Wednesday, December 30, 2009
O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
On this second Sunday of Christmas, I would like to focus on how the resurrection is very much a part of the Christmas celebration. Consider the innocence of children that Christmas normally conjures up and then try to visualize what we might call those who have lost their innocence. Innocence is a state of not knowing about or not having done that which betrays ourselves or others; hurts ourselves or others; gradually, but radically turning us old, not so much in years, but in our ability to hope and trust ourselves or others.
In one of the most powerful icons of the resurrection, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, calls attention to the faces of Adam and Eve as Jesus is pulling them up from the bondage of their past. They are not the young and fresh faced innocents that artists have rendered them in the Garden, but the haggard faces of those who have witnessed thousands of generations of their progeny who were “wonderfully made,” slip into the morass of innocence lost.
Our collect for this Sunday is about the restoration of the dignity of human nature. One definition of dignity is “Inherent nobility and worth.” When we act as if of our brothers and sisters are not worth as much as other or lack the nobility of being a child of God, we actually participate in the very process that makes the world a place where all human worth and nobility is lost. It is this lost inherent nobility and worth that God seeks to return to us.
Christmas is about more than our creation as children or a celebration of this brief time of innocence in the Garden of Eden. It is about how we are being “more wonderfully restored.” In the third chapter of John’s Gospel, the old rabbi, Nicodemus, comes to Jesus and asks about this restoration and Jesus tells him that he must be born “from above.” Nicodemus strains to understand these words of Jesus and I think his struggle is our struggle: How can we who have grown old and hopeless or at least a bit cynical, be filled with God’s life and hope for a new creation?
Nicodemus is sometimes made to be seen as a bit dense. He asked Jesus how someone as old as himself can be born again by reentering his mother’s womb. For many people both then and now, childhood was the only time in life where there may have been some moments of feeling valued, protected and secure while for others even childhood was filled with apocalyptic terror.
Jesus birth is not a promise that we will all return to the pristine state of innocence portrayed in the Garden of Eden, but a sign that a restoration of human dignity is beginning. Since we were first “wonderfully made,” God intends to “more wonderfully restore” us. The collect describes how this restoration is taking place: “Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ.” The dignity of our human nature is restored by sharing the divine life of Jesus.
Our restoration is not about seeing others as either more worthy or less worthy than ourselves, but by seeing the mark of God’s love in all of creation. There are those who wonder why the church has insisted on the singular divine status of Jesus as God’s only Son. I think this is a good question. Why do we elevate one person to such a lofty and exclusive position of divinity?
All good questions reveal something about ourselves and the world that forms us in its image. If we assume that such a view of Jesus means that the rest of us are somehow less than Jesus, do we not reveal the very thing from which we need restoration? Is it not our fear of being treated less than that seeks to make everyone the same? Is it not that same fear that demands that we are more worthy than someone else when it comes to access to health care, food, clean water, medical attention, or a good education?
Our fears create a false sense of worthiness in exchange for the true dignity of humanity in which difference is not a reason to treat others with less charity or respect. Jesus’ status as “the only Son of God” can only be understood in terms of how he treated others. The Gospel tells us that Jesus treated everyone with respect. Jesus saw in each person that inherent dignity of difference that was part of the original creation and he loved, welcomed, healed, fed, taught, and transformed those who came to him seeking to be free from the fear that leads to a sense of worthiness that is believed to be earned and needs to be defended rather than as God’s gift that is to be shared.
Mary, Joseph, the angels, shepherds, and even the stars that celebrated and witnessed the birth of Jesus saw more than just the birth of a beautiful and blessed child of Israel. They saw the beginning of the restoration of human dignity in the face of the Christ child. The One by whom and through whom all things are created had joined us in our flesh and blood existence in creation. The dignity of the difference between God and humanity is seen in God’s service and giving of himself that we might be able to share ourselves with one another.
