Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Recognizing Blessed John, Evangelist

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

Children whose birthday comes within two or three days of Christmas may feel that there’s not quite enough pixie dust to go around, that their birthday gets lost in the shuffle. Our parish patron, Saint John the Evangelist, may be familiar with that feeling, since his day in the Christian calendar is December 27. As important as he deserves to be to us, and much as we like parties, our patron saint doesn’t get much attention in Williamstown on the 3rd day of Christmas.

So we’re at least giving him a nod, and the Church helps us remember him by appointing as the Gospel for the 1st Sunday after Christmas the sublime words of the preamble to his Gospel, a portion known as the Prologue. His mystical prose celebrates the Word become flesh, and John’s first gift to all who hear these words is his insistence that the divine Word “was in the beginning with God” and “all things came into being through him.” It is as if the Word is the womb through which all creation is birthed. John personifies the Word, and so paves the way to conceiving a holy Trinity of divine being. Christians hear that “the Word was God” and instinctively think of Jesus Christ, in whom that Word is made flesh. At the same moment, to minds and memories shaped by the Hebrew Bible, “the Word” evokes the Spirit of God, more precisely the spirit of Wisdom, said by some biblical authors to have been present with God at the creation as Lady Wisdom. John the Gospel-writer sets the stage for God to be revealed as having dynamic facets—including the feminine—and we’ll see these strands of thought woven more intentionally into the concept of the holy trinity.

Well, there is a nod to blessed John, our patron. Where would we be theologically, without him? Thank God we have him, his voice, his witness. “No one has ever seen God,” insists John. “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Jesus the Word made flesh comes among us, the true light, full of grace and truth, to show us reality. What in English is Word in Greek is Logos, also translated “reality”.

The 4:00 Christmas Eve service here opened with an exchange between the indefatigable Lucy and a pensive Charlie Brown, who enjoys Christmas well enough, but is not satisfied until he learns what it is all about, what it is for, what is real about it. And Lucy, of course is fully up to the challenge.

This brief skit appeared to be well enjoyed, perhaps because it invited everyone to channel their inner child en route to hearing a few adult words attributed to American essayist (and Williams College grad, class of 1867) Hamilton Wright Mabie (and found for us by Barbara Kourajian): “Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love…”, words spoken simultaneously by Lucy (Celia Twomey) and Charlie (Bill Wootters). There couldn’t have been a Lucier Lucy than Celia, or a Charlier Charlie than Bill.

I think we do our patron saint proud when we seize moments like that for re-examining, reconsidering how Jesus, the Word made flesh, is full of grace and truth. We did it last Sunday afternoon in a homegrown Christmas pageant unlike any we’ve done here before, featuring a touch that reminded me of Sesame Street, when the camera pans to the old fellows up in the balcony, with their salty commentary on life below. Not that I’m calling Joyce Lincourt and Tom Nicholson old, mind you, but every so often one of them would stop the action of the pageant to engage the cast in gentle cross-examination, grilling the shepherds on why ever they would want to play the part of stinky shepherds when there were parts like kings with crowns and angels with wings to be claimed. Our children, answering this kind of question, gave their own comments on what’s real to them in the Christmas story, creatively coached by Chris Bolton.

Speaking of shepherds, that 4:00 service was visited by the Sheep Family (known to us as the Torres family, plus Aodhan). As the shepherd, Sloane richly, plainly, retold Matthew’s story of the holy birth, punctuated every so often by that little chorus of baa-ing sheep.

And speaking of animals, have you taken a good look at our crèche at the altar? Have you noticed the species diversification going on there this year? Yes, that is a rat at the manger. And no, you’re not imagining it, a zebra has made it to Bethlehem (though, from a distance, he resembles Eeyore the donkey… but don’t be fooled). What has happened here? Actually, just what you might expect when Laurie Glover and Adrienne Wootters are put in charge of setting the crèche.

Could it be that this too is quiet tribute to John the Evangelist, that we envision such full breadth of the redemptive work of God in Jesus Christ? At a time when our minds are fixed on the civil unrest and violence in South Sudan and Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the celebration of Nelson Mandela’s life and leadership in South Africa, let that zebra remind us of the great continent that is home for many tens of millions of Christians—and let that zebra remind us to pray daily for the Church in all embattled societies, that Christians may bear witness to the Prince of Peace.

