Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas Eve (Midnight)

Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7; Psalm 96:1-4, 11-12; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

It is both humbling and heartening to be reminded every so often that the best sermon material comes not from a three-year seminary education but, rather, from life with a five-year-old little boy.

We were sitting at the dinner table a few nights ago, talking about Christmas, when Little Charlie said, “You know what I like best about Jesus’ birthday?” Now, my husband and I have really tried to give Jesus and Santa Claus at least equal time when it comes to Christmas. But in fact, most of Little Charlie’s Christmas books tell the gospel story we just heard a moment ago. There are a couple of books about Santa Claus, and Charlie loves his toy reindeer, but he also has a toy nativity set, so we thought we were getting the message across.

“You know what I like best about Jesus’ birthday?” I prepared myself for prime sermon material, a theological gem of the sort only children can produce. “You know what I like best about Jesus’ birthday?” he said. “We get all the presents.”

Oh well. To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah! God-with-us is with us, earth is shot through with heaven, and Charlie gets a Spiderman bike out of the deal. Not a bad deal, I guess, for him. But it was certainly not that gem I was hoping for.

Of course he’s just five, when it’s hard to look past the presents under the tree. Baby Jesus has to compete with cookies and stockings and jingle bells for his attention. Christmas means so many different things in his life – it does in all our lives, right? I'm afraid Baby Jesus still has to compete with cookies and stockings and jingle bells and a thousand other things for my attention. The trick to balancing them seems as delicate as the balance between divinity and DNA wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.

And then it hit me. I know that Little Charlie meant exactly what he said, and why not – there are presents in our house with his name on them, and he knows it’s not his birthday. It’s Jesus’ birthday, and here’s where he might be on to something after all, the little inadvertent theologian. It’s Jesus’ birthday, and we get all the presents.

It’s Jesus’ birthday, and we get the extraordinary gift of God coming to live among us as one of us, in all our ordinariness, so that we can one day come to live with God. It’s not a bad deal at all.

I think that part of what makes it so hard to balance Christmas is that we make the Christmas story into something like a fairy tale, befitting, we imagine, the birth of a Prince of Peace. The holy child lies in a bed of sweet hay as his parents bend over him serenely. Angels populate the skies and burst into song without warning. Shepherds appear in bathrobes, carrying softly bleating lambs in their arms. A silent night in the little town of Bethlehem.

By this time on Christmas Eve – how long is the list of things you’ve accomplished so far this week, and how much is left to do tonight – by this time we need the fairy tale birth, the warm glow of starlight filling the stable, the little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay.

The truth is, of course, the real story was as far from a fairy tale as our own lives are. The occupying government was imposing heavy taxes to pay its army to keep the peace. A baby was born to travel-weary first-time parents, a hundred miles from home. The only available shelter was a stable for pack animals, and the only available crib was their feeding trough. I doubt the smell in that stable could have been described as sweet. Just as the pain and fear of childbirth was subsiding, a group of strangers arrived demanding to see the baby. They weren’t royalty or wise men or even helpful neighbors, but shepherds, bleary-eyed from keeping watch at night, picking bits of grass and leaves from their hair. Shepherds weren’t known for their dependability or their manners, but there they were, claiming that angels had told them, of all people, that this baby was the Savior of all people. This is the real story into which the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace was born.

For some people, all of Christmas takes on a sort of fairy tale glow. They have happy memories of family and friends, deeply significant traditions, special meals, and favorite gifts. For others, the experience of Christmas is set more in shadow. There are sad or angry or grief-filled memories of the season, strained relationships, and long stretches of loneliness.

The truth is, we all arrive at the manger with burdens, doubts, anxieties, and disappointments. We are all tired when we get there. We all arrive short one tradition or one friend or one family member. Life simply is not a fairy tale. This is the real story into which the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace is born.

Jesus, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, is born in a noisy, smelly stable. The good news of great joy for all people is announced to a shifty band of shepherds. What an intersection of stories is held in that manger filled with dusty, scratchy hay, filled with the extraordinary Love of God for this ordinary world.

British actor Rowan Atkinson paints a charming picture of that intersection of stories through his on screen character, Mr. Bean. Mr. Bean is the quintessential thirty-five-year-old five-year-old, for whom life is simple, centered on himself, and full of possibilities. In the Christmas episode, Mr. Bean stumbles upon a nativity set in a store window, and he can’t resist bringing it to life. Sounds like a five-year-old five-year-old I know!

The camera narrows in on the nativity set, and we hear Mr. Bean’s delight as we see his hands playing with the figures in the set. It starts out like the fairy tale version. Mary and Joseph lean over Jesus and sing to him. The cow moos, which fetches a gentle “shhh” from Joseph. A shepherd arrives with at first just a few sheep behind him, but Mr. Bean must have found the basket marked “twenty for the price of one”, because suddenly, there are sheep flying in from all directions. He backs a truck up to load the sheep, and as it drives off, a toy dinosaur peers over from behind the stable and Joseph gives a fierce “shhh”. A robot rolls over to see the baby, who is promptly airlifted out of the mayhem by an angel with a magnet attached. This is at least something like the real, ordinary, wild story into which the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace is born. All of that, all those wildly diverse characters, all those stories intersecting with the story of Emmanuel, the story of God-with-us.

The good news of great joy is for all people – moms, dads, shepherds, kings, five-year-olds, thirty-five-year-olds, ninety-five-year-olds. We all belong in that nativity scene – in this nativity scene right here – so many real, ordinary, wildly diverse characters, so many wishing-it-were-but-knowing-it’s-not-a-fairy-tale lives intersecting with one another and with God, intersecting because of the gift of Jesus Christ, a baby in whom was both all of who God is and all of who we are.

I don’t know if it says something about Mr. Bean or about Little Charlie that they play with nativity sets the same way. Charlie’s toy nativity came with all the proper figures to tell the sweet fairy tale version of the story. But it wasn’t long before his procession to the manger included, just behind the wise men and their camel, a pair of matchbox cars, a whole herd of plastic dinosaurs, the pilot from a toy airplane, and a little stuffed caterpillar with rainbow stripes and a bell in its tale. Best of all, keeping a silent, respectful, towering watch over the entire scene, was Batman. It’s something like the real story….

….Everything important to Charlie was there – all the things that he loves. That’s what Christmas is about for God. Everything important to God is caught up in a single story – all the things and all the people God loves, all of our stories meet in the person of Jesus Christ. Ours are the real stories into which the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace is born. Ours are the stories Jesus walks into, with all our hopes and dreams and anxieties and fears and disappointments, with all our ordinariness. Ours are the stories to which he offers an extraordinary new life. We get all the presents.

I suppose the Baby Jesus might have liked a Spiderman bike if someone had given one to him on his birthday. Can you imagine him peddling around his driveway, like so many of us did when we were five? That’s part of what makes this present we receive on Christmas so special – through Jesus Christ, God knows deeply and personally what it’s like to be us. We’ll keep telling Charlie that that’s the real story of Christmas, it’s not just a fairy tale. And one day we hope he’ll discover that Jesus is indeed present in his ordinary, everyday life. In hugs and kisses at bedtime, in learning his letters at school, in playing with friends on the playground, in riding his new bike tomorrow morning. Because God met us in the manger, these are the sorts of ordinary places we can all meet God each and every ordinary day of our lives.

So I defer to a five-year-old once again. What does God like best about Jesus’ birthday? I think God likes that we get the very best present of all. Amen.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Proper 21A

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25:3-9; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:28-32

My husband and I have spent our free time over the past couple of months making a few small changes to our kitchen. It’s amazing to me how much work small changes can take, and also what a big difference small changes can make. A fresh coat of exactly the same color paint on our kitchen cabinets, and a new set of hinges and handles….and presto!, our kitchen looks entirely different.

We’ve been inspired, of course, by all those do-it-yourself home makeover shows, which I love to watch. I actually like any sort of makeover show, whether it is a room or a garden or a person being transformed. From the nervous excitement when the design is unveiled by the professional you trust to see possibilities you cannot see, through each anxious decision to try something new, to the breathless anticipation of the big “reveal” at the end of the show when the host asks inevitable question, “Well, what do you think?”.... Truthfully, the disaster stories (when a designer nailed all the furniture to the ceiling, or a hairstylist insists that purple is really your color) can be just as entertaining as the success stories. But the best transformations, I think, are the ones in which the response to “what do you think” is “I never realized this room, this garden, this me, could look so beautiful.”

We could go straight to TLC or HGTV with our readings this morning. Through Ezekiel, God urges the people of Israel to get a new heart and a new spirit. Paul urges Christians in Philippi to adopt the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. These are no small changes!

Then Jesus, our host, begins his parable, What do you think? The chief priests and scribes to whom he is speaking don’t know it – they never really get it – but Jesus is about to reveal to them a transformation beyond their imagining. What do you think? A man had two sons….

By this point in Matthew’s gospel, the chief priests and scribes have had enough of Jesus, who they insist has made far too many unauthorized changes to God’s law. He surrounds himself with sinners, works on the Sabbath, and deals out grace as generously to the riff-raff as to the righteous. He had just the day before literally turned the furniture upside-down in the temple when he insisted that money-changers didn’t belong there, and in fact he had claimed to be able to tear the temple down and rebuild it in three days. They can’t even do that on Trading Spaces!

