The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Leveling the playing fields

Christmas Eve
Luke 2:1-14

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

So I have a confession to make. I’m a member of a bowling league. In case you had any questions about just how big of a nerd your priest actually is, let this serve as confirmation. I’m such a nerd, that I’m on a bowling league. I bowl once a week. I’m not any good, but I have loads of fun. And I’ve made quite a few friends in the process.

One of the reasons I decided to join this bowling league is, living here next to the church - as much as I love it - I realized that I needed some outlet that had nothing to do with the church. I needed some way to interact with other people in a way that was different from “priest and parishioner”.

So each week, I carry off my bag - complete with my custom drilled bowling ball and hideous shoes - and I go bowling. And I hang out with people who don’t care (and mostly don’t know) that I’m a priest. It’s wonderful.

But even so, every now and then, as we’re sitting in the back of the lane waiting for our turns, the other bowlers and I get to talking. Sooner or later, the question comes: “So what do you do for a living?” I guess I could just dodge the question: “Oh, I run a small non-profit.” It would be true enough, I guess. But that’s not really my style, usually. So I just answer.

“I’m a priest.”

It’s at about that time that the other party’s eyes begin to bug out. They start thinking things like, “What did I shout after that last gutter ball?? Did he hear?”

It’s really kinda funny.

But earlier this week I had one of those exchanges. The woman that I was bowling with asked the question, and had a pretty standard response once she heard my answer. But then she said something really funny. She said, “It’s been so long since I’ve been to church, the roof would probably fall in if I ever tried to go back.”

Of course she didn’t really think that the laws of physics that are hopefully at work holding up our roof would suddenly be suspended simply because of her presence. At least I hope not. But what was she trying to say?

I suspect it was something along the lines of, “I’m not good enough to go to church. That ship sailed a long time ago. Life has gotten in the way for too long now, and I don’t deserve to take a share of that anymore.”

The problem is, this is the kind of message that the church has been teaching for too long. We’ve built up barriers around ourselves and effectively communicated the lie that some people just aren’t worthy because of who or what they are, or how or why they do things.

The whole of the gospel message tells a different story, but perhaps nowhere more acutely than it does right now - in the Christmas story.

The problem with the Christmas story is, in our culture, it’s so peculiar and so shocking. But at the same time, it’s also so familiar that we hardly can hear it anymore through all the nostalgia that we’ve wrapped around it. But we shouldn’t forget: it is still the story of God finding a home amidst the lowest dregs of society. It’s still the story of God finding a home in us.

There’s a degree to which Christmas makes us all the same. Whether we are the wealthiest Wall Street banker or a humble, calloused laborer; whether we are the deeply pious, worshiping God with every breath, or someone who hasn’t given our faith (or maybe our absence of faith) a thought since this time last year. No matter who we are, Christmas brings us hope. Hope in spite of all of our deficiencies - those deficiencies that are always, no matter who we are, too many to number.

And that’s as it should be. We are all lacking. None of us deserve the radical outpouring of love that comes to us from God through Christ. None of us deserves a gift so great that the thrill of it makes the voices of angels explode in song.

But it is ours nonetheless.

The church didn’t fall down because we came to receive the gift of the love of God at Christmas. And it never will.

The gift is ours because we were chosen. We were chosen by the one who chose shepherds, foreigners, and even an unwed mother. We were chosen by the one who made a home in a homeless infant. God chose the outcasts and the untouchables, and God chooses us, too.

The somewhat frightening truth that lies behind the hope and expectation of Christmas is this: we don’t deserve it.

But we get it anyway. We get God’s love spread over us with a recklessness that only God could muster. A reckless slathering of love over the dregs of society that has always been the hallmark of the Most High God.

A love that makes the angels sing: “Glory to God in the highest heavens (and the lowest ditches), and on earth peace among those whom God favors” - even us. Amen.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

God's gonna trouble the water

Advent 4A
Matthew 1:18-25

In the name of God. Amen.

[sung] “Wade in the water. Wade in the water, children. Wade in the water. God’s gonna trouble the water.”

