Open wide your hearts

Sermon on 2 Corinthians 6:1-13 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

I take a small measure of comfort from knowing that people have been getting the apostle Paul wrong since the very beginning. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in his letters to the church in Corinth. In the Corinthian correspondence, Paul is addressing a community that has heard the gospel, but has interpreted it in some unique and problematic ways. In first Corinthians, Paul cajoles, scolds, and encourages members of the community to put aside their prejudices and tribal loyalties and embrace the transcendent and unifying truth of the gospel. First Corinthians is a masterpiece of pastoral theology that culminates in one of Scripture’s most powerful descriptions of the resurrection. It’s hard to imagine that it would have been received with anything other than enthusiasm, but apparently, the Corinthians were not as impressed as they might have been. Their reaction to Paul’s exhortations was, essentially, “Who does this guy think he is?” Their skepticism was abetted by some rivals of Paul, who, in so many words, told the Corinthians that Paul was weak, feckless, and untrustworthy. These rivals accused Paul of unprofessionalism, noting that he had not only failed to provide any references who could vouch for the efficacy of his religious worldview, but that he also refused to accept payment, implying that he had a guilty conscience and couldn’t possibly be considered a “real” religious teacher. Moreover, these critics of Paul observed that he had been beaten within an inch of his life on one of his missionary journeys, clearly indicating that he was nothing more than a transparent charlatan who was ignominiously driven from town by an angry mob. It’s worth noting that Paul probably didn’t help matters when word of what these interlopers were saying got back to him. During his next visit to Corinth he made his displeasure known, and followed up with a letter that, in his own words, he wrote “out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears.” By the time he gets around to writing Second Corinthians, in other words, Paul and the church in Corinth are decidedly at odds with one another.

Under these circumstances, one might expect Paul to explain that the charges leveled by his critics were false, or at least overstated. One could imagine him saying, “I wasn’t beaten up; my enemies are lying to you” or “People are saying I’m one of the best preachers they’ve ever heard.” Instead, Paul confirms the accusations made against him. He admits that he has no letters of recommendation from people of influence, but that he bears only the gospel of Jesus Christ. Moreover, in the passage we heard this morning, Paul poignantly describes the physical trials that have been features of his ministry: not only was he beaten within an inch of his life, he has endured “afflictions, hardships, calamities… imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger.” Lest we think this is just one of those Pauline lists that are so easy to gloss over, it is worth noting that Paul probably had a specific instance in mind for each and every one of these trials. For Paul, his weakness, physical or otherwise, is not something to be ashamed of. In fact, it is something to boast about, because it reveals the power of God. Paul’s critics got it wrong; in fact, they fundamentally misunderstood the nature of his ministry. Ultimately, Paul was not interested in converting people to his worldview. Rather, Paul was committed to proclaiming the grace of God that has been revealed in Jesus Christ. For this reason, Paul’s priorities are radically different from those of his rivals, a fact he illustrates when notes, “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see–we are alive.” In the eyes of his rivals, Paul and his coworkers were unknown impostors who were as good as dead, while in the eyes of God, they were true to the gospel and alive to a grace that is incomprehensible by the standards of the world.

To be clear, this dispute is about more than which spiritual teacher is more popular among the Corinthians. The disagreement between Paul and his critics is representative of a larger conflict about the very nature of the Church, namely: does the Church exist to enforce a particular way of ordering human society? Or is the Church’s responsibility to witness and respond to what God has accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? It will come as no surprise that Paul’s critics were of the former persuasion. They thought the primary task of the Church was instructive: to provide a collection of rules and regulations that governed how one should approach the world. They weren’t the first or the last to think of the Church in this way. Throughout church history, there has always been a temptation to systematize the gospel: to make God’s self-disclosure in the person of Jesus Christ primarily about human behavior. The pitfalls of this anthropological approach are obvious. If the gospel is primarily about rules, then the Church will quickly find itself enforcing and defending societal norms, no matter how sinful or unjust they may be. Yet the Church has always been tempted to turn the gospel into a religion. I hope it’s clear from my tone that that’s not a good thing. In words of Karl Barth, a theologian who saw the church in Germany almost entirely co-opted by the Third Reich, religion exists when “the divine reality offered and manifested to us in revelation is replaced by a concept of God arbitrarily and wilfully evolved by man.” It is religion in this sense that leads to the insidious practice of proof texting, where the Bible functions as little more than propaganda. It is religion that seeks to justify the actions of those in power and uses the Bible to defend an immigration policy that, no matter when or with whom it originated, is extreme at the very least and cruel at the very worst. In fact, it is religion that permits the existence of concept like “zero tolerance.” Religion doesn’t have much room for compassion, because it is primarily concerned with whether people are acting correctly.