The preferred arrangement of things was this: if you obey the law, saying yes to God, you are to be commended. If you disobey the law, saying no to God, you are to be reprimanded and excluded from the company of the righteous. It was an arrangement as old as the stars on which Abraham had counted his descendants….and as contemporary as the standards by which we still measure our sisters and brothers today. Good rewarded, bad punished – it’s a simple, straightforward arrangement that lets us know exactly where we, and everyone else, stands.

Then Jesus goes and turns that arrangement squarely on its head. It’s bad enough that last week, in the parable of the vineyard, he suggested that the kingdom be offered to those who hadn’t worked nearly as hard as the rest of us to earn it. In this week’s parable, he offers the kingdom to those who, under the old arrangement of the law, have downright forfeited it by their disobedience, by their defiance of the law - tax collectors and prostitutes and who knows what other sinners. What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not.’

What do you think? The son who first defies his father is the one who will change his mind and go to work after all. He is the son the chief priests and scribes will correctly identify as the one who does his father’s will over against the son who says he will work in the vineyard, but then does not go. What do you think?

Here comes the big reveal. Truly I tell you, Jesus says, the tax collectors and the prostitutes, who have defied the law, are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John the Baptist came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw how their lives were transformed, you did not change your minds and believe, you would not go into the vineyard with them.

The new arrangement, it seems, is this. Everyone who believes (as opposed to everyone who behaves) is in.

Robert Farrar Capon writes, “No matter how much we give lip service to the notion of free grace and dying love, we do not like it. It is just too….indiscriminate. It lets rotten sons and crooked tax collectors and common tarts into the kingdom, and it thumbs its nose at really good people….We’ll teach God, we say. We will continue to sing ‘Amazing Grace,’ in church; but we will jolly well be judicious when it comes to explaining it to the riff-raff what it actually means. We will assure them, of course, that God loves them and forgives them, but we will make it clear that we expect them to clean up their act before we clasp them seriously to our bosom.”

What do you think – which of us in this painful (but honest) telling is doing God’s will? The riff-raff who believe God is at work in them to help them change their lives....or we who insist they must change their lives for God to work in them? Which of us is working in the kingdom, where power is turned upside-down and is revealed not by showing righteousness but by showing mercy and pity? Which of us is going into the vineyard to work, and which of us, though we say yes, really mean, but not if I have to work beside them? God, it seems, clasps to the bosom tax collectors and prostitutes and all others who defy the law just as tightly as God clasps us. God expects we will all clean up our acts eventually.

Because the truth is, of course, we are each of us a complicated mix of good and bad, obedient and disobedient, first sons and second sons. We daily utter both defiant no’s and earnest yes’s to God’s invitation to work in the vineyard, and we are prone, like those petulant sons in the parable, to change our minds as soon as we’ve made them up. Perhaps that’s why the old arrangement of reward and punishment doesn’t work and a new, even simpler arrangement is necessary – everyone who believes is in. Everyone who believes that God can take any old heart and mind and spirit and make it new, is in. In fact, the only thing that can keep us out is our refusal to let God have every old heart and mind and spirit, our saying no to any old sinner who has said yes to God.

And what of good behavior, of being obedient, of doing what is right in the eyes of God? Of course God desires us, as Paul writes, to have the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus, to be willing to give our entire lives over to the service of God. But our obedience, doing what is right in the sight of God, is not what earns us our new heart and our new spirit. Real obedience, vineyard work, kingdom living, occurs only as our joyful response to having that new heart already beating in us and that new spirit already transforming our lives. God is at work in all of us riff-raff, making us beautiful beyond our imagining.

And so let us get ourselves a new heart and a new spirit, a kingdom heart and a kingdom spirit, a generous heart and a generous spirit. What do you think? Amen.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Proper 6A

Exodus 19:2-8a; Psalm 100; Romans 5:6-11; Matthew 9:35-10:15

Well, if it weren’t for the electric lights, the air-conditioning, and the fact that our shofar was made out of PVC pipe instead of a ram’s horn, you really would have thought our parish hall was a first century Jerusalem marketplace this week. We’ve just finished vacation bible school, during which more than fifty young people visited a variety of marketplace shops of the sort Jesus might have visited back when he wandered the streets of Jerusalem. They painted little clay pots in the pottery tent, tasted honey and almonds and dates in the cooking tent, traced Hebrew letters in the scroll-making tent, and planted seeds in the farmer’s tent.

Now I don’t know if Jesus enjoyed shopping or not – surely he admired skilled handiwork of any sort, being a craftsman, a carpenter, himself. There certainly was fine handiwork in our little marketplace – weaving, jewelry-making, musical instruments, wooden boxes….I don’t know if Jesus enjoyed shopping in the marketplace, but I think he did enjoy watching.

Imagine with me....Jesus sitting just inside the shade of the familiar carpentry shop as countless people hurried by on their way to buy, sell, trade, beg….Imagine his frustration, having spent the whole morning trying to teach his disciples what it really means to love God with your whole heart and soul and strength. And now imagine Jesus watching a frail and elderly widow, jostled by the busy crowds, make her way to the temple treasury, just across the square from where he sat. He watched her fumble through each fold of her old cloak to pull out two small coins, which she drops into the treasury box, while others, more finely dressed, absent-mindedly toss in a coin or two as they walk by on their way to somewhere else….See that woman? He says to his disciples. That’s what it means to love God with everything that you have, to give your whole life to God. Watch her.

So the marketplace might have been, for Jesus, a rich source, a deep well of images and stories and metaphors and real-life examples of what he was trying to teach, trying to show….how to love and serve God. See that farmer bringing his crops to market? Well, the kingdom of God is like a harvest….See those oil lamps for sale, how they brighten the dark tent? Well, I am the light of the world….

With fifty children in a smaller-than-it-used-to-be parish hall, we didn’t need any chickens, cows, and sheep to make the marketplace feel authentically chaotic. But Jesus would certainly have seen and heard and smelled animals of all sorts in his day. Imagine with me, Jesus watching a dusty shepherd drive his sheep through the crowded marketplace, guiding the anxious and easily distracted sheep through the maze of tents and people….See that? He might have said. I am the good shepherd….

It was a good image to use. Time and again in the Hebrew scriptures, which Jesus would have known well, the God of Israel was compared to a shepherd and the people of Israel to a flock of sheep with a tendency to wander. We are his people and the sheep of his pasture….

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus has visited just about every crowded marketplace in every village and city he can walk to. He has worn himself out teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. Imagine with me, Jesus leaning against the well in the center of the market square, closing his eyes against the glare of the sun at midday….imagine the weight of knowing that when he opened his eyes again and saw the crowds, he would be filled with compassion, because he would see in their anxious and easily distracted faces that they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd….

Sheep without a shepherd are sheep without a future. Sheep depend upon their shepherd, as the beloved psalm alludes, to lead them to green pastures and still waters, to protect them from predators, to keep them on the path, and to secure them in the fold. Without a shepherd, sheep are indeed anxious and distracted, harassed and helpless, or worse, as another translation of this gospel suggests – wounded and completely exhausted. It seems that, without the compassion and care of the shepherd, sheep have a hard time figuring out what’s best for themselves.

Does that sound like the experience of anyone you know? Anxious and distracted, harassed and helpless, wounded and completely exhausted? My guess is that describes most of us at least some of the time, and perhaps some of us most of the time. We might easily imagine our lives as a marketplace in which we have to navigate a chaotic course through the crowds just to accomplish our daily tasks, while countless people vie for our time and attention and limited resources. It can be hard to figure out what’s best for ourselves, and so, like sheep, we wander and then wonder how we ended up where we are.

Most of the time, when scripture employs the image of sheep and shepherds, there is a clear line drawn – we are the wayward sheep, quick to stray off course into dangerous territory, and God is the compassionate shepherd leading us back to the way, the truth, and the life. Up to a point, this morning’s readings describe just such a relationship between God and God’s people. In Exodus, God leads the people of Israel safely out of Egypt and guides them to the holy mountain. In the psalm, we are sheep in God’s pasture. In the gospel reading, Jesus attends to the needs of the marketplace crowds as a shepherd might attend to the needs of his sheep.

As sheep to God’s shepherd, we are certainly called to follow God, to trust in a marketplace world that constantly tries to entice us to buy its wares that God will nourish our lives, heal our wounds, lead us on right paths, and bring us safely home. Though demands and expectations and distractions are shouted at us from all directions, we are called to follow only the voice of the Good Shepherd.

But this morning’s readings suggest that we are called to something more, more than being just followers, more than being sheep. This morning, we are called to be priests, to be pastors, to be shepherds, full partners with God in having compassion upon, proclaiming truth to, and ministering justice for other lost sheep like ourselves.

It is a calling as ancient as creation itself, when humans were given charge over all living things. It is the calling given to the people of Israel when, having led them like sheep out of danger to safety, God then commissioned them to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. It is the calling given to the disciples when, having followed Jesus through every crowded marketplace, they were then sent out to proclaim the kingdom of heaven, to cure the sick, to raise the dead, to cleanse the lepers, to cast out demons….