That song has been running through my head all week. We usually think of it around baptisms, but this year it’s been ringing in my ear as an Advent hymn. It’s sings of a promise you can count on. It’s an Advent promise. God’s gonna trouble the water.

This time of year is filled with so much hope and expectation. We’ve spent weeks now getting ready - decorating, shopping, preparing food, organizing plans for guests, making arrangements to be someone else’s guest… The list goes on. And in these last days leading up to Christmas, it will go on. For most of us, there are plans still being made and in the days ahead they will start to spring into action.

It’s true in the church. We, too, have been decorating, and getting the church ready for all the company we’re expecting, and making sure things are clean and organized. And there’s lots more preparing and planning to be done before we’re really ready - all in the hope that this Christmas will be an expression of our joy. Our joy in the presence of Christ in our lives. Our joy in being a part of this community. Our hope is that Christmas will be filled with joy in all ways, and that it will make for us memories to last through the years to come.

Joseph and Mary were also filled with hope. They were just embarking on the first journeys of their young love - they were unsure of where it might take them, but they were hopeful and planning, nonetheless.

And then God troubled the water. And how.

Imagine what it must have been like for Joseph. You can almost hear his heart breaking, if you listen between the lines: “Joseph, being a righteous man, and unwilling to expose [Mary] to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”

Think about it.

The law was on his side. The prevailing will of the wider community was on his side. Joseph had every right to “expose her to public disgrace”. He could have turned her out into the streets. He could have had her stoned to death. He could have exerted his power as one who was betrayed to take his suffering out on her. Everyone would have understood. Most of his community probably would have even preferred it that way. But he was a righteous man. His pain was so deep that he knew that giving her pain would not bring him any relief. He knew that the economy of suffering didn’t balance out like that.

So instead, he resolved to “dismiss her quietly”. To let her find some way of eeking out a living on her own, for herself and for the child she was carrying. It seems harsh, maybe, but it was grace more abundant than anyone would have expected. And perhaps, in time, they both would find a way forward, even if it wasn’t the way that they had dreamed it might be.

But God wasn’t done troubling the water.

“An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘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….”

“God’s gonna trouble the water”

For the past few weeks, we’ve been talking about wilderness. About how Advent is a wilderness - a place where life runs free of the binds we try to put on it, and God breaks through - through the tumult and the danger - to show us a clearing that we mightn’t have seen had we stayed where things were safer or more familiar.  To show us God's very self.

God troubled the water for Mary and Joseph. God stirred things up. For all of us. And out of that chaos came one who would save us from our sins. One who would show us - through confusion and disruption, of all things! - the clearness of the way to God.

Too often, our most fervent prayers are for the familiar. Even if it’s just, “O God, just don’t let things get worse.”

So, "troubling the water" may sound scary. But if you’re the one about to drown, those currents might just lift you up.

And that’s what God is about, in Advent, for sure, but at all times. Read the Song of Mary. Hear about God lifting up the lowly. Hear about God filling the hungry with good things. That’s God troubling the water. That’s what it looks like. And that’s the promise of Christ; that God will trouble the water; that God will stir up those stagnant places and breath in new life.

Over the course of the next week, as our plans fall into place (or not), and as they are executed as we had dreamed they would be (or not), in all things, I pray that we find a clearer recognition of God’s presence. If our travel plans hit snags… If the turkey is a little dry… If we find ourselves arguing with our families more than we would have liked… If some of the present just need to be returned… No matter what, look for signs that God is troubling the waters. Maybe where our dreams fall short of what we’d hoped, there will be new room for God to break in.

Christmas is a story of broken dreams that yielded unimagined hope.

Just ask Mary and Joseph.

Throughout all of our lives, there will be times when our dreams will be broken. At Christmas, certainly, but also at lots of other times. Often, it’s through the haze of that brokenness that the dream of God shines most clearly.

And when things start to seem a little too much to bare, remember this little prayer - “God’s gonna trouble the water”. Amen.


Our soloist at church today chose this as her anthem today - "Christmas Lullaby" from Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World.  It's a long-time favorite of mine.  Her performance was just spectacular, and perfectly appropriate for the day!  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

In the wilderness with Christ

Advent 3A
Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Come, O Christ. Be present in our hearts and make us your faithful servants. Amen.

