Monday, 14 January 2019

It Begins with Love (Which Is Also a Call) (Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)


(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on January 13, 2019, Baptism of the Lord Sunday)



The Voice of Love

This morning, as I read about Jesus hearing the voice of love that broke through the heavens and told him who he was, I think about the girl who looked with disappointment at the grade on her returned chemistry test.  It was way below what she expected.  As she crumbled up the test and stuffed it in her backpack, a gentle shadow fell over desk.  Keeping her eyes down, she heard a voice: “Hang in there.  I see a future chemist in you.  This one grade does nothing to change that.”

This morning, as I read about Jesus hearing the voice of love that broke through the heavens and told him who he was, I think also about the boy who stood dejected on the sideline as the final whistle blew.  He had missed a great chance, and as a result his team had lost.  As he picked up his bag and began to leave, a big hand caught him on the shoulder.  He heard a voice:  “Chin up!  You ‘re a great player, I have no absolutely no doubts about that.  Don’t let this game get in your way, because you are full of promise.”

This morning, as I read about Jesus hearing the voice of love that broke through the heavens and told him who he was, I think also about the young man who opened up yet another rejection notice.  Not one publisher had shown interest in his work.  As he shared the discouraging news with his father on the phone, there was a pause.  Then he heard a voice: “The one thing I’m certain of is that you’re a writer.  And a very good one.  Being published or not, may change how you feel.  But don’t let it change who you are.”

What Begins the Story

The world preaches achievement.  If you want to be somebody, you must prove yourself.  If you want to make it in the world, you must earn your place.  You must win.  According to the US Department of Education, this is the goal of education: “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness.”[1]

It’s only natural that when we hear John the Baptist preach about a winnowing fork, and about wheat being separated from the chaff, we think in terms of making the grade.  Either we make it or we don’t.  Either we are good enough, or we aren’t.  Either we are the wheat or the chaff.

But I wonder if this isn’t distorting the gospel, if it isn’t imposing the world’s way of thinking on God’s way of thinking.  Because when I read just a few verses later, I see something completely contradictory to world’s way of thinking. 

When God’s voice breaks through the heavens and proclaims to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” it is not after Jesus has healed the sick or taught an inspiring lesson or preached a great sermon.  It’s not after he has performed his quota of miracles.  No, in the gospel’s account of things, he’s done practically nothing.  His recorded ministry hasn’t even begun.  The love of God isn’t a reward.  It doesn’t come as a result of any accomplishment.  That’s how the world explains life, but I’m beginning to wonder if the world hasn’t got it backwards.  Because in the ministry of Jesus, the love of God is at the beginning of the story.  The love of God is what begins the story.  It’s only after he hears these words from God, that Jesus embarks on an unforgettable three-year adventure that will forever change history.

I wonder then: is it a coincidence that the Spirit descends upon Jesus at this time, anointing him and empowering him for the years ahead?  Or is this Spirit nothing other than the love of God, one and the same with the God who declares, “You are my beloved.”  Isn't it love that anoints us and empowers us all for the journey of life?

In one of Jesus’ most famous stories, there are two sons.  The older son is responsible.  He works hard all of his life.  The younger son is reckless.  He wastes his inheritance.  In the world’s terms, he literally is worthless.  The twist, of course, is that the son who receives the love of his father isn’t the hard-working, self-made older son.  It’s the reckless, worthless, good-for-nothing younger son.  Jesus couldn’t emphasize his point any stronger: love is not after, as a reward, as an accomplishment.  Love is always first, without reason, without why.  Love is the beginning of life. 

The Winnowing Fork of Love

“But what about the winnowing fork?” we might ask.  “What about the wheat and the chaff?”  What about judgment?  Is that not also part of the Bible’s story?

It undoubtedly is.  But again, I wonder if we’ve been reading it backwards, so conditioned as we are by the this-for-that thinking of the world.  I wonder if judgment comes not before a final embrace (or rejection), but rather after God embraces us in love.

For when I think back on my life, I find that the winnowing fork has been most effective in relationships of love—with my parents, with my teachers, with my coaches.  When I am loved without condition, when I am affirmed not for what I do but for who I am, the best is called forth from me, and the chaff naturally falls away.  Love is what slowly, patiently, painstakingly winnows from us our hurtful habits, selfish inclinations, and unhealthy choices.