Paul never wanted the gospel to become a religion in this sense. Like many New Testament writers, Paul was pretty unsparing in his criticisms of those who practiced religion for its own sake. Paul understood the gospel as the revelation of God’s deep love for creation. Moreover, he argued that this revelation should transform the way we perceive and experience the world. For Paul, in other words, the Church’s primary task is not to order human society, but to respond to what God has accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul gives us a glimpse of what this looks like in the final verses of the passage we heard today. “We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians,” he writes, setting them up for one final rebuke. Instead, he continues, “our heart is wide open to you.” It’s difficult to fathom the vulnerability required to write these words. But Paul has a deep confidence: that, because God’s strength was revealed in the shame of the cross, the same strength will be revealed in Paul’s admission of his own weakness. Paul doesn’t make his case or seek to justify himself. He has opened his heart to the Corinthians and has but one request of them: “open wide your hearts also.” Open wide your hearts. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate and urgent invitation for our time. Open wide your hearts to the refugee and the immigrant. Open wide your hearts to those with whom you disagree. Open wide your hearts, not because you have been commanded to, but in response to the revelation of God’s deep love for you.

Advertisements

Comeback

Sermon on Acts 1:6-14 offered to the people of St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Midland, TX.

imgresF. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.”  You’ve probably heard this quotation before; members of the media love to trot it out whenever a disgraced politician makes a comeback.  Reporters will repeat the quotation and then say something like, “But clearly, Fitzgerald never met—fill in the blank” (Mark Sanford, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Eliot Spitzer; the list goes on and on and on).  The rhetorical point is clear: though F. Scott Fitzgerald thought it was impossible to make a comeback in America, these people seem to buck the trend.  This interpretation, however, actually misses Fitzgerald’s point.  Kirk Curnutt, the vice president of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society, points out that the quotation originally appears in an essay called “My Lost City.”  In it, Fitzgerald writes, “I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York’s boom days.”  In other words, while one might be inclined to conclude that comebacks are impossible in America, the example of New York points to the contrary conclusion.  Another interpreter points out that the second act of a play is when the protagonist has to deal with difficulties and challenges before things are resolved in the third act.  Fitzgerald may have been implying that in American life, there is no messy second act; things seem to get resolved with out too much complication.  In the case of either interpretation, the point is clear: the comeback is a crucial part of the American narrative, not only for disgraced politicians, but also for military veterans, sports franchises, and cities.  As Americans and as human beings, we tend to find comeback stories very compelling.  One of the striking features of most comeback stories is that the person or the team or the city that has come back usually looks very different.  Sometimes it is challenging to recognize people experiencing a second act because so much about them has changed.  They have a new appreciation for life, a new ambition, a new understanding of their place in the world.

imagesThis morning, we heard about the Ascension, one of the stranger moments in the post resurrection life of Jesus, which is saying something, when you think about it.  Over the past several weeks, we have heard about Jesus being raised from the dead (which is pretty strange in and of itself), appearing to his disciples after passing through walls, and disappearing from their sight after being made known to them in the breaking of the bread.  All of this is pretty bizarre stuff.  The Ascension, however, is even more perplexing than any of these other stories.  It is so strange that Luke, the author of both the gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, is the only evangelist who bothers to include it in his account of the life of Jesus.  In both the gospel and Acts, the story is pretty similar: Jesus gathers his disciples, makes some promises about the coming of the Holy Spirit, and is carried away into the sky until he disappears behind a cloud.  It is a strange story, not just because it’s about someone being taken up into the sky, but also because it is difficult to understand why it is included in the story of Jesus at all.  Most events in the life of Jesus point to some significant truth about the nature of God.  The Ascension doesn’t seem to have a significance beyond, “Hey, remember when that happened?  That was weird.”  And yet, Luke mentions the Ascension two separate times; in fact, it seems to be the pivot point between his gospel and his account of the early Church.  Moreover, the Church fathers thought the Ascension important enough to merit its own clause in the Nicene Creed.  That’s more than you can say for any of Jesus’ teachings.  So while it is one of the more perplexing aspects of the life of Jesus, the Ascension remains an important part of the Christian faith.