We’re in the wilderness again.

If you were in church last week, you heard the story of John the Baptist - preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness. We explored the ways that we are called to enter into the wilderness of our hearts to prepare a way for Christ in Advent.

And this week we’re back.

If you’re following along in your Bible, you’ll notice that the readings from last week and for this week are separated by some eight chapters. But they are together in the wilderness. This time it’s not John in the wilderness, but Jesus. John is, instead, in prison - but hearing the stories of Jesus. He’s heard that Jesus is doing great things. He’s heard that Jesus is in his wilderness.

John sends word to Jesus. He asks, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

You have to imagine that this question of John’s was more existential than philosophical. He was in prison. He had to have known that his life was in danger. If there ever had been a time in his life when a Messiah could have come in handy for John, it would have been just then.

But alas, as is so often the case, Jesus’ response must have seemed to John to be a bit less than he’d hoped: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

There was a shadow of a “yes”. But only a shadow.

John was probably hoping it would be a kind of full-throated yes. “Yes, I am he. I have come to overthrow the powers that oppress us, and soon you - and all my people - will be free.”

That would have been nice.

But instead we get this shadow of a yes. It’s there, but we’ve got to work for it a little. It like it’s a little less “Yes!” and a little more “looks that way…”

Throughout most of our lives as Christians, we spend a lot of time marveling at the reality we know of Christ’s divinity. We look with wonder at the miracles. We glory in the Resurrection.

We hear the doctrine: “fully God and fully human” but we tend to be a little more impressed with the “fully God” part of the equation.

In Advent, and indeed throughout Christmas, our focus intentionally shifts. Rather than standing in awe of the divinity of Christ, we are called to embrace the wonder of the humanity of Jesus.

It really is quite a miracle. Miraculous in its simplicity, even.

No matter how untrue it might be, it’s easy for us to become consumed by what we perceive as a cavernous divide between humanity and God. We feel so small when juxtaposed against such greatness. We feel so utterly different that it’s hard to recognize any common ground.

Throughout the story of our faith, we hear examples of God bridging that divide: loving the created humanity in the Garden; meeting Abraham in the wilderness time and time again; meeting Moses in the wilderness to call him to save God’s people; sending the kings and the prophets to a people in disarray. Nearly all of the stories of our faith are stories of God reaching out. Sometimes we get it. Sometimes we see past our predisposition to distance and see the nearness of God. But it’s so easy to forget. It’s easy to let our own humanity cloud our judgment.

And if Christ was fully human in the person of Jesus - fully human - you have to wonder what human baggage that came with. Was there doubt? Did he sometimes perceive distance between himself and God as well? Did he have wildernesses of his own?

One of the dangers we face as Christians reading the Hebrew scriptures - particularly at this time of year - is that it can be tempting sometimes to convert them to Christianity. I don’t want to do that. The writer of Isaiah wasn’t a Christian. But the Book of Isaiah does point to the hope of a Messiah - even if it wasn’t with the person of Jesus in mind.

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing!”

When we enter our wilderness, we find Christ. What we initially perceive to be those desolate and dangerous places - those places that feel like they are most separate from God - those are the places where we encounter Christ. Those are the places where we realize just how close God is. And our wilderness rejoices and blossoms.

Like John, when we call out to Christ in our time of need, we may not find the answers we had hoped to find. We may not find that full-throated “yes” that we had prayed would save us from our wilderness. But we will find that through Christ the wilderness will bloom. It will rejoice with joy and singing.

At the end of his time in prison, John the Baptist was executed. He wasn’t saved by a messiah who would overthrow his persecutors. But he died - not a victim, but one redeemed by the closeness of God.

May God be so close for us. May we see, this Advent and always, that those divides which we had perceived are not the truth. Only God is truth, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Unencumbered life

Advent 2A
Matthew 3:1-12

Prepare our hearts, O God. Amen.

I love this time every year - when we hear again a bit of the saga of John the Baptist.