God’s Love, Which Is also a Call

“Hang in there.  I see a future chemist in you.” 

“Chin up!  You ‘re a great player.  I have no absolutely no doubts about that.” 

“The one thing I’m certain of is that you’re a writer.  And a very good one.” 

These are each in their own way echoes of God’s love, which is also a call.  When Jesus heard it, it made him who he was.  It began the story of his ministry that we read in the four gospels.  And the good news that he proclaimed, if we would believe it, is that God also calls out to us in the same way.

Have you heard it in your own life?  How?  Has it been through the words of others?  Or have you heard it in creation?  Or in the words of scripture?  Or in the inscrutable depths of your heart?  Where in your life do you know God’s love, and how is it calling you more fully into yourself and into the world?

Sometimes it’s hard to hear the call because we are so distracted by earning and achieving.  Perhaps, then, it’s helpful to remember that contrary to the teaching of our world we are not called to be successful, to achieve, to win.  We are called only to be faithful.  What might feel like a setback to us, may in fact be a crucial step on the journey of salvation.  (It is a cross, after all, that stands at the heart of our faith.)

Prayer

Creator God,
Whose love calls forth life:
So often we miss your love
Because we are too busy
Trying to earn it.
Open our ears to hear
Your first words to Christ,
Which are also your first words to us:
“You are my children, my beloved.
With you I am delighted.”
Through the call of your love,
May we be drawn more fully
Into ourselves
And into the world. 
Amen.



[1] U. S. Department of Education, “Overview and Mission Statement,” https://www2.ed.gov/about/landing.jhtml, accessed January 8, 2019.


Sunday, 30 December 2018

The Growth of Christ (Luke 2:41-52)


(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on December 30, 2018, First Sunday after Christmas)



The Growth of Resolutions

In two days, millions of people across the world will make resolutions.  Lose weight, save money, see more of the world.  Each one is a resolution to grow.  To do more or be more or have more.

Loosely held, resolutions can be helpful guides to a better life.  But I’m guessing we’ve also seen resolutions get out of hand.  Sometimes in the quest for more control over our lives, we ourselves become controlled by our quests. So the person who loses a little bit of weight becomes even more obsessed with the scale and follows an increasingly rigid regimen of exercise and diet.  So the person who is successful saving money becomes consumed by the need to make more.  From a distance, we might admire these self-made people.  But if we get close enough to see the collateral damage—the relationships that are sacrificed, the lack of grace and understanding for others who do not follow suit or measure up—we begin to see that this “growth” is a sham.  The only thing that has really grown is the ego.[1]

A Different Kind of Growth

But there is another kind of growth, I think, one that makes life larger rather than smaller, one that draws us more deeply into the world around us.   It isn’t the growth of a personal program or willful determination, which collapses our world into selfish single-mindedness.  It’s a more natural growth. It’s a growth in wisdom and awareness and love, a growth of God’s Spirit within us.  We see it today in the child Jesus, who according to scripture grew in years and wisdom.  And I think we see it in children all around us.

Growing up, my favorite teachers were the ones who would dress up to recreate moments in history, who would bring textbook problems to life by dressing them up in dramatic, real-life scenarios, who would take us outside to actually see or do what we were learning about.  My favorite teachers were the ones who kept us on the edge of our seats with wonder and suspense and curiosity.  And they all knew the secret to doing that.  Contrary perhaps to current opinion, the secret was not laptops and smart boards and the latest technological advancement.  It was much simpler than that.  The secret was a good question.  A good question made you wonder and think and explore.  It made you grow in wisdom and awareness and love.

The most boring teachers were the opposite.  They were the ones who had it all figured out, who had all the answers, who simply collected your class work and checked it against the back of the book.  There was no wonder or fascination in the questions they asked.  You knew that in the end they simply wanted you to say the same thing as them.  In these classes, perhaps the only thing that grew was my ego, for the only real objective was getting a good grade.

Questions Are How Christ Grew

When Mary and Joseph found Jesus in the temple, he was sitting down.  But by all accounts, he had the rabbis on the edge of their seats. 

He was asking questions.  I imagine they were big questions, the kind for which there isn’t a simple answer in the back of the book.  I imagine they were the questions that would shape Jesus for years to come.  Sitting among the grey and wispy-haired rabbis, I imagine Jesus popping off one question after another: “Who is my neighbor?  What does God think about our enemies?  And how should we treat them?  And what about forgiveness?  If we only ever forgive the people who are sorry, will that really change the world?  And if even the smallest things of life are out of our control, why do we worry so much about them?” 