This leads us to wonder why.  What is significant about the Ascension?  What does it tell us about Jesus Christ and the nature of the God we worship?  One of the most conspicuous elements of the Ascension is that it is characterized by absence.  Think about the ending of the gospel according to Matthew for a moment.  Jesus gathers his disciples on a mountain and charges them to make disciples of all nations.  Jesus then tells them, “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  Those are the final words of Matthew’s gospel.  The last thing that Matthew wants us to remember is that Jesus is present with us in some way.  Contrast that to Luke, where Jesus does not promise to be present with the disciples, but instead, vanishes from their sight.  For Luke, the Ascension is noteworthy because Jesus disappears from the disciples’ view, because Jesus is no longer present, because Jesus, like Elvis, has left the building.  For Luke, Jesus needs to be elsewhere, needs to be interested and engaged with creation, but on a remote level.  The reason for this is revealed to us by those mysterious men in white robes.  After Jesus disappears from the disciples’ view, Luke tells us that they continue to gaze at the sky.  Two men approach them and ask, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”  The logical response to this question is, of course, “Duh!  We just saw someone carried away into the sky!”  Before the disciples can offer this obvious response, however, the mysterious men in white say, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  Luke emphasizes the absence of Jesus in order to prepare us for the return of Jesus.  The Ascension, in other words, is less about Jesus’ departure and more about his coming again.

When we hear about the return of Christ, the image that comes to mind tends to terrifying and violent.  Thanks to the apocalyptic imagery found in parts of the gospels, the book of Revelation, and works of popular fiction like the Left Behind series, many of us have come to regard the Second Coming of Christ as something scary.  Christ will return from heaven like a conquering warrior, leading an army of heavenly hosts and slaying the wicked and unrighteous.  In fact, the words of the mysterious strangers in today’s gospel account seem to support this fearsome understanding of Christ’s return: “This Jesus…will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  Through much of Christian history, the prevailing way to read this prediction was as a physical description: Christ went into heaven through the sky and will come back from heaven through the sky.  Charles Wesley embraces this view in the great Advent hymn: “Lo, he comes with clouds descending; once for our salvation slain.  Thousand, thousand saints attending swell the triumph of his train.”

imagesBut what if the prediction of the two men in white is not a physical description, but something much more significant?  What if, by saying that Jesus will come in the same way, these mysterious strangers are not saying “Jesus is going to return from the sky,” but are instead saying, “Jesus will return in the same way he originally came,” that the Second Coming of Christ is going to look similar to Christ’s first advent?  Perhaps these mysterious strangers are saying that when Christ returns, he will return as one who cares for the poor, reaches out to the downtrodden, heals the sick, and welcomes the stranger.  Perhaps these mysterious strangers are saying that in his second act, Jesus will be unchanged, that he will continue to be passionate about justice, compassion, and love.  Perhaps these mysterious strangers are saying that when Christ returns, we will recognize him.

If we are going to recognize Jesus when he returns, this leads us to wonder if Jesus will recognize the Church.  This, I think, is the reason Luke repeats the story of the Ascension in both of his books: he intends this question to be at the back of our minds as we read about the beginnings of the Church in the Acts of the Apostles.  In the gospel, we are told what Jesus did in his earthly ministry, how he cared for the poor, reached out to the downtrodden, healed the sick, and welcomed the stranger.  As we hear the stories of the early Church, Luke wants us to ask: are the apostles living up to the example of their Lord and Master?  By repeating the story of the Ascension at the beginning of Acts, Luke ensures that Jesus’ example and his promise to return are at the back of our minds.  Throughout the book of Acts, we see the apostles striving to follow Christ’s example by caring for the widows and orphans, healing the palsied and disabled, and expanding their understanding of God’s justice as they begin to include Gentiles into the Church.  In other words, we see the apostles striving to make the Church recognizable to the Jesus who will return in the same way he came.

Would Jesus recognize the Church today?  On one level, this is a silly question.  The Church has evolved significantly over the last two thousand years.  Jesus would probably have a hard time recognizing our hierarchical structures, our liturgies, our vestments, our preoccupation with committees, our buildings, and even our creeds, for that matter.  But, would Jesus recognize our passion for justice, compassion, and love?  Would Jesus recognize our efforts to provide for the poor, reach out to the downtrodden, care for the sick, and welcome the stranger?  Would Jesus recognize our attempts to follow his example?  Too often we get distracted from our call to follow Christ’s example by our slavish devotion to our Church structures.  We assume that we are not the Church unless we hold to just the right doctrine or use just the right liturgy or embrace just the right hierarchy.  But what the disciples show us in the Acts of the Apostles is that the Church Jesus will recognize is one that is more passionate about justice than dogma.  The disciples show us that the Church Jesus will recognize is one that is more concerned with compassion than structure.  The disciples show us that the Church Jesus will recognize is more interested in sharing God’s love than being right.  The Ascension reveals to us that Christ is the same, yesterday and today; we are called to embrace his changeless example and allow it to shape our lives and the life of the Church.