It wouldn’t be Advent if we didn’t have John the Baptist - the wild man literally on the edges of society; both physically and socially. He wandered in the wilderness in the farthest reaches of the Promised Land, only barely still inside; and, he preached a gospel that was just as far outside the status quo as he was, himself - the gospel of a promise that runs deeper than the land.

Here in the city, wilderness might seem to be something of an odd metaphor. Surrounded by our streets and sidewalks, and apartments and stores, what can wilderness have to do with us? We have tamed the wilderness. We are in control.

Or are we?

Not too long ago there was an educational/documentary series on the Discovery Channel called “Life After People”. The premise of the show was basically that humankind is only barely holding wilderness at bay. If we were to suddenly disappear, wilderness would reclaim all that is now “ours”. Even the greatest, and seemingly most established cities would eventually - and perhaps sooner than you might think - return to some version of their natural state. Even our most seemingly secure monuments would soon become monuments to our weakness.

So, even though it might not look like it from day to day, the wilderness is all around us, encroaching even in the midst of our illusions of control.

And as true as it is in the natural world around us, so it is in our souls. No matter the degree to which we build up illusions of control for ourselves, wilderness is always at our edges, ready to reclaim what is rightly its own. Sometimes we lose our sense of control through dramatic events such as financial uncertainty, or the unexpected loss of a job. Sometimes it’s through the loss of a loved one or a cherished relationship. Sometimes it’s simply the trauma of life. Whatever the details, they are the times when we lose control over the encroaching wilderness and it suddenly seems to take over.

Sometimes it’s less sudden. Sometimes we’re going about our business as usual, and we look up to find the overgrowth that we’ve either neglected or simply not noticed - and there we are, inexplicably lost in a wilderness when we’d thought we had been in control.

One way of thinking of wilderness is that it’s a state of unencumbered life. It can be scary. It can be dangerous - particularly if we’re not prepared when we enter into it (or when it enters into us…).

But the wilderness is also a place of beauty - a place where God’s creativity outshines our own. It can be a place of inspiration.

Some observers of faith have, over the years, spoken of what they’ve called “thin places” - those places where all those things that seem to divide us from God wilt or fall away; those places where we actually, even if only for a moment, almost catch ourselves really believing in God’s presence.

I’ve found a few thin places over the years. Sometimes it’s as simple as a sunrise or a sunset that I noticed more easily than all the others that slipped past. Sometimes it’s through a relationship - a soul-friend through whom God seems to shine a bit more brightly. Sometimes it’s in a physical place. The mountains have always been thin places for me. The dramatic highs and lows, the stunning views, the crispness, the sense of quiet peace - they somehow add up to a clarity that I often miss in other terrains. When I was traveling in Jerusalem and the West Bank a few years ago I found another thin place. The prayers and presence of millions of faithful people had consecrated those ancient buildings and that land over the course of thousands of years to the degree that it was palpable. God had been so often invoked that I didn’t feel that I even had to try - God was simply there, to bask in.

I’m sure you have your own thin places - those places where you’ve come to accept the vulnerability of your wildernesses, and where you can be comfortable losing your illusions of control for a time.

John the Baptist, that wild - and maybe even crazy - man who dared to live in the wilderness, reminds us what Advent is about. Advent is about seeking to make the places in our lives a little thinner. It’s about clearing away the clutter in our lives that we use to try to keep God from breaking through.

Most of us tend to run from wilderness. We protect ourselves from it. But in Advent, as part of preparing our hearts for Christ, we are called to reach out and to embrace the crazy and wild people inside ourselves, and to allow them to carry us home - home into the wilderness. Home into the thin places where even in our unbelief we can’t help but to see God.

Wilderness is unencumbered life. We try to keep life in control, but sometimes we have to let it loose. Sometimes we have to let go of our efforts at control so that we can see God breaking through.

It’s scary. And yes, sometimes even a little dangerous. But only if we’re not prepared.

And that’s why we’re here - to prepare ourselves. To prepare ourselves to see that God’s creativity does outshine our own. To drop the illusions of control that we’ve set up for ourselves and to let the places we inhabit feel a little thinner. A little more natural. A little more holy.

It’s already there. We just need to notice. Amen.