Just like any child, the Jesus who was born in a manger was full of questions.  And our scripture today suggests that questions are how Christ grew.  These questions, which he never really stopped asking, made him who he was.

I read recently that in the gospel of Mark there are 114 questions.  Seventy-seven of them—over two-thirds—remain unanswered.  They linger for the reader to ponder.   For questions are not only how Christ grows but how we grow as his followers.

A Different Kind of Exam

Christian spiritually has long recognized the value of questions.  In sixteenth century Spain, Ignatius of Loyola introduced what would become a popular practice in contemplative Christian discipline, called the examen prayer, which derives from the Latin word for “examination.”  But it’s not the kind of exam with right answers and wrong answers, the kind of exam you pass or fail and feel good or bad about.  It’s not an exam that assesses growth but one that invites growth through the use of big questions.  It’s an exam of open questions that ask us to reflect on our experiences, to ponder them in light of God’s will, and to commit ourselves anew to God’s call in our lives.  It invites not the growth of willpower or determination but rather growth in wisdom and awareness and love.

Today, in the lull between Christmas and New Year’s, I thought it might be especially fitting for us to spend a few minutes practicing the examen prayer, savoring a moment of silence and sitting still before a few simple questions and perhaps even growing.  Some Christ-followers practice the examen weekly or daily, whenever they can find a handful of free minutes.  If you appreciate it today, perhaps you’ll want to incorporate it into your own practice of prayer on occasion.

An Examen Prayer

To begin, let me invite you to close your eyes, if it feels comfortable.  Breathe deeply.  In the Bible, the word for spirit is “breath.”  Acknowledge the Spirit of God within you in each breath you take.  Greet God in your inner heart.

Share your gratitude with God.  You might ask yourself what gifts you have received this past week, unearned, unrequested.  When did you smile unexpectedly?  Were there any moments when you felt fulfilled?  Thank God for this grace.

Now review the events of the past week.  Pay special attention to feelings.  Feelings are signals of where the action was in your life.  What three feelings did you feel most strongly this week?  Why did you feel this way?

Reflect without judgment on your response in the moments when you felt this way.  Were you drawing closer to God, or further away?  Were others brought closer to God, or further away?

Now look ahead into the new year.  Where do you anticipate feeling a similar way again?  Where is God in these moments?  What is God calling you or inviting you to do in these moments?  How is the love of God seeking to flow through you in these moments?

Allow your reflections to become a prayer to God.  Humbly ask God to help you in the year ahead.

Now as we conclude our examen prayer, hear this blessing and remember that growth is ultimately not our doing but the mysterious and wonderful doing and undoing of love:

Be silent.
Be still.
Let your God look upon you.
That is all.
God knows.
God understands.
God loves you with an enormous love
and only wants to look upon you
with that generous love.
Quiet.
Be still.
Let your God love you.[2]
Amen.



[1] Or what Paul calls the “flesh,” or what Thomas Merton and others in the contemplative tradition have called “the false self.”
[2] Edwina Gately, “Let Your God Love You,” http://jesuitinstitute.org/Pages/Prayers.htm, accessed December 27, 2018.


Monday, 24 December 2018

Light in the Darkness (John 1:1-5)


(Meditation for Gayton Road Christian Church's Christmas Eve Service, 2018)



The Darkness of Not Knowing

Some people leave the bathroom door ajar, enough that a little light escapes.  Others plug a nightlight into the wall.  When I was little, we would leave the light on in the hallway.  And I would leave my door open and sleep on my side facing the light.

My parents explained me to once that the darkness wasn’t bad.  It was just a condition.  Darkness meant not seeing, not knowing.  But not knowing was scary to me.  So I continued to sleep on my side facing the hallway, where I could see the light.

Sometimes the light was not enough.  When I awoke from a bad dream, the gentle glow of the hallway did not calm me.  Being able to see my surroundings did not put my mind to rest.  Because it still felt dark.  Not outside me, but inside me.  Deep within, where the bad dream lingered, it was still dark.  I couldn’t see, I didn’t know.  I didn’t know for sure if I was safe, whether in the days to come I would be hurt or not, whether tomorrow would bring good things or bad.

