Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A New Year, A Time for Justice

Readings: New Year's Day, Year B

I will be brief, because I have a life, and as our Old Testament reading concludes: "I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and to enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover it is God's gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil." I will shortly go and take pleasure in mine, go thou and do likewise.

And why not? We are an insignificant speck in the great expanse of the universe, and but an eyeblink in the eons of cosmic time. In spite of all that, our Creator has made us special, for his own good pleasure. He pays attention to us. In the end, in the universe to come, he will do away with death, suffering and sadness. It is already done. We just haven't run into it yet.

So how long will it be? What time is it now? What is this season? Our Gospel reading, Matthew 25:31-46, tells us that from now until the Apocalypse it is always the same time. It is time for justice.

What we do to each other, including the least, we do to the Most High. We should live and act like we will be called to account for the justice and injustice we have done and enabled to be done, passively or actively.

A happy, prosperous, and just New Year to us all!

Leia Mais…

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Robes of Righteousness

Readings: First Sunday after Christmas, Year B

I know what you do. You step out of the shower, face the mirror, and check your flaws. You cover them with clothes. Maybe you color your hair, or wear makeup. If you're young, you try to cover the acne, if you're older, the lines. That's human nature. That's biology.

But your inner flaws you can't see as easily, because they aren't reflected in mirrors. They're reflected in the lives and faces of the people you hurt. You cover them with denial. If you're young, you want sex, if you're older, money or power. You attend to the people who can give them to you, and, at best, you ignore the people who can't. But mostly, you just want to believe that you're a good person. So you steal the certainty of your goodness from whatever source you need to, even from God. That's human nature, too. That's psychology. Or, in church-talk, sin.

And yet, as Isaiah says, "You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God."

Isaiah, of course, was talking about the shame and humiliation the people Israel had suffered by being conquered and exiled as powerless captives. They regarded their recent captivity as shameful, like having their nakedness exposed for all to mock. Now the LORD has clothed them with garments of salvation, like bridegrooms and brides. In captivity they were naked, ugly, and dirty. Now they are clean and beautiful, to be admired by all the nations, not for themselves, but to show the redeeming power of the LORD. Isaiah just can't keep silent about this good news.

Psalm 148 raises the level of praise to include all creation, from inanimate things to all people of the earth, even their kings, to the host of heaven. Everyone and everything everywhere dancing and singing together.

This is serious "feel-good" fellowship, here, and there seem to be no phrases of exclusion. Hey, celebrate! "You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God."

Inside and out, you shall feel good, you shall look good, you shall be good. Clothed in robes of righteousness.

And not second-hand righteousness, as if there were such a thing. As the apostle Paul writes to the Galatians, you shall receive adoption as children of God, sisters and brothers of Christ. The Spirit of Christ is sent into our hearts crying, "Abba!" Writing for a Greek-speaking audience, Paul translates this as "Father," but it was probably more like a nickname that a very young child would use like, "Daddy."

Now Paul is writing about whether the new Christian community, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles, should observe the whole of Jewish law and tradition, starting with the 613 laws in the Hebrew Bible. He is silent on whether Jewish Christians should continue observing the law, but he claims that forcing the Law on Gentile converts to Christianity just adds impediments to their new faith. He argues that we as Christians are not slaves but free with regard to the Law. That we are not God's slaves, but God's children. We may observe the halacha, Jewish ritual Law, if we feel called to do so, but we may not force it on new converts.

This is, mind you, a distinction between Christianity and and Islam in regard to the relationship of the believer to God. In Islam, a believer is God's "willing slave," whereas in Christianity, a person is God's child by adoption as Paul says. We are God's children to be clothed in robes of righteousness.

But the Law is not void. Jesus' earthly parents bring him to the temple, and offer sacrifice, according to the Law. Luke's text is a little vague on this, but he isn't fooling anyone who knows about Judaism. Jesus is there for his briss, his circumcision. While they are getting ready for it, his parents receive two prophecies, one from an old man, Simeon, and another from an old woman, Anna.

Jesus, they say, is God's salvation, the light for revelation to the nations and the glory of Israel. Jesus is like what Isaiah was talking about, only more so. Or maybe, since prophets speak more meaning than they can know, Jesus is indeed what Isaiah was talking about.