Adam and Eve, our tattered and torn humanity, are being resurrected to the new life of grace. Nicodemus was right we are not returning to a state of innocence, but to a state of grace. Grace is a great way of describing the life of restored dignity. We are no longer innocent of things done and left undone to ourselves and others, but we are forgiven and invited to live with even greater dignity together. We are called to share in Jesus’ divinity in the way he shared with us—in our flesh and blood lives. Amen.
Sunday, December 20, 2009
How in the world can an individual or a community prepare the way for God to come to us? Perhaps in the same way we prepare for the birth of any child that we welcome to the world as bearing our image and the image of God. Just as there is no way to prepare ahead of time to bear the costs of loving a child who is born into our world, so there may be only one way to prepare for the coming of God as a child.
What parent has not prepared for the arrival of their soon-to-be born child with great expectation and sometimes foreboding? Are we really prepared to parent this child who will emerge an unknown to us? Do we have the financial, emotional, spiritual, and physical capacity to bear this child from the safety of the womb into a world we cannot control?
Most of us put such questions aside and focus on the joys of parenting before we have really had to deal with how costly it is to truly love. Marriage is the first opportunity to begin this adventure in welcoming God into the world because our partners bring with them a whole set of challenges to our sense of the way things ought to be. Marriage is like signing an infinite set of blank checks and handing them over to our partners and bringing a child into the world requires an even more costly commitment.
Loving without counting the cost means that every child born into our world bears the image of God and makes that child our little brother or little sister. Shall we deny that child a loving community because this child or that child will be too costly for us. How does love prepare, but to surrender and bow down before God with us and in each of us. The cost of love is beyond price, but not beyond human capacity.
God's coming into the world that we prepare for each Advent is almost comical. The Great I AM, Yahweh elohim which means the Lord God, does not storm the ranks of human control and power, but enters as we all enter the world, as a vulnerable child in need of a place to call home and a family to love, protect, and care for us. God the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Creator of all that is seen and unseen is a baby?
Yes, a baby who, as Luke tells us, found no place to call home. Yes, a baby, who was laid in a straw-filled manger where animals eat. Yes, a baby whose city of birth, Bethlehem, means "city of bread." This same baby who was rejected by the world, was handed over to parents who loved him and who were willing to give their lives to save him from harm.
How did God sneak into our world? He came as a baby and God placed him in our care. Will God come again to judge us? Yes, but this time there will be no secret about how God is coming among us or if God is truly among us. Every child born of Eve and fathered by Adam bears the imago Dei, the image of God and our opportunity to welcome God without fear or shame depends upon if we are prepared to write that blank check of love that ushers in the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, a mansion for God where only a stable was provided at his first coming.
Blessed Christmas to all.
Monday, December 14, 2009
This past Sunday morning as I was rushing to get ready for the eight o'clock service, Dar Hoover pointed out a beautiful full rainbow arching across the sky right over the church. I stood there taking in this sight and then pulled my cell phone out to try to capture the moment in some sort of digital form.
What really caught my attention was the positioning of two symbols of faith that continue to be part of our consciousness. As you can see from the photograph, the white cross that marks the spot of our community and has since 1893 is seen in juxtaposition with the rainbow.
According to the story told in Genesis 6-9, as human beings grew in number, they also grew in violence towards one another.
The question the story deals with is this: If God were to destroy everything on the earth, but those whom he found to be faithful to him, would things work out differently.
What would your answer be to this question? What if God simply wiped out every person that was violent and wicked, would the human race become non-violent and benevolent in relationship to one another?
What if you, rather than God, got to decide who should be eliminated? Who would be on your list and how well do you think the world would work without such folks?
Our Jewish ancestors took this question very seriously because at the root of the question was an understanding of who God is. Simply put: "Does God make junk?"
So the storyteller shows us that after God flooded the planet from above and below, he discovered that violence against humanity would not really make us less violent.