A Story of Light and Dark

All three Christmas stories in the gospels talk about light in the darkness.  The angels shimmering in the dusk.  The star sparkling before the magi in the night sky.  The light of the world that shines in the darkness.

Each story summons up the simple contrast that we have known since our earliest memories.  Light and dark.  It is a powerful image, one that uses the darkness outside to point to the darkness inside.  For it was two thousand years ago as it is today: inside, there is much that we can’t see, that we don’t know.  In the darkness of illness, we don’t know what will make things better.  In the darkness of loss, we don’t know how we will go on.  In the darkness of conflict, we don’t know exactly what’s wrong, or how things could be made right.

Sometimes we turn the story of light and dark into a battle, so that light is good and dark is bad.  But I wonder if that’s what’s happening in the Christmas story.  Because there’s no mention of the darkness being defeated or overcome.  The light does not remove the darkness entirely.  It simply shines in the darkness.

The Light of Love

When I awoke from a bad dream and the hallway light was not enough for me, I walked down the hallway, pushed open my parents’ door, and woke up them up.  One of them would walk back with me to my room and sit on the side of my bed.  And that was stronger than all the light in the world.

If I’m being honest, there was still darkness inside.  There were things that I didn’t know, like what tomorrow would bring, or whether my worries would come true, or what challenge would confront me next. 

But how else can I say it?  The light now was enough.  Not the hallway light.  But my parents’ love. 

The Love of God

We all live in darkness.  It’s not bad.  It’s just the condition.  It just means there are things we can’t see, things we don’t know.

But how else can I say it?  The light now is enough.  Not the light of the stars or the angels.  But the love of God—if you would believe it—here by our side.


Sunday, 23 December 2018

When Love Is Born (Luke 1:39-55)



(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on December 23, 2018, Advent IV)



Inconceivable News

In the scene that precedes today’s scripture, the angel Gabriel visits Mary and delivers the inconceivable news that she will conceive and bear the Messiah, the future king of Israel and savior of the world.  Before Gabriel leaves, he shares another piece of inconceivable news.  Mary’s relative Elizabeth, who is into her later years and thought to be barren, has already conceived.  “Nothing,” Gabriel says, “will be impossible with God.”

As soon as the angel leaves, Luke tells us, Mary leaves too.  I imagine that’s because she can’t stand still with the news she has just heard.  I imagine she’s about to explode with confusion and wonder and curiosity.  She can’t keep all this inside.  She has to share it.  And whom better to share it with than the other woman with inconceivable news?

So Mary leaves and goes “with haste” to a nameless town in the hill country to visit Elizabeth.  When the two mothers-to-be see each other, I imagine mayhem breaks loose: Elizabeth waddling and Mary running and the two crying out congratulations and “can you believe it?” and the rest of the country folk wondering what’s gotten into this odd couple, this child not yet a part of the real world and this senior who’s already past it.  It’s inconceivable.  What could women like them have to be excited about?

Why Fear Mary’s Song?

Moments later, Mary spills her feelings.  She breaks into song, magnifying the Lord, rejoicing in God.  Little does she know that her song, memorialized in scripture, will be repeated for centuries to come, that it will become a beloved prayer in the church, prayed regularly, even daily, all over the world. 

Not everyone, however, has loved Mary’s song.  You might be surprised to learn that during the British colonial rule of India, Mary’s song was outlawed from being sung in church.  In the 1980s, the Guatemalan government banned any public recitation of Mary’s prayer.  In Argentina also, when the mothers of the disappeared began to display Mary’s song on posters throughout the capital city, the military dictatorship outlawed any appearance of the song in public.[1]

Why?  Why would world rulers and dictators fear the words of a vulnerable, teenage girl from two thousand years ago?  Why would the hearsay of two nobody women in a no-name mountain town in Judea trigger a tremor in the hearts of the most powerful?

In a Word: Love

In a word: love.

Mary never says the word “love” in her song, but she doesn’t need to.  It’s behind every word she says.  It’s in the body of her unborn son, whose life and death and resurrection will show us the flesh-and-blood reality of love.