So how can anxious and easily distracted, harassed and helpless, wounded and completely exhausted sheep possibly become shepherds? My son used to have a little stuffed sheep with a music box inside. The song it played was ‘Jesus loves me.’ What a profound lesson in christology! Jesus, Good Shepherd who loves the sheep, is also Jesus, Lamb of God. Jesus became one of us sheep in order to show us how to be shepherds, how to proclaim the good news of the kingdom, how to cure the illnesses that separate us from one another and from God, how to have compassion on those who are harassed and helpless.

We are called to be shepherds, but it seems we’re still sheep at heart, anxious and easily distracted. We follow God to this place, this fold, week after week, where we hear again the story of how we have been led, where we are nourished with food and drink, where we acknowledge that we are called to something more than just sheepliness. Boldly, not at all like sheep, in our post-communion prayer we ask God to send us out into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart. And then once again, we are urged to Go in peace to love and serve the Lord, to which we reply in our best shepherd voices, Thanks be to God!

And then what? Go in peace to love and serve the Lord! In some parishes, everyone promptly sits down and listens to the postlude. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord! In some parishes, everyone promptly kneels and watches as the cross and torches are processed back up the aisle and placed in their holders. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord! In most parishes, everyone promptly goes out to….to eat, or to nap, or to mow the yard, or to catch up on homework, or to go swimming….Our shepherd’s crooks are forgotten by the door, and we are sheep again.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we don’t take time to nourish and refresh our bodies, to engage our responsibilities as parents, as students, as professionals, as homeowners….but it is curious, isn’t it, how quickly these and other important things can distract us from being shepherds, even from being obedient sheep? What if our response to the dismissal, Go in peace to love and serve the Lord, was not Thanks be to God but, rather, the response made by the people of Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai, when the people all answered as one: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do”?

Imagine with me how our Sunday afternoons, how each day of our lives might look different if we followed the Good Shepherd out those doors not just because we are his sheep, but because he calls us to be shepherds, too? Everything that the Lord has spoken, everything that Jesus has shown us, we will do….

Perhaps, like the Israelites, we would still wander away from God, distracted by louder voices, sparklier things, and seemingly better deals….perhaps like the disciples, we would still be wayward, fearing things that might hurt us and scattering at the first sign of danger. But imagine with me....Jesus, Good Shepherd, Jesus, Lamb of God, in the midst of the marketplace, beckoning us to follow, inviting us to share, handing us authority, having compassion on our anxiety, seeking us in our lostness over and over again. We are not sheep without a shepherd, thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Proper 4 A

Deuteronomy 11:18-21, 26-28; Psalm 31:1-5, 19-24; Romans 3:21-25a, 28; Matthew 7:21-27

When I was little, I loved my stuffed animals, and I was absolutely convinced that my stuffed animals loved me. Long after I was too old for tea parties and Barbie dolls, I still snuggled up with my favorite stuffed toy – a small gray cat who I’m told was once white and fluffy. I imagined – or did I actually believe? – that she was the wise old leader of my stuffed animal collection, and that, when I left the room, she would gather the others together to talk and play and have stuffed animal adventures. I never heard Kittycat or the others speak, and I never saw them move, but I was certain that they could.

And so, I’ll admit my now all grown-up heart took a delighted little leap back into childhood when I sat in a darkened movie theater and watched Toy Story for the first time. Right there on the screen, Mr. Potato Head and Slinky Dog, little green army men and Barbie dolls, and all the other toys came to life right before my eyes. I knew it!

Of course, long before Toy Story reminded us of the special relationship between a child and a toy-that-becomes-more-than-just-a-toy, there was another beloved story about just such a relationship. It is the story of a little boy who finds in his Christmas stocking a fat and bunchy, brown- and white-spotted, with real thread whiskers, sawdust-filled velveteen rabbit.

I’m sure you know the story. The Velveteen Rabbit doesn’t get played with much at first, passed over for fancier toys, models of real boats and soldiers, toys with moving and mechanical parts. He’s sad, and wonders if he’s worth very much at all. In that child’s room, the wise old leader of the toys is the Skin Horse, whose words inspired not only the Velveteen Rabbit but countless children and adults who read the book.

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?” “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

We – you and I – human beings – start out with a good deal more life than a stuffed animal. We are made with far more intricate care and detail. Somewhere in the tiny curves and fissures of how we were made, we understand that we are, of course, quite real – we exist – we breathe – we speak – we move...

But today’s readings suggest there is something more to life than breathing and speaking and moving. When it comes to living as God, who made us, intended for us to live, I wonder if we are Real yet. Or are we more like stuffed toys – wondrously made, yes, but seemingly lifeless. Perhaps we, too, have to become Real along the way.

Our scripture stories tell us that for a long, long time we have been loved, REALLY loved. That’s what Torah, the law, was supposed to be about – how much the Hebrew people were loved by God. At its heart, Torah was God’s revelation of how the Hebrew people could live out that love each and every day, in the ordinary circumstances of their lives, in their breathing and speaking and moving. It began with the most important law of all, carved first on those stone tablets as the foundation of a life lived in faith: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

Torah was about being in a special relationship with God, not as chosen individuals but as a chosen and loved people. Always, being loved by God has been meant being in relationship not only with God but with all of God’s people. It is an intimate relationship individually, meant, as our reading from Deuteronomy tells, to permeate our hearts and souls and bodies – all of who we as individuals are. But it was also an intimate relationship corporately, meant to be passed on from one generation to the next, to permeate entire households all at once, to mark even the gates that stand between one household and the next – all of who we as a community are.

As the story goes, in time, the people of Israel began to lose sight of the heart of Torah, God’s revelation of how to live as loved people. If the law continued to be fixed on their foreheads and written on their doorposts at all, it was as a checklist against which they suspiciously measured one another’s performance as chosen people, as though the law were a pre-requisite for God’s love instead of a response to it. And so the law, given to bring the community of God’s people to life, slowly became as something stiff, rigid, stuffed, staring straight ahead out of eyes wondrously made, perhaps, but fixed on self-preservation and self-promotion.

This was not the Real life that God desired for us who have been loved, REALLY loved, from even before we were made. And so the story does not end there. God became one of us in the person of Jesus so that in Jesus we might finally understand that loving God and loving those whom God loves (which is to say, everyone) are inseparable. Jesus was for us a living Torah, a Real life whose breathing and speaking and moving were centered on God, not on himself.

Today’s gospel reading comes at the very end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, in which he talked at length and in great detail about this kind of Real life, with words that have long-since permeated our hearts and souls and bodies and been handed down from one generation to the next. Blessed are the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart….let your light shine….turn the other cheek….love your enemies….do not parade your piety….pray this way, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name”….do not worry about tomorrow….do not judge, that you may not be judged….ask and it shall be given, seek and you shall find….do to others as you would have them do to you…It’s all in there.

But a Real life, Jesus wanted to be sure we understood, is one lived this way because God loves us, not so that God will love me. Because God has chosen us, not so that God will choose me. After all, the first commandment was not impress the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and might, but love. REALLY love.

A life that has become Real is one that is lived, one that loves, because God loved us first, because God chose us already, because we are already in relationship with God before our living according to the law, before our living as Jesus taught us to live, ever begins. Our entire life is built on God’s desire to be in relationship with us, God’s love for us….a solid rock that cannot be moved, that cannot be chiseled away, that will not crumble, that can support the weight of the entire world.

To believe we can make it on our own, that our good works will somehow earn us a greater share of that rock, that love, that salvation…it’s as foolish as building a house (no matter how wondrously made!) in a dry river bed the day before the rainy season begins. Jesus warns today that those of us who live a good life because we want God to love us, and those of us who live a good life because we know God loves us – we all end up building good houses out of good works. But only one will stand. Only one is Real.

To the world, of course, those of us building on rock will appear to be the foolish ones. The commandments the world would have us live by are all about self-preservation, self-promotion. Love your neighbor as yourself? Love your enemies? Turn the other cheek? Sure, if it helps you get ahead, if it makes you look good. Ask and it shall be given, seek and you shall find? How about, take, because you deserve it?

Becoming Real, it seems, is hard work. It goes against our instinct to look out for ourselves, to seek personal success, to remain a wondrously made, fat and bunchy, brown- and white-spotted, sawdust-filled, velveteen rabbit. Beautiful by the world’s standards. Lifeless by love’s standards. Becoming Real is hard work.

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit. “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful…. “That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. [That’s a perfect description of my Kittycat]. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” [That’s also a perfect description of my Kittycat].

Jesus is always truthful, too. He tells us that, no matter where we build our houses, our lives, our relationships, the rainy seasons will come. Time and again we will be faced with a decision – do we seek to preserve our own lives, or do we trust that God to preserve us all?

If we try to build our houses, our lives, our relationships on ourselves, out of fear that God’s love has limits, that there isn’t enough to go around and so we must grab as much as we can, we will become a rigid structure, easily toppled by the storms of life.

But if we build our houses, our lives, our relationships on God who made us, who loved us first…well, remember what our seniors told us a few weeks ago. Together, we are living stones, set on the foundation of Jesus Christ to form the household of God, in which there is room enough for all of creation. The storms of life will batter us, but living stones will sway in the wind and not break. We may lose a few shingles and shutters, and our paint may peel and crack, but to the one who understands, we will be Beautiful. We will be Real.

