Monday, December 29, 2008

Christmas I (2008)

John 1:1-1 Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

St Anselm was a medieval Archbishop of Canterbury who was, and continues to be, renowned as one of the major theologians of western Christianity. One of his treatises was simply titled Why God Became Man.  At this time of year, that’s an appropriate question, one we do well to ask ourselves, over and over again, because, even though we know the answer—in part, thanks to St Anselm—we stand in constant need of being reminded.

Why do we have Christmas?  Why do we celebrate the Incarnation?

Here’s the deal: Even though God loves us, and created us in His image, and wants us to share the very essence of His life and being, we, as human beings, are alienated from God. We are cut off from God. There’s a gulf between us and God that makes the Grand Canyon look like a line in the sand. We are therefore unable to enjoy the life that God created us to have. We are incapable of experiencing our full humanity. Both as individuals, and as a race, we are at cross-purposes with God. God belongs at the center of our being, but we have displaced Him—we have displaced Him with our own ego. We have bowed low before any number of “other gods”—gods like success, power, alcohol, drugs, sexual fulfillment; the list could go on. As we tell God in our corporate worship: “We have not loved you with our whole heart, we have not loved out neighbors as ourselves.”  Or, more dramatically, perhaps: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.”

Traditional Christianity labels this alienation between God and humankind as Sin—a condition each of us is born with which inclines us to make ourselves the measure of all things, and draws us away from the love of God. You can use that label, or not. Either way, though, it doesn’t change the reality.

”But wait, there’s more.”

 Not only do we have a problem; the problem is getting worse! We can’t just hold onto the status quo, thinking that, while it may not be all we would like it to be, it’s not all that bad either.  The status quo is slipping away. We’re trapped between steadily rising flood waters in front of us, and a deteriorating riverbank behind us. We have no hope, unless we can find a bridge across the gulf—the canyon, the chasm—that divides us from God. And only God can provide such a bridge, only God Himself can bridge the gap. We have no power within ourselves to meet Him halfway. Something must be done on our behalf.  God must come to our aid, or else we are doomed to ongoing misery in this world and oblivion in the next.

Now for the good news: God has done something on our behalf. God has come to our aid.  First, He gave us the Law—a knowledge of how we ought to live so as to counteract our inborn propensity toward Sin. The Law is written in nature. The Law is written on our hearts—it’s what we call “conscience.” And the Law is written, so to speak, “in stone”; that is, God’s Law made visible in His relationship with the particular nation through whom He chose to reveal Himself—the ancient Hebrews, the Jews.

The Law reveals the true nature and extent of our condition. The Law shows us just how wide the gulf is between God’s holiness—God’s completeness, God’s purity, God’s perfection—the Law shows us the gulf between God’s holiness and our sinfulness—our incompleteness, our contingency, our weakness and fragility, the fragmented and unfocused character of our lives. The Law is like a light shining on a dirty kitchen and revealing the cockroaches. They’re still there when it’s dark—in fact, they’re happier when it’s dark—but the light enables us to see them. We’re still sinners without the Law, but the Law enables us to see our sinfulness.

However, the Law is only a stopgap. It’s a tremendous gift because it shows us our problem.  But it doesn’t solve the problem. We cannot throw the Law into the canyon  and expect it to form a bridge that will take us to God. Something more must be done, and God has done it, and that’s why we have Christmas.  God has thrown, not the Law, but Himself, into the gap that separates us, and has completely bridged that gap. In the mystical language of the prologue to John’s gospel, we encounter our common faith that “…the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”  The One whom we proclaim in our creed as “God from God, light from light, true God from true God” took human flesh, human nature, and dwelt, tabernacled—“pitched his tent,” literally rendered—the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. In so doing, God completely associated Himself with us, implicating Himself with the human condition.

And he did so completely. This is what St Paul is getting at in his letter to the Galatians when he describes Christ as “born under the Law.” The Law is the perfect symbol for the entirety of the human condition, because it is the vehicle by which we see that condition clearly and fully. To say that Christ was born “under the Law” is to say that, in Jesus, God is thoroughly and unreservedly incarnate. There is no room for half-measures here.

