It may seem ludicrous for this “progressive preacher” to find herself tempted to pray for a miracle. But the region in which I live has been under a strict stay-at-home order since Boxing Day. So, right about now I sure could use some sort of miracle to occur which would release us all from this COVID enforced lockdown. As we approach the one-year mark of worshipping online, I find myself dreaming about sharing in-person worship with 3-dimensional humans. My dreams of COVID-free life are magnified by today’s gospel story of Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother-in-law.
I love the story of Peter’s mother-in-law, because I can easily relate to it. I remember back when I was about 17 years old and I was suffering from a terrible cold. I had a raging fever, and I was as sick as a dog. I also had tickets to an Elton John concert. Even though I could barely breathe, when the time came, I got myself up out of my bed, and it was as if I had been blessed with a miracle because the power of Elton John’s name cured me and I was able to follow that Yellow Brick road all the way to the Coliseum where, with my friends, I was hoppin an boppin to the Crocodile Rock . So, I have no difficulty believing that when Simon Peter finally brought Jesus around to visit his mother-in-law, the sheer power of all the rumors which she’d been hearing about this man Jesus, would have been enough motivation for this Jewish mother-in-law to rise up out of her sickbed to see who this fellow was who had enticed her son-in-law away from his nets. That Jesus could have harnessed the healing power which lies within our grasp as he traveled from town to town and cured the sick and drove out daemons, is not difficult for me to believe. Let’s face it, first century daemons sound a lot like mental or emotional issues, so Jesus’ ability to cure people who were disturbed by daemons really isn’t much of a stretch.
But after centuries of interpretation and proclamation, we tend to hear these stories in ways which portray Jesus as some sort of super-human, miracle-worker, or dare I say it as some sort of god. Because after all, our image of God depicts God as some sort of super-human miracle-worker. For generations we’ve been looking to Jesus in the same way as we looked to God to cure all that ails us. So, we are just as likely to appeal to Jesus in prayer, as we are to appeal to God to heal us.
But, as our notions about God change, our notions about Jesus change as well. When we begin to see the DIVINE MYSTERY which we call, “God,” not as some super-hero, some super-human who lives up in the sky, the way in which we see Jesus must change as well. As our view of the MYSTERY expands, our view of Jesus becomes more human. It is not an easy transition to live through, because most of us have grown to like having Jesus the super-human-miracle-worker available to us for those really tough situations when we need to call out a really big name to help us to convince the super-human God to heal someone, or something in our lives. We’ve become so accustomed to dropping Jesus’ name to curry favour with the “Big Guy Upstairs.” So, we scarcely know what else to do when we are faced with the power of illness to drive us to our knees. Far too many Christians, myself included, we have been trained to understand prayer as a transactional enterprise. Trained in the art of transactional prayer, we pray: “I believe, so do this, help me, save me, help them, save them.” But what if prayer is not transactional but transformative? Continue reading
Readings included: Psalm 111 and Mark 1:25-28, prior to the sermon we viewed the video The Awe Factor of God which can be viewed here
Listen to the sermon here
Years ago, when I was a student at the University of British Columbia, I worked the afternoon shift at the Royal Bank of Canada’s Vancouver Clearing Room. Back then, I’m talking the early nineties here, so not the distant past except if we are talking about technology. Back then, at the end of each banking day, so after 3 o’clock banks used to have people check every single transaction that had been made by hand. Every check, deposit slip, and withdrawal, was recorded on a small piece of paper and at the end of each day all those pieces of paper would be collected and sent to the central clearing room. The room in which I worked housed several hundred machines which looked like big desks, which. were actually giant calculators. These calculating desks, sat empty during the day, but come 4:00pm they would be staffed with people eagerly waiting for their branch bags to arrive; these operators of which I was one, were called proofers. Each of those operators, knew that the clearing house had until 11 pm to balance the daily transactions of the entire province of British Columbia.
I didn’t last more than a few months as a proofer. I was plucked from my proofing machine by management and assigned the task of wandering around being useful. Technically I became a runner. It was may job to run around and collect the proofed bundles, and make sure that they appropriate balanced calculation tape was attached. Management also made it very clear to me, that a major part of my job was to be a kind of helper, who would scan the proof floor for confused proofers and quickly offer my help. You see when people are working under pressure to balance transactions and they get stuck because something doesn’t quite balance they can spend an inordinate amount of time stuck on just a handful of transactions trying to force them to balance. Management knew this, and they also knew that sometimes all it takes is a second pair of eyes to spot the mistake and voila, the problem is solved, and the proofer can move on and the giant national proofing machine can be fed, and the books can be closed by mid-night. You see in the grand scheme of things; the bank could not close the national books until the clock stuck mid-night in Vancouver. That’s a lot of pressure. Bonuses were at stake. So, handful of us who functioned as runners, were under a great deal of pressure to make sure than no single transaction slowed down the whole process. We all wanted to be out of there and on our way shortly after midnight, no one could leave until everyone could leave, and bonuses were at stake. Those of us who were runners wielded a great deal of authority. We could sign off on a forced balance. We could decide that a transaction was simply going to take too long to balance and so with the stroke of our pen, small amounts could be forced to balance. We runners with our red pen wielded a great deal of authority. But we knew that our authority was limited by the number of forced transactions we authorized in a given week. Most of us would rather eat our red pens than force balance a transaction. Reputations were at stake. In the course of a month I would rarely force more than one or two transactions. I was good at my job. And because bonuses were at stake, operators would often call upon me when they got stuck.
I loved that job. After a long day of lectures at the university, that job was such a fun departure from thinking. I was one of the happiest runners in the clearing room. During my last few months on the job, the word got out that I was quitting to go to seminary so that I could study to become a pastor. It kind of freaked people out. The proofers began to watch their language around me. One night when things were going particularly badly, and it looked like we weren’t going to make our deadline, one bad transaction kept leading to another. Problems spread from proofer to proofer like a disease. Proofers were making all sorts of dumb mistakes and we were all losing patience with one another. It was looking like we’d be there until the wee hours of the morning. So, the language got pretty vivid. After solving one particularly difficult branch’s problems, I remember a proofer shouting out, “Hey Hutchings, I don’t what the blanket blank, you think your doing quitting on us to go to seminary. You’re going to hate seminary. There won’t be enough to keep you busy. They have all the answers in that place and all the answers are the same. Jesus is the blankety blank answer to every blankety blank question.” This, somehow lead to most of the proofing floor laughing hysterically, which lead to something I never in my wildest dreams imagined happening in that of all places. Hysterical laugher dissolved into a chorus of “Jesus Loves me this I know for the bible tells me so.” What the blankety blank?
There was nothing left but for me to join in the singing. We didn’t make our deadline that night. But we had the best sing song ever, later in the after-hours nightclub down the street from the bank, and I never did make it to any of my classes the next morning.
Jesus is the answer. Jesus speaks with authority. Let’s all just sing a few choruses of “Jesus loves me” and forget about this sermon. Jesus is the answer.
“They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another. What is this? A new teaching—with authority! Jesus commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread.” What the blankety blank? If Jesus is the answer to every question, what’s the point? Let’s just balance our transactions and get out of here. “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.” As a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ and by Christ’s authority I declare onto you that Jesus is the answer. I have the collar, I’m wearing the stole. I have the title. I have the call. I am a Master of Divinity! Jesus is the answer to every question. Go home and enjoy the super bowl. I have the authority to declare that all our transactions have been balanced, even if we have to force balance a few of those transactions, 12 noon is approaching, and we want to be out of here shortly, so we can enjoy the afternoon. Continue reading
I suspect that many of us breathed a collective sigh of relief this past week as the most powerful office on the planet changed hands. I know that I am feeling lighter and breathing easier. I know full well that we are headed into the darkest winter of our lives. COVID is not over. Millions are suffering. Fears and anxieties continue to disturb us, and we have a long way to go. But at least we no longer have to worry about the orange madness which stirred up the worst of who we are, in ways we never imagined possible. Huddled in the isolation of our homes, many of us watched the transfer of power feeling a new sense of hope.
There was a moment during Joe Biden’s inaugural address which filled this preacher with such joy. After all, it isn’t every day you hear the most powerful person of the 21st century, quote a 4th century Doctor of the Church. St. Augustine of Hippo was a bishop and theologian who has and continues to a tremendous impact on Christianity both Catholics and Protestants. Martin Luther himself was an Augustinian. So, when the newly sworn in President Biden quoted Saint Augustine as having said, “a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love, defined by the common objects of their love,” not only did I breathe a huge sigh of relief, I took a long deep breath as I resolved to explore the various ways in which those of us who strive to follow Jesus are defined by our LOVE.
According to the anonymous gospel-storyteller which we call “Mark,” upon hearing that John the Baptist had been arrested by the forces of Empire, Jesus of Nazareth “appeared in Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God. Jesus said, “This is the time of fulfillment. The Reign of God is at Hand. Change your hearts and minds and believe this Good News.” What follows, (pardon the pun), is the familiar story of Jesus calling the brothers Simon and Andrew, and James and John, four hardworking fishers, to abandon their nets in order that they might become fishers of humankind. No sooner than Jesus implored these fishers to follow him, than they followed him. Just like that. What could have possessed them to drop everything and follow Jesus, this itinerant preacher?