Let us build together a house on the rock of God’s love for us all, love that preceded our making and will outlast our living. Let each of us become a living stone that helps the others to stand. That’s how we become Real. And, as the wise old Skin Horse told the Rabbit, much, I’m sure, to Jesus’ delight, “Once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.” Amen.

Monday, April 11, 2005

3 Easter A

Acts 2:14a, 36-47; Psalm 116:10-17; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

No one is really sure where Emmaus was.

Luke didn’t make it up, not exactly. There are a few other accounts of a town called Emmaus, located somewhere near Jerusalem around the time of Jesus. The accounts disagree about the distance, so that we’re not sure if Cleopas and his companion walked seven miles or seventeen miles or more that first Easter afternoon.

We’re not sure about the distance or the exact direction. But in telling us they were walking toward Emmaus, wherever it was, Luke does want us to be sure they were walking away from Jerusalem. Away from the place Jesus had died. Away from the place he was buried. Away from the place they, and all who had followed Jesus, felt like fear, grief, anger, and doubt were going to bury them, too. They just had to get away. They’d had enough.

I used to have the perfect place to get away. When I was younger, still living at home, and I’d had enough of my little brother or my calculus homework or the myriad other things that upset a teenage girl, I would head over to my grandmother’s house, and after a quick but comforting hug, I climbed the stairs to my mom’s old room. It was blue and peaceful and filled with memories – my mom’s and my own. A huge bulletin board still displayed pictures of my mom when she was my age, her arms draped around high school friends who looked just like mine, ribbons from summer camp celebrating her skills on horseback, lift tickets from church ski trips, dried out corsages, and a collage she once made of now-yellowed magazine clippings of people in love. The shelves were full of original Nancy Drew mysteries, perfect for reading on the ruffled four-poster bed or the window seat that looked out over a backyard full of azaleas. My old dollhouse, which my grandmother had made, sat atop a table in mom’s room, and though I might not have admitted it to my friends at the time, I could still spend happy hours rearranging the furniture and tiny knick-knacks.

That room was a real escape for me, a place where I could get away in a thousand different wonderful ways, until I felt ready to face the world again. I knew my grandmother was downstairs waiting, that we could talk about whatever it was I had wanted to get away from, and that after another hug I could head back out into my life.

There’s not really a place I escape to these days – it’s difficult to get away in that sense, to go any particular distance or direction. So instead I escape in my own house with a pair of knitting needles and a skein of yarn. The clicking of the needles, the softness of the yarn, and the repetition of the pattern – knit three, purl three, knit three purl three – lure me from whatever it is I had wanted to get away from, and after a while I’m ready to face the world again.

I imagine each of us has a place we go to get away from it all, to get away from the fear, grief, anger and doubt that threaten to bury us from time to time. A place to get away from the stress in our lives, the expectations that aren’t met, the disappointments, the deadlines, the strained relationships, the obligations that seem to outweigh our abilities. Perhaps, for you, it is a place you can get to by a particular distance or direction: a special room in a special house, or a gym, or a car with the radio on and the windows down, or a trail through the woods, or a deer stand, or a museum with art you get lost in. Perhaps it is a place you can get to without going anywhere at all: a good book, an old movie, a sewing project, a recipe with lots of ingredients, picking out songs on a guitar. How do you get away?

Frederick Buechner has suggested that perhaps, in this morning’s gospel reading, Emmaus is not so much a place as it is a state of mind. That Emmaus stands for those times when the world is closing in on us, when we are overwhelmed by hurt, when we don’t know what to believe anymore. Certainly that’s the state of mind the disciples were in, just three days after witnessing Jesus’ death, three days after sealing him in a tomb, three days after seeing all that they had trusted in come crashing down around them.

So often we arrive here, in this place, on Sunday morning, the first day of the week, in something of the same state of mind the disciples were in on that first Easter morning. We are tired, preoccupied, distracted by the hurts and anxieties that have piled up during the week. We have been working hard, we have experienced disappointments, we are dealing with relationships that are strained or broken. Like Cleopas and his companion, we’re ready to set our feet toward Emmaus, away from it all.

And then an amazing thing happens. In this place, like Cleopas and his companion as they walked, we listen to the words of our sacred scriptures read aloud, we hear the stories of God’s saving work in the world. Hopefully in the sermon, but even more hopefully in our prayers offered for all people everywhere, we begin to see an intersection between God’s saving work in scripture and God’s saving work in our own weary lives and in the lives of others. The scriptures are opened to us, they make room for us, they include our stories, just as a stranger showed the two weary disciples that scripture included Jesus story and their story.

Is your heart burning yet? Do you see who’s with us? Do you recognize the road we’re on?

In this place, like Cleopas and his companion before us, we gather around a table to break bread. Like them, we remember that Jesus told us to remember, that Jesus told us we would recognize him in that most basic, most gracious, most life-sustaining act of breaking bread. Like Cleopas and the other disciple at that table, we clearly see the body of Christ in our midst.

Finally, in this place, as happened at Emmaus on the first Easter day, we say together that we must go back to Jerusalem, to the world, to the place we wanted to escape from. But when we go back through those doors, we will go nourished, we will go with stronger and lighter hearts, we will go with good news for all those who are as buried under the weight of their lives as we were when we set out.

As constant as the clicking of needles, as regular as the rhythm of knit three purl three, the pattern has continued from that first day of the week at Emmaus to this first day of the week at St. Paul’s, and on every first day in between in every place where the body of Christ has gathered to worship. We hear scripture read. We open its words to our lives through reflection and prayer. We break bread together. We go out into the world.

The pattern was established 2000 years ago and picked up by the fledging church, as we heard today in the book of Acts. But the presence of the risen Christ is not ancient history. It is not just a story we read, not just something we remember. Jesus Christ is as alive, he is as present at this table as he was at that table in Emmaus. When we allow our tired, distracted, dissatisfied, disappointed selves to become lost in the rhythmic pattern of our worship together – of reading sacred scripture, of praying, of breaking bread together – we find that Christ has been with us all along. He is not just in the stories. He is not just up there, somewhere, hearing our prayer. He is not just, somehow, in the bread and wine. He is living, he is present, he is with us all along because we have been baptized and bear his mark. We are sisters and brothers in the household of God, and members of Christ’s body.

The Reverend Joe Robinson, a priest of this diocese, wrote a song that has long been a favorite at camp and youth retreats. It begins, “We’re gathered here, the tired, the poor, the overworked, the lost, the lame. And though we bring a million faces, we are known by just one name.”

We gather here, in this place, on the first day of the week, a ragged collection of professionals, students, parents, children, young, old, comfortable, struggling. We gather here with a ragged collection of hurts, disappointments, disillusionments, doubts, fears, anxieties. But though we bring a million ragged faces, together in this place we are known by just one name: we are the body of Christ.

We are the body of Christ, and so we also gather here with a ragged but God-given collection of strengths, of gifts, of experiences to share with one another, with our community, and with the world. Joe echoes the words of St. Theresa of Avila in the second verse of his song, “Lord, we would be your hands, your heart, your feet, your loving arms, your warm embrace.” We may not see the person of Jesus Christ in the same way Cleopas and his companion did, but we can look around this place and see his body. We see him in the hands that carry our crosses and torches. We see him in the arms that assist people up the stairs. We see him in the women and men who teach classes, lead bible studies, cook meals, visit hospitals, sing in the choir, greet visitors, clean the building, serve on the vestry. We see him in the faces of those who greet us at the peace. We see him in those who kneel beside us at the altar rail, at that table, where all of us gather together to be nourished with that which we, as a community of faith, already are – the body of Christ.

We are the body of Christ, a mark we carry with us not just within these walls but every place we go – every distance, every direction. And so every moment, every encounter, carries with it the possibility of revealing Jesus Christ to someone in an Emmaus state of mind. The final verse of Joe’s song is one of the most beautiful prayers I know: “Lord, be with us in Spirit as we journey from the church into the street. May each meeting yield a neighbor, and each handshake bring Christ’s holy peace to greet. Every meal a great communion, every bath baptism be. Let us lose our lives in worship and then find them [as they have been all along] in thee.”

No one is really sure where Emmaus was. But we are very sure where Jesus is now – he is there in our sacred story, he is there at our table, he is out there through the doors, he is here in the mark we bear, he is here in our burning hearts, he is here, alive in our midst. Though we bring a million faces, together we are known by just one name – Jesus Christ. Amen.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Good Friday

Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22:1-21; Hebrews 10:1-25; John 18:1-19:37

What is truth?

Pilate’s question sounds profound. But truth is, it was probably a throw away remark, tossed out not as a means of entering into deeper understanding, but, rather, as a means of escaping from what he couldn’t understand.

Jesus had said, For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

But Pilate wasn’t listening. The only truth he knew that day was that if he didn’t do something with Jesus, he would have a riot on his hands, and he would be fired for failing to keep the peace. Pilate would either have to talk some sense into Jesus, who seemed to think he was a king, or wash his hands of the whole thing, give in to the angry crowd that wanted to see their “king” dead. But Jesus wouldn’t give him any straight answers, and Pilate must have thought it ironic that Jesus would bring up the word “truth” when the truth was exactly what Pilate was trying to get out of him. Pilate wasn’t listening, he didn’t understand, he didn’t know how ironic it was that Truth itself was standing right in front of him the whole time.