He does not bridge just half the gap—or three-quarters, or ninety percent, or whatever—and expect us to make up the difference.  There were those in the early centuries of Christianity who thought just that.  They asserted that God only appeared to be human in the person of Jesus, that the divine spirit of God dwelt within the human body of Jesus, but did not really become one with that body. It was just a vehicle. These folks were motivated by a commendable desire to protect the honor and uniqueness and utter holiness of God.

But they were wrong. Their views are now known to be heresy. If, in His incarnation, God only partially covers the difference between us and Him, then all is in vain. If God does not become fully human in Jesus, taking our nature upon Him without reservation, then the gulf remains. We are still in our sins, and have no hope.

So do you see why we have Christmas? It is utterly necessary for our salvation. We are people of hope precisely because God did bridge the gap. In Christ, God completely participates in and shares human nature and human life. “Pleased as Man with Man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.” As a result of this unspeakable generosity and love, we have the opportunity to walk in marvelous light, to share and participate in the luminous life of the Blessed Trinity, the eternal life of God. If there is ever any news that should motivate us to “Go tell it on the mountain,” this is surely it! The gap is closed. Heaven and earth are joined.  God has become as we are that we may become as He is.  Alleluia and Amen.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Eve 2008

I can be something of a grouser and complainer during the weeks leading up to Christmas.  At no other time of year do I find my own inner being quite so much at odds with what’s going on in the secular culture.  But even I have to admit that there is a certain mystique to it all.  The “Christmas spirit,” however we think of it, does encourage us to look for the best in one another, which is remarkable precisely because most of the time we tend to see the worst in each other.  Shoppers see inattentive and snippy sales clerks. Sales clerks see obnoxious and demanding shoppers. We see drivers expressing “road rage” on the highways.  Con artists find a new sucker every day. Bad cops are paid off to look the other way at crime, and office holders, as we have seen so dramatically in Illinois, sell their power and influence to the highest bidder. 

All this tends to make us pretty cynical about human nature. We end up defining people by their behavior: So-and-so is a drunk, someone else is a philanderer, he has a temper problem, she’s a manipulative bully, and so on.  The spirit of Christmas lifts us—even if temporarily—the spirit of Christmas lifts us out of that kind of cynicism and judgmentalism. 

But it is, of course, not merely the “spirit” of Christmas that accomplishes this for us; it is the decisive act of God which lies at the heart of our Christmas celebration.  God has done something that forever disarms our cynicism toward human nature. 

Among the less well-known of C.S. Lewis’ prolific literary output is a trilogy of science fiction novels.  The first one, Out of the Silent Planet, features a self-effacing language scholar named Ransom, who is kidnapped by an evil scientist and his crony and taken in a spaceship to the planet Malacandra. The climactic scene of the story is a meeting between Ransom and a mysterious being whose name and title are both Oyarsa, and who is the ruler of Malacandra. Oyarsa is curious about Ransom’s home planet—Earth. Earth also once had an Oyarsa, Ransom is told, but he became “bent”—you and I might say “crooked”— and turned to evil. So Maleldil, the supreme creator and ruler of the universe, quarantined Earth from all other worlds, and confined its bent Oyarsa there, so he couldn’t do any damage elsewhere in the universe. Since then there has been no contact between Malacandra and Earth, but the Malacandrans have heard rumors that Maleldil has been up to some strange and daring activities in an attempt to redeem what had gone wrong there. Ransom then tells the Oyarsa of Malacandra the Christian story of the Incarnation, how God actually entered human experience, as a human being. Oyarsa is mightily impressed, for of all the worlds and all the races of creatures in the universe, this is the only instance he has ever heard of in which Maleldil has entered one of the worlds which he made and taken the form of one of the species which he created. Oyarsa finally tells Ransom: “You have shown me more wonders than are known in the whole of heaven.”