God said: "I'll never again curse the ground because of people. I know they have this bent toward evil from an early age, but I'll never again kill off everything living as I've just done. For as long as Earth lasts, planting and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never stop." (Genesis 8:21-22)
Later in Genesis, chapter 9, God's promise to never use violence against humanity again is repeated with a sign of that promise being the rainbow. Rainbows and rain come together. The sign of the instrument of human destruction is made to be a sign of God's loving promise to never again use violence against humanity.
In Genesis 9:12-16 God continued, "This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and everything living around you and everyone living after you. I'm putting my rainbow in the clouds, a sign of the covenant between me and the Earth. From now on, when I form a cloud over the Earth and the rainbow appears in the cloud, I'll remember my covenant between me and you and everything living, that never again will floodwaters destroy all life. When the rainbow appears in the cloud, I'll see it and remember the eternal covenant between God and everything living, every last living creature on Earth." 17 And God said, "This is the sign of the covenant that I've set up between me and everything living on the Earth."
Is this story really about God's righteous anger lashing out against us in order to eliminate us as a "problem," or is it a story about human violence not being the solution to the problem of evil and violence in the world?
The storytellers of the Bible are brilliant in the way they pose what is an enduring question for us as we seek to live in a violent world.
President Obama, when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize this past week, wrestled with this same question of how evil can be eliminated in the world. The deeper question that may not have been addressed by our President was whether seeking and destroying terrorists in the world will bring about true peace in the world.
Such questions are either answered quickly and with a real sense of knowing the absolute truth of the matter or nuanced so as to not really make any sort of statement at all, allowing our actions to speak for themselves.
We are living in the age of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are living in the time of Advent—the time of preparation. God is preparing us for the coming of a way of being human that will finally answer the question of evil. The storytellers of Genesis simply concluded that God’s reason for no longer using violence to wipe us all out was because we are evil from our births.
The story of the coming of the Christ child offers a different view and it begins with this line: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…” God has never given up on us. God did not create us for destruction. God did not make a mistake when he created us. Without exception God says, “Yes” to us.
Just as the rainbow stands as a sign of God’s promise to never use violence to achieve his promises of peace, prosperity, and unity, the cross reveals God’s everlasting hope that we will become like him in creating a world without violence and the evil that spawns it or that seeks to control it.
The cross is a very different symbol than is the rainbow in one very important respect. While the rainbow represents a natural disaster as if it were God’s violent judgment against humanity, the cross is humanity’s violent judgment against God and ourselves. In the cross we see God’s great love for us and our historical response to it. As God draws closer to us and we see how we treat him in the ways that we judge and treat one another, we are preparing for God to be in our world as friend and not as a violent and hateful despot.
The cross and the rainbow appeared together last Sunday as a reminder of God’s advent and of our advent too. God came to us on Christmas day and continues to be with us and to work through the Holy Spirit to prepare us to come to God. We are called to “Come and adore…” the Christ child of Bethlehem in our Christmas celebration, but more profoundly we are called to become Christ in the world and to find Christ in our neighbors. The cross and the rainbow are appearing over the crib in Bethlehem and over us as well.
Monday, December 07, 2009
Leonard Cohen wrote and sang the song, "The Future." While the language of the song is disturbing, it has many of the same qualities of the prophets of Israel, including John the Baptist. Prophets do not predict the future without being completely in touch with the times in which they live. Prophets know themselves and completely identify with the people to whom they are sent.
Do we know what John the Baptist means when he says, "Repent?" What do we hear and see around us that would indicate a need to change our ways?
THE COLLECT FOR ADVENT III
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
We are a prophetic community. No prophet ever stands outside of the community to which he or she is sent. Like John the Baptist, we stand in solidarity with all of the prophets in the past such as Isaiah and Zephaniah whom we will hear speak to us this coming Sunday.
