Good News

Sermon on Luke 2:1-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

At the end of every calendar year, social media and other internet sites are generally overrun with articles, tweets, videos, and other posts reviewing the year that is coming to an end. This year, the vast majority of these reflections have had a distinct and consistent theme: imgresnamely, that 2016 was the worst. In some ways, it’s hard to argue with this conclusion. This year saw the Zika virus, terror attacks in Brussels, Nice, and Berlin, and the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. This year saw economic collapse in Caracas, political disaster in Ankara, and humanitarian catastrophe in Aleppo. This year saw the deaths of Alan Rickman, Abe Vigoda, Florence Henderson, Alan Thicke, David Bowie, and Prince, to name just a few. This year saw arguably the most contentious election in this country’s history, one that devolved into a nightmarish carnival of fear, resentment, and despair. As we come to the end of this difficult year, it is hard not to buy into the notion that this was the worst year ever.

Human beings have experienced objectively worse years. There was 1348, when the Black Plague arrived on European shores. Less recently there was 72,000 BC, when a volcano in Sumatra exploded with the force of 1.5 million atomic bombs, resulting in the near extinction of the human species. Clearly, 2016 could have been much worse. Yet, it was an exceptionally difficult year. I think the main reason is that this year was so full of uncertainty. Nothing worked out the way we thought. Election results around the world defied the expectations of pollsters and prognosticators, the people who are supposed to be able to tell us what is coming. Traditional times of celebration were interrupted by terror and despair. Even the celebrities who died tended to be people whose presence signified comfort and stability: we lost veteran character actors, musical iconoclasts, and TV moms and dads, people we imagined would always be there. It’s no wonder Merriam Webster’s word of the year was “surreal.” This was a year of confounded expectations, one in which many of us experienced a profound sense of dislocation.

Rather than dislocation, tonight’s gospel reading begins with an almost radical sense of continuity. Luke begins the Christmas story by telling us that Caesar Augustus issued a decree while Quirinius was governor of Syria. This is one of the narrative quirks of this gospel. Luke loves to let us know who was in charge when the events he describes took place. This is about more than providing historical context. The world of Luke’s gospel was one in which the personalities of those in power had a profound effect on the lives of those they governed. The fact that the emperor could send people to their hometowns on a whim is evidence enough of that. Moreover, it was a time when rulers stayed in power for a very long time. By mentioning these world leaders, Luke strongly implies that the world is unlikely to change any time soon.

In the midst of this political stability, however, an angel proclaims to a group of shepherds: “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy.” The angel tells the shepherds that this babe wrapped in swaddling clothes represents something entirely new in the world. Moreover, the angel uses a politically loaded term to describe the birth of Jesus. The word we translate as “good news” is the same word that was used to announce when the emperor had a son. It referred to the birth of a new king. According to Luke’s account, the birth of this child represents a challenge to the present order. And yet, not much changes politically after the birth of Jesus. Augustus remains the emperor and Quirinius remains the governor. The sanguine expectations of the angels appear to have been confounded. Our refrain of “glory to the newborn king” seems tinged with irony. In this gospel reading, it would appear that we are experiencing a profound sense of dislocation.

But this reading ignores a small yet crucial detail in Luke’s narrative. After the shepherds left the babe alone with his parents, Luke tells us that Mary “treasured these things and pondered them in her heart.” theotokos_3_500Though Luke could be describing the pride that every parent feels when her child is adored by strangers, there is a much more powerful dimension to this statement. By pondering these things in her heart, Mary ensures that the affairs of the world, no matter how dispiriting or dislocating, will never diminish the good news of Jesus’ birth. This is that good news: unlike those leaders that history has mostly forgotten, Jesus is a different kind of king. Jesus is the one who rules our hearts. While this may seem saccharine, even trivial, it is actually of monumental importance. It signals that God’s claim on us transcends every circumstance.

For this reason, I think that the most powerful expression of the Christmas gospel can be found in the Burial Rite of the Book of Common Prayer. The opening anthem includes these words: “For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For if we live, we live unto the Lord, and if we die, we die unto the Lord. Whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.” These words do more than comfort the bereaved: they demonstrate how the gospel frustrates the powers of the world. Most tyrannical regimes coerce obedience by threatening death. But, if we can say with confidence that we are the Lord’s whether we live or die, we have nullified the tyrant’s ultimate threat. The gospel we proclaim tonight is deeply and quietly subversive because it insists that those who claim worldly authority have no real power over us, that the only power that truly matters is that of the babe lying in the manger.

No matter how many times we may hear it, the birth of Jesus is always news, because the bad news is always changing. In the midst of a world that is filled with uncertainty, we must treasure this good news, confident that Jesus Christ is the one who rules our hearts.