Yes, human nature is horribly “bent,” and we experience that “bent-ness” every day of our lives. But yet, God has greatly dignified human nature by taking it up into his own divine nature. And that act of love established the means by which that bent and twisted nature of ours can be placed back in the fire, like a blacksmith would do to a damaged horseshoe, where it can be softened up, and re-fashioned straight and true.

Each celebration of Christmas has the potential to change us. When we experience the “spirit of the season,” we have an opportunity to become more loving, more generous, maybe even more religious. More than once have I heard conversion stories that begin or culminate at the celebration of the Eucharist on Christmas Eve. Maybe this celebration tonight will be that turning point of conversion for somebody here, that watershed moment of insight that will be looked back on gratefully many years from now.

But that, wonderful as it all is, is just frosting on the cake. The real cause for Christmas rejoicing is that it is the festival of the Incarnation. The scandal of the Incarnation is that God himself is forever changed by it. He who is by nature pure spirit now has a human face, and the name of that face is Jesus. The human face of God was first revealed to an obscure Jewish couple in a remote corner of the Roman Empire, then to some humble and unsophisticated sheep   herders and some strange astrologers and magicians from un-heard of lands to the east. Finally, that human face of God was revealed most completely as Jesus looked down from the cross on his mother and his disciples and his persecutors.

In his dying and rising, and in the sacred ritual meal by which we remember that dying and rising—the meal which we celebrate tonight—the human face of God is revealed to you and to me. Eventually, we will all see that face when he returns as a just and righteous, but loving and compassionate, judge.

It is a venerable Christian custom, particularly at this time of year, during the Nicene creed, to bow deeply or even genuflect—go down on one knee—at the words which speak of the Incarnation: “...he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made Man.” I invite you to join me in this gesture of adoration and acknowledgement of the Incarnation, and what a sign it is of the depths of God’s love for our fallen race. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Come, let us adore him. Amen.


Monday, December 22, 2008

Year B: Advent IV (12/21/08)

Luke 1:26-38

Romans 16:25-27

II Samuel 7:8-16

She was an ordinary girl, this Miriam. Her parents, Anne and Joachim, were good people, though not remarkable. Her home town, Nazareth, was a decent enough place to live, though it had never won any “most livable city” awards. She’d had a good Jewish upbringing, pious, synagogue-attending, respectful of the history and traditions of her people. Oh, and now she was engaged. Her parents had arranged it all, of course, but they had not done too badly by her. Joseph had steady work, he was a carpenter, and it looked like he would be able to support her comfortably. Miriam was sure she would grow to love him over the course of time. Their betrothal was now official, a legal contract, and soon she would move in with him as his wife.

Life was not stress-free for anyone in Nazareth at that time, of course, including for Miriam. (Her namesake, by the way, was the great heroine of Israel, Moses’ own sister, and Miriam was proud of this fact; the Greeks and Romans would have called her “Maria.”) The village of Nazareth, and the province of Galilee, had been annexed into the Roman Empire about a hundred years earlier, and it was not an entirely happy arrangement. In fact, there was a good bit of political unrest in the air, and anxiety about the future. But that very fact is itself testimony to the ordinariness of Miriam’s, or Mary’s, life and times. How many eras in human history have been devoid of political unrest and anxiety about the future? Everyone lived one day at a time, hoping for the best, praying that everything would somehow just all work out.

Which doesn’t sound all that different from the way you and I live. We work and play and shop and try to have relationships and raise families. We try to experience joy in life, but sometimes it seems like sorrow is all there is. We try to stay healthy, but we all get sick. We have times of depression and times of elation, times of alienation and times of unity. At times we’re overwhelmed by guilt, and at times we’re overwhelmed by forgiveness. All of which is to say, we lead ordinary lives. We are tempted to despair, and we are tempted to hope.