As for the rat… Williamstown writer Elizabeth Kolbert has a fascinating (and sobering) piece in the current New Yorker about the phenomenon of sudden global catastrophe, the extinction of species not on the gradual model advanced by Darwin and his associates, but the kind of calamity that might be caused by any of a number of factors. Geologists can point to signs of such swift extinction in certain parts of the fossil record. The slamming of an asteroid into the ocean bed off the Yucatan Peninsula may have caused the last such catastrophe. Carbon emissions appear to be accomplishing the next one.

Kolbert interviews a geologist who sounds quite confident that when this happens, the rat is the likeliest species to stand to gain from it all. The rat has, after all, followed the human species to every known spot on the planet, including some that human beings have chosen not to settle in, but rats have.

Let the one at our manger remind us to keep so praying, and choosing, and living that we may see and make the very best choices that this fragile earth and its shimmering ecosystems require of us.

I have one more facet of Christmas 2013 to report. St. John laces his Prologue with images of light, calling Christ the true light which enlightens everyone—a breathtaking claim that we haven’t paid enough attention to, preferring as a species to consider our own tribe or family or denomination or party enlightened, and others benighted. Darlie and her dad, Eric, pulled the plug on that narrow way of thinking in their duet on Christmas Eve, singing of how children the world ‘round see the Christ child having the same color skin that they have, in perfect expression of God’s universal love, the true light that enlightens everyone.

Well, it wasn’t yet night on Christmas Eve when I started lighting candles. Among the notes I left for myself last year (for this year) is one that said, “Don’t under-estimate how long it takes to light the candles.” And just a couple of weeks ago, a family in the parish gave us a full set of battery-powered candles for windows, with attractive pewter-finish bases, and I decided to place them in the upper room and porch windows.

Starting in the northeast corner of the upper room, I tightened the bulb in one lamp: it wouldn’t stay on. I went to the second: it wouldn’t come on. Likewise, of seven candles not one remained lit: some would come on, but immediately go out when moved. Others would come on only after being moved and, I’ll admit it, roughed up a little.

I will tell you what happened next. I will tell you this as a penitential act. I swept all seventeen candles into several nearest waste baskets. I will tell you that it felt therapeutic to do this, to draw a bright line in the growing dark.

After the 4:00 service, Joyce came over to me. “What became of the new candles?” she asked, innocently. Brazenly, I told her. “But we tried every one of them just yesterday,” she said, “and they all worked fine.”

What followed was a recipe for humility. Sheepishly, I reached for the nearest trash barrel that I could recall using in my purge, and pulled out one candle. Joyce twisted the bulb and it came on. And stayed on. So with a second. And a third. The fourth and fifth, too. The sixth one resisted for a brief moment of utter relief to me, then took. With the seventh one working, I saw what had to be next: wastebasket diving on the feast of the holy nativity.

It was the apostle Peter who asked Jesus, “Lord, are we to forgive someone as many as seven times?”

“Don’t stop there,” Jesus replied. “As many as seventy-seven times!” I’m thinking now that this flexibility may be required of us in our handling of things, not only people.

“The light shines in the darkness,” sings John our patron. And my darkness did not overcome it. Even when I let my doubts and my darkness speak to me, Lady Wisdom did not leave me to my own devices. Her role, like that of the other John, John the Baptist, was to bear witness to the light. Blessed John, evangelist, by his use of the word, makes witnesses of us all.

Christmas Gone Right

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

There are so many things that can go wrong at Christmas.

Batteries may not be included.

On that heavy long box holding your new bookshelves may appear the words,”Some
assembly required.”

Jesus, Joseph, Mary, or any one or more of the three kings may drop out of the
pageant for any of a surprising number of reasons, alarmingly late in the

The most blatantly self-congratulatory Christmas letter of the season may prompt you
to write your own, and you’re stuck on the paragraph where the hamster dies.

The roast may roll to the floor, and the dog gets it before you do.

The people you want most at your table may be unable to come.

That gift you most wanted to give may have been out of stock, or lost in shipping,
or the wrong item was sent.

That gift was available, did arrive, but does not please the person you give it to.

You may fall short of what you expect of yourself—no, you will fall short of that,

What you expect of others may be more than—and other than—they’re able or willing
to meet.