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Journeys

Sermon on Jeremiah 31:7-14 and Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

In 1987, organizational theorist Jerry Harvey published a management parable he called The Abilene Paradox. The story goes something like this: a family in Coleman, Texas is trying to decide what to do for dinner on a summer evening. Someone halfheartedly suggests going to Abilene, some fifty miles down a sun-parched highway. Though no one is enthused by the prospect of making trip, no one is willing to express their dissatisfaction, and so the family piles into the car. Predictably, the journey is miserable: the heat is in the triple digits, the car breaks down along the way, and when they finally get to Abilene, the only place to eat is a grubby cafeteria,. By the time the family returns home, they are exhausted and thoroughly dispirited. Gradually, it becomes clear that no one wanted to make the trip in the first place. If someone had simply expressed their opinion, the family would have been saved a miserable evening. Harvey relates this parable to illustrate the benefits of conflict and disagreement in an organization, but the story makes an even simpler point: some journeys are just not worth taking; sometimes, it makes more sense to stay put.      

This morning, our lectionary offers us two depictions of journeys that seem to be worth taking. One is Jeremiah’s sweeping vision of God’s people journeying out of exile to their homeland. The other is Matthew’s account of the Holy Family escaping from the murderous intentions of King Herod and ultimately returning to their home in Galilee. In many ways, these stories are similar. Both depict journeys that have significant implications for the future. Both are stories of loss and restoration. Both are incredibly dramatic. Jeremiah writes of a people who have been removed from their homeland because of their disobedience and failure to honor the commandments of God. His is a spectacular vision of repentance: “Thus says the LORD,” he writes, “I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth…with weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back.” In the most comprehensive way possible, Jeremiah is inviting his people to return to their God, to reestablish their relationship with the one they abandoned. Moreover, Jeremiah implies this journey from exile to restoration is central to the experience of God’s people.Rembrandt_Dream_of_Joseph If anything, the language in Matthew’s gospel is even more arresting. Matthew describes a journey marked by the haste that comes when lives are at stake: “Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt.” This gripping tale seems to confirm Jeremiah’s implication that it is movement toward God that characterizes our lives; after all, even the Christ child, the Word made flesh, found himself on a journey when he was just a few months old.

This image of a journey toward God is common in many of the world’s religious traditions. Most follow the same basic idea: if we follow along the path that has been set before us without stumbling too many times, we will achieve union with the Divine. This seems to be what Jeremiah articulates in calling his people to repentance, and it seems to be what Matthew reiterates in the first chapters of his gospel. Yet there is one crucial distinction between the words of the prophet and the words of the evangelist, and it is a distinction with dramatic implications. In Jeremiah, God’s people are on the journey, God’s people are striving toward the goal that has been set before them. In Matthew, however, God himself is on the journey. In the two gospels that include birth narratives, the early life of Jesus is characterized by movement (Nazareth to Bethlehem, Bethlehem to Egypt to Galilee) in order to illustrate how God journeys toward us in the incarnation. The unique witness of the incarnation is this: it is not we who make the journey to God; it is God who makes the journey to us. During this Christmas season, we make the astonishing claim that God reconciled us to himself and to one another by becoming one of us.

This has startling implications for the way we live. We tend to live our lives constantly thinking about what comes next, constantly looking for the next challenge to overcome or milestone to achieve. This constant striving, however, is the source of nearly all our anxiety, because no matter how hard we try, our efforts to live perfect lives, to create a perfect world, to do everything right are ultimately fruitless. A mature understanding of the incarnation allows us to put striving in its proper perspective, to recognize that no matter how hard we try, it is God who is the ultimate source of everything that is important in our lives. At the beginning of this service, we heard that marvelous collect for the Second Sunday of Christmas: “O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature.” Note that God is the actor on both counts, God is the one who both creates and restores. The mission of Jesus Christ was not to provide an example of how we should live; the mission of Jesus Christ was and is to show us that our striving toward perfection is ultimately fruitless because God is bringing all things to their perfection by dwelling among us. The incarnation invites us to stay put and receive joyfully the life God has given us, to recognize that everything we experience is a gift.

This year, my 18 month old has been experiencing Christmas for the first time. While she was obviously around last year, this is the first Christmas that she has been able to appreciate what is happening, and the first Christmas that she has really gotten excited about presents. Wrapping-MessHer favorite part of opening presents, however, is not the gift, but the wrapping paper. In fact, like many toddlers, she is usually more interested in the wrapping paper than in the gift itself. This is a source of some frustration to those of us who spent time, energy, and money selecting gifts we thought she would enjoy, only to be upstaged by a square foot of brightly colored paper. I wonder, however, if my daughter has the right perspective, even if she doesn’t know it. For her, everything is a gift: every toy, every piece of wrapping paper, every meal, every hug, every moment. She implicitly recognizes what the incarnation calls each one of us to remember, that everything: every triumph and tragedy, every success and failure, every joy and sorrow, that everything is a gift from God.