For as long as I can remember, this story has been interpreted in ways which exhort the faithful to “follow Jesus and Jesus will make us, in the words of that old Sunday School chestnut: “fishers of men, fishers of men, if we follow him.” I’m sure many of you remember being encouraged to get out there and fish for people and bring them to Jesus. Now, within the context of mainline denominations, these fishing expeditions were designed to bring in new members to save struggling congregations. Within the context of the more conservative denominations, there was to be no doubt that there were fish just waiting to be saved and once saved they would be brought to Jesus to confess that he alone was their Lord and saviour. As for those of us who seek to follow Jesus as progressive christians, well, fishing for people makes tends to make us a little squeamish. So, we do our best to remove any barbs from our fishhooks, and rather than reel them in, we choose to cajole and persuade them, perhaps over a pint of beer, to perhaps chat with us as we save them from the tired old ways of understanding christianity. Whether it’s mainline traditional fishers, bible thumping evangelical fishers, or radical freedom-loving fishers, no matter how you bait the hooks, fishing is all about saving fish from drowning in the very waters upon which they are relying so that they can be washed into the waters by which the fishers themselves have found new life. As I consider the haste with which Simon, Andrew, James and John abandoned everything they knew and “went off in the company of Jesus,” I can’t help but wonder if there is more to this story than fishing for new members, new converts, or new conversation partners. Continue reading
In the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only LOVE can do that” Our current darkness is deep, thick, and heavy. If the media pundits are to be believed, this darkness is only going to get darker, thicker, and deeper. Whether it is the dire darkness of the climate crisis, the bleak darkness of the tribal uprisings in the United States, the catastrophic darkness of this pandemic, or our very own lockdown grieving darkness, it is going to take a whole lot of LOVE to drive out this historic, epic darkness which the whole world is experiencing. As we peer into this dark abyss, we cannot help but long for a glimpse of the LIGHT. I confess that in the midst of all that, in the midst of all this darkness, I miss the almighty-sky-god. I miss the god I used to pray to.
The god which I trusted to solve all my problems for me, to comfort me in my distress, and calm my fear. I miss the god of my own making, the idol I have long since put away. It was simpler to put my faith in the almighty-sky-god, to whom I once prayed to for deliverance. Even though I know the idol of my creation is far too small a god to deliver enough LIGHT to drive this darkness away, it is so tempting to seek the old familiar methods of praying to a personification of the ONE who IS BEYOND, the BEYOND and BEYOND that Also. I must confess that in the midst this darkness, even this progressive pastor finds it difficult to relate to the MYSTERY which is the LOVE we call, “God.” I too, long too long to return to a simpler time.
I remember a long time ago, when I was just a teenager; during those tumultuous years, I was going through a particular dark period. And at that time, I discovered the Psalms. I was new to the church and only just learning my way around the liturgy. Each week a Psalm would be chanted responsively by a leader and the congregation. In my tone-deaf way, I was learning the words of the Psalms, discovering the intimate ways in which the psalmist conversed with the ALMIGHTY. One Psalm touched me deeply. It is the Psalm which is prescribed for this the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Psalm 139. I loved the intimate way in which this Psalm spoke to “the LORD” and I too longed for a similar kind of intimacy with my God. Over and over again, each time Psalm 139 would come up in the lectionary, I delighted in the intimacy of being searched and known by the God which I worshiped. For decades the intimacy proclaimed in Psalm 139 served as a goal to which I aspired. Continue reading
This past Wednesday was the Feast of Epiphany, the day when Christians celebrate the long journey of the Wise Ones who, according to our foundational myth, arrived at the birthplace of Jesus, who is described in the Scriptures as the embodiment of DIVINE WISDOM. There was a time when Epiphany and Easter were the two most important festivals of the Christian year. But over the years, Epiphany’s celebration of WISDOM has been eclipsed by the celebration of Christmas. Oh, how we need some of that WISDOM to infuse our celebrations today. On Wednesday, I moved the Wise Guys closer to the baby Jesus in our nativity display and began what I thought would a quiet Epiphany. My peace, along with the peace of millions was disturbed by the sound of my phone exploding with dozens of alerts heralding the violence which was taking place at the Capitol in Washington. Like many of you, I’m sure, I spent most of the day and well into the night, glued to the unbelievable images being broadcast around the world, of enraged servants of a petty, little, would be king who had encouraged and excited these folks to perpetrate violence in the vain hope of claiming power. Today, we do what Christians do on the Sunday after Epiphany, we gather to remember our baptism through the stories told by our ancestors about the baptism of Jesus of Nazareth. Now what possible wisdom, can this story of a baptism which happened in the Jordan River nearly 2000 years ago offer to after the kind of week that we have all endured? Not much. Not much that is, if we choose to remember this story the way the church all too often remembers this story. For I am convinced that there is great WISDOM in the story of Jesus’ baptism and that this WISDOM has the power to heal the viscous divisions which threaten to keep us repeating tribal violence over and over again. Tragically, for centuries the church has adopted a kind of collective amnesia when it comes to baptism. We have chosen to forget the power of this story to inspire resistance to the very systems which continue to prevent us from living together in peace. We have forgotten so very many of the contours and nuances of this story which, if remembered drag us out of our preoccupation with our own selfish needs toward a lifestyle of resistance to dangerous tribal inclinations. Where once the story of Jesus’ Baptism inspired his followers to deny allegiances to the powers that be, in order to take upon themselves a new way of being in the world, generations of amnesia have left us marching in lockstep to the drumbeat of violence even as we claim allegiance to the One who wanted nothing more than to bring peace on Earth.
So, what have we 21st century would-be followers of Jesus, forgotten about this story of Jesus’ baptism in the first century? Well, for starters we have forgotten that our first century ancestors risked everything when they chose to be baptized. Jesus’ contemporaries lived under the oppression of not one but two domination systems. Under the domination of what was the mightiest Empire the world had ever seen, first century people living in Palestine whether they be Jew or Gentile were required on pain of death to swear allegiance to Rome. The act of swearing allegiance was called in Latin a “sacramentum” – that’s right our word sacrament comes from the word “sacramentum” which means “to vow” or to “swear an oath” or “to pledge allegiance.”
Things have changed quite a bit. Today, in the church a sacrament is a rite which is celebrated as a sort of thin place where the holy, the sacred, meets the ordinary. In the Lutheran church, a sacrament is defined as a rite which includes both the holy and the ordinary. Two things are necessary, the ordinary stuff of the earth, the visible means if you will and second, the is injunction from Jesus to “do this”. In our tradition, we have only two rites which meet these criteria, one is baptism and the other is communion. Baptism we have the ordinary stuff, the water and the injunction of Jesus, who is reported to have said, “Go therefore and baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And we have Communion. The bread and wine are the ordinary stuff; the visible means and Jesus’ words “do this in remembrance of me” are the injunction. Our tradition’s celebration of both these rites has radically changed over the centuries. Both rites have tended to focus upon the experience of individuals rather than the impact upon the community or communities in which it is celebrated. These days Baptism has become little more than a nice little rite of passage, with precious little power to transform the life of its participants. But in the first century this “sacramentum” of baptism was enough to bring a death sentence down upon the heads of all those who partook of the waters of baptism. The act of baptism was an act of resistance. Resistance to the Empire of Rome and resistance to the powers of the Temple who collaborated with their Roman over-lords. Every person living under the Pax Romana was under no illusion that pledging allegiance to anyone other than Caesar was an act of sedition punishable by death. For as far as the powers that be were concerned “Caesar is Lord.” Caesar was not a name but a title. We would say King, but not a king like we think of kings, but rather a king who is the ultimate authority on Earth and Rome’s Ultimate Authority, Rome’s “Caesar is LORD.”
Everyone living under Roman domination was required to “sacramentum” – to pledge allegiance, to take an oath proclaiming that “Caesar is LORD.” Caesar is the Ultimate Authority. Jewish inhabitants of the Roman Empire were given a very clear choice: to pledge allegiance or to die. Thousands chose death and the Romans crucified them; actually, crucified them. The rotting corpses of the thousands of Jews and Gentiles who refused to proclaim Caesar as LORD created the kind of stink intended to terrorize the oppressed into submission. And submit, most of them did. Even the purveyors of power who walked the hallways to the sacred Temple were dominated in ways which co-opted them into a system which held the whole Pax Romana together.
But every domination system has its resisters. Take John the Baptist for example. John was the son of the temple priest Zachariah. As a temple priest Zachariah would have collaborated with the Romans. He was a respectable member of the established order. His son John abandoned the Temple, rejected the establishment and went down by the River Jordan, the very river his ancestors had crossed over from slavery into the promise of freedom. Down by the riverside, John conducted very public sacrementums. John’s fame as a notorious resistor spread far and wide. John become the Baptist.
Jesus joined the resistance. Down into the water Jesus went in an act of resistance which in and of itself denied the authority of Caesar and the Empire of Rome and proclaimed allegiance to a new kind of Empire – the “basileia ton theon” – which we all too often translate as the “Kingdom of God” but which is more accurately translated as “authority of DIVINITY”
or better yet, the “kin-dom of LOVE”. For if Jesus taught us anything, Jesus taught us that God is LOVE and the authority which Jesus pledged his allegiance to, was the Authority of that LOVE, an authority which is all about relationships. That’s why we say the “kin-dom”. The word “kin” means related. The kin-dom of the Ultimate Authority is the Kin-dom of LOVE. A place where it is all about the quality of relationship of one to another together with relationship to the ONE who is BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that Also. That’s why for three centuries the followers of Jesus of Nazareth’s Way of being in the world, would risk everything to go down to the river and wash themselves clean of their bondage to Empire which felt like death to them, and rise up out of the waters of life as newborn citizens of the Kin-dom of LOVE.
No longer bound to the ways of empire, the ways of violence and death, but free to pursue the LOVE which is the ULTIMATE AUTHORITY the LOVE which IS GOD.
Baptism was for three centuries the ultimate act of resistance to the powers that be. And then, it was not. Somewhere around the year 313 there was a different Caesar sitting upon the throne of Rome, a Caesar who went by the name of Constantine. The powers of Rome, they were on the wane and Caesar Constantine was looking for a way to unite his Empire and somehow, I wish I had time to go into it all, but suffice it to say, somehow the fledgling movement known as the Followers of the Way, or the Followers of the Christ, they fit Constantine’s needs. Over the course of a few decades Christianity went from an outlawed religion to the new religion of the Roman Empire. They say that power corrupts and indeed power did corrupt Christianity. Under Constantine, Christians went from pledging allegiance to Jesus’ Way of Being, and living as non-violent pacifists, to becoming members of the official religion of Rome and Christians were now free to join the Empire’s military and the rest as they say is history.