Love, according to Mary’s song, “looks with favor” upon the marginalized.  Love “lifts up the lowly” and “fills the hungry with good things.”  In other words, love looks out for others.  Love proclaims that everyone matters, and especially those whom the world treats as though they don’t matter.  Is it any coincidence that the story begins with Mary and Elizabeth, two women on the margin of their society, which itself is on the margin of a powerful empire?  Love has lifted them up, of all people.

But that’s not all.  Love—in the words of Mary’s song—also “scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” and “brings down the powerful from their thrones” and “sends the rich away empty.”  How?  If Jesus’ life is any indication, love simply bankrupts power.  It doesn’t trade in its currency.  It doesn’t play the game of merit and achievement, control and command.  It doesn’t give special status to the rich or the strong, the respectable or the beautiful.  It doesn’t acknowledge the lines of power: battle lines, border lines, division lines between us and them.  Love walks around ignorant of these lines, its arms wide open.  And for anyone to receive its embrace, they must leave their throne, their riches, their pride behind: they too must open their arms.

A Picture of Love

“Scattering the proud” and “sending the rich away empty” and “bringing down the powerful”—these words of Mary conjure up in my mind a strong champion, a sort of Robin Hood figure who uses a clever combination of force and trickery to right the wrongs of the world.  But I know that the love that Mary proclaims, the love born from her, looks different than that.

I know a tall, strong man, a colossus of a person, seasoned in both life on the streets and life in the boardroom.  He can get his way just about anywhere, if not with his assertive demeanor, then with his fists.   He’s a powerful man.

One day, though, that all changed.  At least it did for an instant.  You see, a son was born to him.  And his son with gurgled cry and arms wide open scattered the thoughts of his heart, emptied him of all his other ambitions, and brought him down to his knees.  And as he was brought down, he cradled his son and lifted him up. 

I don’t know a better picture of love.  The lowly lifted up, the powerful brought low.

Perhaps this is the secret of birth.  Perhaps this is part of the reason that Isaiah in his prophecies keeps going on and on about the world being saved by a child.  Perhaps this is part of the reason that we celebrate not just Christ as an adult teaching and healing, but Christ as a helpless baby, showing us the secret of love from the very first day he is born. 

For when love enters our world, this is exactly what we see: the lowly lifted up, and the powerful brought low.

“With Love, Nothing Is Impossible”

And the good news of Advent, if we would believe it, is that the love Mary sang about was not only born two thousand years ago.  This lowly-lifting, power-toppling love is still being born among us today.  Whenever our puffed-up pride or lofty aims are thrown off balance by the cry of another, whether it be a baby’s cry, or a spouse’s, or a friend’s.  Whenever mighty governments are stopped in their tracks by the pleas of people falling through the cracks.  Whenever our self-content spirits are rattled and made weak with worry for another person and we drop our pursuits to reach out to them.  Whenever strong nations are haunted by their hurtful histories and moved to dress the wounds of those who have suffered.  Whenever the self-centered thoughts of our heart are scattered and we find ourselves thinking and feeling from another person’s point of view. 

In all these ways, the lowly-lifting, power-toppling love that Mary sang about is still being born among us today.  And so still today the good news of Gabriel echoes, “With God, nothing will be impossible.”  Which is to say, “With love, nothing is impossible.”  For as Mary knew, as the dictators in Argentina and Guatemala knew, this love that lifts up the lowly and brings down the powerful is stronger than rulers and empires, stronger than grief or despair, stronger even than death.

Prayer

God of love,
Whose helplessness
Is more powerful
Than we know:
Although we are never quite ready
For your arrival,
Even so we pray,
“Be born in us.”
Topple us in our power,
Lift us up where we are lowly.
Transform our world
By your love.
In Christ who shows us
The flesh-and-blood fullness of love:
Amen.



[1] Jason Porterfield, “The Subversive Magnificat: What Mary Expected the Messiah to Be Like,” http://enemylove.com/subversive-magnificat-mary-expected-messiah-to-be-like/, accessed on December 17, 2018.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

The Joy of Water (Isaiah 12:2-6)


(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on December 16, 2018, Advent III)



Just Water

The first time I went skiing, I did a lot of falling.  At twelve years old, that was pretty fun.  In fact, if I’m honest, falling is probably one of the reasons I went skiing in the first place.  Since I had been little, falling had always been a temptation.  Rake a pile of leaves, and I would gladly fall in it.  Throw a pile of blankets and pillows on the floor, and I would find a way to fall in it.  In the same way, a pile of snow was little else than an invitation to fall in it.  The prospect of a mountain of snow was irresistible.  Anywhere I turned, mother nature would be there with her alluring white arms, waiting to embrace me in a heap of heavenly snow.