And if we are indeed tempted to hope, invited to hope, we owe a portion of that invitation to Miriam, to Mary, and to her people. They were good at hoping. They had perfected hoping into a fine art. They had been promised, and were hoping for, a deliverer, one who would free them from the oppressor’s yoke, and lead them into a time of peace and justice and prosperity. This deliverer would be known as “messiah”, the anointed-one of God, cut from the same mold as the heroic messiah—King David. Indeed, the prophecies were that this messiah would descend from David’s own royal lineage. The prophet Nathan had promised David that 

“...the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled, and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. …Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”

So Mary, ordinary Mary, had a special hope, an extraordinary hope. She hoped that her generation would be the one to see the messiah, who would be not only the deliverer of her people, but a light to the nations, an ensign to the peoples, a beacon who would draw the whole world into God’s gracious reign of righteousness and justice.  Perhaps Mary, ordinary Mary, allowed herself to fantasize on what it might look like if her extraordinary hope were to be fulfilled. The Hebrew scriptures, the Law and the Prophets, certainly did not lack for vivid pictorial representations, both frightening and comforting, of the Day of the Lord, the coming of the messiah. In her fantasy, Mary could have drawn on this rich supply of images. Would the advent of Messiah be preceded by troops of angels doing battle with and defeating the legions of Rome?  Would there be an awesome celestial light show and a spine-tingling chorus of trumpets in the heavens as the storm clouds parted and Messiah descended to earth in a flaming chariot as he claimed his kingdom in an unmistakable public display?

These are just a few of the visions that may have danced in the head of an ordinary young Hebrew woman on the eve of her marriage to an ordinary Nazarene carpenter at the time when Caesar Augustus ruled the Roman empire and Quirinius was governor of Syria. But the imminent fulfillment of Israel’s hope also has meaning for us who are not genetically of the house of Israel. For us, the content of our hope in the advent of the messiah is summarized by St Paul in the concluding paragraph of a letter he wrote to the Christian community in the city of Rome, when he spoke of the

…mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of God, to bring about the obedience of faith…

From a Gentile perspective, the significance of the Messiah’s coming is not merely national, but  cosmic.  God’s motivation for sending his messiah among us was, in the words of the ancient Latin hymn,

In sorrow that the ancient curse should doom to death a universe…

God himself had pronounced the curse on Adam and Eve when he banished them from the Garden of Eden, but it was not within his heart of love to see that curse come to fruition. The mystery kept secret for long ages is a plan of salvation, a plan of redemption from the ancient curse, a plan to “no more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground…”, but, rather, to “make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.” It is a plan to deal definitively with violence and oppression and injustice and cruelty and even natural disasters. Yes, even earthquakes, fires, and floods are signs that the ancient curse, the curse that threatens to doom to death a universe, is indeed found far and wide.

And it all hangs . . . it all hangs on the ordinary obedience of ordinary Mary, from ordinary Nazareth, engaged to ordinary Joseph. The angel Gabriel was sent by God, not with a police escort, not in a horse-drawn carriage, not in a Cadillac limousine with a full media contingent, but, it would seem, rather inconspicuously. There’s no indication that he had any contact with anyone other than the intended recipient of his message, Mary herself. Her ordinary life would never again be quite so ordinary. Oh, she had intended to become pregnant, probably pretty soon after her marriage, but this was just a bit…too soon. It was a lot to ask of ordinary Mary.

 Yet, she was well-trained. She realized that to be chosen to be the mother of the messiah was indeed to be “highly favored.” For a moment, everyone’s fate was in her hands, the fate of captive Israel mourning in lonely exile, the fate of a universe doomed to death by an ancient curse. But in that moment, Mary chose to recognize God’s claim on her, she chose to obey. And in her obedience, Mary chose hope, Mary chose life. “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” 

Let it be to me according to your word. From that brief declaration of consent flows everything that we know as Christmas. From that brief statement of ordinary obedience by an ordinary young lady, issues the extraordinary fulfillment of every human hope. The glory of Christmas, the revelation of the mystery kept secret for long ages, came about through the willingness of an ordinary woman to obey God’s claim on her life. And in that light, we may well ask ourselves, what other glories might God be ready to reveal in response to the ordinary obedience of his ordinary disciples? Mary is unique in the particular nature of her vocation, and for that all generations will call her blessed. But she is not unique in the fact that God has a registered claim on her life. Through the death and resurrection of the messiah, God’s son and Mary’s son, God has “redeemed” us for himself. We belong to him.