So, what can the story of Jesus’ baptism offer to us; we who stand in the ruins of the fragile peace of empire, we who daily pledge our allegiance to systems of domination which ensure the authority of the almighty dollar, we who struggle to be kin to one another, we who seek to know the ONE who is the ULTIMATE AUTHORITY? On this day when we remember the baptism of Jesus, perhaps we can also remember our own baptism and for those who have yet to be baptized perhaps together we can anticipate a new way of understanding baptism, which isn’t really new at all. Perhaps, we can celebrate baptism as an act of resistance.
Martin Luther is reported to have taught that when we wash our face, we should remember our baptism. The story is told of Luther pouring water into a basin, then he would cup his hands together and splash the refreshing water to his face three times, in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
I don’t share Luther’s belief that the water cleanses us of our sin. I’ve long since parted company with Luther’s theories about atonement. I don’t believe in a super-natural being who sent Jesus to die as a sacrifice for sin. I no longer believe that baptism is a ritual drowning in which we die to our old life of sin and are reborn to a new life in CHRIST. I do believe in the power of Baptism to remind of us of who we are and whose we are. Every child I have ever baptized came to the font as a beloved child of our CREATOR. Whether they were infants or adults they were in and of themselves ONE with the MYSTERY we call, “God.” The waters of baptism serve as affirmation of the reality that there is nothing in heaven our on earth which can separate us from the LOVE which is DIVINITY. So, like Luther, I too choose to remember my baptism when I wash my face. I don’t use Luther’s words. I go back long before Luther to St. Augustine who described the Trinity as LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE ITSELF.
They say that blessings often come to us in disguises. Perhaps this long COVID lockdown which has kept us from gathering together to celebrate the sacraments, is a blessing in disguise. Perhaps the fact that we cannot gather together to celebrate the sacrament of baptism will allow us to see beyond what has become sedated or domesticated, to the power of the sacramentum of baptism of our ancestors.
The next time you wash your face, remember your baptism. When you feel the water, remember that baptism is an act of resistance. Think about the many ways in which your lives have been co-opted by the powers that be. Think about who or what is your ULTIMATE ATHORITY is. Do you belong to empire? Do you pledge allegiance to wealth and power? Do you march in lockstep with systems that dominate through violence? Do you limit your kin to those who serve your selfish needs? Or can you take the dangerous step of actually feeling the waters as the touch of life touch you? Dare you resist? Dare you pledge your allegiance to the UNTIMATE AUTHORITY who is LOVE. Dare you resist by proclaiming that LOVE IS the ULTIMATE AUTHORITY? Do you have the courage to remember or to anticipate your baptism as an act of resistance? An act, once taken, will require the kind of kinship which empowers LOVE to be the ULTIMATE AUTHORITY? Do you have the courage to follow Jesus’ Way of Being in the world?
View the full Worship Service for the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus below
An Epiphany Sermon, preached in 2008. I had just read “The First Christmas” by John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg. Our congregation played host to Dom Crossan a month before I wrote this sermon. So, Dom’s insights run through this effort. But the heart of this sermon beats as the result of a sermon preached by Bruce Sanguin a self-proclaimed evolutionary christian who is a United Church Minister (Canadian Memorial Church, Vancouver). I had the privilege of meeting this modern mystic while on sabbatical this summer and his compelling way of unlocking the scriptures using the wealth of the christian tradition together with the insights of modern science and psychology borders upon the poetic. This sermon was anchored by Sanguin’s words (Epiphany 2007). Sermons are a “live” event. So, this manuscript is an approximation of what was actually preached.
Just five days before Christmas (2008), The Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Reverend Doctor Rowan Williams, the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion started a firestorm. During a BBC interview, His Grace was quoted to say that the story of the “three wise men is a legend”. The Archbishop was also heard to say that he remained unconvinced that there was indeed a star that led the legendary trio to the birth place of the Christ Child.
If that wasn’t enough to send folks off the deep-end, it has been revealed that the Presiding Bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church The Most Reverend Doctor Katherine Jefferts Schori, who just happens to be the first woman elected primate in Anglican history, has fanned the flames of the fire-storm by sending out what has been judged by some to be an incendiary Christmas card.
I downloaded a copy of the offensive card, so that you could see for yourself. Her Grace’s choice of card has offended the good deacons of Ft Worth Texas who claim that their Primate’s actions defy explanation. As you can see the wise folks depicted on this image look a lot like women. Can you imagine the nerve of the first woman primate! How could she be so bold as to select such an offensive image? Leave it to straight talking Texans to set things straight: for despite the audacity of the Primate, the Texans have pledged to “stand for the traditional expression of the Faith.” Continue reading
Maybe it’s because I’ve directed too many Christmas pageants, but whenever the Feast of Epiphany rolls around and I hear the story of the Magi visiting the baby Jesus, I don’t think of three kings at all. No visions of regal visitors decked out in their finest riding atop camels guided by a star for me. Just memories of little boys, decked out in colourful shiny bathrobes which threaten to trip them up, giggling and roughhousing, with their cardboard crowns all askew. Of all the little boy kings that I’ve tried to corral, one of them stands out from all the rest. Perhaps I remember him so well because he was so little that we couldn’t have him knell at the manger for fear that he would disappear into the hay and our audience would only see two Wise Guys paying homage. Or maybe it was the speed with which he dashed in and out of the gang of shepherds who threatened to trip him up with their crooks. But I really think it was the ingenious way he solved the problem of his lost gold, which makes little, Jay, stand out from all the other little boy kings, for me.
Little Jay’s mother, like all the mothers of all the kings, was responsible for creating a facsimile of the gift her wise son would bestow on the baby Jesus. Unlike some of the feeble efforts which I’ve seen over the years, Jay’s gift of gold was a cut above the rest. Inside an elaborately carved box, which his Dad had picked up on his travels to the Middle East, Jay’s mother had placed upon a bed of statin a carefully created block of wood wrapped in golden gift paper. It positively sparkled. It must have impressed Jay, because he was forever opening up his box to show his fellow cast-members his treasure, his gift.
During the dress rehearsal, Jay’s performance was perfect. Jay positively perfected the art of gazing up at the makeshift star which hung above the altar, just east of our makeshift manger. When he arrived at the place where the newborn baby Jesus was, who just happened to be a little girl that year, Jay strode right up to her mother Mary and opened the box containing his treasure and proudly announced his gift of gold for the newborn king. They, whoever they are, they say that if the rehearsal doesn’t go well then, the performance will be wonderful. So, I was more than a little worried when our dress rehearsal went off so splendidly because that could mean only one thing, and I certainly wasn’t looking forward to a performance where things went wrong.
Sure enough, unbeknownst to me, on the morning of his big performance, somewhere between his home and church, Jay lost his golden treasure. All he had was an empty box when he showed up at his father’s pew wailing because all was lost. Jay had no gold to give to the baby Jesus. Little Jay was overcome with grief over the loss of his gift of gold. What could he possibly do? There was no time to go home and make another gold bullion. The nativity play would be ruined. All was lost.
Jay looked everywhere he’d been. He couldn’t find the treasure he was expected to give to the baby. It was not where he had left it. So, Jay’s Dad did the only thing he could do, he dug down deep into his own treasure to find a gift to give to the baby. He opened his wallet and looked at the bills; money, perhaps a few twenties would do the trick; modern gold? And then he saw it; the most treasured possession of all. It was a bit battered from the time it had spent in his wallet, but it was after all his most valuable treasure; so, he placed it in Jay’s box so it could be given to the newborn baby Jesus.
When the time came, Jay bowed regally before the babe and tiny little Emma smiled up at him, as he proudly lifted the lid of his beautifully carved box and offered up a treasure which lay inside. The audience couldn’t see what I saw, but it was a treasure more valuable than gold. For nestled there upon a bed of satin, was a slightly worn photograph of Jay. What gift could be more precious that the gift of one’s self? We spend too much time looking to the heavens convinced that our treasure lies there waiting to be bestowed upon us by some king in the sky. The truth rests more securely, closer than we have ever imagined. Our treasure cannot be found looking up into the heavens. Our treasure lies deep inside of our being. For you dear ones, you are the LIGHT of the world. So, shine. Be the LOVE, which is DIVINITY, in the world!
On this the Twelfth Day of Christmas, some of us have already packed up their decorations. But some of us, we are holding off until after tomorrow’s, Feast of Epiphany, when we celebrate the arrival of the wise ones, who came bearing gifts. Now, I’ve heard some express their disappointment that this year our COVID-muted Christmas celebrations haven’t quite satisfied their longings. Sometimes our expectations get in the way of what is.
There’s a story about a little boy who wanted desperately to meet God. The little boy knew it was a very long trip to where God lives, so he packed his suitcase with some tubes of Smarties and some cans of Coke, and he set off on his quest to meet God. When the little boy had gone half a mile or so, he met an old woman. She was sitting in the park just staring at some pigeons. The boy sat down next to the old woman and he opened up his suitcase. The little boy was about to take a drink from one of his cans of Coke when he noticed that the old lady looked hungry. So, he offered her some of his smarties. The old woman gratefully accepted the smarties and smiled at the little boy.
Her smile lit up her whole face. It was so lovely, the boy wanted to see her smile again, so he offered her a drink of Coke. Once again, the old woman smiled at him and the little boy was delighted! They sat there all afternoon eating and smiling, but they never said a word. As it grew dark, the boy realized how tired he was and he got up to leave, but before he’d gone more than just a few steps, he turned around, and ran back to the old woman and gave her a big hug. The old woman, she gave him her biggest smile ever.
When the little boy opened the door to his own house a short time later, his mother was surprised by the look of pure joy on his face. She asked him, “What did you do today that made you so happy?” The little boy declared, “I had lunch with God.” And before his mother could respond, he added, “You know what? She’s got the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen!”