But I remember more than falling that first time skiing.  I also remember the deep ache in my calves and quadriceps after five unbroken hours on the slopes.  I remember my soggy socks and the sudden sting on my wind-bitten face as I stepped into the warmth of the ski lodge.  And I remember what surprised me most of all: how thirsty I was.  Earlier in the week, I had fantasized about skiing and then relaxing with a cup of hot chocolate by the fire.  But that fantasy had long since evaporated.  All I could think of when I stepped inside was water.  I needed water.  I stumbled forward with my ski boots still on until I finally found a water fountain and I parked myself there for the next five minutes.  I can’t tell you how delicious that water was.  How my body rejoiced, how it felt the water course within it all the way from my throat to the tips of my fingers and toes.

In that moment, it was the simplest thing that gave me the greatest joy.  Not hot chocolate.  Not some warm luxury drink topped off with an unhealthy amount of whipped cream.  Just water.

Just a Hug

Perhaps you know the experience.  Perhaps it’s an experience that has to do not only with water.

This time of year, I am filled not only with memories of snow but also memories of Christmas past.  How our family would gather.  How my uncle would make jokes that made me blush.  How my grandma would be taste-testing our dinner, and always erring on the side of a little more lemon juice if something didn’t taste just right.  How my granddad would hug me so tight I could feel his moustache on my forehead.

Of course, getting the whole family together was also bound to result in friction.  How could you have that many people together and not have two folks rub one another the wrong way?  More often than not, the conflict would come from something small, like a confusion of responsibilities in the kitchen or hurt feelings over a hotly contested card game.  If any of this sounds familiar, take comfort from the reminder that you’re not alone.  These experiences are nothing new.  They’re bound to happen.  What’s worth remarking on is not that they happen but how we respond.  Because I’ve noticed something in my own experience of these situations.  On the surface, I think that what I want is to be right or to be in control or to win.  I want to pick what goes on the table; I want to have the final say in a conversation; I want to build hotels on my Park Place and Boardwalk properties and bleed my family dry.

But in fact I don’t those desire those things at all.  When I find myself embroiled in that helpless, fighting feeling, I actually feel hollow and small—even when I win, even when I get what I want. Deep inside me there is a thirst for something different, something much more.  It’s a thirst for something I can’t get with words or logic.  It’s a thirst for something I can’t get with command or control.  The only thing I’ve ever quenched this thirst with, is a hug.  Letting go of that fighting feeling and sharing a hug recalibrates my heart, reminds me what matters, relieves my deep thirst.  A hug is like water to my parched heart. 

In that moment, it is the simplest thing that gives me the greatest joy.  Not being right or being in control, like I might think.  Not winning.  Just a hug.

The Simplest Things

The lie that masquerades as Christmas in much of our world, is that joy is getting what we want.  We hear it in every commercial this season.  We live it whenever we fight to get our way, whether it’s with holiday plans or side dishes or simply which decorations look best on the tree.  We believe in the lie and spread it when we turn Christmas into a holiday of self-gratification, when we expect to be happy all the time with all of our favorite things around us.

But joy is not getting what we want. 

Joy is about water.  Not hot chocolate.  Not a drink covered in whipped cream.  Not what we want.  Joy is about the water that meets a much deeper thirst.  It’s about the simplest things—which in fact give us the greatest joy.  And this joy can happen in happiness, like when I stumbled off the slopes aglow with the glee of skiing.  Or it can happen in frustration, even depression, like when we are submerged in that helpless, fighting feeling that haunts the holidays, and a hug finds its way through to shower our parched heart.

Water from the Wells of Salvation

Our scripture today is filled with joy—with giving thanks and shouting aloud and singing praises.  The reason for all this joy is simple.  Water.  It’s Isaiah’s symbol for salvation.  Joy is about the simple things that God gives us, the simple things we share, the simple goodness that is the life of the world—goodness as simple as water.  “With joy,” Isaiah proclaims, “you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (12:3). 