These little sketches of what can happen at Christmas really don’t deserve the adjective “wrong”, do they? Each is an example of the rule that life is what happens while we’re making plans. And each is witness to the beatitude that needs to be a link from Jesus’s sermon on the mount, Blessed are the flexible, for they shall figure it out (and perhaps create, along the way, an equally wonderful, even a finer, outcome).

What does deserve to be called Christmas-gone-wrong is when our Christmas makes no connection with Jesus Christ. If his story doesn’t shape our celebration, then our plans are headed in the wrong direction. If we don’t take into account the actual Christmas story told by Luke and Matthew in their Gospels, then we’ll fail to receive the actual gifts he has for us:

Courage to address what we’re afraid of

Wisdom to know when it’s time to move on

Hope to strengthen and steady us for our journey

Openness to the full wonderous range of life

Those are the actual hallmarks of the Christmas Gospel.

Courage is the response of faith stirred up by the angel who persuades Joseph to tear up the divorce papers and stay the course to wed Mary, this ill-timed pregnancy notwithstanding. “Do not be afraid,” again the angel’s message this time to shepherds struggling, like us, to make sense of the ways of God in the dead of night. God is at work within us, among us, beyond us, in ways that will cause great joy for all people, promises the angel. Courage is the response of faith to this promise.
Wisdom is for making the very best choices we can, in the light of that promise. It is by wise listening that Joseph steps back from the edge, by brave listening that Mary ponders these things, and together they choose the guidance God sends them, to leave their homeland to save their lives for the sake of the mission entrusted to them.

Hope replenishes their strength on their way as refugees. What else can keep a family together as they move from the known and familiar into the other, the unknown? And what is it Emily Dickinson said? “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul - and sings the tunes without the words - and never stops at all.”

Openness to the whole full wonderous range of life: isn’t that how Jesus shows his Messiahship? There is a radical equality at work in a story that makes shepherds just as important as kings, and makes the Savior of the world as subject as the next person to imperial tax regulations, hotel occupancy, and the paranoia of a violent king. The Christmas Gospel introduces us to a savior who takes it all in, takes us all in, embraces all, serves all: and that is the divine likeness that waits to be freed and shaped and commissioned in us.

Courage. Wisdom. Hope. Openness. Keep track of these links, as you consider the connection between your Christmas and his nativity. Recognize that Jesus Christ is the giver of these gifts. Welcome the privilege, the blessing, of being on the receiving end of his grace, because you are. Embrace the responsibility each Christmas brings to renew the promise of baptism, to let the divine likeness, the image of God in us, rise.

Catch the Back Story

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

How are you doing with Christmas? Everything falling into place nicely? Everything falling apart? These final days of Advent, the home stretch, are they feeling more like that highway of redemption we heard the prophet Isaiah promise, last Sunday—the one with all the rough places made smooth, and no dangerous beasts allowed anywhere near it—or are these final throes more like a washboard stretch of back road that could rattle your teeth out?

Joseph and Mary are having a rough time of it. Their times are out of joint. Pregnancy is not expected during a couple’s engagement, at least not in conventional village life in the first century. Or, put that differently, when things get out of order like that, tongues wag in village life, unforgivingly. Mary is brave, and Joseph is generous, but there are embarrassed mothers in both households, outraged fathers, and critical aunties weighing in with judgment, advice, and demands. Can’t you imagine the kinds of things that got said? And all that is part of the back story of the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Think of it.

Mary is “found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” But wait, isn’t there a monumental chasm between “found to be with child” and the explanation “from the Holy Spirit”? Isn’t it holy hindsight that allows those two statements to be presented as one? Matthew tells his story in a way that admits how hard it must have been to cross this chasm of effect and cause, the actual causeway the holy family must walk, because it takes an angel being sent from headquarters to convince Joseph to tear up the divorce papers: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit…”

And all of that is part of the backstory of the birth of Jesus the Messiah: “in this way,” he says, this happened. Matthew makes no effort to shield the holy family from the public disgrace they would encounter, no effort to shield us, his perennial audience, from the requirement that our theology be gritty enough to welcome this Christ who rises from these origins. In time, theologians, bishops, emperors and queens would argue (and kill one another) over the burning question whether Jesus Christ has one nature or two, and would split hairs of language and reason to justify raising higher the walls of division that fallen human nature keeps falling prey to building. But whatever we say or think or believe about Jesus, his humble, complex, and bumpy origin must shape our understanding of him, of ourselves, of his mission, and of ours. At its most frivolous, Christian theology gets distracted asking how many angels may dance on the head of a pin. At its most foundational, theology hears and echoes the angel’s message: Do not be afraid, and here is why—Emmanuel, God is with us.