Meanwhile, the old woman, also radiant with joy, returned to her home. Her son was stunned by the look of peace on his mother’s face and he asked, “Mother, what did you do today that made you so happy?” The old woman replied, “I ate Smarties with God.” And before her son could respond, she added, “You know, God’s much younger than I expected.”
As you pack your decorations away, I hope that they remind you of the many DIVINE encounters you have enjoyed during these twelve days of Christmas. If not, might I suggest, you pack up some smarties and maybe a few cans of coke, don’t forget your mask, and then go out, for I’m sure the DIVINE ONE would be happy to see the DIVINITY which lives in you.
They say, whoever they are; they say that “hindsight is 2020.” 20/20 vision is a term used to describe “normal vision.” In other words, you can see with clarity those things which are 20 feet away. Well, looking behind me at 2020, I would not describe what I see as “normal” and I am barely even beginning to gain some clarity of vision on all that we have been through. For weeks now, people have been expressing their desire to see the back of 2020. There was a kind of collective eagerness to have 2020 behind us. Surely, 2021 has got to be better than the year we’ve just experienced. The coronavirus pandemic with its endless lockdowns and quarantines overshadowed and even intensified the economic and environmental crisis with which 2020 began. Good-bye and good riddance to the old year and let’s just ring in this new year hoping that 2021 will be better.
But there wasn’t enough champagne in any of our celebrations to fool us into believing that a new calendar year was going to solve anything at all. Here we are 2020 behind us and 2021 stretching out before us and still we are being warned, over and over again that the darkest months of this pandemic are still to come. Yes, there are vaccines on the horizon. But we still, don’t really know when or how this pandemic is going to end. We do know that it is going to take a long time before we can gather together, take off our masks, and embrace one another again.
Today is the tenth day of Christmas, so there are only two days left to celebrate the arrival of what the anonymous gospel-storyteller which we call John heralds as “the LIGHT which shines in the darkness, a LIGHT that the darkness has never overtaken.” On Wednesday the celebration of Epiphany will take over where Christmas leaves off and I can’t help but wonder about the nature of the LIGHT which will illumine our darkness. As we embark on what promises to be a very dark winter, my spirit resonates with myth which has brought comfort and challenges to generations. I feel a bit like those WISDOM-seekers of old, trudging through the darkness with nothing but the promise of LIGHT to guide me, as a look over my shoulder convinced that Herod is still chasing me. Only unlike the three wise guys, I know where this story is going. I know that the LIGHT is guiding them to the most unlikely of saviours. No mighty king, no avenging warrior, no powerful potentate, not even a magic genie who could grant their wishes, just a helpless newborn which has barely begun to draw breath. And yet, it is this very breath from which our ancestors drew hope. Over and over again, from one generation to the next, a helpless tiny child has been heralded as the LIGHT of the world.
Looking back beyond 2020, to a hindsight which surveys generations, I can almost see clearly into that stable of old, to see the breath of that child, rising like up and up and up into the cold winter, offering the hope that we are not alone in the darkness. Emmanuel is the name our ancestors gave to express this hope; the DIVINE MYSTERY, the CREATOR of all that IS, Emmanuel – God with us.
It’s cold out here. But winter has only begun and it’s gonna get a lot colder. The lake, it will freeze. Soon, l be able to walk out onto the ice, if I dare to brave the elements. Now, there’s a story which I’ve often thought about when I’m trying to find the courage to venture out into the cold darkness of winter. It is a story that ought to be told out here under the overcast skies which are pregnant with snow. It’s about Admiral Richard Byrd, who was an explorer, who travelled into the frozen north seeking wisdom. Listen to what Byrd wrote, near the north pole: Byrde writes: “I paused to listen to the silence. My breath crystallized as it passed my cheeks, drifted on a breeze gentler than a whisper. My frozen breath hung like a cloud overhead. The day was dying, the night was being born-but with great peace. Here were the imponderable processes and forces of the cosmos, harmonious and soundless. Harmony, that was it! That was what came out of the silence-a gentle rhythm, the strain of a perfect chord. It was enough to catch that rhythm, momentarily to be myself a part of it. In that instant I could feel no doubt of (humanity’s) oneness with the universe. The conviction came that that rhythm was too orderly, too harmonious, too perfect to be a product of blind chance-that, therefore, there must be purpose in the whole and that (humanity) was part of that whole and not an accidental offshoot. It was a feeling that transcended reason. The universe was a cosmos, not a chaos; (humanity) was as rightfully a part of that cosmos as were the day and night.”
Admiral Byrd paused to listen to the rhythm of the silence and his own breath opened him to the revelation of the DIVINE ONE who lies at the very heart of our BEING. We do not need to travel to the north pole. We do not need to follow a star. We don’t even have to venture out on to some thin ice. We need only to pause for a moment so that we can see, feel, touch and know the DIVINE ONE we call God, who comes to us in the rhythm of our breath and in the guise of a helpless baby. The ONE we seek, the ONE who has the power to save us, the ONE who lies at the very heart of our BEING, the ONE we call, “God,” is EMANUEL, with us, living and breathing in, with, through, and beyond us.
Yes, it is cold. There is darkness all around us and herods a plenty. But the days have already begun to grow longer. The good news dear friends, is that between us we have all the WISDOM necessary to outwit any Herod, whether that Herod be a pandemic or the grief which this pandemic has wrought.
Follow the LIGHT where-ever the LIGHT may lead us, for there is WISDOM in the Stars just as surely as there is WISDOM in you. Deep beneath the snow are the beginnings of new growth. Spring will come. Deep within you lives the SPIRIT of WISDOM. So, breathe deeply of the LOVE which IS the MYSTERY that we call God. Breathe deeply of the ONE who IS LIGHT and LOVE, and EMANUEL, with us. Breathe deeply of the WISDOM within and we shall be the LIGHT of the world.
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There’s an old Jewish story, I can’t remember where I first heard or read it. The story is now deep in my bones. It usually surfaces in me at some point during the Twelve Days of Christmas, reminding me of the hope which springs forth from the manger. Once upon a time, there was a monastery with a long history of commerce and a thriving spiritual community. But as time wore on, fewer and fewer villagers visited the hallowed halls of this monastery. Fewer people turned to the monks, who inhabited the monastery, for advice. Even the sale of their famous wines began to dwindle. The abbot began to despair for his community. “What should they do?” he wondered. They prayed daily for guidance, but the brothers only became more dispirited. The monastery itself reflected their mood, becoming shabby and untidy. At last, the Abbot, hearing that a wise Jewish rabbi was visiting, swallowed his pride and went to visit the rabbi to ask for his advice.
The abbot and the rabbi visited for a long time. They talked of their respective religions, and the fickleness of human nature. The abbot explained his problem to the rabbi and asked him for advice, but the Jewish sage only shook his head and smiled. As the abbot sadly departed, the rabbi suddenly rose and shouted after him, “Ah, but take heart my friend for the Messiah lives amongst you!”
All the way home the abbot pondered the rabbi’s words, “The Messiah lives amongst you.” What could he mean? Did the Messiah live in the abbey? The abbot knew all the brothers very well. Could one of them really be the Messiah? Surely, he, the abbot, was not the Messiah? Was it possible? Upon reaching the monastery the abbot confided the rabbi’s words to another brother, who told another brother, who was overheard telling another brother. Soon the whole abbey had heard the news. “The Messiah lives amongst us!”
“Who do you suppose he could be?” As each brother speculated on who the Messiah could be, his view of his brothers began to change. Brother Louis no longer appeared simple, but rather innocent.
Brother Jacques was no longer uncompromising, but rather striving for spiritual perfection. The brothers began to treat each other with greater respect and courtesy; after all, one never knew when he might be speaking to the Messiah. And, as each brother discovered his own words were taken seriously, the thought that he might become the Messiah would cross his humble mind and he would square his shoulders and attend his work with greater care, and he started acting like a Messiah.
Soon the neighboring villages began to notice the change which had come over the monastery. The brothers seemed so happy. Villagers flocked to the monastery and were energized by the spirit of the Brothers. And so, the SPIRIT grew, and the monastery flourished. As each new brother was welcomed, the question arose, “Could he be the Messiah?” Apparently, this monastery still prospers today, and it is often whispered both within its walls and in the surrounding towns that the Messiah lives amongst them.
There’s a story which I love to remember during the twelve days of Christmas simply because Christmas is the time to remember just how much promise arrives in the form of a newborn baby. I first heard this story from a very wise seminary professor and since then I’ have heard Marcus Borg and Parker Palmer tell it. I’m not sure that this story actually happened, but I am absolutely sure that this story is one-hundred percent true!
It’s a story about a three-year-old girl who was the only child in her family, when her parents announce that they are having a baby. The little girl is excited by the prospect of having a new baby sister or brother. Now, it seemed to the little girl like it was taking for ever, but eventually the day comes when her Mom and Dad go off to the hospital for the birth. When her parents arrive home with her new baby brother, the little girl is simply delighted. They hadn’t been home for more than a couple of hours, when the little girl tells her parents that she wants to spend some time with the new baby, in the baby’s room, alone, with the door shut. She’s absolutely insistent about the door being shut.
Her parents are none too sure about this idea of leaving their precious new bundle alone with their three-year-old daughter. They know she is a good little girl, but they’ve heard about sibling rivalry and they’re not too sure about taking this risk. As they were debating the idea, they remember that they’ve recently installed an intercom system in preparation for the arrival of the new baby. They realize that they can let their little girl have her wish, and if they hear the slightest strange thing happening, they can be in there in a flash to rescue their newborn. So, they let their little girl go into the room alone. They close the door behind her. They race to the listening post. They hear her footsteps move across the room. They imagine their little girl standing over their baby’s crib, and then they hear her say to her two-day-old baby brother, “Tell me about God. I have almost forgotten.”