What is truth?

Truth is, on this day, about 2000 years ago, Jesus died. A rough wooden cross, reserved for criminals and, apparently, kings…this cross bore his broken body until there was no life left in him, and he died. It is finished.

Today is Good Friday, a day when the truth is hard to pin down, even when it is nailed to a cross. Jesus tells his accusers they can learn about him from his followers, at the same time that Peter is telling his accusers he does not know Jesus. What is truth? Jesus is called a king, but no one really means it, and he’s given a crown, but it’s made of thorns. What is truth? Jesus, the one through whom all things were made, dies at the hands of his creation. It is a day of death, of defeat, of hopelessness, and yet we call it Good.

What is truth?

Truth is, on this day, a little more than 2000 years ago, Jesus was conceived. It is nine months to the day before Christmas. On this day, a young girl’s womb, reserved for children and, apparently, kings…this young girl bore his tiny pink body until he was full of life, and he was born. It is begun.

Today is Good Friday, the day Jesus died, but by rare chance, today is also the Feast of the Annunciation, the day an angel visited Mary with astonishing news, the day Jesus was conceived. It, too, is a day when the truth is difficult to hold, even when it is contained in its mother’s womb. The one through whom all things were made enters his creation as a tiny, helpless baby boy.

On this unusually Good Friday, death and life, fast and feast, earth and heaven mingle to reveal the profound truth of God’s love for us. What is truth? Truth is, as St. Paul has written, God’s love never ends. God’s love is not made weaker in that tiny, helpless baby, nor is it defeated in the broken man on the cross. Jesus, in his living and in his dying, showed us that God’s love remains love, even when we aren’t listening, even when we don’t understand, even when we don’t return it, even when we hang it on a cross. The beauty, the goodness, of Good Friday is that nothing could keep Jesus from loving us. The ugliness, the brutality, of this day is of our own making.

We know these stories so well – the angel’s visit to Mary, Jesus’ visit to Pilate. We know the characters, we know their lines, we know what happens in the end. We believe these stories are about things that really happened to real people in a real time and place. But truth is, these stories are as much about now as they are about then. As Christians, as members of the body of Christ, it is now we who bear him in this world. Will we nurture the truth of his love and give it space to grow....or will we deny it, betray it, and condemn it to death? We know we are capable of both.

Today we kneel at the foot of the cross to acknowledge how we, like Pilate, have washed our hands of responsibility for love…how we, too, so often give in to a world that asks us to put ourselves before others, even before God. But at the foot of this cross we also acknowledge how we, like Mary, can embrace and enfold and nurture love…how we, as Christ’s body, are called to love and pray for all people…how we, too, have been given a cross to bear, for that is where true love leads in a world that doesn’t always listen.

Truth is, despite the somber mood this day with it is finished still echoing off the bare walls, we know that come Sunday, about 2000 years ago, Jesus rose again. A cold, stone tomb, reserved for dead people, both kings and criminals…this tomb would not bear Jesus any longer, and he rose. It is begun anew.

What is truth?

Truth is, God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Amen.

5 Lent A

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 6:16-23; John 11:1-44

Do you remember those nights under a tent of blankets draped over dining room chairs, or around a fading campfire in the middle of the woods, or inside a dark cabin at summer camp, way past lights out, whispers and giggles giving way to an even louder round of shhhhh when you thought you heard the counselor coming to check? Do you remember being buried up to your nose in your sleeping bag, the first line of defense against things that go bump in the night, watching and listening in fear and delight as someone held a flashlight under their chin and said in a low and mysterious voice, “It was a dark and stormy night….”

We might have done well to hand out sleeping bags and flashlights at the door this morning, along with your service bulletins. We’re two weeks away from Easter, but it sure sounds more like Halloween. I can imagine Ezekiel sitting there with his flashlight and saying in a low and mysterious voice, Suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone….Or John around a low fire with a new batch of disciples, So they took away the stone, and….the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. It’s pretty scary stuff!

But then perhaps it is appropriate to read these stories so close to Easter, for before that morning dawns bright and fair we must walk through the darkness of Holy Week, walk with Jesus the road to Golgotha, the place of the skull, where he will be hung on a cross until he dies, then wrapped in cloth and placed in his own tomb. It’s pretty scary stuff.

Isn’t it interesting that so many scary stories are about dead things, or at least things that appear to be dead, that come back to life. We aren’t at all surprised when trees that have been bare all winter suddenly sprout green or when flowers poke their way up through the dirt and reach for the sky. Of course, they haven’t been dead – they’ve been sleeping, resting, for a new season of life, of growth, of fruitfulness.

But a pile of dry bones clearly isn’t just sleeping, and Jesus makes it plain to his disciples that Lazarus is not sleeping but dead. Life has gone out of these people and will not return as spring returns after a long winter. Death may sometimes come too soon or too violently or too suddenly, but death in and of itself is natural – it is, at some point, expected. It is unnatural, unexpected, scary for something or someone that has died to live again.

But what if you’re the one being brought back to life? What if you’re the pile of bones at Ezekiel’s feet, or what if you’re Lazarus lying in the damp darkness? What if, in the midst of your death, God’s breath wafts over you and God’s words sound around you, and you are brought back to life? Is it scary then?

Author and poet Richard McCann writes powerfully of his experience of being brought back to life by way of a liver transplant. He was near death when a donor finally became available, and recalls being unprepared for the new life that would follow his surgery. His body slowly but surely recovered, although he takes medication and monitors his vital signs every day to keep his body from rejecting the liver that saved it. His body recovered, but his heart suffered – he was afraid. Afraid of people not understanding what had happened. Afraid of not being all of who he used to be. Afraid of the pain the liver donor’s family must have suffered when they lost their loved one. Afraid of his body rejecting the liver. He was afraid of living, and afraid of dying all over again.

When his body did begin to deteriorate, almost a year after the transplant, his doctor suggested they explore re-transplantation. McCann writes, “No, I thought, I can’t hear that word, not ever again….Where was the miracle now? I was supposed to have been restored. I was supposed to have been made whole. I wanted to unloose the graveclothes; I wanted to unbind the napkin from my face; I wanted to be through with death forever.”

Through with death forever. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe that, Jesus asked Martha. Do you believe that, Jesus asks us.

Beginning around the time Ezekiel wrote down his story about dry bones, and still by the time John wrote down his story about Lazarus, many Jews believed in a general resurrection of all the faithful dead, that at a point some time in the unknown future those who had believed in God and kept God’s law would finally enter eternal life. In the days following that first Easter morning, Jesus, who was supposed to be dead, suddenly stood before the disciples full of life, and they were filled with delight and fear. And slowly, they began to believe what he had been telling them all along – he is the resurrection that they had been waiting for and he is eternal life.

Through Jesus, God once and for all removed the power of death by refusing to let death have the final word. God’s word would be final, the word that spoke life into the world at the very beginning, the word made living flesh in Jesus Christ, the word echoed in Jesus’ words to those watching in delight and fear as Lazarus stumbled out of his tomb: Unbind him and let him go. Death can no longer bind our lives and seal them shut forever – God’s Word let us go, handed us over, from the power of death into the power of life. We are through with death, in a sense, because death is something we move through….and beyond….

But Lazarus wasn’t, in another sense, really through with death that day. Richard McCann wasn’t really through with death when they wheeled him into recovery. Were they resurrected? Or were they resuscitated? Were they granted just enough breath, just enough life, to last them until the next time they died?

We all have to be resuscitated from time to time. Not just our bodies, but also our hearts and souls and minds. Sometimes the “big D” Death stares us in the face, but so very often – almost every day – we face “little d” deaths: losses, failures, disappointments, disillusionments, letdowns. “Little d” deaths can seem to have nearly as much power as the big one. They can make us feel like a pile of bones, dry, used up, spent. They can make us want to crawl down a dark hole and hide forever from life.

Sometimes we do not realize how near to “little d” death we are. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in ourselves – what we have, what we need, what we deserve….We don’t realize that we are wrapped up, bound head to toe and then we wonder why we always seem to stumble as we’re seeking our way, and we don’t see Jesus standing right in front of us, pointing us toward life his way.

Standing right in front of us, as he always is, to breathe new life into our tired bones, to say come out of your hiding place, be unbound, and live. Live. Live right now the kind of life only God gives, the kind of life I have given to you, the kind of life I have shown to you.

And so we are resuscitated, as though in our barely-living, “little d” death we had just been sleeping, resting for a new season of life, of growth, of fruitfulness. What brought you back the last time you were overcome by the changes and chances of life? What unbound you the last time you realized you were immobilized? Was it a word spoken by a friend or perhaps a stranger? A hand extended when you thought no one could reach? A prayer raised up in our worship here, or whispered by your bed side, or written in a letter from someone miles away?

Just as God gave Ezekiel the words that would restore life and breath in a valley full of dry bones, so are we all called to speak God’s words of life in a world full of dark and stormy nights, full of scary stories, full of deaths, big and little. We all have to be resuscitated from time to time. But when we begin to believe, even just for a heartbeat, that we could live as God’s Word lived, that we could love as he loved, that we could forgive as he forgave, that we could embrace as he embraced….When our lives are not just restored, but transformed, then we are being resuscitated with resurrection air.