The light that will rescue you from yourself, that will clothe you in radiance, that will make glory shine from you.

Have you ever watched the television programs "What not to Wear" or "Tim Gunn's Guide to Style?" Have you noticed how the women become so much more alive, let so much more of their spirit shine, after they have their fashion makeover? How just looking good makes them so much happier?

Who would have thought? Change the outside, and it changes the inside. Look good, feel good. Well, we are all going to get a fashion makeover. We shall be clothed in robes of righteousness, which shall change us into who we were always meant to me, inside and out. "You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God."

And just as the outside is connected to the inside - change one, you change the other - the future is connected to the present. One fine day you will be clothed in righteousness. But who's to stop you from letting a little bit of your glorious future shine from you now? The most it could possibly do is to change the world.

Merry Christmas! It goes for twelve days, all the way to Epiphany! Jump, shout, dance! And let your light so shine...

Leia Mais…

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Let Heaven and Nature Sing

Readings: Christmas Day, Proper III, Year B
Hymn: " Joy to the World"

"How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, "Your God reigns."

The writer of our Old Testament reading gave expression to the gratitude of his people for a national liberation. The exultation that his people had returned from captivity in Babylon, and that they could now rebuild their ruined capital. Who had made this possible? The Lord! The Lord had returned with his people to Zion, most likely the Temple Mount in Jerusalem where the Lord's Sanctuary had stood. This was the salvation of God. Now God's people could live in peace.

Twenty-eight centuries later, we know it was not to be. The Second Temple was built, and then destroyed by the Romans. Now the Third and Fourth Temples are a pair of mosques, the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa.

But a prophet speaks more than a prophet knows. A prophet speaks to a particular people at a particular time and place, but also to all people of all times and places. Isaiah's words thunder from age to age to us here and now, on Christmas Day. Isaiah speaks not only of salvation from captivity in Babylon, but of the great and glorious Day of the Lord, when, as our Psalmist says, the Lord is coming to judge the earth with righteousness. Not vengeance, mind you. Not "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," but all peoples before the equitable and righteous God. The God who proves his faithfulness to us and his love for us.

The God who becomes born to us as one of us. Who becomes a Son of Man. Who becomes a son to us, a brother, a friend.

As the writer of Hebrews explains, he is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's being. And yet he is one of us. Maybe that's what it means when the Book of Genesis says we are made in the image of God. We are such beings that any one of us can bear God's imprint. Yet we are also such beings that we can become captives to our own desires, to our own errors, to our own pride, to our own sin. God has become this child to set us free from our sin. All of us who have lived or will ever live in all the world.

This morning, over two thousand years ago. Let the seas roar, let the floods clap their hands. Joy to the World! Joy as long as the world lasts, and into the world to come!

The little baby Jesus is the creating and sustaining Word of God made flesh, claims John in his gospel - the light that lights everyone who comes into the world. The light that looks back from behind your eyes. Though you may deny it, though you may doubt it, though you are in some ways a stranger even to yourself, the miracle of God's Incarnation in the infant Jesus is part of the miracle of you.

So you are a miracle, praising and giving thanks for the miracle of the Incarnation of God in Jesus, our Messiah. So what?

Twenty-three years ago, I got my car stuck in mud while trying to find a shortcut to work one cold, wet winter morning. A big, red-haired guy stopped, roped his car to mine, and pulled it onto solid ground. He told me that only a few weeks earlier, he would have passed me by, but since then, he had a "Born Again" experience. He had to stop and help me now, because he was a Christian. I was a little offended, I guess, because I was an atheist at the time. But his help was physical sign of hope in a dark time in my life.

It would take another year before I went to church, but I still think about that guy. He did Gospel.

Merry Christmas! Happy birthday, Jesus!

Leia Mais…

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Stable Lamp is Lighted

Readings: The Nativity of our Lord, Proper 1, Year B, Christmas Eve
Hymn: "A Stable Lamp is Lighted"

Perhaps you can't hear the words of our Old Testament reading without Handel's Messiah running through your head. Surely, lofty music of some kind should accompany the mighty words of Isaiah, which promise the people Israel the end to their wars, and a son from among their own, given by God Himself to lead them in righteousness - in Peace, among themselves and with their neighbors.