At Christmas, we are, all of us, that child, standing over the baby’s crib hoping against hope that the newborn baby will tell us about God; maybe because we have almost forgotten, maybe because we don’t believe, maybe because we want to believe, maybe because we’ve lost hope, maybe because we are endlessly curious, or maybe simply because T’s the season for hoping against hope that the child will tell us about the MYSTERY which we call God, because we have almost forgotten.
There’s no Christmas tree in our sanctuary this year. We knew that come Christmas, we would not be able to gather in person to celebrate, so we didn’t put up a tree. I didn’t realize how much I’d miss the tree until I recorded last Sunday’s worship video. I was standing in this empty sanctuary, just me and the camera and I couldn’t see the beautiful Advent decorations. All I could see was the empty corner where our tree usually stands. It reminded me of a scene in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” I’m old, so I’m talking about the 1966 cartoon, where the Grinch steals Cindy Lou Who’s Christmas tree. Staring over at that empty corner, it was as if the COVID-Grinch has stolen so much of what we hold dear about Christmas. The COVID-Grinch has stolen our family gatherings, and our crowded Christmas Candlelight Communions and no tree for us this year. So, I’m left standing here like a Who from down in Whoville whose crying “boo hoo.”
Back in the 60’s when the Grinch stepped up his antics, artificial trees were all the rage. Those early artificial trees were about as life-like as the flat animations in that old cartoon. But still people couldn’t seem to get enough of them. I remember our family’s first artificial tree. It may have been our first, but unfortunately, we had it for most of my childhood. That hideous artificial tree is what turned me into a real tree enthusiast. That poor excuse for a tree consisted of a center pole which looked like a broomstick. The pole was painted green and holes had been drilled into it where these metal branches adorned with what I can only describe as short pieces of green tinsel were poked in.
Every year, my parents would haul out this artificial monstrosity and erect it in our living room so that we could decorate it with our treasured bobbles. Needless to say, the trauma of this hideous artificial monstrosity caused me, once I was old enough to pay for them, to insist on always having a real tree. No artificial trees for me! Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a real tree. Except for that one year, when I was broke. I was sharing an apartment with four roommates who were also broke. We simply couldn’t afford a real tree. One of my roommates had the bright idea that we should check out the local charity shop to see if they had any cheap artificial trees which we could afford. Now it was just a few days before Christmas, so the pickings were slim in the charity shop. An exasperated salesclerk explained to us that all they had left were some odds and ends, as she directed us to a bin full of mismatched artificial tree-limbs and told us we could help ourselves to whatever we wanted. Inside that bin were all sorts of fake tree branches representing the various artificial tree fashions of the previous decades. There were fake pine branches made of wires and some made of plastic. There were even branches reminiscent of my family’s hideous green tinsel tree, and a few silver tinsel branches of that same genre. Perhaps the most offensive branches were the ones which were coated with some sort of white crusty stuff, no doubt designed to simulate snow. Very few of the fake branches looked related to one another, let alone looking anything remotely like a Christmas tree. But one of my roommates found a fake tree trunk, which looked suspiciously like a broomstick. He insisted that we could easily attach some branches to it, add a few bobbles, toss some tinsel on it and Bob’s your Uncle, a Christmas tree would be born out of this bin. Thinking that he was joking, we decided to join in the fun and proceed to gather together the most offensive of the branches. We were going for the ridiculous look.
I don’t really think that we actually intended to bring our insane selections home. We just sort of got caught up in the madness. Madness is the only way I can explain the monstrosity of a tree that was erected in our living room. There was nothing beautiful about our creation, except of course the laughter with which we created it and the LOVE which that monstrosity bore witness to as we danced in jubilation around it. At one point, I’m not sure if it was the insanity of our excuse for a tree, or maybe it was the wine we consumed creating it, but we actually attempted to reenact a scene from the “Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” for in fact the Grinch cannot steal Christmas. I will never in all my days, forget the joy which we had standing around pretended to be a bunch of Whos from down in Whoville chanting: “Fahoo Fores Dahoo Dores, Welcome Christmas.”
A couple of days ago, Carol and I came into this sanctuary to change the paraments from Advent to Christmas. For a while all I could see was the empty corner where our tree ought to be. All I could see was what was missing. I know that this Christmas many of us will have difficult seeing beyond what is missing. Who can blame us? This is a Christmas like no other we have ever experienced. So, much of what we love about Christmas, simply will not be here. There will be empty corners, empty places where you usually sit, and worst of all empty chairs at Christmas tables. It isn’t easy to see beyond what’s missing. It is as if there is a wall separating us from the Christmas of our longings. That wall is reinforced by so much of we are hearing and seeing in the media. Our screens are bombarding us with dire news. It is so very tempting for us to stare blankly at our screens. And as the wall gets higher and higher, we sink deeper and deeper into despair.
As Carol and I continued to decorate this sanctuary, my attention was shifted from the empty corner to the creche. It isn’t in its usual place this year. We wanted to make it easier for the camera to capture it as we were recording this service. As I look upon the scene which symbolizes the myths which have sustained generations, a gap appears in the wall and I can begin to see beyond the darkness to the LIGHT which continues to glimmer with hope.
So much of the world’s attention is captured each and every day by stories of scarcity, competition, greed, and selfishness. Our focus is captured by images on screens which dominate our conversations, our thoughts, our beliefs and even our way of life. Each story which portrays scarcity, competition, greed, and selfishness as the way life is, was, and ever more shall be, generates fear. Our fears re-enforce the wall, which leads to more and more actions based upon the principals of scarcity, competition, greed, and selfishness, and the wall just becomes more and more impenetrable as our fears feed upon one another.
As I look upon this nativity scene, it is so very tempting to linger over sentimental trivialities only to forget the subversive nature of the parable which is symbolized by this idyllic scene. For this parable which has sustained generations is the very anthesis of our fear. The parable which sustains us right here and right now denies the very foundational blocks upon which the wall of fear is built. Whereas our wall of fear is founded on the principles that life is all about scarcity, competition, greed, and selfishness, the symbols of our foundational parable, point us beyond our fear to the reality that our lives are a gift and LOVE is the point.
Life is a gift born not out scarcity, but out of the abundance of Creation. A simple walk in the woods on a snowy evening is more than enough to shift our focus from notions of scarcity to glimpses of the magnificent abundance with which we are blessed. I’m also pretty sure that the mere fact that there is a vaccine on the horizon, is not the result of competition, but of co-operation. I also know that greed won’t get that vaccine into the arms of enough people to move us beyond this pandemic. In order to vaccinate enough of the world’s population, rich countries like ours are going to need to be extremely generous, outrageously generous.
Tonight, this nativity heralds the birth of LOVE, and points us toward the reality of the passion of a person who understood that scarcity, competition, greed, and selfishness create fear. Jesus lived and died to proclaim that beauty, truth, and goodness is in abundance all around us. Jesus said, “I have come that you may have life, and live it abundantly.” Abundant life is characterized by our generosity, our cooperation, and our passion; our passion which gives birth to LOVE.
Abundant life does not mean life without fear, nor does it mean that scarcity, competition, greed, and selfishness do not exist. Living life abundantly means not allowing these things to be foundational to our lives. When we live life abundantly, what is beautiful, true and good, nourishes us so that we can be generous, cooperative, and passionate in the way we encounter our fear. Living life abundantly means seeing beyond the wall built by our fear. In practical terms it means noticing that there is no tree in our sanctuary this year and being able to see the blessing of our technology which empowers us to find new ways to be LOVE in the world. It means missing our families and being grateful that we have families to miss. It means being stuck at home and being grateful that we have a home to be stuck in. It does not mean ignoring the realities of evil, or the tragedies which surround us, or even the empty chairs at our dinner table. It does mean grieving, for to grieve is to have LOV-ed. It is that LOVE which will nourish us, so that we can see beyond our pain to the LIGHT which continues to grow; the light which is fueled by beauty, truth, and goodness, guiding us to respond to scarcity not with fear but with the realization of the abundance of blessings which continue to flow all around us, to respond to competition not with a fear of losing, but with cooperative alternatives, and to respond to greed and self-centeredness, not with fear but with generosity and compassion for our neighbours.
Tonight, this nativity points us to the birth of the ONE who lived passionately proclaiming that abundance, generosity, co-operation, flow out of beauty, truth, and goodness, to create LOVE, the LOVE which will comfort and restore us; a LOVE which resurrects our passion for life.
Christmas is a holiday, a HOLY day in which we celebrate what is good about the world. Our celebrations will not deny the suffering which is going on all around us. Our celebrations, if we let them, will empower us to see our suffering in the context of the abundance of blessings which come to us each and every day.
Yes, I do miss our tree. I miss all of you filing this sanctuary with song. I also know that a long dark, difficult winter stretches out before us all. But I trust the LOVE in which we live and move and have our being to give us the strength to meet this winter not motivated by our fears but empowered by the passion inspired in us by the abundance of goodness, truth, and beauty which surrounds us. So that we can see beyond our fears. So that we can discover new ways of being LOVE in the world.
As I look upon that nativity, I can see beyond the sadness, longing, and fear, to the beauty of the candlelight. And even in the silence of this empty sanctuary which is bigger than this building; this sanctuary in which we live and move and have our being, is a LOVE beyond my fear, a LOVE which IS BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that Also.
So, wherever you are watching this, whatever your circumstances may be, do not let the COVID-Grinch steal your Christmas. For not even the COVID-Grinch as despicable as it may be, not even this can steal Christmas, because LOVE is about to be born in us.
May you each of you see beyond the walls built of fear to the LIGHT which continues to glow. May that LIGHT help you to see the abundance of blessing which are all around us. May you rejoice in the gift of your life, so that LOVE may continue to grow in, with, through, and beyond you. “Welcome Christmas, fah who rah-moose. Welcome Christmas, dah who rah-moose.” Let us live this LOVE-given gift of life abundantly. Merry Christmas.