Matthew will continue telling the Christmas story, and will not shield the holy family or us from the ruthless tyranny of King Herod. The angel urges Joseph and Mary to not fear, but urges them also to listen, and to leave their homeland to save their lives. Even before his birth, Jesus is identified with children who don’t fit the cookie-cutter model. Immediately upon his birth, he joins the millions of displaced persons who must migrate to escape ethnic cleansing. He is no stranger to the experience today of a million-and-a-half Syrians escaping civil war, the many millions of immigrants from Latin America, driven by economic need, and the displaced people of South Sudan in the refugee camps of Kenya and Ethiopia.

And in the context of this nativity story, we fret over Christmas menues and that box of ornaments we can’t find? Let’s not. Let’s make choices that will free us to pay attention to where and how Emmanuel, God-with-us, is on the move.

Most of us will remember Bishop Abraham Nhial, Bishop of Aweil in South Sudan, who visited us in May. Originally one of the Lost Boys who escaped the terrorists set loose by their own Khartoum government, Abraham made his way to America, completed college and seminary, and was swiftly ordained a bishop, one of the youngest in Anglican history.

You may know that a coup was attempted in South Sudan last week. Outshadowed by the violence in neighboring Central African Republic, the disturbance in South Sudan hasn’t gotten much coverage as yet. The situation is confusing. What’ s known is that President Salva Kiir (of the majority Dinka tribe) fired Vice-President Riek Machar (of the Nuer tribe) in July. Since then, tensions have been mounting. Fighting began last Sunday. Five hundred have been killed, most of them soldiers, and seven hundred injured, many of them civilians. Fourteenn thousand have sought refuge in the U.N. mission in the capital, Juba. Bishop Abraham sent his international friends this message on Tuesday:

Dear all,

I would like to inform you all that there was fighting in Juba, South Sudan for the last two days. And yesterday President Salva Kiir announces in South Sudan TV that a group around his former Vice President Dr. Riek Machar were the ones attempting to make the coup but they failed. Also, many of our politicians have now been arrested in Juba.

I am not sure how true the President announces because politicians are politicians but what I know is the President and former Vice President have political differences.

As I am sending you this email to pray for us, we already lost 12 people, more than 130 people are wounded, many people are still missing and many people are displaced. No one believes what has happened in South Sudan because South Sudan is a nation just come out from the longest sufferings but our politicians have already forgotten what we went through, very sad.

Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers, so that we can celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ peacefully. God bless you all!

Bishop Abraham Nhial

And then on Thursday, a second message came from him:

Dear all,

I want to thank you all for your prayers. Your prayers did change things in Juba. Praise the Lord! But, I want to ask you all to continue praying for the people of Bor town who were attacked last night and they are now scattered. I believe that even though our beloved nation is in conflicts God is in control and this conflict will soon come to an end. Pray for our leaders to be guided by our God so that they make wise decision.

Also, you all have been concerned where I am now, I celebrated early Christmas with my family in Kenya and I was to go back to South Sudan on December 18 but this conflict broke out in Juba. I was to go back today to South Sudan but I was told that there are no flights operating from Juba to Aweil. Also, my beloved pastors advised me not to come now. I thank them for their love and concern they have for me. So I am here in Kenya with my wife and children. We are safe but my heart is with people in South Sudan.

Moreover, we, four Bishops of the Anglican Church and a pastor from the Presbyterian Church (Dinka and Nuer) went today to meet with South Sudanese Ambassador Majok Guandong in Kenya to discuss how we can talk with South Sudanese who are living here in Kenya especially Dinka and Nuer not to fight themselves because this recent fight in South Sudan is not about Dinka and Nuer. It is about politicians.