Fast forward 800 years. Israel has been conquered by Babylon, the Lord's Temple destroyed, and the people deported. Then Babylon was conquered by Persia and the people are allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple. But Israel was not long to remain even semi-independent. Now it lies under the domination of the Roman Empire, with the destruction of the Second Temple just 70 years or so in its future. And what do we have to say about it?

There, in that cow's feed-trough. The words of Isaiah's prophecy are fulfilled in - just this baby.

Anybody from Isaiah's time, or even the baby's own time, would say, "Yeah, right."

"O sing to the Lord a new song," goes our Psalm. How about, The diapers they need a-changin'?

All this fuss over a newborn is just plain nutty. Sure, there are infancy stories of demi-gods, heroes, and incarnations of gods in other religions. But we Christians are the only people on earth who actually revere a mother and her baby. And we tell ourselves that this baby is Eloheinu Melech ha-Olam, the Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe!

"Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength," continues the Psalm. Babies are many things, but they are not strong. And we must add that this kid will never travel, write, or lead nations. Instead he will be executed as a common criminal for stirring up trouble against the Romans, and for impugning the right of Caesar to crown kings by claiming some sort of kingship for himself.

And yet, some shepherds (another classy occupation) who were stuck out in their fields watching their sheep get this spectacular and frightening vision. They were surrounded, enveloped by bright light. Then an angel says, "Don't be afraid, I'm here to make you this special offer. Go down to the town and find this baby lying in a cow's feed-trough. That's God come down to save you all." A few more fireworks, thousands of angels singing to them, and off they go.

They find the kid, all right. And they tell his mother what they have seen and heard. Not even she is sure she believes it.

And yet...

Here we are, back to the theme of God turning the usual cultural values on their heads. The low is high, the high are to be brought low. The first shall be last and the last first. And God is still God, but God has indeed come down among us as just this baby. "A barn shall harbor Heaven, a stall become a shrine!"

The newborn Jesus and the shepherds looking at him heard no songs of derision that night. They heard songs of the original love from which we learn our capacity to love. Lullabies. Mary sang him lullabies.

For God so loved the world that He endured the terror and shame of becoming limited and helpless for our sake, just to be with us as one of us. To be just this baby. So that he could grow up to do the Gospel, not just to proclaim it. To walk the walk, not just talk the talk. To put his hide on the line for us.

So now Peace be with you. There is war and conflict all around the world, there is a deepening financial crisis threatening to eat up your wealth, and you have other troubles. And yet Peace be with you. A deep peace filling your entire being for this one night. This Silent Night, this Holy Night.

Leia Mais…

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Submission: Let it be with me According to your Word

Readings: Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year B

Advent is a season of waiting. For us in the 21st century it is a season of waiting for Christmas. For those of us so fortunate, we wait to put up the outdoor lights, to put up the Christmas tree, to eat the feast, to sing carols with friends and relatives. For those of us who have lost or maybe cut off our ties to society and family, we wait for a chance to get near a warm grate in the sidewalk or to get a handout from a passer-by. But we are not waiting for Christmas to turn our world upside down, to stand our dearest cultural values on their heads.

But that is exactly what the birth of Jesus was about to do to first century Palestinian Jewish culture. An already ancient, patriarchal honor/shame culture was about to have its values inverted by a woman and her baby. The event was not without preparation, however, as our Old Testament Reading shows.

There King David observes that he is now enjoying a higher material standard of living than Israel's God. David lives in a house of cedar, while God still lives in a tent with the Ark of the Covenant. David implicitly wonders whether he should build an equally grand house for God.

Then his prophet Nathan tells him that God says that David has it backwards. David has no power to build a house for God. Rather, God is building a house for David - and not a merely material house of cedar, either. God is building an entire Kingdom for David and his descendants, that will be home for all Israel, forever.

For now, for the Ark of His Covenant, a tent is all God wants. The same tent that covered the Ark whenever the Israelites halted on their trek from slavery to the Promised Land. When God wants something different, He will say so.