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Not so very long ago, a young woman, let’s call her Dora, short for Doreatha, which comes from the Greek phrase “gift from God.” Dora spent most of her childhood dreading Christmas. Christmas in Dora’s family was a volatile affair. Dora’s father never needed much of an excuse to drink too much. Most of the holidays were consumed by the fallout from his excessive drinking. After far too many devastating Christmas Eves which ended in tears, Dora figured out that the best thing she could do to protect herself from the trauma of her family’s gatherings was to stay away from home on Christmas Eve. Fortunately, Dora was blessed with friends from church who regularly welcomed her into their home each Christmas Eve. Beth and Michael had three small children the youngest of which, little Sophia, was Dora’s goddaughter. With her family of choice, Dora new exactly what to expect on Christmas Eve. First a trip into the woods to find the perfect Christmas tree, which they would trim together before sitting down to a traditional feast, followed by Michael’s dramatic reading of the Christmas story from the gospel of Luke. When the children were safely tucked into bed with dreams of, well not so much sugarplums dancing in their heads, but rather visions of packages which would magically arrive whilst they slept, Dora and Beth would slip out quietly to attend the Christmas Eve candlelight communion service.
Well, one Christmas Eve, Dora found herself alone in the house trying to amuse her goddaughter Sophia, who was very, very, unhappy. Her parents had decided that the unusually cold weather, together with the deep snow, made the conditions far too severe for a three-year-old to trudge through. Sophia and Dora were given the task of getting the living room ready to receive the Christmas tree. Sophia was not pleased at all about being left behind. But it didn’t take long for the boxes of decorations to catch her attention. All through the Advent season, little Sophia had been learning the Christmas story. As they tackled the sorting out the decorations, Sophia began to regale Dora with her own version of the Christmas story. As they unpacked the shepherds, wise guys and angels, Sophia told Dora how: “Once upon a time, before they had picture books or televisions, there wasn’t anything fun to do, because there was no Santa to bring anybody any presents. And there weren’t any cars, so Mary who was going to have a baby, had to ride on a donkey and Joseph walked because he had longer legs. And they walked and they walked all day long until it was dark and then, when they got where they were going, they were very hungry, but there wasn’t any food, so they went into a stable, where they talked to the animals until they weren’t hungry anymore. It was dark but they weren’t afraid because there was a big star shining up in the sky so they could see what was happening. And soon it was time for a big surprise. But not the kind of surprise that Santa brings, this was a really big surprise.” Sophia’s eyes lit up as she told Dora about this big surprise. She said, when the animals fell asleep, “then the baby was borned.” Sophia asked Dora, “Do you know who the baby was?” Dora played along, asking, “Tell me, who was the baby who was borned?” Sophia climbed up onto her lap and whispered into Dora’s ear: “The baby was God!” With that, Sophia jumped down and began to dance around the room. Rarely is the good news told with such earnest appreciation for the amazing surprise. Continue reading
Well, here we are facing the darkest of winters. Rising death tolls together with the reality that we must wait many more months before the vaccines will make it possible for us to gather together in person. So, on this the final Sunday of Advent, with most of us needing to forgo our regular Christmas celebrations with loved ones, here I am on your screen with nothing but a story to give you hope, love, peace and joy. I have only a story to comfort us all in the darkness in which we have ben gestating for months, for practically all of this year. But I do not appear here to proclaim just any story. For generations, people have insisted that the story of the birth of Jesus is the most amazing birth story ever told. Jesus’ birth narrative heralds the arrival of a child who was praised as the Son of God, the Saviour of the World who was said to be the personification of peace on earth, God incarnate, fully divine and yet fully human.
However, not everyone agrees that this is the most amazing birth story ever told. Indeed, the story of Jesus’ birth can’t even claim to be unique. Historically, Jesus’ birth story is just one in a long line of birth stories. Jesus’ birth story, some claim, is only considered to be unique because it is our story. A story that we tell over and over again at the expense of other birth stories which are just as great. It is not all that difficult for the cynics to buttress their denials about who and what Jesus was, simply by Googling the “greatest birth story ever told”, selecting one or two of these greatest stories and putting them together to expose Jesus’ birth story as simply one story in a long line of ancient birth stories.
Allow me to demonstrate by using just one of these ancient birth stories. There are so many to choose from, so let’s use the one which predates the birth of Jesus by only 60 years, when Julius Caesar had established an Empire the likes of which the world had never seen before. Gaius Julius’ prowess on the battlefield was matched only by his cunning in the senate and together these powers had won him the title of “Caesar.” But as great and marvelous a leader as Julius Caesar may have been, history tells us that he and his wife were not blessed with children so eventually Julius appointed his niece’s son Octavian to be his heir. It is Octavian’s birth story that the Ancient Romans claimed was the most amazing birth story ever told. This birth narrative heralded the arrival of a child who was praised as the Son of God, the Saviour of the World who was said to be the personification of peace on earth.
Octavian went down in history by his nickname. I should really say by his imperial name, for as the Emperor of Rome, Octavian became known as Augustus Caesar and it is his birth narrative that was the greatest birth story ever told, according to the Romans. Augustus is Latin, for “one who should be praised or worshiped.” Caesar means Emperor. The legends surrounding this praiseworthy emperor of Rome are truly astounding. Born just 60 odd years before the birth of Jesus, it is said that Augustus was a son of god twice over. For not only was he the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who when he died, was by virtue of being the ruler of Rome declared by his people to be a god, legend has it that Octavian’s mother had a dalliance with some god or other. It seems that on the day Octavian was born his mother had a dream that she was raised up to the sky and her intestines were spread all over the earth. His father also had a dream that the sun rose and set on his dear wife’s womb. Well, when the priests were consulted about these dreams, it was decreed that little Octavian must be the progeny of a god. But which god you may ask, well ancient sources are blurry on the subject, some say it was Jupiter himself, others suggest his father was the god Mars.
The poet Virgil gives us a pretty clear indication of just who Octavian, known as Augustus, was in the eyes of his people. For it seems that on the very night that Augustus Caesar was made Emperor a strange star appeared in the sky. When Romans described the appearance of the star in the sky they said, “We saw the son of God, aka Julius Caesar, ascending to the right hand of God the father, Zeus.” The people believed that this was a sign that Julius Caesar’s spirit was finally able to leave Rome and head off into the heavens, blessing the reign of his great-nephew Octavian, aka Augustus, as he went by displaying a magnificent star in the sky. Writing of Augustus’ actual birth, Virgil’s poem insists that, “Augustus would be a divine king, the one the world had been waiting for, the one who would bring salvation to all the earth, freeing the people from fear and establishing a universal empire of peace.”
If the truth be told, Augustus Caesar did live up to his birth legend. After all, as Emperor he did establish the Pax Romana and peace was upheld in his empire. He did it by conquering and terrorizing the conquered. Pax Romana was known as “peace through victory.” Once you were conquered by the Romans, you had better behave yourself peacefully or they’d publicly execute you so as to set an example to your kinfolk. It was just as Virgil said, and I quote: “Caesar is the Son of God. Salvation is to be found in none other save Augustus. Augustus is reigning in the fullness of his glory; the entire empire resounds with the sound of the advent proclamation.” Does any of this sound familiar? Such an august man/god as this requires a birth narrative which heralds the arrival of the Saviour of the world.
Imagine what it must have been like for the early followers of the man Jesus of Nazareth; a peasant, rabbi, radical, and disturber of the peace, executed as a political threat to the Pax Romana. The followers of the Way knew that their beloved leader was the embodiment of the antithesis of Caesar; for everything which Caesar was, Jesus was not! Jesus of Nazareth went to his death insisting that peace through victory was no peace at all. Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed the radical notion that peace, true peace can only be established and maintained through justice. Peace, true peace, is the result of everyone having enough. Jesus called for the kind of distributive justice, which ensures that the poor and the powerless, the marginalized and the despised have all they need in order to live in peace. It was such a radically dangerous notion that the powers that be could not let it live. So, the Romans did what the Romans always did when the Pax Romana came under threat, they nailed the radical, peace disturbing, rabbi to a tree and let him hang there until he was dead.
The only problem with their plan was Jesus’ dream just wouldn’t die. The dream of this new kind of peace, this peace through justice, which Jesus had called the Reign of God, simply would not die in the hearts and minds of this itinerate preacher’s followers. Jesus’ dream of the Reign of God lived on. Years later; decades later, in fact a whole generation later, when one of this Jesus fella’s followers sat down to write the account of Jesus’ life, he did his best to find a way to ensure that the dream would never die. And so, to this day, the dream lives on thanks in part to the writing of an unknown scribe who wrote down what the people were saying and teaching about the dream, long after this Jesus of Nazareth was gone. We don’t know who wrote it, tradition has called him Luke, but no one really knows who it was. We do know that this persuasive writer employed a style of storytelling which Jesus was particularly fond of himself. Jesus of Nazareth persuaded people to change their way of being using a type of story called a parable. A parable is a story which uses elements which are very familiar to the listeners. A parable takes familiar elements and uses them in ways which turn the listener’s perceptions upside down. One minute the listener is on familiar territory and in the next minute everything the listener thought they knew is turned upside down and a new way of imagining the world is revealed. The anonymous-gospel-storyteller which we call Luke was clever; clever enough to know that any great person worthy of belief or praise must have a great birth story.
So, if a birth story is what it takes for listeners to know the truth and to believe, then let me give you the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call Luke’s birth parable which is worthy of the one who proclaimed a different kind of peace. You may have your peace through victory, but the Prince of Peace of whom I speak; now there is a Saviour worthy of praise. Son of God, you bet, but were as Octavian might have been born of noble birth, the kind of Saviour I’m talking about was of the people, born as the apostle Paul declared, “born of a woman”. Not anyone special, her name was Miriam, and lord knows there are Miriams everywhere just like her. This Miriam was just a slip of a girl, not more than about 12 or 13 years old. We don’t know exactly how she became pregnant; people talked about her and about Jesus as if there was something a little dubious about the way in which it happened. But then in the Pax Romana, young girls fell pregnant all the time and Miriam wasn’t from a noble family. But they were righteous enough to find a good man to take her on, even though he knew that she was pregnant. It was as if he’d seen it in a dream and so this man, this man let’s call him after that dreamer of old, let’s call him Joseph, it was like he had a dream or something of how things should be. Anyway, no matter what the powers that be threw at them, they coped, even if it meant travelling down to Bethlehem the city of the great King David to be registered. So far from the halls of power, so far that it might have been an outbuilding on the edge of a city, amongst the poorest of the poor, a child was born.