Untied

I have a bad habit of walking out of the house with my shoes untied.

imagesI don’t do this for any aesthetic or political purpose; I’m not trying to make a statement about needing to be liberated from whatever ties us down (though that sounds pretty good).  Rather, I am simply too lazy to bend down the six feet required to tie my shoes.  I generally get to the task around mid-morning, after more than a few people have seen my laces flopping around in the breeze.  People who know me are aware of this aspect of my laziness; they have warned me about my untied shoes once or twice before and have been surprised when I’ve told them “I know.”  In general, people will stop pointing out my loose laces after a few of these interactions.

One of my good friends from seminary, however, would warn me every single time he saw me with my shoes untied.  For him it was never a casual reminder, either.  Untied shoes seemed to be a matter of life and death to him.  Even after I told him explicitly about the nature of my shoe-related laziness, he would still drop everything he was doing to say, “Whoa buddy!  Your shoes are untied!  Be careful!”  The funny thing is that this guy is not the most effusive man in the world.  He has his moments of melodrama, but for the most part, he is very measured and not inclined to outbursts of any kind, particularly when it comes to other people’s business.  Yet, for whatever reason, my friend reserves a special compassion for people whose shoes are untied.  His warning is an emblem of a deep love that he has for his fellow human beings, one doesn’t appear in all situations, but is abundantly clear when the circumstances are right.

I think that there are times when we feel overwhelmed by the need for compassion in this world.  Everywhere we turn, there seems to someone who is hungry, thirsty, persecuted, or desperate to know love.  One possible response to this is to up our hands and say, “There’s no possible way that could do anything to alleviate all the suffering in this world, so I’ll just try to forget about it.”  But as my friend demonstrates, we can let our compassion reveal itself in particular situations.  We can try to alleviate the suffering of people we have relationships with; we can devote our energies to dealing with a particular issue.  Above all, we can trust that every act of love we perform in this life is a way of building for God’s reign of justice and love.

Saltiness

Sermon on Matthew 5:13-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on February 9, 2014.

images When I first learned to cook, I was scrupulous about following recipes.  If a cookbook told me to heat something over medium-high heat, I would carefully turn the knob on the stove so that the arrow rested on the precise midpoint between “medium” and “high.”  When a bread recipe instructed me to knead dough for ten minutes, I would set a timer and press that dough against the counter until the precise moment the bell rang.  Most importantly, when a dish called for a teaspoon of salt, I would pour salt into a measuring spoon, careful not to add even a few extra grains to the dish.  After all, I didn’t want the food I prepared to be too salty.  For the most part, this scrupulosity seemed to pay off.  The results of my first attempts at cooking were mostly edible, and some were even moderately successful.

But when I watched more experienced people cook, I noticed that they tended to be less wedded to the recipe.  When my father heated something on the stove, he would turn the knob without carefully examining the place it landed.  When my mother kneaded bread dough, she wouldn’t set a timer to tell her when to stop; she would know how the dough was supposed to feel after it had been kneaded.  Perhaps the most shocking revelation was that when my parents cooked, they didn’t carefully measure out the salt they added to dishes.  In fact, they grabbed what appeared to be huge handfuls of salt and used those to season whatever they were preparing.  The first time I saw this, I shouted, “What are you doing?  It’s going to be too salty!”  Giving me a knowing smile, they said, “Just wait and see.”  Of course, those well-seasoned dishes were not salty at all; in fact, they were far more flavorful and complex than those dishes that I had assembled so scrupulously.  It gradually dawned on me that the primary purpose of salt in cooking is not to make food salty; it is to make food taste the way it is supposed to taste.  The purpose of salt is to make a dish what it is supposed to be.