Therefore, the out come of the meeting is that I am going to Kakuma Refugee Camp to talk and pray with our people there. I will go tomorrow if possible. One Bishop will go to Nakuru to talk and pray with South Sudanese there, another Bishop will go to Eldoret and two Bishops and a pastor will remain in Nairobi area for talk and prayers and they will be joined by Ambassadors on Sunday.

Please may you, your family, and your Church join us on this coming Sunday on December 22 to pray for peace, wisdom to our leaders, those who lost their lives, and families affected to be comforted by God. Please keep me your prayers and all the Bishops so that we can deliver God's message to His people at this time. Thank you all for your prayers. God bless you all and Merry Christmas.

Yours in Christ,

Bishop Abraham Nhial

Yes, Bishop Abraham, we do pray—and we will keep praying— for you and your family, your Church and your nation, including all who are dispersed in the refugee camps of Kenya and Ethiopia. We pray for your government leaders and for our own, that all who are elected to leadership will honor and serve that trust. As a guiding star pointed shepherds and kings to the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, may his light shine through you and your Church, and through us and ours, that the promise of redemption will be realized in reconciling love stronger than all ancient divisions, and that we be freed to know and tell the Christmas story for the healing of our unsettled world. All this we pray in the name and the love of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Nelson Mandela Stirs Us Up

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday in Advent includes Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 3:1-12

The death of Nelson Mandela has flashed across the night sky of a darkened world like a comet with a great long trail of light behind it. Even when the stars in the fields of heaven are outshown by such a brilliant showing as Comet Madiba, we know that our attention will, after a while, return to the ordinary and the mundane; our eyes will return to watching what is worthless (to quote the psalmist), and our hands will be tempted to build walls that exclude and to build fortunes not for sharing. Civil wars and tribal violence, partisan bickering and self-indulgence will again darken the world’s sky. But, oh my, what a luminous spirit showed itself in that man’s relentless smile, illumined by deep humility, courageous patience, and vigilant commitment to justice. If we’ve heard correctly the teaching of the physicists, that energy is not lost, will be changed but not ended, then we’ll keep the light we saw reflected in his eyes, his way of seeing the world and its needs, his insight into human nature and its capacity—our capacity—for reconciliation.

Given the extensive media coverage of Mandela’s death, the retelling of his life story, our ability to virtually attend his memorial service, file by his casket, go to his state funeral, it’s certain that we’re just about at the point where there’s nothing new and fresh to be said. But that’s not going to stop preachers from wanting to reflect on this man’s life, today when purple gives way to pink in the Advent scheme, a reminder that the incarnation of God in human flesh is for the brightening of all life.

I want to ask you to recall with me a few details we’ve heard in these past few days. Each conveys the power of God’s incarnation in human experience. Each challenges us with questions, this Advent.

10,052 days. The period of Mandela’s imprisonment, most of it on Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town. 10,052 days sealed away in a prison where the white government tried to isolate its most threatening political enemies, Mandela among them because he headed the African National Congress, identified by our own American government as a terrorist group trying to overthrow South Africa’s legitimate—and intensely anti-Communist and deeply racist—government. 10,052 days in which moral authority in South Africa shifted Mandela’s way, until his nation needed him not confined but freed, to channel his people’s anger as no one else could, to the peaceful outcome of black majority rule.

10,052 days, Nelson Mandela’s perpetual advent season of preparation. He recognized what incarnation required for the Word to be made flesh and be full, not of vengeance and recompense, but full of grace.

One letter every six months. That’s all he was allowed to write during the early years. The Pretoria government was that afraid of the power of his words, and that intent on depriving him of the relationships that for him incarnated love and replenished strength.

Eight feet by eight feet. The dimensions of the cell where Mandela lived most of those 27 years. Room only for what mattered most: a bed, a toilet, a wash stand, a ledge for a precious few allowed books and his journals. Eight feet by eight feet: about enough room for the digging of two graves, one in which to lay to rest the old Mandela no longer free, the other to let go of the future Mandela who would not be just what he had imagined, or when, or how. And atop both these graves to be himself in the present moment, discovering day by day how to pay attention, how to order his ways, how to find new ways to teach, to organize, and to ultimately practice the art of revolution.

These details of his story stir up for me some Advent questions.

10,052 days in prison, most of them alone in a cell, all of those days the training ground for a miracle. And do you and I resist even short periods of solitude and silence for opening ourselves to God? And then wonder why our lives seem aimless, restless?