So Mary is exemplary. Her response to God’s move to exercise his claim as our redeemer is an example to us. If we, in our ordinariness, were to make Mary’s words our own—“I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word”—if we were to make these words our own, what results might we expect to see? As individuals, we might well experience great awkwardness, virtually unbearable awkwardness, at first. Mary certainly did. Despite the euphoria of her angelic visitation, it was never easy to explain her pregnancy to her family and friends, let alone to Joseph! And it was not easy, several years later, to watch the one who has been born as a messiah-king die in disgrace as a criminal. But when we say “yes” to God, we experience the kind of peace that protects us, not from the storm, but in the storm. We know ourselves to be securely grounded, and experience profound wholeness and joy.

What might it look like if, as the parish of St Anne, we said in a concerted way, “Behold the servant of the Lord; be it unto us according to your word.”?  In the near term, there would be some moments of panic, as we experience the pain of being close to the pain of others. But before long, I believe, we would find ourselves in the midst of resources—human, financial, and material—more abundant than we can imagine. I suspect that God’s philosophy of inventory control is “just in time,” and he will not release his blessings upon us until we are committed to putting them to use. That same results would accrue, I believe, on a diocesan level. If, as the family of the Diocese of Northern Indiana, we declared in a united way, “Behold the servant of the Lord; let it be to us according to your word”, I would expect to see us blessed with courage and confidence, together with our bishop, to make our witness to the rest of the church and to the world with clarity and peace.

And as a result of such re-commitment to God’s claim on our ordinary lives, I would expect to see blessings overflow into secular society, with an impact on the level of violence and ethnic and cultural animosity and social disintegration in our cities and towns, and an impact on the level of suspicion and fear with which we approach this economic recession. In short, by saying “yes” to God, in emulation of blessed Mary, we lay the foundation for the fulfillment of all our hopes. So let us not hold out for a chorus of trumpets and a celestial light show. Our ordinary angel is greeting us and telling us that we are highly favored. Let us “just say yes,” and allow Christ to be formed in us, that we may give birth to his kingdom of justice and righteousness. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen

Year B: Advent II (12/7/08)

    Mark 1:1-8

II Peter 3:8-15, 18

I and those of my generation are children of the space age. When a manned space mission was launched, all three television networks interrupted their regular programming and showed it live. We grew up familiar with the voice of mission control saying “T-minus 47 minutes and counting” or “T-minus sixteen minutes and holding.” We got worried when the countdown was “holding,” because it meant there was a problem, and sometimes the hold lasted several hours or even a day. It was as if time stood still, and we ached for the gratification of hearing the final countdown—Ten-nine-eight-seven…and down to “We have liftoff.”

But the idea of a “countdown” leading up to an eagerly-anticipated event is not something new with the space age. Many of an older generation may remember the tradition—not yet entirely extinct—of the Advent calendar. Every day during Advent a little door would be opened or a space uncovered, revealing some church symbol or biblical prophecy that pointed to the coming of the Christ child. The Advent calendar unmistakably says, if not in so many words, “Christmas is coming.” It is a countdown to December 25. But it also keeps those who use it focused on the spiritual themes of Advent, which are waiting, hoping, and preparing.

In calendar time, then—whether it’s an Advent calendar or just an ordinary one—there are now about tw-and-half more weeks until Christmas. The countdown is under way, and it’s always “counting,” never “holding”! Here at St Anne’s, the choir is putting the final polish on the Festival of Lessons and Carols that they will lead us in on the 21st. The Altar Guild has planned for poinsettias and greenery with which to decorate the church for Christmas. I know many of you have made travel arrangements for yourselves and loved ones. Some of us have already done a good bit of shopping and meal planning, and that sort of thing. Even in the midst of the world’s generic “holiday” frenzy, Christians are—subliminally, at least—Christians are aware of an ongoing countdown, a climax toward which all these preparations are aimed.