It is the air we will breathe deeply one week from now in our walk with Jesus to Golgatha. For in our remarkable Holy Week liturgies, the closer we get to the cross, the more we lay down our own fearful lives and take up the life of Christ. On Palm Sunday we will act as the crowd, condemning Jesus to death. On Maundy Thursday, the night before Jesus dies, we will become servants and wash each other’s feet, as he washed the feet of his disciples, and we will break bread together in remembrance of him, as they did for the first time on that night. On Good Friday, the day Jesus hangs on the cross until every breath has left his body, we will not curse the cross but somberly embrace it, as he did, as the means by which the extent of God’s love for the world would be shown. Finally, at the Easter Vigil, we will sit in darkness for a time and recall God’s saving deeds in history, right up to the time we were saved, buried with Christ in the waters of baptism and then with him raised up to new life. And then we will speak, promising once again to proclaim the Good News, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to respect the dignity of every human being….With those words, our transformation will be complete, and the lights will come up and we will hear the words we’ve waited all of Lent to hear. The air will be thick with resurrection.

We are not yet through with death, the big one or the little ones. But through Christ, even in death, we are not yet through with life. I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this, Jesus asked Martha. Do you believe this, Jesus asks us. Amen.

2 Lent A

Genesis 12:1-8; Psalm 13:12-22; Romans 4:1-17; John 3:1-17

“In that direction,” the Cheshire Cat said, “lives a Hatter: and in that direction….lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Perhaps Nicodemus’ Pharisee friends thought he was a little mad, a little crazy for coming to see Jesus. Jesus, the son of a carpenter, without a penny to his name, friend of tax collectors and prostitutes and smelly, sun-baked fishermen. Jesus, of whom John the Baptist had said, “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” How absurd. Jesus, who had somehow turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana. How strange. Jesus, who had made the extraordinary claim, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” How odd. The March Hare and the Mad Hatter might have seemed quite sane by comparison.

But Nicodemus, sharing something of Alice’s spirit, felt curiously drawn to this strange and remarkable man. Like Alice running after her White Rabbit, he set out to find Jesus, only I don’t think Nicodemus ever saw the rabbit hole coming until he had already stumbled in.

Once he was inside, things just got madder, crazier, even more strange. Jesus’ words made so little sense that he seemed not even to have heard Nicodemus. Nicodemus tried to follow along, but got lost somewhere around you must be born from above and he finally had to throw up his hands and cry out, How can these things be?

How can these things be? Perhaps Abraham’s relatives and friends thought he was a little mad, a little crazy for packing things up and heading out of town because someone named God told him to. Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. How absurd. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great. How strange. In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. How odd. But Abraham and Sarah set out, leaving behind their family, their land, their livelihood – everything on which their lives literally depended. God promised them a new family, a new land, and a new livelihood, and so off they went. Years later, perhaps thinking she was crazy to have ever believed, Sarah laughed when she heard three strangers announce she would soon have a child. After I have grown old, and my husband is old? she wondered. How can these things be?

How can we make sense of a world in which none of the usual rules or categories apply? This was Alice’s problem, and it was Nicodemus and Sarah’s problem. How can we be born again? How can that which has so long been barren produce life? It is also our problem. How can we make sense of a world in which God might break in at any moment and tell us to leave behind everything we know and venture into the unknown?

It is madness. Our lives are so carefully planned, down to the last minute. Whether we want to be busy or not, it seems the world demands business of us, and so we spend our days rushing from one meeting to another, one event to another, one deadline to another, one soccer game to another….we know exactly where we need to be and when and for how long, and which way we need to go to get to the next place…..

Well, that’s how I tend to work, anyway. I like to be organized in my business, or at least to think I’m being organized, to such an extent that sometimes, I’ll admit, if I do things that aren’t on my to-do list, I’ll add them just so I can cross them off. I know I’m not the only one!

When I arrived here last summer, I sat down at my computer and typed into Outlook Express all the recurring meetings and church services I would need to be at. Morning prayer, bible study, vestry meeting, healing service….Each day I would add in the various meetings and appointments and other obligations, complete with the color-coding for “in the office” or “away from the office” and occasionally the little alarm that can warn you a few minutes early that you’re about to miss something you’re supposed to not miss….There was something deeply satisfying, comforting, about knowing I could scroll to any day of the week and see right there, on my computer screen, what the day was going to hold.

Yeah, right. I quickly learned that there’s no color-coding for the phone call from your son’s daycare that he’s just gotten sick and needs to go home. There’s no alarm to warn you that someone’s been admitted to the emergency room and you need to go. There’s no timetable for folks who walk in off the street cold or hungry or hurting and hoping that the church can help. I don’t use Outlook Express anymore.

Can you imagine what Nicodemus’ Outlook Express calendar might have looked like? Daily prayer, worship at the temple, meetings with other religious authorities….and then Jesus pencils in, late one evening, Be born from above….Yeah, right. And when Jesus retraced it in ink, Be born from above, born of water and spirit….Nicodemus couldn’t figure out how to fit that into his categories, the color-coded options and alarms, and the momentum of his life was ground to a halt. Jesus, how can these things be?

Despite our best efforts at managing our never-enough time, we all get interrupted in our daily rushing about. But today’s readings aren’t about just getting interrupted – they are about completely changing the course of our lives just because someone named God told us to. It is madness.

Or is it faith? Or a little of both?

I’m not surprised that Paul was drawn to the example of Abraham, who answered without hesitation the call of God to become something entirely different in one moment than he was the moment before. Perhaps Paul’s friends thought he was a little mad, a little crazy when he announced that Jesus had spoken to him through a blinding light and told him to stop murdering Christians and start making them instead. Someone named God told Abraham and Paul to start over and so they did – it looked, and probably felt, like madness. It was reckoned as faith.

Most of us, I suspect, are more like Sarah or Nicodemus. Even like Mary, who, when she was told she will bear the Son of the Most High, said, how can this be? We are so locked into the rules and categories by which we define and organize our world, our lives, and even our faith, that we forget God is not so bound. How can these things be? They can be because it is God who is doing them in us and around us and through us.

In the season of Lent, I believe, we are called not just to interrupt but to change the course of our lives. We tend to turn Lent into sort of a time outside time, when we are especially intentional about remembering our dependence on God, with whom things are possible that for us are impossible. We are especially penitent for the things we do that separate us from God. Many of us give something up or take something on as a Lenten discipline, to help us be especially aware of the presence of God in our daily rushing around lives.

Sure, it’s important during Lent to interrupt our routine, our rushing about, to make ourselves take a long hard look at how far we’ve drifted off course. But if we look at where we’re headed – at the events of Holy Week and beyond….a master washing the feet of his disciples, a cross for God to die on, an empty tomb….It’s madness. How can these things be?

They can be because it is God who does them, God who so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. During Lent we are called to change our routine, our rushing about, not just for a time but for all time. We, like Nicodemus before us, are invited to be born into a new life.

Nicodemus was so confident in his rules and categories of what was possible that, in the presence of the light of the world, he stood in darkness, unable to see. Unable to see Incarnation, God with us – how absurd, anyway. Unable to see perfect sacrificial love – how strange. Unable to see life after death – how odd. When you think about it, what about Jesus makes sense?

It is madness, surely, to give up everything the world has taught us to be, to do, and to believe, and to follow Jesus instead. But then, we’re all a little mad, right, a little crazy? A little mad and a lot faithful? We must be, or we wouldn’t have come here.

In this season of Lent, may we, like Nicodemus, make what is at first a strange and disconcerting interruption in our way of life become a life change. For the next time we see Nicodemus in John’s gospel, he speaks briefly on Jesus’ behalf before the religious authorities. And the last time we see him, he is gently placing in a tomb the dead body of one who once spoke to him of new life. How can these things be? They can be because it is God who does them in us and around us and through us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Last Epiphany A

Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; Philippians 3:7-14; Matthew 17:1-9

One of the first things I learned when I went to work at a summer camp up in the Blue Ridge Mountains was that I'm not very good at mountain climbing.

During staff training, the camp directors took us on an overnight campout just like the ones we would soon be leading for packs of kids. We hiked all over the camp's property, uphill and down, along wide grassy paths and narrow rocky ones, learning the way to the various campsites we would be using throughout the summer.

I had never been camping like that before, and while I thought the woods and mountains were beautiful, my anxiety increased steadily as the directors pointed out poisonous plants, taught us how to light a fire in the rain, and went over the various types of knots we'd need to know to set up our sleeping tarps. I had never even been hiking like that before - so much walking, carrying a loaded pack, negotiating footholds in roots and rocks and tall grass....

We were going to spend the night at a campsite reserved for the oldest campers - Eagle Rock, at the top of a mountain, with a spectacular view of the valley below. The climb wasn't too bad at first - a winding old dirt road that nature had just begun to reclaim, threading its way uphill at a gentle, easy angle.

Suddenly, without warning, and at a point it would take me all summer to find again on my own, we turned off the gentle road and started climbing straight up. Well, it seemed like straight up until we went around a bend in the path and saw it grow steeper still.