 

Making Music in the Heart

Sermon on Luke 2:1-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

You may have heard that there is a new Star Wars movie. I haven’t seen it yet, but apparently, it’s pretty good. Most reviewers are excited that this new version is more like the original trilogy that came out in the 1970s than the prequels that were released about a decade ago. That’s a good thing, because the prequels were pretty bad.300px-Opening_crawl Perhaps nothing illustrates how poorly the prequels compared to the original movies better than the differences in the iconic opening crawls that gave the backstory for each trilogy. On one hand is the crawl for the 1977 Star Wars: “It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.” Now that’s how you begin a space opera; you definitely want to find out what happens in that movie. On the other hand is the crawl for The Phantom Menace, which came out in 1999: “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.” Taxation of trade routes? Really? That sounds less like a thrilling sci-fi movie and more like C-SPAN.

There is a level at which the beginning of Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus sounds a little like the opening crawl from The Phantom Menace. Luke unfolds the Christmas story in an unusual and frankly banal way. We would expect the evangelist to begin by focusing on the joys and trials of the Christ child and his family. But instead of tugging at our heartstrings, Luke begins his account of the birth of Jesus by talking about politics. Specifically, he reminds us that Augustus is the emperor of Rome and Quirinius is the governor of Syria. On one hand, the evangelist is just providing context; he is affirming that the incarnation is an event that can be considered part of the historical record. On the other hand, the reminder about who is in charge is deeply significant for our understanding of this story, because this story announces the arrival of a new king. When the shepherds hear the angel announce,“behold, I bring you good news of a great joy,” the word we translate as “good news” refers to much more than new information; it is the same word that was used to announce the birth of a new emperor. In other words, Luke describes the birth of Jesus with a word that usually indicated a fundamental change in the political reality of the world.

Yet, as Luke reminds us at the beginning of this passage, the political situation in the world doesn’t change much after that angelic announcement. Augustus is still the emperor and Quirinius remains the governor. The shepherds return to their hardscrabble existence in the Judean wilderness, and the Holy Family ekes out a modest living in the Galilee. God’s chosen people remain under the thumb of an oppressive regime, and tyrants persist in forcing their will on the weak. By reminding us who the political leaders are at the time of Jesus’ birth, Luke creates a stark juxtaposition: he announces the arrival of a new order even as the old order continues to flourish.

And yet, that’s not where Luke ends the story. After the shepherds depart and everything apparently returns to normal, Luke interrupts the flow of the narrative and turns our attention to the mother of Jesus: “But Mary,” he interjects, “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” Mary seems to know implicitly that these glorious things are fleeting, and yet she resolves to hold them in her heart. imgresThis may not seem like much, but remember that Mary endures trials that no mother should ever have to endure. She is forced to watch the rejection and crucifixion of the child she gave birth to in that lowly stable. In the midst of this soul piercing grief, Mary continues to be animated by the joy of the incarnation, she continues to “ponder these things in her heart.” This statement is deeply and quietly subversive. This statement is where the second chapter of Luke’s gospel moves from charming folktale to a story that has the power to change the world. Because in this statement Mary affirms that the agents of sin and death; disease, war, pestilence, oppression, famine, murder, intolerance, violence; that none of these has any power over us. Mary locates a persistent and enduring joy, an inextinguishable light that cannot be overcome by any darkness. By doing so, she demonstrates that the true Christian vocation is embodied in our ability to find joy in every circumstance of our lives. This joy does not deny the reality of evil in the world; this joy we claim tonight insists that evil has no power over us because it has been defeated through the death and resurrection of the child who was born to Mary.

Howard Thurman was the Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University and a mentor to countless imgresreligious leaders, including Martin Luther King. During his time at the Chapel, a time of great unrest and upheaval, he meditated on the things Mary pondered in her heart: “When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, then the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.” The ultimate “work of Christmas,” the one that transcends all our other responsibilities, is to make music in our hearts: to celebrate the salvation God has created in the midst of the earth and to claim the joy of the incarnation at all times and in all places.

 

On Fruitcakes and the Incarnation

Sermon on John 1:1-18 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA. Audio for this sermon may be found here. To hear an abridged version of Truman Capote’s story read by the author, click here.

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Photograph of young Truman and his cousin taken by “the young Wistons.”