While the world suggests that Christmas is about getting what we want, Advent declares something different.  Something simpler.  Advent announces that joy is not a contest or a competition for gratification.  Joy is about a deeper thirst.  And joy is about the clear water that quenches it.  Joy is as simple as a hug amid loneliness, or a smile on a hard day, or a moment of quiet in a busy time.  Joy is always there, waiting for us to receive it, to drink it, to share it.

The Help We Need

The ever-presence of joy is a bit of a riddle, and so I would like to conclude with something of a riddle. 

Meister Eckhart, a German priest and mystic of the fourteenth century, had a curious way of talking about joy.  God laughed at Christ, he said, and then…Christ laughed back.  That is the completion of joy.  Perhaps we hear an echo of this sacred experience in our other scripture today, where John the Baptist talks about bearing fruit with our lives.  John was preaching in a hard voice, and it’s difficult to hear any joy in it.  But I wonder if deep down he was saying the same thing as Meister Eckhart—namely, that joy is a call and response.  When we drink its water, we cannot help but bear fruit.  When we hear its laughter, we cannot help but laugh back.

The surprise of Advent, then, is that joy already abounds in our world, that God is laughing.  Can you hear the laughter?  It’s hard sometimes, isn’t it?  Perhaps that is part of the reason Advent is also a season of waiting.  We need a little help to hear that laughter.  May it come, and quickly.

Prayer

Living Water,
Christ whose love
Quenches our deepest thirst—
Your joy is simple.
Not a thing to be won
But a gift
Ever waiting to be received.
Open the eyes of our hearts,
As you did years ago,
To see the joy of life
In the simple way of love.  
Amen.


Sunday, 9 December 2018

Peace from the Desert (Luke 1:68-79)


(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on December 9, 2018, Advent II)



“They Make a Desert and Call It Peace” 

All his life, Zechariah had heard the stories.  He had heard about father Abraham wandering underneath stars and hearing the wild, whispered promises of God that he and his family would be blessed.  He had heard about how the people had been slaves in Egypt and God had delivered them to freedom.  He had heard about little David and big Goliath, about how that boy grew into a great king and how God had made a promise to establish his kingdom forever.

But they were all just stories.  Reality looked very different.  Roman soldiers walked the streets, curses on their tongues, the threat of violence never more than a few steps away.   Roman coins circulated the ancient world declaring in their inscription, “Caesar is lord,” and Roman taxes reminded the people regularly that they were not free but servants of a foreign empire.  They were at the Romans’ beck and call.  When Emperor Augustus issued a census, people had no choice but to travel to their hometown to be counted.  That is what they were to the Romans.  Numbers, statistics, prospects for labor or monetary gain.

Zechariah and the Judean people were not the only ones who lived under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire.  Numerous other peoples fell under the heel of the empire, and like Zechariah they knew the burden of occupation.  The Roman historian Tacitus records one outsider’s view of Rome in these words: the Romans “make a desert and call it peace.”  In other words, the pax Romana or peace of Rome was not anywhere near what it was cracked up to be.  For Rome, peace meant defeating your enemies and keeping them defeated.  Or as the famous Roman proverb put it more simply, “If you want peace, then prepare for war.”

A Desert Kind of Peace

The peace of Rome was a hostile peace.  But truth be told, the peace that the Judeans sought was little different.

If Zechariah spent much time around the city gates in Jerusalem, where people talked business and politics and the state of the world, I imagine he’d have heard a debate along these lines:

“If we really wanted peace, we’d do something about it.  We’re never gonna get our way unless we fight for it.  We need a revolution.”

“A revolution?  Have you seen how the Romans handle revolutions?   It’s not pretty, my friend.  If you’re lucky enough to escape the sword and the flames, you’ll face a life of slavery.  No, if we really want peace, we need to give up these aspirations.  We need to be content with what life we have and just keep out of the Romans’ way.”

In a nutshell, it’s the classic bully scenario and the choice of either fight or flight.  Both options promise peace.  But either way, it is a false peace, a hostile peace—a desert kind of peace.  Fighting back may get you what you want, but it leaves wounds and resentment.  It leaves a desert, a desolation.  Retreating from confrontation may keep you safe, but it also keeps you on edge, on eggshells, afraid of what is to come.  It’s like living in a desert, deprived of growth and greening and life.