About halfway up, I didn't think I could go any further. My face bright red from exertion and embarrassment, I asked the group if we could stop and rest. Thank goodness they were kind and encouraging as I sat down to regain my breath and drink some water. I dreaded going any further, but we were at that point where it would be just as difficult to go back down as it would be to keep climbing, so....As we resumed our crawl up the mountain, a few folks stayed close by me, cheering me on from behind and pointing out the easiest path in front. In my anxiety I had felt very much alone, even though the very same people had been behind me and before the end, the only reason I made it up to Eagle Rock was because they helped me climb.

Well, I don't know about anyone else, but I feel like I've been doing a little bit of mountain climbing lately. Preparing for an ordination, I now know, takes a lot of work, and preparing a household for visiting family and friends is even more work. By the end of the week, I felt like I was sitting breathless once again on the side of a mountain, unable to go up or down.

Thank goodness I was once again surrounded by kind and encouraging people who were willing to let me rest just a moment and then to help me climb to the top. I am grateful to everyone here who has walked behind me and before me and beside me on my journey to this new vocation.

A mountaintop experience. The air up there is crisp - you can breathe deeply. The noise up there - well, there isn't any, so you can listen quietly. The view up there - you can see, I mean really see. It is illuminating.

It's no wonder, then, that from earliest days, people have climbed mountains to get a new perspective, to literally broaden their horizons, to prevent getting so caught up in the details of life that they miss the big picture their life is a part of. It's no wonder that from earliest days, people of faith have climbed mountains to meet God. Our scriptures are full of such stories, two of which we have heard read this morning. Come up to me on the mountain, God says to Moses. It was not the first time Moses climbed a mountain for God, and it would not be the last.

Jesus was another avid mountain-climber, both figuratively in the sense that his journey was often difficult, and actually in the sense that he just seemed to like to walk uphill. He preached from hilltops, and he often retreated to hilltops to pray, to meet God.

The story of the Transfiguration is the story of a mountain top experience par excellence. Light cuts through the crips air and a voice breaks the silence and we see heaven and earth meet in the person of Jesus Christ, God's Son, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased.

In a lifetime of sermons no preacher could exhaust the significance of the Transfiguration, nor hope to unravel all its mysteries. It is, at least in part, the story of people on a journey, and so this morning, having lingered on my own mountaintop since yesterday, I would like to submit to you two ways the Transfiguration illuminates our journey as people of faith.

First, we all need to climb mountains from time to time. We all need to reach the height from which we can see where we've come from and where we're going to and what the path in between looks like. Perhaps the Transfiguration was intended for the benefit of the disciples, but perhaps the disciples were just in the right place at the right time. Perhaps the Transfiguration was intended for the benefit of Jesus, whose constant uphill ministry must have sometimes drained his strength and his resolve. Crowds followed him everywhere, people in pain and despair tugging at his hands and his heart, religious leaders eyeing him with suspicion and fear, his own disciples uncertain about who he was and what he was there to do....

Perhaps Jesus just climbed the mountain for a little fresh air, for a little silence, to enjoy the view....But when God met him there, the big picture was set before him once again, as it had been at his baptism with which we began this season of Epiphany: This is my Son, my Beloved; with him I am well pleased.

Mark Twain wrote, "You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus." The big picture, that dazzling view from the mountaintop, helps us refocus our imagination. Rather than seeing only two feet and two minutes ahead, as it so often feels down here in the valley, rushing from detail to detail in our lives...on the mountain, we are able to see for miles around. We see that our life takes place in a much larger and more significant context than whether we get from point A to point B, or succeed at a particular task, or accomplish a particular goal. We see that he dead end streets and the roads that seem to lead us in circles are not the only ways open to us. We see that the endpoint of our journey is just as real as the point where we feel stuck, that beyond every obstacle is open road, that not every bridge is out.

If Jesus needed to climb a mountain to get a better view, to remember the big picture, to refocus his imagination in order to better fix his eyes on his work, then who are we to think we can go day after day after day in our uphill battle lives without taking time out to meet God?

A second way the story of the Transfiguration speaks to us this morning is in the way Jesus goes up and down the mountain itself. Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John. Mountain climbing goes much easier when you have someone behind you and in front of you - I know that now. One of the greatest privileges of standing in this pulpit is being able to look out and see the faces of so many people of faith, kind and encouraging people who are helping one another climb mountains. Sometimes we're the ones cheering from behind. Sometimes we're the ones in front searching out the easiest path. Sometimes we're the ones struggling for breath. But as members of the Body of Chrit, joined to him and to one another in baptism, we do not ever journey alone.

Whatever God's purpose in the Transfiguration - to help Jesus refocus his imagination or to help the disciples refocus theirs (perhaps a little bit of both) - whatever God's purpose, when the prophets disappeared and the lights faded and the voice blew away on the breeze, Jesus and the disciples journeyed back down the mountain together, just as they had come, and re-entered the world of details and dead-ends. Mountaintop experiences don't last, but Jesus, God's Son, the Beloved, does. We do not ever journey alone.

It has been a week of uphill climbing. But then, many weeks feel like that, right? Out of breath and exhausted, we make it to Sunday morning and quietly slip into our seats on this mountaintop. We gather here as people of faith to allow scripture, prayer, song, and a sacred meal to illuminate our lives, fill us with light, so that we may see and remember that we, too, are children of God and beloved. Amen.

2 Epiphany A

Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-10; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-41

I have some important advice for all you young folks still living at really do have to clean up your room when your parents tell you to, because they can get back at you! I'm not talking about getting grounded or having your cell phone taken away or anything like that....I'm talking about fifteen, twenty years from now, when you've got a house of your own, full of all your grown-up stuff, which you may or may not keep clean....

It starts so innocently, as though it was a favor to you. When you open your birthday card, you are surprised and happy to see four or five pictures of friends from summer camp, pictures you know were stuck up on a bulletin board in your room back home....Then when your parents come for Thanksgiving they bring along a couple of high school yearbooks, just for fun....Then comes a trophy from a third grade spelling bee, the photo album you made when you got your first polaroid camera....

Then your mom comes to visit you in your new home in Mississippi, and unloads no less than ten boxes from your bedroom back home, and when she comes back for Christmas she brings five more. I've been unpacking boxes forever, it seems, and now the rooms in my house - all of them - are a mess with the things I never would clean up fifteen, twenty years ago....

To be honest, what makes unpacking tough is that I get so wrapped up in the memories bundled in butcher paper, and I dwell over each thing I pull out of the boxes. I read each word, study each picture, hold each figurine and stuffed animal to remember what I loved so much about them when I was younger.

A discovery in one of the Christmas boxes was particularly special. It was a shoebox, filled with letters and cards, packed so tightly that you can't pull one out without upsetting the others. One of them is a birthday card from Kitty and Jerry, my first EYC leaders. They were goofy and kind and faithful, and they made sure this quiet little sixth grader didn't ever feel left out. There are dozens of letters from friends I met at camp and at youth retreats. Hope, who was the first person I remember sitting down to tell me why she believed in Jesus Christ....Pollye, who was inseparable from me for so many years, who was always there when I needed a friend....Kim, who wrote volumes of poetry that I now see traced a profound journey of faith....

I hadn't thought about these people in so long, but as my own journey of faith is approaching a significant checkpoint in the form of my ordination, it has been an unexpected gift to have the opportunity to visit again with mentors and friends whose witness, whose words and example, set my feet on the road in the first place.

Our readings today all speak toward what it means to be a witness, to be one whose word and example are a testimony to the love and saving power of God in the world, in our lives. The prophet Isaiah writes of a servant called by God to be a witness to the exiled people of Israel, to restore both their faith and their land. The Lord called me from before I was born....and he said to me, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified." Our own Paul writes to the people of Corinth, calling them people who were sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints. In today's gospel reading, John the Baptizer can't seem to stop bearing witness: Here is the Lamb of God...This is he...I myself have seen and have testified that he is the Son of God. And Andrew, more quietly, perhaps, than John but no less signficantly, bears witness to his brother, Simon, who will be renamed Peter. We have found the Messiah.

Of course there are many, many other witnesses in scripture, women and men whose very lives, if not also the words from their mouths, spoke of the love and saving power of God. In the Old Testament we hear from Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, a lively succession of judges and kings and prophets, and a smattering of women and men who were on the fringes of the world but whose faith placed them at the very center of the story of creation. In the New Testament we hear from Mary the mother of Jesus, Anna and Simeon in the temple, John the Baptizer, at least twelve disciples, another smattering of folks on the fringe, Paul the convert, the women and men of the earliest Christian communities....They are all witnesses, people whose word and example set others' feet on the road to faith.

I submit to you this morning that we, too, are called to be witnesses - called from before we were born, called to be saints, called to come and see and enter into relationship with and testify about Jesus Christ. Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? At our baptisms, we or someone speaking on our behalf, responded I will....I will proclaim by word and example....I will, with God's help. We are called to be witnesses, called to say something with our very lives, if not also the words from our mouths, about Jesus.

And the world is watching and listening to our witness, just as it watched and listened to the witness of our ancestors in faith. Sometimes it watches and listens in order to catch us in a mistake and show us for frauds. Sometimes it watches and listens in order to meet God. Either way, our lives speak and our words matter and our witness is made.