In 1956, Truman Capote published a short story about his childhood called A Christmas Memory.  It is a wonderfully evocative tale of how young Truman and his aging cousin, Miss Sook, celebrated Christmas in Depression-era rural Alabama.  The story centers around the pair’s Christmas preparations, the most important of which is the baking of thirty fruitcakes for “friends” across the country.  Capote describes how he and his cousin collect windfall pecans, purchase candied pineapple at the general store, and procure illegal whiskey from the unsmiling and terrifying Mr. Haha.  He also points out that the fruit of their considerable labor does not necessarily benefit their neighbors or relatives.  “Indeed,” he observes, “the larger share is intended for persons we’ve met maybe once, perhaps not at all. People who’ve struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt. Like the Reverend and Mrs. J. C. Lucey, Baptist missionaries to Borneo who lectured here last winter…Or the young Wistons, a California couple whose car one afternoon broke down outside the house and who spent a pleasant hour chatting with us on the porch.”  At one point in the story, Miss Sook wonders if Mrs. Roosevelt will serve their cake at Christmas dinner.  Of course, we all know that there is no way that that could happen, that the vast majority of recipients probably didn’t know what to do with this fruitcake from these people they barely remember, and I suspect that Capote and Miss Sook understood this at some level.  Every year, however, Truman and his cousin would pool their meager savings, invest an incredible amount of time and effort, and send more than thirty fruitcakes around the country to people who might not even want them.  From a common sense perspective, this whole enterprise seems inefficient and pointless.  If Capote and his cousin were to do a cost benefit analysis, it would be very clear that that this particular Christmas ritual is a waste of time.  And yet, they embrace this task with such joy, with such enthusiasm, with such delight that everyone can see why the process of making and sending fruitcake continues to be part of their Christmas experience.

This morning, we heard the extraordinary prologue to John’s gospel.  This passage is foundational to the Christian faith, which is part of the reason that it is always read on the first Sunday after Christmas.  This text describes the fullness of God’s creative power and then proceeds to illustrate the astonishing surprise of the Incarnation.  This passage invites us to meditate on one of the central Christian mysteries: that God became one of us, that the author of all creation became part of that creation, that the Word became flesh and lived among us.  But even as John describes the incredible power of the Creator becoming part of creation, he acknowledges that not everyone recognized the Word made flesh, that not everyone embraced the reality of God with us.  John tells us that the Word, Jesus Christ, came to what was his own, but that his own people did not accept him.  It’s a peculiar reference, particularly in John’s gospel.  John’s personality is somewhat unique among the evangelists.  While Matthew, Mark, and Luke are perfectly content to depict the humanity of Jesus (all three have Jesus doubting, getting annoyed, and even getting hungry occasionally) John’s portrayal of Jesus is otherworldly and divine.  In John’s gospel, Jesus knows exactly what is going to happen to him; Jesus is initiates his own mission and he is in control of his own life and death.  So it is surprising, then, that in the sweeping introduction to his gospel, John would mention that people rejected Jesus.  The fact that people rejected the Word leads us to wonder about the purpose of the Incarnation.  The triumphal tone of John’s gospel seems to suggest the point of the Incarnation was to make Christians, to bring as many people into relationship with God through Jesus Christ as possible.  Why else would John make the distinction between those who do not receive Jesus and those who “believe in his name”?  Surely, the way to understand this distinction is that those who “believe in his name” are those who are part of the Church, whereas those who reject the Word are those outside the body of the faithful.  In this view, those who recognize the presence of God in Jesus Christ are “Incarnation success stories.”  But this leaves us wondering how it is possible for anyone to ignore the very presence of the living God among them.  If the Incarnation is all about persuading people to adopt a particular religious perspective, then the fact that some people rejected Jesus is problematic.  In fact, it means that the Incarnation was a failure, that God’s participation in history was for naught, that the Word becoming flesh was a waste of time.

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Many take great solace in the fact that Jesus knew how to throw a party.

This limited understanding of the Incarnation is only accurate from a human perspective.  John, however, makes it very clear that the Incarnation is about much more than getting people’s names on the rolls.  At the end of the prologue, John articulates the true fruit of the Incarnation: “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”  The Incarnation is not a means of classification, it is the outpouring of God’s own self, the sharing of an unfathomable grace.  John affirms that God’s fullness is poured out abundantly, without regard for who receives it or what impact it may have or whether it will be rejected.  The Incarnation is not strategically targeted where it will be most effective; it is an extravagant, inefficient outpouring of everything that God is.  We see this illustrated in the miracle at Cana in the very next chapter of John’s gospel.  Jesus is told that the party has just run out of wine, and his response is not to make a per capita estimate based on consumption trends, but to produce more wine than anybody could possibly drink.  Like Miss Sook’s fruitcakes, the Incarnation is not about precise calculation; it is about the expression of joy and delight.  The Incarnation cannot be a failure because its only objective is to bring the fullness of God’s abundant grace into creation.