A star, you bet your life there was a star. Right up there in the sky above the place where he was born, and the star was so big and so bright that the powerful came and bowed down before the baby who would become the hope of the poor. Finally, good news for the poor and the oppressed, the marginalized and the despised, good news for unto you is born in the City of David a Saviour who will be the Prince of Peace, who will bring peace on earth and good will to all.
Yeah, here’s a birth story like no other. Here’s a birth story about humble origins, about margins, about poverty, about struggle and oppression, about simple people living their lives as best they can and accomplishing great things. The anonymous-gospel-storyteller which we call Luke has created a subversive birth parable. A parable in which Jesus, not Caesar is born of a virgin and is the Son of God. The trouble is after 20 centuries, you and I hear “born of a virgin” and “Son of God” as unbelievable church doctrines. But in this parable, these are not doctrines but subversive political statements. They are declarations that Jesus embodied a different kind of god. In Jesus an oppressed and marginalized people experienced a radically different vision of the DIVINE, a vision which turned the whole idea of the DIVINE upside down. Caesar offered a vision of a god who is born in a mansion. But this new vision of the DIVINE was born in a manger. Caesar is a god who enslaves. CHRIST is a god who sets free. Caesar is a god who lives with the oppressors. CHRIST is a god who lives among the oppressed. The stories of Jesus’ birth are subversive parables designed to say a big NO to the powers of Empire; to turn the world we thought we knew upside down and point to a new way of being in the world.
The stories of Jesus’ birth represent a politically subversive call for us to enlist in a cause where we care for our neighbour, look out for the stranger and embrace the flesh and blood of those who are suffering, oppressed, persecuted, starving, homeless, those who have no voice. Christmas itself is a call to embrace the parables of Jesus’ birth as our call to turn the world as we know it upside down and usher in a new way of being in the world; a way of being that rejects the horrors of Empire and embraces the kind of justice that gives birth to peace.
Forget your grand and glorious birth stories. You won’t find the DIVINITY you seek in the halls of power. The DIVINITY you seek, is out there in the muck and mire of the world, in the stuff of life. The peace you hunger for won’t come from the rich or the powerful. They are too busy defending their power and holding on to their wealth. The peace you hunger for will only come at the expense of the powerful. And for those of us who are rich and powerful; that’s rich enough to have screens on which to watch this, for us peace we long for requires that we sacrifice our wealth and power. The peace we long for will only come when our love inspires us to share. The peace we hunger for will only come when everyone has enough. Peace through justice is the only kind of peace that has any power to satisfy, to last. If you are looking for a god worthy of your worship, look not to the powerful. Look to the power of god that lives and breathes in you; the divine power that drives your hunger for justice and peace. It was born in you and it lives in you and it lives in you.
Who is this one heralded as the Prince of Peace? Jesus of Nazareth, who had a dream of peace which he proclaimed as the Reign of God; a reign which would see to it that the rich are sent away empty because they already have enough, a reign in which and the hungry are filled with good things, a reign where justice and not victory is the way to peace. A reign dreamed of and embodied by a poor peasant, a radical rabbi, who the powers that be could not abide, so they killed him hoping to put an end to his dream. But the dream will not die. Resurrection is the rebirth of this dream, over and over again, in the hearts, minds, and lives of the followers of the ONE whose birth we celebrate in the midst of darkness. This dream will be born again, and again, even in the midst of this pandemic as the poor and the oppressed, the forgotten and the neglected, the sick and the dying continue to long for LOVE, right here, right now.
Let the dream of Jesus be born right here and right now, in you. Let it be said of you that you lived this dream; that the dream of the Reign of God, a dream where justice leads to peace, a dream where LOVE conquers all; a dream where joy is found in the LOVE, we share to warm the darkness.
May the LOVE which is DIVINE be born in, with, through and beyond you. Let it be said of you that you, that you too are a Child of God, a Princess, or a Prince of Peace, a Mighty Councillor, Emmanuel, God with us. BE Joy to the world!
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Years ago, my friend Henry and I worked together in the travel industry. In addition to working as a graphic designer, Henry was also a Jewish rabbi. I learned a great deal from Rabbi Henry about the celebration of Christmas when he invited me to join his family for dinner on Christmas Eve. Rabbi Henry explained to me that it was the custom amongst some of his Jewish friends to gather on Christmas Eve for a commemoration they called Nittel Nacht. Nittel Nacht customs date back to the days of pogroms in Eastern Europe, when people calling themselves Christians persecuted the Jewish people. On Christmas Eve, Nittel Nacht customs revolve around keeping a low profile. Nacht means night in Yiddish and Nittel is said to be a Yiddish word patterned after a Latin word for birth. So, on the night when Christians celebrate the birth of CHRIST among us, some Jewish people gather quietly, often in silence, during which they refrain from studying the Torah. Rabbi Henry explained that their own Nittel Nacht customs had grown over the years to include inviting gentiles over to share a meal. The idea being, that if there were gentiles in the house the perpetrators of the pogroms would just move on. Henry told me that he saw Jews and gentiles breaking bread together as a fitting way to celebrate the birth of Jesus, who lived his life as a faithful Jew and with his life gave birth to Christianity.
Henry and his wife Rachel were, at the time new parents, and I hadn’t yet seen their newborn son, so I was delighted to accept their invitation. That’s how this particular shishka found herself holding a newborn Jewish baby named Joshua, on a Christmas Eve long ago. While holding baby Joshua, the irony escaped me, but I have since learned that the Hebrew name Joshua when translated into Greek and Latin then becomes, “Jesus” in English.
Joshua’s older sisters little Rebekah and Rachel, explained to me that I needed to be very quiet on this Nittel Nacht, because if we were very good girls, their Daddy would put a Christmas movie on the VCR. They were hoping for their favorite Christmas movie “A Christmas Story,” which is also a favorite of mine. Rabbi Henry declared that there’s something wonderful about a shishka, nursing baby Joshua, laughing with two little Jewish girls about a silly Shabbos goy, who is desperately scheming to get a Red Ryder bb gun for Christmas, when everyone knows that such a toy would result in a little boy “shooting his eye out!”. Imagine my delight when Rachel announced that every Nettel Nacht they were inspired by “A Christmas Story” to order out for Chinese food: “Deck the halls with boughs of hori, ra ra ra ra ra ra ra”……it was piking duck and laughter all around. As the narrator of “A Christmas Story” insists, “That Christmas Eve still lives in my memory because all was right with the world.”
On that long ago Nittel Nacht, I held all potential of new birth in my arms. Generations of bad blood between peoples and nations can disappear as we learned one another’s stories even as we create new stores of our own. LOVE is born among us.
Joshua the name in Hebrew means “God is Generous.” Such a god is LOVE itself. Let this and every Christmas celebrate the miracle of new birth as it awakens the DIVINITY which lives in all of us, so that LOVE can come again, and again, and again. Let the awe and wonder inspired by the newborn laying on the straw, open us to the infinite possibilities of LOVE.
Once upon a time, when two of my nieces, Ashley and her sister Sheri Lynn, were pregnant at the same time. Ashley was expecting her first child, Sheri Lynn her second. My niece Sheri Lynn’s little girl is my great-niece, Isabella and Isabella was just 3 years old when she and her pregnant mother, Sheri Lynn, travelled from Vancouver to Toronto, so that Isabella could be the flower-girl at my wedding. Before they arrived, the story was already being told of Isabella’s response to the news that her Aunt Ashley was going to have a baby and that that baby was going to be a little boy. Isabella proudly announced that her Aunt Ashley’s little boy was going to be her new little brother. Well-meaning adults tried to correct Isabella by gently telling her that her Aunt Ashley’s little boy would in fact be her cousin and not her brother. But Isabella insisted that he would be her brother.
Various family members tried to convince Isabella that the baby her Mommy was expecting would be her little brother or her little sister, but the little boy which her Aunt Ashley was expecting would be her cousin. But no matter how hard or how often they tried to explain it, Isabella went on insisting that her Aunt Ashley’s new baby would be her new, baby brother. One day, while they were visiting, I snapped up the opportunity to look after Isabella while her mother did some sightseeing. I had some errands to run and it was marvellous to have a little 3-year-old along to help me. It gave me the opportunity to do some great-auntie stuff. And that’s how Isabella and I ended up in the local Christian bookstore trying to find a lightweight nativity set which she would be able to carry home with her on the airplane. I wanted Isabella to learn to tell the greatest story ever told in her own unique way.
After a lot of negotiating, we settled on a rather large cloth nativity set which folded up into a stable which doubled as a carrier-bag for all the various characters and animals. Once we’d purchased the Nativity set and one or two items which only a 3-year-old could convince me were necessary, we headed out to the car so that Isabella could make fun of my feeble attempts to figure out just how her car-seat worked. Isabella insisted that we open up the nativity set right away, so that she could play with it on the way home. So, as she got herself up into her car seat, I struggled to remove Mary, Joseph, a shepherd, some wise guys, a sheep, a donkey, a cow and a little swaddled baby, from the confines of some pretty horrendous 21st century packaging. I don’t know who comes up with such impossible packages. I can never open them without problems. Mary and Joseph almost didn’t make it and Isabella had to remind her dear old auntie Dawn that there are just some words that good girls are not supposed to say, or her Mommy would get really mad.