From time to time, the space between heaven and earth grows thin and people encounter God in profound and mysterious ways. But most of the time people encounter God in perhaps profound, but really quite ordinary ways - in the witness of people like Isaiah and Paul and John and Andrew, like Kitty and Jerry and Hope and Pollye and Kim. In the witness of peoplel like you and like me. God is encountered most often in the space between two people.

God is encountered most often in the space between two people....which means that God is encountered most often in the space between two gloriously unique and yet frustratingly imperfect creatures, called from before we were born to be saints yet born with the seemingly irresistable urge to be sinners. Bearing witness does not depend on our having it all together or having it exactly as good as someone else who is a witness has it. But the world teaches us to measure ourselves against one another, to measure success, to measure results. And so we have learned a tremendous fear of inadequacy and failure. If only I had said this. If only I hadn't done that....

It's nothing new. Isaiah's servant, called to bear witness to a people who had lost their faith, was apparently disappointed with his results. I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity. God's response to the weary servant is stunning. It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

Incredibly, God meets the servant's doubt with faith, with a renewed call to witness even more widely than before. So God meets our doubt with faith, faith in us to be what God calls us to be despite what feels like our inadequacy for the task. God meets our doubt with faith.

It's nothing new. God listened to every doubt Moses had about his ability to be a witness, and then called him anyway. God watched the people of Israel bear witness to other gods, and then called them anyway. Jesus was betrayed and abandoned by his closest followers, and then he sent them anyway to bear witness to his resurrection. God has faith in us. God believes in us. It seems there is little we can do to convice God otherwise. Now there's something to bear witness to.

Our witness is, very simply, our response to our encounter with the One who loves us despite ourselves, who believes in us even when we cannot. For most of us, that encounter was made possible by someone like Kitty or Jerry, like Hope or Pollye or Kim....someone who bore witness to their encounter with the One who loves us despite ourselves, who believes in us even when we cannot. And someone bore witness to them, and someone bore witness to them....and back it goes to the afternoon John the Baptizer pointed at Jesus and exclaimed, Look, here is the Lamb of God!

This morning we will baptize N., and her parents and godparents will promise that, with God's help, they will by their prayers and witness help her to grow into the full stature of Christ. We will all promise to support her in her life in Christ, her life that will one day itself be a witness in ways none of us yet know....

Our lives speak, our words matter, and our witness is made. So let us proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ in every encounter, in our own unique and imperfect ways. God responds to our doubt with faith; let us respond to God's faith with our witness. Amen.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

2 Christmas A

Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84:1-8; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

Okay, if y'all would all take out your bibles and open them up to the gospel of Matthew, chapter two, beginning at the thirteenth verse....

A priest friend of mine in Vicksburg told me she begins all her sermons that way. The congregation wasn't too sure about it at first, and perhaps most still aren't. But recently, she told me, after a year and a half of encouraging people to open up their bibles, she was met at the church doors by a parishioner with a wide grin on his face and a tattered leather bible in his hands....

Like many Episcopal churches on Sunday mornings, we use these little bulletin inserts as our bibles. They have all three readings, the psalm, and the collect of the day (a prayer that helps lead us into worship) - it's actually a helpful resource for folks who have trouble hearing the readers or who like to reflect on the readings throughout the week. But sometimes I think these inserts do us more harm than good. We get locked into the words printed here, with little or no reference to the scriptural contexts from which they were lifted - to what came just before or just after the passage, or, in today's case, to what was mysteriously left out of the middle.

When verses are omitted from a reading, it's often because they're repetitive or because they digress from the main focus of the passage. Sometimes, I suspect, they're omitted because they're difficult.

Listen to the piece our printed gospel reading leaves out, just after Joseph has obediently followed the angel's warning that the infant Jesus is already in danger, and that Joseph must take Mary and Jesus and flee from Bethlehem. Remember that the wise men, secretly commissioned by Herod to report on the whereabouts of the baby boy, had also been warned in a dream not to trust Herod, and so they took the long way home, bypassing the king. The missing verses read: When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 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; because they are no more.'

We would have read these verses if we had gathered here on December 28. They tell the story of the Holy Innocents, the children murdered by King Herod in his furious effort to rid himself of the one child who was rumored to be king of kings and lord of lords. We did not gather here, but many of us were probably gathered with family or friends or coworkers watching television that day, still numb from learning that many tens of thousands of holy innocents - children and adults - had died just as swiftly and violently in the thundering waves of the Indian Ocean.

Perhaps, had there been no earthquake, no tsunami, perhaps we could have let the readings remain as they were designated. They describe God's power and determination to save us, to wonderfully create and yet more wonderfully restore us, to guide us in the way of peace and safety, to bring us home, to make us glad. It is still Christmas, after all, when we are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. It is still the season of herald angels singing, of joy to the world.

But it is an advent carol, I think, that names a deeper truth about Christmas - a darker truth, perhaps, a truth born out of December 28 and now also born out of December 26. The carol reads, "Now comes the day of salvation. In joy and terror the Word is born." Joy and terror. Mary and Jospeh rejoiced in the birth of their son. So did angels and shepherds and wise men. So did we. It was a night of celebration, of glory to God in the highest. A night of joy.

But the parents of the rest of the baby boys in Bethlehem were horrified by the death of their children. So were the compilers of our lectionary, perhaps. So are we. It was a night of weeping, of wailing and loud lamentation. A night of terror.

In joy and terror the Word is born. In joy and terror we live our lives. The joys and terrors come in all shapes and sizes, don't they? Sometimes we make them happen, sometimes they happen to us. Sometimes we barely notice the ripples, sometimes they crash over our heads and threaten to consume us.

The terror unleashed by a power-hungry king and the terror unleashed by a rushing wall of water aren't of the same making - one is by intent and the other by chane - but their impact is the same. Lives are lost, hope is drowned in salt-water tears.

The deepest, darkest, and, I would submit, the most wonderful truth of Christmas is that Jesus was born in a stable in a world that is anything but stable. A world in which people are driven by fear to violence, in which even nature itself seems, at times, cruel. In joy and terror the Word is born.

In joy and terror God became God-with-us. For all the terror we experience, for all the terror we create, Jesus was God's response - Love come down from heaven. God-with-us, God-among-us, God-in-the-midst-of-and-so-intimately-knowing-our-joy-and-our-terror. Jesus was God's response to us.

The world didn't suddenly become a better place the moment Jesus was born. Sickness didn't vanish, injustice didn't disappear, tectonic plates didn't stop shifting, people didn't become nicer overnight. Some, like Herod, were so threatened by Jesus that they responded to Love-come-down with unthinkable violence.

They say that tragedy brings out our best and our worst, and we know it's true. We do our worst when we act out of fear that there isn't enough to go around. Herod was afraid that there wouldn't be enough power to share with another who claimed to be king of Jews, and so he slaughtered all who might have grown up to be that king. In southeast Asia, as in so many other times and places when homes and business are rendered vulnerable by tragedy, there has been looting, scrambling for resources that might run out before they get to everyone. We do our worst when we act out of fear that there isn't enough to go around.

We do our best when we act despite our fear that there isn't enough to go around, despite our fear that acting will deplete what little there is, despite our fear that it will cost us everything. Joseph was afraid to take Mary as his wife, but he acted despite that fear. He and Mary were surely afraid to take their newborn son on a perilous journey through the desert to a foreign land, but they acted despite that fear. We have heard countless stories of men and women afraid their strength was running out who still reached for the hands of others in the swirling waters. Of residents and tourists in tsunami devastated areas who shared what small supplies of food and water they could find in the rubble. Of people all over the world who, with holiday bills piled up on the tables, have written generous checks to aid organizations.

Isn't this what Incarnation is all about? About God giving it all despite the risk of losing everything? Jesus was born into a world where bad things happen - sometimes by intent, sometimes by chance, but where bad things happen. He was born in a stable. He was born to parents who couldn't scrape together enough money to make a proper temple sacrifice. He was born in a country ruled by a cruel and violent king. He was born into a people who would betray and crucify him, the holiest innocent of all.

And what was God's response? It seems that our very worst brought out God's very best when the first light of morning shone into an empty tomb. At the late service on Christmas Eve we read from the beginning of John's gospel the deepest, darkest, most wonderful truth of Jesus Christ: What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

In a stable, surrounded by instability, light came into the world and has not been extinguished. Indeed, the darker things become, the more brightly the light seems to shine, although the light itself does not change. See for yourselves at home. Light a candle in a bright room, and then one by one turn out all the other lights. Close the curtains. Lay a blanket across the space at the bottom of the door. The darker you make the room, the more pronounced will be the candle's flame. Darkness itself cannot extinguish light - only we can do that. Will we? Will that be our response?

Or will we do our best to be the light of the world that Jesus has called us to be? Will we do our best to carry the light of Christ into the darkest places of the world, into the darkest places of our own lives, so that all may see the love of God so deep and wonderful that it risked everything for us?

Joy and terror. There are still Herods out there. There is mourning. There is sorrow. There are still hurricanes and tsunamis. It is dark. But it is precisely into this dark place that Jesus was born so that God might know our darkness and we might know God's light. May that light bring out the best in us. May we not be afraid to give it freely. Try this with your candle at home - from your single candle, light another and see that the light does not diminish from being given away. It increases. So it is with the light that has come into the world. Amen.