We live in a time when the message we proclaim during this Christmas season is not always well received.  If people are not hostile to our proclamation of “good news,” they are often indifferent.  For many people, the central figure of the Christmas season is not Jesus, but Santa Claus.  Our tendency is to respond to this situation either diagnostically or defensively.  Either we attempt to calculate exactly who we need to attract and how we can market the gospel to them or we angrily respond with “Merry Christmas” when people wish us a happy holiday.  Today, however, we are reminded that we are not called to diagnose or defend, but to live our lives with joy, to experience life aware of the abundant grace that God has extravagantly poured upon creation.  We are called to be beacons of this grace, and we are called to embrace this Christian vocation with such joy, with such enthusiasm, and with such delight that everyone can see how we have been shaped by the fullness of God’s grace.

Unlike the Ones I Used to Know

Sermon on Luke 2:1-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA on Christmas Eve, 2014.  Audio for this sermon may be found here.

images“It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”  So ends A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’ story about Ebenezer Scrooge and his overnight conversion from grumpy malcontent to jolly humanitarian.  When Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, it is unlikely that he could have imagined how ubiquitous his little parable and its protagonist would become.  Scrooge’s story has become an indelible part of our culture: ensembles as diverse as the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Muppets have presented adaptations of this “ghost story of Christmas.”

In spite of its omnipresence, there is something very curious about the way we remember the Dickens classic.  Though it ends with Scrooge amending his ways by making a generous donation to charity, reconciling with his nephew, and giving Bob Cratchit a raise, we remember Scrooge as the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” that Dickens introduces at the beginning of the story.  We ignore Scrooge’s Christmas Eve conversion and focus instead on his previous identity as a misanthropic miser.  Why else would “Scrooge” be the near-universal epithet for anyone who does not enjoy the Christmas season?

Our failure to remember Scrooge’s conversion is a symptom of a larger reality: as human beings, we have a hard time believing that anyone can change.  If we encountered Ebenezer Scrooge after his transformation, I suspect that most of us would cynically wonder what his angle was.  We tend to live our lives according to maxims like “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” or “a leopard doesn’t change its spots” or “there’s nothing new under the sun.”  This inherent suspicion is a form of self-preservation; if we refuse to trust that anyone or anything can change, then we can never be hurt.  If we refuse to acknowledge that new things are possible, then we can continue to live our lives in the same way we always have.

Tonight, however, we hear an angelic announcement that something new has happened, that our world has changed, that life will no longer be the same.  It’s easy to be preoccupied by the familiarity of Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, to be distracted by the images of swaddling clothes and heavenly hosts, and to listen nostalgically for the dulcet tones of Linus Van Pelt of the Charlie Brown Christmas instead of the “good news” at the heart of this story.  When the angel of the Lord says, “behold, I bring you good news of a great joy,” one might think that he is merely providing information, that this is the first century equivalent of “breaking news.”  But the word that we translate as “good news” refers to much more than new information; it is the same word that was used to announce the birth of a new emperor.  Luke implies that Christ’s birth represents a fundamental change in the political reality of the world.

imgresThough Luke describes the birth of Jesus with a word typically associated with social upheaval, the political situation in the world doesn’t seem to have changed all that much.  After all, Luke reminds us that Augustus is the emperor of Rome and that Quirinius is the governor of Syria.  There’s no indication that either leader is on his way out or that the time is ripe for the arrival of a new king.  In fact, Augustus reigned for more than twenty years prior to the birth of Jesus and would rule for twenty years more.  If anything, Luke implies that Jesus is born during a time of great political stability.  It was a time a time when Rome’s power was largely unchallenged at home and completely unrivaled abroad.  It was a time when the Emperor was so feared that he could arbitrarily order people to the towns of their birth in order to conduct a mostly meaningless census.  It was a time when the Jewish people were aware and reminded frequently that their tenuous right to worship one God could be revoked without any warning.  All of this makes one wonder how the birth of Jesus could possibly be “good news.”  A tiny child born in a backwater province couldn’t possibly challenge the most powerful empire the world had ever known.  By worldly standards, the birth of Jesus would change nothing: tyrants would persist in forcing their will on the weak and the world would continue as it always had.

But this assumes that Jesus was a typical king. Luke goes out of his way to illustrate that Jesus was not a typical king.  While most worldly rulers are heralded by military parades and housed in magnificent palaces, the king we welcome tonight was heralded by a humble donkey and housed in a stable.  While most worldly rulers spend their time among the elite in the centers of commerce and culture, the king we welcome tonight was first announced to downtrodden shepherds on a Judean hillside.  While most worldly rulers demonstrate their power through cruelty and violence, the king we welcome tonight reveals his power in compassion and love.  And while most worldly rulers would do anything to stay in power and preserve their lives, the king we welcome tonight gave himself up for us on a Roman cross.  Tonight, we affirm the deep logic of the Christian faith: in the Incarnation, God became one of us and empowered us to live lives of freedom and grace even in the midst of a world dominated by oppression and fear.  Jesus Christ invites us to let go of our belief that everything always stays the same and enter into a new way of being.