If you could write only two letters a year, how would you use them? To whom would you write first, and second, and third? As Advent moves us closer to Christmas, we try to do everything, provide for everyone, communicate with many friends and family, party with many… What one or two people do you most want to reach?

Eight feet square, a cell is a powerful symbol of simplicity. Even in such a small space, a person will demonstrate humanity: will put one’s unique mark on how that space is used. What space in your life most needs simplifying? How might a new embrace of simplicity enhance our humanity?

There’s one more detail from the big story that I’d like to lift up today. Massachusetts was among the first government pension funds to disinvest from South Africa’s apartheid marketplace. To what standards of social responsibility are we holding ourselves accountable, these days, in our investments?

Among many lessons we may learn from Nelson Mandela’s life story is how only hindsight can reveal what was really happening in all the thousands of our days (especially our hardest days), in those few square feet of our influence, and in the battles we fought and the reconciliations we allowed. Until the more spectacular moments of revelation play out before us, we may not realize that things just weren’t always what they seemed. Think of that magical scene from the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, a turning point for post-apartheid South Africa thanks to then-president Mandela's public show of support for the predominantly white national team, a gesture that became a transcendent moment in the country's transformation to multi-racial democracy.

To call a moment like that iconic is to remember that the purpose of a classic painted icon is to be a window into the deepest reality of heaven. Hindsight gives us the paints and the brushes and the canvas needed to create icons, windows into the real. Matthew’s Gospel today gives us an example of how hindsight reveals reality. John the Baptist has been imprisoned unjustly by King Herod as a revolutionary. Unlike Mandela, John will not be released alive, and he seems to know this. He sends his disciples to confirm his hope, that Jesus is the Messiah, the liberator long-awaited by Israel and by the world. Jesus answers by directing them to practice a little hindsight. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind are seeing, the lame walking, lepers are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor, my people, are the passion of my preaching. Consider the evidence, then let all that fulfilment tell you what is real and true.” John has turned people’s hearts to God, as the best of the prophets do; but the way Matthew paints this iconic moment, Jesus is the real revolutionary, channeling the justice and lovingkindness of God to transform church and state, rich and poor, the teachers and the taught, female and male, free and slave, young and old, Gentile and Jew, Ethiopian and Syrian into the unprecedented equality of the Kingdom of God.

Two thousand years later, Christian scripture continues to urge us to be patient. Jesus’s revolution engages all generations in what Mary describes in her Magnificat as God’s scattering the proud in their conceit, casting down the mighty from their thrones, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, sending the rich away empty. It is a longterm engagement, God in it with us for the long haul. Sometimes the movement seems to be losing ground, though we know that often things are not as they appear. And there are leaders in this movement who stir us up and cause us to sing Hallelujah in everlasting joy. We celebrate one today.

(Eugene Robinson’s op ed piece, “The Conscience of the World” was helpful to the preacher. It appeared in The Berkshire Eagle on December 7. 2013.)

Friday, December 6, 2013

Armed with Light

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

Both Christians and Jews display a certain ambivalence about the western Gregorian calendar. It’s good enough to do business in, but to assert spiritual identity we want a timeframe that has a divine foundation under it.

So our Jewish neighbors celebrate Rosh Hashanah in the autumn, and we Christians observe Advent in a more wintry season. Catch the images of darkness—they tumble out of the collect of the day, and are reinforced by our New Testament readings. Advent comes in the season of shortening days, and stands in contrast to Lent, the season of lengthening days. Darkness figures in all this, but even more is the value of light extolled. The Jewish festival of Hanukkah is much about light, celebrating the inexhaustible supply of oil that lit the lamps of the Maccabees, a story representing the bottomless abundance of the grace of God. When the early Christians wanted to claim a time in the secular calendar to celebrate the sacred act of God taking on human flesh—the quintessential Christian story of the amazing grace of God-- they chose to colonize the old Roman festival of Sol Invictus, December 25th, the celebration of the unconquered Sun God. Light rules!

Darkness gets us into all sorts of mischief. We go bump in it. We go not gently into it, because of an inherent fear of ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties, a fear we seem to come by honestly as vulnerable human beings. Darkness, implies the apostle, is when people drink too much, not to mention nocturnal debauchery and licentiousness, or, for the less adventurous, quarreling and jealousy. Matthew has Jesus reach into the treasury of Hebrew (or Roman) proverbs to lift up the obvious: 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. Which is to say about the darkness: it is the mischievous dangerous time for not-knowing because it is the time for not-seeing.