But God goes further: In Psalm 89 He declares that His faithfulness to his Covenant with Israel and the way His love shall support David will compel David to cry out to the Lord, "You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation!"

God is declaring that He is greater than the material trappings of honor in an honor/shame culture. That God is greater than honor itself. God is so great that God can dispense with honor.

And so God sends his angel to talk to a young woman. To get some feeling for the radicalness of such an idea, imagine that these events are taking place not in the Nazareth of ancient Israel, but in present-day Nazareth in Muslim Palestine. Let us use Arabic names. The woman's name in Arabic is Maryam. And even though she is second-class, virtually the property of the man to whom she is about to me married, the angel Gibreel does not come first to her husband-to-be, or even to her father. He comes directly to her.

That gesture itself conveys meaning: Allah is greater than honor, Allah is greater than social convention. Allah can have dealings with a woman, and even cause her to become pregnant. By this gesture of sending Gibreel directly to Maryam, Allah is saying," You are not your husband's, nor your father's, nor your society's, you are your own. But first and foremost, you are Mine. And this is what I will do with you."

Now Maryam becomes indeed her own, an individual. Allah permits her to question Gibreel. Gibreel's answer that her child will be called Issa, and the Son of Allah, amazes her. And this is crucial: she is not forced, she is not coerced. Instead, she freely gives her consent, her submission, "Here am I, the servant of Allah, let it be with me according to your word."

We should all be astonished. Young women found to be pregnant before they are married can be sent back to their families. But family honor, and in particular the honor of the head of the family, is everything. A man without honor will soon be a man without wealth, friends, livelihood, or even protection, for himself or his family. It is not uncommon for a daughter so dishonored to be killed by her father and brothers. It even has a name, "honor killing." Honor killings have been done by Muslim immigrants in Europe as recently as this year.

By consenting to what Gibreel has spoken, Maryam has just set herself up to be killed. She now depends for her life on the mercy of Allah, and His further intervention on her behalf.

That, friends, is Faith.

Faith that Allah will continue in His move to stand the honor/shame duality on its head, faith that Allah will persuade Yusuf to accept her and go through with the marriage.

Later, when it is clear that Allah has followed through, and Yusuf has accepted her, Maryam practically launches into song (Luke 1:46b-5). Indeed, our alternate reading forms the basis of J. S. Bach's Magnificat. And again we read about the inversion of honor/shame, the humbling of the proud, the powerful brought down from their thrones, the hungry (spiritually and physically) fed.

We can only say in English, Praise the Lord! In Hebrew, Halleluyah! In Arabic, Allahu Akbar!

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. - John 3:16

That whosoever follows him should be unbound from the shackles of Honor/Shame and freed to follow path of Humility. The path of Faith. You bet your Life. And your Life in the World to Come.

Now may Allah bless you and keep you, may Allah make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you. May Allah look upon you with favor and give you peace. Amen.

Leia Mais…

Advent: The Christmas Truce of 1914

Readings: Any Sunday in Advent, Years A, B, and C
and "Christmas in the Trenches," John McCutcheon, 1984.

Advent, from the Latin adventus, means "The Coming," or "The Approach." Once recognized as a holy season of the Christian Church beginning four Sundays before Christmas, it was specifically about the coming of Christ — in our past as the baby Jesus, and in our future as Redemptor Mundi, the Redeemer of the World. Now it is submerged in the tide of holiday shopping that fills the void from Black Friday (the Friday after Thanksgiving, when many retailers finally turn a profit for the year) to Christmas Day, the distribution of the loot.

Advent is anticipation, a building of hope and feeling as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, the anniversary season of Our Lord's Birth as one of us. The Twelve Days of Christmas. Twelve days of inspiration, generosity, gratitude , good will, familiar songs, and peace.

So it was on Christmas Eve, 1914, in the trenches of World War I in France and Belgium. The men on both sides were waiting, mostly for another attack by the other side. Instead, an informal truce was struck by ordinary soldiers on both sides, beginning with the singing of Christmas carols. There was even a soccer game, until the ball got punctured on barbed wire. Instead of an attack, the men got a few days — a moment, in the scheme of things — of grace.