Christmas is often a time for nostalgia.  We bring ancient decorations out of storage, sing songs that we have sung year after year, and return to traditions that have been part of our lives for as long as we can remember.  It is a time that we remember Scrooge before his transformation, when we dream of Christmases “just like the ones we used to know.”  Christmas, however, is about more than mere remembrance; it is about recognizing the way in which the good news of the Incarnation is, in fact, news.  This has been a year of incredible turmoil.  From the rumblings of war in Europe to the specter of terrorism in the Middle East to the proliferation of violence on the streets of this country, this year has been a potent reminder that our world is often dominated by oppression and fear.  We might be tempted to despair, to assume that bad news like this is simply the way of the world.  Tonight, however, we are called to remember the “good news” of Christ’s birth and embrace the new way of being that God has inaugurated in the arrival of this holy child.  On Christmas, we are called to focus not on the way things have always been, but on the way things can be when we live our lives shaped by the Incarnation.  Christmas calls us to hear and be transformed by the good news that God entered this broken world and is making all things new.

Lamentation

Sermon on Matthew 2:13-23 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.

563612_10100115394570697_1993153675_nA few weeks ago, an ecumenical colleague and I were driving to a seminar in Austin.  Our trip took us through Zephyr (Texans are so good at naming places) and there we drove by a church with a sign that read, “The X belongs in Texas.  Christ belongs in Christmas.”  Clearly, the folks in Zephyr had opened up yet another front in the purported “War on Christmas.”  Neither my friend nor I had the time or inclination to explain that the “X” in “Xmas” is the Greek letter “chi,” which is actually an ancient abbreviation for the name of Christ.  The X, in other words, belongs both in Texas and Christmas.  Part of the reason I wasn’t inclined to explain this is that I really think that all of the talk about the “War on Christmas” in those first weeks of December is mostly an excuse to get people to click on website links or watch sensational stories on the news or come up with somewhat clever church signs.

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“Do we get to win this time?”

The reality is, however, that all of the skirmishes in the supposed “War on Christmas” take place before Christmas even starts.  And once the season of Christmas has actually arrived, people forget about it!  Across the country on December 26th, decorations are packed away, Christmas trees are literally thrown to the curb, and people stop saying Merry Christmas, even though there are twelve more days to celebrate the birth of our Lord. Surely this is where the real battle is being fought.  Needless to say, I have, for the last two weeks, been a willing and possibly the only participant in this particular version of the “War on Christmas.” I have been the John Rambo of reminding people that it is still Christmas: I have encouraged people to keep their decorations up, I have corrected people when they refer to Christmas in the past tense, and I insist on saying “Merry Christmas” well into January.  And so beloved, I take this moment on January 5th to remind you that it is still Christmas, that we are still observing the birth of our Lord, that we are still celebrating the Incarnation.

As a result of our celebration, we are in the somewhat unusual position of observing the second Sunday of Christmas, which does not happen all too often.  In fact, the way our lectionary is constructed means that we in the Episcopal Church rarely have to deal with this challenging reading we heard from Matthew’s gospel.  And this story of the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt and the slaughter of the innocents is nothing if not challenging.  Matthew begins by telling us about an angel appearing to Joseph in yet another dream, warning him to take the child and his mother to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous intentions.  Joseph wakes up immediately and escorts Jesus and Mary to Egypt by night, escaping from Herod and his minions in the nick of time and fulfilling a prophecy from Hosea to boot.  It seems that everything is wrapped up neatly in a bow; everybody ends up safe and sound exactly where they are supposed to be and Jesus is well on his way to fulfilling prophetic and Messianic expectations.  In the very next passage, however, Matthew tells us that Herod, infuriated by the duplicity of the wise men, sends soldiers to Bethlehem to murder every single child under the age of two.  It’s a shocking jolt to the system.  We were lulled into a sense of security, a knowledge that the heroes of the story were safe, and then we hear about a horrific massacre of innocent children.  Matthew tells us that even this tragedy fulfills the prophetic words of Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”  After recounting this horrific event, Matthew moves on.  He tells us that the Holy Family stays in Egypt until Herod dies, eventually moving to Nazareth, so that Jesus can fulfill yet another prophecy.

imagesThe challenge of this passage is not simply the horrifying fact that children were massacred, but rather the fact that Matthew can be so glib about it.  It doesn’t seem to faze him all that much; he simply presents an account of the slaughter of the innocents, and then moves on with the narrative.  In some ways, this may be related to Matthew’s almost obsessive preoccupation with presenting Jesus as the “prophet like Moses” predicted in Deuteronomy.  After all, according to the account in Exodus, Moses also escaped from a similar slaughter of Hebrew children by an oppressive tyrant.  Moses also saved his people by coming up out of Egypt.  It could be that Matthew is simply unfolding those events that give us a sense of Jesus’ true identity.  It could be that the slaughter of the innocents is just another event that proves Jesus is the prophet like Moses, the one who will save God’s people from their sin.