In what we might call “cosmic time,” nobody except God knows exactly where we are in the countdown. All that the Christian faith reveals to us is that life is indeed one long countdown to the end of reality as we know it. The present scheme of things is temporary. It may end tonight; it may go on for thousands of years longer. But it’s temporary. As we have seen over the past several Sundays, from a faith-filled perspective, the end of history is something to look forward to with hope and joy, but it is intimidating nonetheless. As long ago as the lifetime of St Peter, there were those who were getting antsy about what seemed like an interminable delay in the second coming of our Lord. They were eager for it to happen—right now! Peter wrote and reminded them that any delay in the end of this present age and the inauguration of the world to come is purely for our benefit:

The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish…”

And when the forbearance is over? Peter writes,

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. 

OK, with that in mind, I, for one, am very grateful for the forbearance!

So there’s calendar time, cosmic time, and also liturgical time—church time. It’s Advent, and John the Baptist— the forerunner, the way-paver, the advance man, the harbinger, the dominating symbol of “mid-Advent”—What’s he up to, anyway? St Mark’s gospel tells us that

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 

John’s preaching and people’s lives are changing. They’re confessing their sins and getting baptized. They’re repenting. John says, in effect, “I’m just the warm-up act. The main event is coming right behind me and—take my word—it’s something you’re going to want to be ready for.” There was a countdown in John the Baptist’s ministry. There wasn’t a precise clock, but it was definitely “T-minus not-very-much and counting.” There was a sense of urgency. Ignition and liftoff were imminent. The more aware we are of the nearness of Christ—whether we’re speaking chronologically, cosmically, or liturgically—the more aware we are of the approaching arrival of Christ, the more irresistible becomes the urge to repent. The nearness of Christ naturally evokes a response of repentance.

What is repentance? Repentance is a change of mind that leads to change in behavior. If you’re in the habit of voting Republican, but realize one day that you really do believe that government should be a key player in solving economic and social problems, and start to vote Democratic, that’s repentance. If you’re a fan of the Indianapolis Colts, but come to believe that the Chicago Bears are more worthy of your attention and support, and you paint your house—which was previously medium blue with white trim—you paint your house dark blue with orange trim, that’s repentance. Now, repentance often also leads to a change of heart. But it’s the change of mind and change of behavior that are closer to the core of repentance. Actual change of heart often brings up the rear, arriving on the scene after change of mind and change of behavior have already settled in.

The sort of repentance that Advent evokes is not necessarily breast-beating sorrow. We misunderstand repentance if we identify it with a dramatic and emotional display of contrition. Still less is repentance a matter of hating oneself, or wallowing in shame. Rather, repentance springs from the same place that we get a desire to please someone whom we respect and admire and perhaps love. When a child cleans up her room or empties the dishwasher because she knows it will make her mother so happy, and there is joy for her in the prospect of her mother’s happiness, that behavior comes from the same place that gives birth to repentance. When a student puts extra effort into an assignment because he is just in awe of his teacher, and there is joy for him in the prospect of making his teacher proud, that behavior comes from the same place that gives birth to repentance. When a soldier gives extraordinary attention to duty out of an overflowing admiration for the leadership of his commanding officer, and the thought of pleasing that commanding officer is a source of joy and pride for him, such behavior springs from the same place that gives birth to repentance.

Christ is coming. The countdown is proceeding. And when he comes, we want him to be pleased with us. We want him to find us at our posts, doing our duty, fully prepared to greet him, and filled with joyful hope. So we repent. We repent by taking inventory of our lives, by naming and turning aside from all those things that might divert our attention from him, so that when the countdown reaches T-minus zero, we will not be afraid or ashamed, but will rejoice to behold his appearing. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.