At first, the truce was welcomed by their officers as an opportunity to bury their dead. Some of them had lain rotting in the No Man's Land between the trenches for months. But as the British and German troops mingled and got friendly, the officers got frightened. This sort of thing could end the war. Orders were given against fraternizing with the enemy, with dishonorable discharge or death the penalty for disobedience. What ended was not the war, but the peace.

And the rest, they say, is history. World War I led to a defeated, broken and sullen Germany, which led Germany to fall prey to Hitler's ideology of National Socialism (Nazism), which led to World War II and the slaughter of 50 million people, including the systematic genocide of 6 million Jews, and the subsequent mass migration of the survivors who had nowhere else to go to what became the nation-state of Israel, which has endured almost continual war with its neighbors. Defeated along with its ally, Germany, in WW I, the Ottoman Empire was partitioned into many of the countries that form the Middle East today. Some like Iraq, were taken over by Baathism, which is little more than an Arabized Nazism, and many have made themselves enemies of Israel. Weakened by WW I, Russia was overtaken by Communism under which Stalin killed millions to force the collectivization of farming, which inspired many other such takeovers including China with its massacres under Mao Zedong, and provided the ideology that led to the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Killing Fields of Kampuchea under Pol Pot. The foundation of Israel combined with the loss of the Ottoman Caliphate became some of the principal grievances used by al-Qaeda to recruit the perpetrators of the 9/11 and other attacks. And of course, WW II was ended by the invention and use of nuclear weapons, which together with the Cold War led to "Weapons of Mass Destruction," becoming a common phrase.

Need I go on?

If we humans had had the Faith to trust in and sustain what happened on that Christmas Eve in 1914, we might have avoided most of the bloodshed of past century. In other words, what was at stake was not just World War I, but World War II and all the wars which followed from them.

We were not punished for our failure by a vengeful God. No, God offered us a way to build a better world, and we chose instead the familiarity of business as we usually do it. We have not endured a punishment — we have endured the world we were already making for ourselves.

To tell the truth however, the men involved didn't expect the Christmas Truce of 1914 to hold. They took it as a very much wanted, but unexpected opportunity for a few days relief from the drudgery and stress of slaughter. They would have liked more time, but it didn't occur to them that they could take it. Their common Christian heritage — the Gospel — offered them a moment of Grace, but they did not dare ask a lifetime of Grace for themselves, or a history of Grace for the world of us who would come after them.

The men knew the personal risks of war. Odds were that most of them would make it back home, unhurt, with honor. All you had to do was keep your head down. Poison gas was not yet in widespread use, and nobody expected the influenza of 1918. But the risk of peace — if everybody acted together you might be hailed as a hero or a saint, but if not, you might be branded a coward or a traitor. Or you might be taken prisoner. Or you might be shot — by the enemy troops or your own.

That's the thing about these moments of God's Grace. They catch us by surprise. And if we want them to last, we must have the crazy audacity to ask for more than we ever dreamed possible, and to commit ourselves completely, body and soul. Because God's Grace, the Gospel, offers us new selves to become, with new futures. Too often, as in 1914, we turn away, blinding ourselves to the possibilities, trudging our familiar path into the darkness. Because, ironically, it seems less scary to us. Or worse, as in Nazi movement of the 1930's, the Communist revolutions, or the present Bin Ladenist movements, we allow our capacity for that audacity and committment to be perverted to evil ends.

Advent. Waiting for the coming of God's most radical Grace. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. We are always waiting for moments of Grace, as each Advent we wait for Christmas, a season of Grace, mindful that the original Christmas was also a moment of hope and fear. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

Few moments of Grace in recent history have been so powerful, so pregnant with possibility as Christmas in the Trenches in 1914. But they do come. Let us be thankful for the triumph of Solidarity and the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, followed by the non-violent collapse of Communism in 1991. Let us be thankful that India and Pakistan decided not to go to war in 2002 when Pakistan-based Islamic terrorists bombed the Indian Parliament building.

Now whenever our moments of Grace come, small or large, personal or international, may God give us the the audacity to ask for more abundant Grace than we have ever imagined, and the courage to commit ourselves to its path. Or to use more old-fashioned words, may God give us Hope, may God give us Faith.

This Advent may you approach Christmas in God's Grace.

Leia Mais…