While there may be some truth to this, the Church has never fully accepted this explanation.  We have never been so callous as to think of the slaughter of the innocents as the cost of doing business; it has always been an event that we have mourned as a community.  It is no accident that we remember those Holy Innocents in a feast day on December 28th.  It is no accident that one of the most important and enduring moments in the 16th-century Pageant of the Shearmen and the Tailors was when the women of Bethlehem sang the mournful carol we sang just prior to the reading of the gospel today.  In fact, that carol is the one element of that pageant that survived, the one part of that experience that we wanted to make sure we remembered.  Finally, I think that even Matthew expects us to mourn.  Matthew is incredibly selective about the quotation he uses from Jeremiah to describe the slaughter of the innocents: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”  In the very next sentence of the passage from which Matthew draws that quotation, Jeremiah says, “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears…there is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country.”  Yet Matthew ends the prophecy with “she refuses to be consoled, because they are no more.”  In other words, Matthew chooses to end the quotation not with the promise of restoration that we hear in Jeremiah, but with the reality of a mother’s pain; not with hope for the future, but with the reality of loss; not with the prophet like Moses, but with an acknowledgment that the loss of a child is more than one can bear.

When I was born, I spent some time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.  Looking back, it was a little absurd: I was full-term, eight pounds three ounces, and relatively healthy.  I was at least twice the size of all of the other babies in the nursery, but apparently there were some issues with my heart.  These were resolved relatively quickly and I was discharged from the hospital after a few days.

A few months later, my father was canvassing for our local Town Committee, which was Hartford’s answer to Tammany Hall.  He had to knock on doors in our neighborhood, and because he understood the fundamental law that babies are good politics, he carried me along with him in a Baby Bjorn (or whatever they were called back then).  Things were going well until he arrived at a house where a woman around his age answered the door.  After my father gave his spiel, the woman said to him, “You don’t remember me, do you?”  Terrified that he had violated the cardinal rule of local politics and forgotten someone’s name, my father stammered, “I’m sorry, I can’t recall meeting you.”  The woman responded, “Both of our babies were in the NICU at the same time.  Your baby made it, and mine didn’t,” and she closed the door.

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”  There’s nothing my father could have said to this woman to console her.  There’s nothing he could have said to help her make meaning of her child’s death, nor is there anything we could or should say to help a parent make meaning of her child’s death.  In the same way, there’s nothing Matthew could say to make meaning of the death of those innocent children, except to acknowledge the pain and loss.

How do we find good news in this story about the murder of innocent children?  How do we find good news in this story about a mother’s inconsolable grief?  We cannot presume to make false meaning of these stories, we cannot hide behind clichés like “everything happens for a reason” or “God needed another angel.”  These are well-intended but ultimately unhelpful responses to tragedy.  The good news, the gospel that we affirm today, the reality of the Incarnation we continue to celebrate is that even though our world is ruled by tyrants and broken by sin and death, God came to dwell among us.  The gospel we affirm today is that through Jesus Christ, God has experienced the pain of a grieving mother and the suffering of a frightened child.  The gospel we affirm today is that on a cross outside of Jerusalem, God came face to face with Herod and Caesar and all the evil powers of this world and through Jesus Christ, God has said “no” to the power of evil.

imgresAnd because God has said “no” to the power of evil, we have been enabled to say “no” to the evil powers of this world.  When we see people who are being ignored, we are called to say “no” and reach out in love and compassion.  When we see people who are wracked by hunger and thirst, we are called to say “no” and give them something to eat.  When we see people oppressed because of who they are, we are called to say “no” and affirm their fundamental dignity and worth.  When we see people without hope, we are called to say “no” and give them reason to hope.  It is in this way, in the words of our Collect this morning, that we “share the divine life of him who shared our humanity.”  It is in this way that we celebrate the Incarnation, not only during these twelve days, but every day of our lives.  And as we celebrate the Incarnation, I pray that the one who came to dwell among us will empower us to stand in the face of tragedy and misery and say “no” to the evil powers of this world.

Good News

Sermon on Luke 2:1-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.

Every Christmas Eve, millions of people around the world tune in to listen to a Service of Lessons and Carols from King’s College in Cambridge, England.  HDR tonemappedFor those of us who are passionate about choral music, it’s always one of the highlights of the year, an opportunity to hear one of the world’s great choirs singing some of the classics of choral literature as well as some new compositions.  As much as I love hearing new and old favorites, however, one of my favorite moments of the service comes at its very beginning.  After the choir and congregation have sung “Once in Royal David’s City,” building from a single treble voice to a majestic wash of sound, the Dean of the Chapel intones the words of the Bidding Prayer: “Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmas Eve our care and delight to hear again the message of the Angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which has come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger.”  I love this prayer, not only because of its beautiful language, but also because it implies that this is a story we have heard before and need to hear again, that the story of Jesus’ birth is indeed good news.