Thomas Edison greatly expanded our sensory curfew, and in time our great-grandparents mounted electrical devices on lamp posts and automobile fenders to penetrate the night. But a century later the grid is perhaps our most insecure national security risk, and nothing is more apocalyptic and soul-chilling than a city going dark, whether the cause is a tidal surge or a cyberterrorist hacking-in.

The young see their way clear to a vibrant night life as being essential to quality of life. While the night is still young to them, their elders have traded in the day for a cuddle under the goosedown, and a good book. Or just a good book.

Let’s not forget how last Sunday’s Gospel caught the moment when Jesus, from the gathering darkness around Golgotha, absolved his adversaries because they did not know what they were doing. Piercing our moral darkness, our spiritual aimlessness, is the first item of business on the agenda of Advent, as the season teaches us to pray, Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness , and put on the armor of light… that in the last day, when Jesus shall come again, we may rise to meet him in life immortal.

Armed with light, we are to see what is true and know what we do. In the poet Michael Hudson’s words, “The Son of Man has come and comes again, unfailing advent of unending grace; we tell the stories so that we may see the character of Incarnation’s face…The Son of Man has come and comes again to seek the deluged and the left-behind; we watch and wait and hope to recognize the face of Jesus in the present time.”

Recognition is the prize of Advent. Discovering just where the pearl of great price is to be found (and where it is not), recognizing when it’s time to beat swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, shopping lists into mission plans, convert obligations of the season into opportunities for the Spirit—that’s a successful Advent season, sparing us the distraction, exhaustion, and distress of wasting this short season engineering a perfect Christmas, as if such a thing existed or would be good for us if it did. Christians go counter-cultural and insist that we walk through Advent season preparing our hearts and homes to welcome the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ; not run through the month of December counting down the number of shopping days, the debit card balance, and our own store of peace and goodwill.

On earth, the daily news darkens as nations sink into senseless violence. In far-away places this Advent, chaos grips entire cities and countries caught in civil war. In other distant places, this season, countless people are left with nothing after the chaos of severe weather has swept over them, and their government fails to help them. Our own government fails to help bridge the widening gulf between rich and poor, expecting nothing more from the privileged while forcing the disadvantaged to get by with less and less. As our apocalyptic Gospel puts it so plainly today, one will be taken and one will be left.

The anguish of Advent fits us not as a license for kvetching and hand-wringing, but as spark and kindling of recognition, awareness, welcome of what we most need on this fragile earth: a leadership of heart, an open and sacred and fearless heart that in the time of Matthew’s Gospel writing was conveyed in the longing for the Messiah. In our democratic age, also ironically a time of deep disillusionment about democratically elected leaders, we sense that we ourselves must learn to become the Hanukkah oil. We ourselves—no one community or tribe or denomination or party, we ourselves in the widest sense of people of good will willing and able to cooperate together—we must learn to welcome the grace, the messianic energy of God, cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.

Canon Pam Mott draws our attention to author Ronald Heifetz’s notion of needing to have a sacred heart for leadership. "The most difficult work of leadership involves learning to experience distress without numbing yourself. The virtue of a sacred heart lies in the courage to maintain your innocence and wonder, your doubt and curiosity, and your compassion and love even through your darkest, most difficult moments. Leading with an open heart means you could be at your lowest point, abandoned by your people and entirely powerless, yet remain receptive to the full range of human emotions without going numb, striking back or engaging in some other defense... Without keeping your heart open, it becomes difficult, perhaps impossible, to fashion the right response or to succeed or to come out whole."

The sacred heart, the open heart, brings to mind all that is Jesus: his Word, his action, his Passion, his promise to abide in each believer’s heart and to be the pulse of the servant community, the outreaching love the world needs.

It is through the sacred heart, the open heart, that Jesus leads us to find our own paths of leadership. Armed with light, we are to see what is true and know what we do.

(The first quotation is from Michael Hudson’s “Songs for the Cycle: Fresh Hymn Texts”, page 4. The second is from “Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading” by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, page 227.)