A prophetic community is created whenever a group of people are called together by the Holy Spirit to discover their own deep sense of dependence upon God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness over against religions that divide humanity into pure and impure, good and evil, saved and unsaved, strong and weak, rich and poor, healthy and sick.Such religions preach a form of self-sufficiency that allows for very little concern for how we are all related as brothers and sisters of a loving God.
Our collect for this Sunday reminds us that we are not the finger pointers of the world; that we are not self-sufficient, but prophetic in that we acknowledge our complicity and participation in the very structures of sin and death that corrupt and destroy the creatures and creation of God. We acknowledge that, save for the Gospel’s message of love, forgiveness, and hope, we might have continued to be willing or ignorant followers of this the mythology of self-sufficiency.
How much of God’s power and might are required to move a group of individuals to come together in the confession of our common human predicament and a common faith in a God who can save us from our situation?
The collect refers to our condition as being “hindered by our sins.” We are wise to note that the collect uses the collective “our” to describe our condition. Sin is a corporate or community condition. Were I to exist without God or anyone else, sin would not exist. Sin is about how we think and behave in relationship to other people and God. It is out this thinking and doing that we form our common life together.
So it is, when we come together in a prophetic community we are in the greatest jeopardy and need, but also the best position to receive the bountiful grace and mercy that constitute the power and might of God to help and deliver us.
In community, the power of sin to accuse us, divide us, and cast this person or another out in the name of some idol of peace and unity is dispersed by our willingness to admit our captivity to another power we call sin.
Like glue, sin connects us together in a different sort of relationship to one another than does love. This glue is elastic enough to create the illusion that we are stuck with one another unless in some significant way we can distance ourselves through a sense of being better than this person or that person.
Sin takes differences among us and turns those differences into reasons for praise or rejection. Those who are thus rejected seek have historically become the “untouchables” of society. Those who benefit from the hierarchy of sin create systems to maintain their praiseworthy differences and to ensure separation of those who would claim their positions.
When John the Baptist called those who came out to the river Jordan seeking his baptism a brood of vipers, he was speaking a message that included him. He, too, was a child of the accuser, the serpent. You have no doubt heard the expression, “It takes one to know one.” John was the son of the priestly class of Jerusalem. His birth, however, came to a couple who had to bear the stigma of having no children.
So, in John, both privilege and curse join together.
John was a great prophet and those who joined his community helped prepare the way for God’s saving action in history. It is into a community that acknowledges that our ways are not God’s ways that God finds a place.
We acknowledge that God does not create community by excluding anyone, we do. We acknowledge that God does not accuse, we do. We acknowledge that God does not store up wrath against us, we do.
We acknowledge that we are “hindered by our sins” in the very ways that we relate to one another, the creation, and God we come to the waters of baptism to begin our communal and personal journey towards God. We are anxious to travel this path and so we ask God to “speedily help and deliver us.”
John is anxious for God to usher in his kingdom too and he uses language that seems to describe drastic and violent measures to speed up the process. John might have favored a “put the fear of God in them” approach to those who came from Jerusalem to gain the benefits of the prophet’s baptism.
But when Jesus came to be baptized in the Jordan by John, there was no army of the righteous surrounding him. He too was born of God and of humble Mary and he came in that great humility spoken of in last week’s collect. Images of axes, fire, wrath were not lived out in Jesus’ life as the work of God in his life.
Instead, Jesus healed, taught, fed, and raised from the dead. His crime for which he was cut down by human wrath was to be God in the world, but God as he knew God to be—creative, loving, non-violent, deathless, life-giving, and abundant.
This God did not play favorites or see some worthy of more love, mercy, and the gifts of creation than others. This God did not sanction the institutionalization of sin that glues us together and generates violent ways to separate ourselves from one another.
As we prepare for Christmas, the birth of God’s only begotten son, let us rejoice that God’s powerful ways of freeing us from the relationships of domination, violence, and self-sufficiency are expressed in God’s bountiful grace and mercy. We are a prophetic community that knows itself to be in need of God’s power and might to deliver and help us.