The term “good news” is used quite a bit in our culture.  There are whole websites dedicated to the sharing of good news.  For the most part, all of this “good news” is the stuff of feel-good human interest stories, the last three minutes of the 6:00 news.  A sampling of headlines makes this pretty clear: “At 82 years old, finally the ‘it’ girl on campus,” “Canadian Lottery Winner donates $40 million to charity,” “Girl donates her American Girl doll to raise money for the troops.”  You get the idea.  While I’m sure that all of these are wonderful stories of compassion and generosity, this is not the “good news” that the Angels proclaim in Luke’s gospel.  The “good news” proclaimed to the shepherds on that Middle Eastern hillside twenty centuries ago has much broader and more significant implications.

If you think about it, the gospel according to Luke presents the birth of Jesus is kind of an odd way.  You would think that the evangelist would want to focus exclusively on the baby and his family, on their joys and trials, their triumphs and hardships.  But instead, Luke begins his account of the birth of Jesus by talking about politics.  In particular, he focuses on a peculiar decree made by Caesar Augustus.  The emperor wanted to take a census of his diverse empire so the appropriate taxes could be levied.  This makes sense; this is part of the reason that our constitution mandates a decennial census.  It gets weird, however, when we hear that everyone was required to return to his hometown in order to be counted.  That’s just bizarre.  Why would you force someone return to a place he no longer lives in order to conduct a census?  If you do that, you’re not going to get an accurate count.  Scholars have wrestled with this, and some have come to the conclusion that there was no census, that it is a literary device used by the gospel to make sure that Jesus was born in Bethlehem so that the prophecy of Micah could be fulfilled.  But I wonder if Luke mentions this decree from Caesar Augustus to show us what the exercise of worldly power looks like.  The emperor used his authority to command people where to go, even when those commands didn’t make any sense.  By mentioning this decree, Luke exposes the way the world is: people are subject the whims of tyrants and forced to do their bidding.

It is within this context that the angels make their announcement.  Even as the known world is being subjected to the whims of a capricious ruler, an angel appears to a group of shepherds and says, “Do not be afraid, for behold: I am bringing good news of great joy that will be for you and all people.”  The word that we translate as “good news” or “good tidings” is euaggelion.  While both of the familiar translations are accurate, they do not capture the full scope of the Greek.  You see, euaggelion was not used for everyday good news; euaggelion was used specifically to announce the birth of a new emperor.  The angels are not simply telling us that something good has happened in Bethlehem; the angels are telling us that a new king has arrived.  Even as the rulers of the present age are forcing their will upon the world, the angels announce that a new ruler has been born and that the world is going to change.  The message of the angels is that this world can be transformed.  The message of the angels is that the days of the powers of this world are numbered.  The message of the angels is that God has come to dwell among us and has promised new life to the world.  When we hear the good news of Christmas, we are called to reevaluate our lives, reorient our priorities, and make ourselves ready for a transformed world.

Even though the angels’ announcement is ultimately a political proclamation, we must remember that today we celebrate the arrival of a very different kind of king.  While most worldly rulers are heralded by military parades and housed in magnificent palaces, the king we welcome today was heralded by a humble donkey and housed in a stable.  While most worldly rulers demonstrate their power through oppression and violence, the king we welcome today reveals his power in compassion and love.  And while most worldly rulers would do anything to stay in power and preserve their lives, the king we welcome today gave himself up for us on a Roman cross.  Today we affirm the deep logic of the Christian faith: in the Incarnation, God became one of us and demonstrated how we are meant to care for one another.  We are not meant to impose our will on others, we are not meant to presume that we know better than our neighbors, we are not meant to turn anyone away because of who they are or what they have done.  God has taken our human nature upon him; thus, we are called to welcome as a gift from God anyone who shares our humanity.  We are called to humble ourselves before the one who humbled himself as we reach out in love to the world Christ came to save.

choir-service-bigPerhaps the most dramatic moment of Lessons and Carols takes place silently and away from the eyes of the congregation.  As the organist plays the final notes of the prelude, the choir gathers in the rear of that beautiful chapel.  As they prepare to sing “Once in Royal David’s City,” sixteen young boy trebles huddle next to one another, uncertain about which one of them will sing the first verse.  It is not until the choirmaster sounds an opening pitch and points to one of them that they know who will sing an unaccompanied solo for the hundreds gathered in the chapel and the millions listening around the world (no pressure!).  It’s a powerful and dramatic moment, one that requires the boys to be ready for anything.  But more importantly, that nervous child singing about the birth of Jesus for millions upon millions of people is an icon of the Incarnation, a celebration of the fact that God shared our frail humanity and came to bring us good news.