A Pioneer, a Prophet, a Preparer

Now at this time in his life Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth had no children.  And, as the Bible puts it, they were both “getting on in years” (Luke 1:7).  So when the angel Gabriel announced to Zechariah that Elizabeth would bear a son, he could hardly believe the news.  It left him speechless—literally.  With nine months of silence, I imagine Zechariah did plenty of thinking.  I imagine that he wondered back then, as many parents still do today, what kind of world he was bringing his son into.  I imagine that he worried about his son having to living in such a false peace, a hostile peace—a desert kind of peace.

But when his son is finally born, something comes over Zechariah.  He is filled with the Holy Spirit, which is to say, something outside of him, or deep deep inside of him, suddenly takes hold of him with a hope that will not be held back, and he announces that his son will not live in the false peace of the world.  No, he will be a pioneer, a prophet, a preparer for real peace.  He will make the world ready for a different way of life.  “You, child, will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,” Zechariah utters with utter conviction.  “[And] by the tender mercy of our God the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (1:78-79).

How Peace Grows in the Desert

If your curiosity is piqued by now, if you’re wondering, “Well, did it actually happen?  Did Zechariah’s son prepare the people for a different way of living, for real peace?”, then you’re in luck.  The lectionary (our church calendar for scripture) smiles kindly upon us and grants us a glimpse into the adult life of Zechariah’s baby boy, John.  Our other scripture today fast-forwards us thirty years or so from the moment when Zechariah defiantly announces his hope and conviction that his boy would lead the people into a new peace.  What we find is his boy John all grown up and preaching.  Where?  Where else?  The desert!

It’s too good to be a coincidence!  While the world makes a desert and calls it peace, the Spirit of God goes precisely to these places of desolation and deprivation, where peace in fact is absent and most needed.[1]  There in the desert, there in the uneasy peace of Israel, among the scars of Roman violence and the fears of further loss, there John proclaims real peace.  There where people are languishing from a lack of peace, John implores them urgently to change their mind—or as we say in the church, to “repent” (3:3).  In other words, no more fight or flight.  Instead, John proclaims a different way, a way that his father Zechariah had foreseen when he first sang his hope: “the forgiveness of sins” (1:77; 3:3).  Not just God forgiving us, but us forgiving others and honoring the sacred life they bear.  When the crowd asks what this change looks like, he responds: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise”—which is to say, think not only about yourself but also about others; see them as God sees them; seek not simply your gain but the common good.  That is how life grows in a desert.  That is how peace grows in a world of violence and fear.

I wonder if it is any coincidence that when we have heard such proclamations in history, they have come time and again from the desert, from places of false peace.  For that is precisely where the Spirit goes to prepare the way of the Lord.  [In El Salvador where the powerful persons of business and politics exploited the poor through threat and violence, Archbishop Oscar Romero responded with neither fight nor flight.  By the Spirit that inhabited John, he pronounced: “Peace is not the product of terror or fear.  Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.  Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all.”]  And in the United States where minorities continue to suffer the cloaked persecution of prejudice, Martin Luther King, Jr.  called for neither fight nor flight, but declared by the same Spirit, “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.”  And in my own home, when I complained of a classmate whose behavior was a bit rough around the edges, my mom shared with me by the same Spirit that my classmate in fact lived in a troubled home, and what he needed more than anything was love.

If the message of Advent is that Christ is always coming—and I believe it is—then the message of this Sunday is that the Spirit that prepares the way of Christ is always calling for peace from the desert.  Wherever there is a false peace, a hostile peace, the Spirit is crying for real peace—forgiveness and understanding and compassion. 

Can you hear the Spirit’s cry today?  Or perhaps…perhaps it is meant to come from our lips too?

Prayer

Spirit of God
Whose peace passes
Beyond understanding—
Incline our ears
And our hearts
To hear your cry
In the deserts
Of this world.
Change our minds—
Our compulsive habits
Of fight or flight—
And draw us into your way
Of forgiveness, salvation, and true peace.
In Christ, who shows the way.  Amen.



[1] While Isaiah’s prophecy seems to predetermine the setting of the desert for John’s preaching, I also believe that the setting has something to do with God’s determination to bring peace where there is none, life where it is lacking.  Indeed, that appears to be at least part of the desert’s significance as a setting for Isaiah.  Shortly after the prophecy about the voice crying out in the wilderness (cf. Isa 40:3), Isaiah uses the image of life in the desert to describe God’s saving power (cf. 41:17-20).