Suitably chastened, I rescued Mary and Joseph and suggested that we put all the characters into the cloth stable until we got home. Isabella reluctantly agreed to put all the characters away, except for the small swaddled baby. Compromise is everything when you are dealing with a 3-year-old. So, I warned Isabella not to lose the baby Jesus, and I got into the front seat and we headed for home.
On the way, Isabella told me her version of the greatest story ever told, which involved Santa Claus following a star, checking his list twice, and giving Jesus lots of gold because he was poor and needed some new clothes because his Mom didn’t pack enough in his suitcase when they went to the airport. So, Joseph was going to go to the store and buy new pyjamas for Jesus. So, everyone better be good, and watch out or else they won’t get any new pyjamas for Christmas.
Now, clearly, I had some work to do, but just as I was about to teach Isabella the greatest story ever told, she asked me if Auntie Ashley would have her new baby in time for Christmas. I told her that she would indeed have her new baby for Christmas. Isabella then told me that she was going to buy some new pyjamas for her new baby brother. I was about to remind her that her Auntie Ashley’s new little baby would be her new baby cousin and not her new baby brother, when Isabella announced that she has two little brothers. Auntie Ashley’s little boy and baby Jesus are her brothers. Who in their right mind would dare argue with that logic?
The truth is that Jesus is indeed Isabella’s brother and so of course her Auntie Ashley’s little boy is also her little brother as well. As I was ruminating over this gospel truth, Isabella announced that “all little boys are my brothers, and all little girls are my sisters.” Out of the mouths of babes.
This year, may we all remember that all baby boys are our brothers and all baby girls are our sisters. They all need pyjamas, they all need to be nurtured and to be loved. They need to be taught and to be treasured, to be freed and to be empowered and they are all looking to us, their big sisters and their big brothers, to help make LOVE happen over and over and over again. May the HOLY ONE who IS LOVE continue to live and move in, with, through, and beyond you and yours during these challenging times. Shalom, dear ones. Shalom.
What a strange Advent this has been. In the midst of this pandemic, so many of our rituals and customs have been set aside as we struggle to do our part to slow the numbers down and bend that curve. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have much of an appetite for John the Baptist’s ranting and raving this Advent Season. Public health leaders, politicians, and pundits of every kind, who are endlessly pleading with us to wear our masks, wash our hands, stay home unless it is essential to go out and worst of all don’t gather with friends and family for Christmas period. I don’t need some ancient prophet’s words echoing down through the generations crying to us from the wilderness, pleading with us to, “Prepare the way for our God!”
This is a strange Advent Season in my home. We put up our Christmas tree this year. Normally, we wait, choosing to stay in the dark blue hues of Advent. But this year, knowing that it will just be the two of us, we have made an extra effort to decorate our home with all the trappings of Christmas. We’ve even violated our custom of trying not to play Christmas carols until Christmas. So, I’ve been hearing “O Holy Night” over and over again. It seems a little premature, but that line is stuck in my head, “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices” “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices” Lord knows our world is weary. So how shall we rejoice this year?
I wonder as I wander around the empty sanctuary here, what will it be like not to see many of you on Christmas Eve. I’ve been wondering what it will be like not to hear the familiar sounds of your voices singing with such reverence. I’ve been anticipating my own sadness at not seeing many of you raise your candles in the darkness, as we sing Silent Night with such hope and gladness. Considering all that we have been through this year, and all the challenges which lie ahead in the coming months, is it any wonder that the sentimental aspects of our beloved Christmas traditions are haunting our Christmas preparations in the midst of the countless restrictions we are trying to cope with? Oh, how we long, not for the darkness of reality, but for the darkness of our visions of some “Silent Night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” Our imaginings of the way things were, just might get in the way of our ability to experience any peace, or any joy, at all this Christmas.
Within the contours of our imagined sentimental Christmas scenes, the mess of life is all too often swept under the carpet of straw in that stable, upon which a gorgeous holy family stare placidly at adoring shepherds and angels, under the perfect glow of a celestial star. Even when we shift our gaze from the delightful stable, to our own remembered Christmas gatherings, the mess of life is all too often swept under imaginary rugs, so as to ensure that the reality of life in community can’t threaten to undo our visions of perfection. COVID may be an unwelcome visitor this Christmas, but every Christmas has its unwelcome visitors. I think that’s why the anonymous-gospel-storytellers allow John the Baptist to strut his stuff way out by the Jordan river somewhere, in the wilderness, so as not to have him intrude on our treasured tales of Jesus’ arrival. There’s nothing silent nightish about John the Baptist as he rants and raves about the need for people to, “Repent!” and warns anyone within shouting distance that it is time to prepare a way for the arrival of someone who will turn everything they have ever known around. For to “repent” literally means, “to turn around.” Repent! Stop going in the direction you’ve been going all your lives and turn around, prepare a new way of being. Prepare the Way for our God!
Christmas, no matter how you understand Christmas, Christmas isn’t much like Silent Night. The “way” which John the Baptist is screaming at us to prepare, is not a way which will accommodate sweeping the messiness of life under the straw, or indeed, even under the rugs of our imaginations. Christmas is so much more than the Silent Night of our longings. Christmas, if it is any kind of Christmas at all, includes all the messiness we bring to it. Think about it. The story of new birth isn’t pretty. It is not tidy. Nor is it silent. Life is chaotic. Life is messy. Life is far too full of contradictions to ever be adequately captured by our sentimentality.
If your visions of Jesus’ arrival resemble the scene depicted in Silent Night, you really haven’t understood the chaos which new birth brings. Christmas is not about heavenly peace. About as close to Silent Night that Christmas ever gets is “shepherds quaking at the sight!” We ought to be quake to at the very idea of LOVE being born in us. Christmas is a radical subversive parable which was written to challenge whatever peace we have made with the chaos in our lives, a parable carefully crafted to reject our impulse to pull the covers over our head and pretend that life isn’t happening the way it is happening.
Christmas is chaotic precisely because it is in the midst of chaos that we encounter the ONE who IS…that’s IS, with a IS with a capital I and a capital S. IS the third-person singular, of the verb “to be” the ONE who IS – the one our ancestors knew as YAHWEH, the great I AM – that’s AM in capital letters, the first-person singular of the verb “to be”, YAHWEH the I AM, is not off in the heavens looking down at some angelic nativity scene. The ONE who IS, is as Jesus taught us with his very being, the ONE who IS, is LOVE, and as LOVE the ONE who IS, is to be found in all the muck and the mire, right smack dab in the midst of our chaos. For not only do we live, and move, and have our being, in the ONE who IS LOVE, this very ONE, this DIVINITY, this GOD if you will, works in, with, through, and beyond us, in all of our chaotic mess, constantly creating hope in the midst of despair, creating justice in the midst of injustice, creating vaccines in the midst of this pandemic, and offering compassion, kindness, and LOVE, as we work together to keep as many people as possible safe and healthy. Even in this COVID chaos in which we are locked-down, LOVE is working miracles. We are not alone in this chaos.
Christmas is the celebration of new birth and birth is chaotic, messy, frightening, painful, and anything but silent! The parable of Christmas is a raw story, a bare bones story, to which we have added our own desires for a Silent Night. Whatever our imaginings about that holy night may be, one thing we can know for sure there was nothing silent about Jesus’ birth. It was a birth like any other birth, with all the mess of blood, urine, mucus, pushing, screaming, and amniotic fluid. This birth had more than its fair share of fear and anxiety. Whatever Jesus’ birth was it was not the Silent Night of our dreams.
Jesus birth was just like your birth and my birth. Like every birth, Jesus birth was chaos filled with the excitement and the worries which come before something wonderful happens. I suspect that Jesus’ young mother, Mary, was screaming, cursing, pushing, crying, bearing down, and sore afraid. Christmas was not a silent night and therein lies our hope for the world. For a god who is a creator of angelic, surreal, nativity scenes, would be a god far removed from the chaos and the reality of our lives. A god who is devoid of the messiness of life, isn’t any kind of god that I want to be a part of, let alone worship. I need to know that we are all part of something so much bigger than we can begin to imagine that isn’t some kind of distant creature, aloof, and separated from the reality of our lives. I want to be part of the SOURCE of ALL, ALL that IS, a deity, a force, a LOVE which is capable of working in, with, through, and beyond us to bring order out of the chaos, to inspire scientists to create vaccines. I want to be part of the ONE who weeps with those who weep, who suffers with those who suffer, a LOVE which dances, sings, laughs and rejoices whenever and wherever LOVE emerges in the midst of the mess and chaos of life. I want to be part of a LOVE which is beyond my ability to comprehend and yet a LOVE which works in, with, and through those who work to heal the sick, care the dying, toil away in laboratories seeking vaccines, who seek for justice for the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized, a LOVE which works, in, with, through, and beyond us to heal the wounds of the afflicted. I want to be part of a LOVE which challenges us, and at the same time, a LOVE which allures us in ways which empower us to live fully, love extravagantly, and be all that we are created to BE.
The Christmas story is the story of such a LOVE; LOVE which emerges in the midst of chaos, LOVE which empowers us to prepare new ways of being LOVE, which is born in a baby, for this is how LOVE is always born. This is how LOVE was born in you. At your birth LOVE came into the world and in you lie the hopes and dreams of all the Earth. “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices. A thrill of hope the wear world rejoices. Fall on your knees, fall on your knees” and LOVE will be there.
LOVE which is the MYSTERY we call, “God” is gestating in you. We will get our Silent Night. It may not be the Silent Night of our sentimental rememberings, but like all nights, it will provide darkness from which we can give birth to LOVE; LOVE powerful enough to bring peace on Earth and healing to the nations.
Prepare the way for LOVE to be born here and now! Trim your trees. Mull your wine. Wrap your presents. Sing carols. Zoom, Zoom, Zoom as we must. Reminisce to your hearts content as you, stay home. Stay safe. Keep your neighbours safe. Make room for LOVE to be born here and now! LOVE which IS, BEYOND, the BEYOND and BEYOND that also. Our CREATOR, CHRIST, and SPIRIT, ONE. Amen.