repentance is to poison the community, the Church, and the body politic.

With Luke as our Advent coach, what are we going to recognize at Christmas?

How profoundly important to God is our life in the flesh, our mortal life that is so vulnerable to the violence of the proud and of the poisonous, the tyrannical and the deranged. So vulnerable, yet bearing the divine image, capable of seeing that God’s will is done on earth as in heaven, capable of the call to right ancient wrongs and heal ancient wounds.

We will recognize how profoundly important to God is our life in the flesh, and how uniquely important to us is our life in the Spirit of God. The Spirit that can change hearts to repent, the Spirit that will wipe our slates clean and free human will for a fresh start, the Spirit that will make us wise enough and brave enough to change the disordered society in which you and I live.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Participating in the Incarnation

Scripture for the Second Sunday in Advent includes Baruch 5:1-9; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

If we’re going to find the potential of revelation in a birth in a barnyard, we need Advent to be a training season, not a shopping season. A training season for perceiving what lies beneath the surface and beyond the obvious; because the stunning beauty of Christmas, the lasting blessing of the holy nativity, lies in the puzzling truth that things are often not what they seem. Insight, foresight, and hindsight are needed to shape our welcome of the Christ who is born in such unpromising surroundings as a feeding trough in a barn behind an inn with no vacancies. Cloaked in humility and paradox is the gift of the Christ child.

“’What fresh hell is this?’… Or something very much like that was Joseph’s response to the decree mandating a trip to Bethlehem in the final days of Mary’s pregnancy. Burden heaped upon burden. In years to come songs would sweeten that trek to the little town of Bethlehem, but just then Joseph could barely manage the weight of Caesar’s decree and his wife’s condition. From where he stood, Joseph’s predicament was a study in hopelessness.”

That’s how Sam Portaro opens his Advent meditation in the most recent issue of “Vestry Papers.” Part of getting the hang of the good news of God in Jesus Christ is realizing that despite all the glam and glitter of our cultural Christmas, the bona fide story underwriting the nativity is about some really hard waiting required of Mary and Joseph—putting up with government tax reform, coping with the indignities of overland travel, not to mention surviving nine months of Jesus robing himself in human flesh, some of this time for Mary jostling bareback on a donkey. The holy family is uprooted. This required trip to Bethlehem isn’t a sweet return to the hometown for the holidays. Nor will Joseph and Mary return to wherever they were living: they will be homeless, and when they leave Bethlehem it will be as refugees escaping a maniac king intent on eliminating them.

Merry Christmas.

Here’s Sam Portaro again: “Advent’s characteristic waiting is not the anticipatory expectation of envisioned gift—like the child’s wishful waiting for Santa, or even the pregnant mother’s and expectant father’s apprehensions of birth—but a more difficult waiting, a waiting with no tangible outcome accessible to us, exactly the kind of waiting demanded of us just now: waiting for that which we cannot yet see. Or even imagine.

“We’ve no idea what the future holds for us... We forget (to our peril) that neither Mary nor Joseph could’ve anticipated the fullness of their child’s life, much less its enduring power in our own lives. Any and all suggestions to the contrary have been read backward into the story, many centuries after those at the heart of the story had lived and died. None of the apostles could ever have imagined the church as we experience it; none lived to see even an approximation of it. The human aspirations and apprehensions met in Bethlehem’s manger were overlooked by all those present and many who followed for centuries after, for their hopes and fears were founded upon models of messiah and kingship Jesus steadfastly refused. None could’ve imagined what God was accomplishing—would accomplish— much less how and in whom.

“This isn’t to say that we’re to despair, but rather that true leadership… is unafraid of truth and steadfast in trust. When we let go our own fantasies of a… future conforming to our own desires and designs, we open a space ready to receive God’s surprise, the life promised us. We’ve no idea what awaits us but in the darkness of that scary not knowing, the light of Advent shines. We take our places with Joseph and Mary at the center of that fresh hell—that wearying trip, compounded by advanced pregnancy, to comply with an onerous imperial order of census and taxation, to a city lacking adequate provision for them—to find ourselves at a stable, staring into the face of a baby whose future is as tenuous and as unknown as every child’s.

“That’s what we’re called to, what we come to in this and every Advent. A new life is being born and though we’ll not live to see it fully grown, we hold fast to the assurance of that “God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20) And we rejoice to be here.”

Even if here and now is a balancing act between counting our blessings and lamenting our losses.

Even if here is a place where young people die out of sequence with their elders, leaving their children and their parents in grief.

Even though here is just a few days away from tumbling over the fiscal cliff.

Even though here is a warming planet with rising oceans.

Even though here is a globe of fractured relationships between neighbors, a Holy Land riven by unholy bitterness, a world that still has too many maniac kings and too many disputed borders.

“Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction… and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting….” So sings Baruch, scribe to the prophet Jeremiah and author of an apocryphal book that we get to hear, thanks to our new lectionary.

Righteousness is his theme, as it is in all these readings today. Not self-righteousness that believes God loves only those who live on my side of the border, my side of the aisle in congress, my religion, my kind of people. Righteousness is right and healthy relationship centered in love for God and love for neighbor as for self. Righteousness is depending not so much on our own ability to make things right, but on God being at work in our world to make it right (as Paul puts it to the Philippians, “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion…”). God needs us to help that completion happen, but as servants and not masters, servants trusted to determine what is best (says Paul) by spiritual powers of love and insight.

A harvest of righteousness, that’s the point of it all, says St. Paul. And we can take that to mean that our Advent training sharpens our focus on piling presents under other people’s trees, like those 23 children we’re providing for through the Giving Tree. There’s a harvest of right priorities.

Another will be our Christmas offering to support three forms of outreach that mirror the story of the first Christmas. Remembering that the holy family were refugees, we will support emergency relief for Syrian refugees. Remembering how shelter, food, and post-natal care are needs we see at Bethlehem, we will care for struggling families here in North Berkshire. And remembering how livestock are front and center in the Christmas story, we will send funds to Heifer Project International.

And yes, you and I will find many quiet private ways to help make rough places smooth and crooked places straight, not just now in December, but often, knowing that the Word will be made flesh over and again as we help God produce a harvest of right relationship, healthy relationship, right priorities that come through Jesus Christ.

Advent training isn’t big on wish lists for Santa, or shopping lists for Santa’s helpers. But goals are in order, goals for a righteous harvest. How about intelligent, fair, honest cooperation across the aisle in Congress? Insistence that our federal budget not be balanced at the expense of the poor? How about courage in the White House and State Department to get Israel and the State of Palestine to sit down for serious negotiations while there is still time? And gun control—remember gun control? What a yet longer list you and I can name, goals for a harvest of righteousness, all worthy of a new year of healthy activism.

Advent training teaches us creative, assertive, active waiting. Unlike our cultural Christmas, we are not counting down to a moment of gratification. We are in Christ building up a capacity to perceive what lies beneath the surface and beyond the obvious, to recognize the promised presence and power and purpose of God in unpromising surroundings. And to participate with God in the Incarnation.