Today, we hear one of the more interesting passages from the Sermon on the Mount.  Part of the reason I think this passage is interesting is that it seems so disjointed.  Just after Jesus preaches the beatitudes to the crowds, he jumps into these two metaphors, telling those listening to him that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  This is the kind of teaching we expect from Jesus; he’s making us feel good about our Christian vocation to go make the world a better place.  It’s no accident that upbeat songs like “This little light of mine” draw on the images that Jesus uses in this passage.  But just after Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, he brings down the hammer: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill.”  In other words, it seems that Jesus is saying, “If you thought that being my follower was going to be easy and free of rules and regulations, you’ve got another thing coming.”  In fact, he concludes the passage we read today by saying, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Yikes.  Just so we’re clear, the scribes and the Pharisees were known for their righteousness under the law, known for their ability to keep all of the rules and regulations prescribed under the Law of Moses.  Jesus is setting an extremely high bar here: “unless you are more righteous than the most righteous people around, you are not fit for the kingdom that God is bringing into being.”

Why is Jesus setting this impossibly high standard?  Doesn’t this insistence on the Law seem inconsistent with what we know about Jesus?  To answer these questions, it might be helpful for us to think about the purpose of the Law.  For the Jewish people, the Law was the lens through which they understood their relationship with God.  During the Babylonian captivity, Israel was unable to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, and so the Law became what defined them.  It was a way of continuing to be God’s people even though they had been driven from the land God had given to them.  The Law retained a central role even as the Jewish people returned from captivity and dwelled in the land promised to them by God.  There were, however, some who regarded the Law not as a way to be in relationship with God, but as an end in itself.  There were some who were scrupulous about keeping the law so that they would be blameless, so that they would be perfect, so that they could look in the mirror and say, “Boy, I sure am righteous.”  In other words, there were some who regarded the law as a recipe for righteousness, who said “as long as I set the burner at precisely the right temperature, as long as knead the dough for just the right amount of time, as long as I add just the right amount of salt, I will be righteous under the law.”  Jesus, however, comes along and tells us that he has come to fulfill the Law, to remind us of its primary purpose, to return our focus from following the recipe to being in relationship with God.

This is where we see that those two metaphors that Jesus uses at the beginning of this passage are far from unrelated to his meditations about the Law.  Jesus tells his hearers that they are the salt of the earth and that they are the light of the world.  Notice what Jesus does not say.  He does not say, “If you follow the Law, you will be the salt of the earth” or “If you abide by these beatitudes, you will be the light of the world.”  Rather, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world.”  Right here.  Right now.  Moreover, Jesus is very specific about who he is talking to.  We don’t get the sense of it in English, but the Greek makes it very clear that Jesus is talking to everyone in front of him: “All y’all are the salt of the earth.  All y’all are the light of the world.  Each and every one of you is called to enlighten this world and help it to be what it is supposed to be.”  This is how our righteousness is meant to exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. imgres While they are focused on following the recipe and reaching the goal of making themselves righteous, we are to realize that we are already who God has called us to be.  Our righteousness does not come from our successful completion of the Law’s requirements; our righteousness comes from the God who loves us and desires a relationship with us.  Our righteousness does not come from following the recipe; our righteousness comes from realizing that we are salt, that we are called to season the world and make it what God desires it to be.

It is clear that our identity as the salt of the earth is meant to shape our lives.  But this begs the question: how do we live our lives with the understanding that we are salt?  Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth, but immediately adds a caveat: “if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”  The way that the question is worded indicates that once it has lost its saltiness, salt’s taste cannot be restored, that it is now worthless and needs to be thrown away.  This seems to imply that if we are not careful, we will lose our saltiness and become worthless in the eyes of God.  But here’s the thing: if you ask a scientist, she will tell you that salt cannot lose its saltiness.  Sodium chloride is a remarkably stable compound that will not lose its flavor even after being stored for many years.  So is Jesus saying that unlike real salt, we can lose our saltiness?  That just doesn’t seem consistent with the rest of this passage.  In the very next metaphor, Jesus tells us that we are the light of the world and that a city on a hill cannot be hidden, implying that any attempts to conceal the light are going fail.  It seems far more likely that Jesus is saying that even if we think we have lost our saltiness, we are still salt.  Even if we feel as though we have abandoned our call to bring God’s savor to the world, we are still who God has called us to be. Even if we think we are worthless in the eyes of God, God still loves us and desires a relationship with us.

Whether you nurture your life of faith on a daily basis or you feel that your faith has been dormant for a long time; you are the salt of the earth.  Whether you have been here every Sunday for the past thirty years or this is the first time you have ever been inside a church building; you are the salt of the earth.  Whether you embrace the life of this community or you have turned away from it; you are the salt of the earth.  No matter where you have been or what you have done, you are who God has called you to be.  In light of this identity, in light of who God has called you to be: Jesus Christ invites you, Jesus Christ invites all of us to be salt.  Jesus Christ invites us to be salt by bringing God’s savor to a world that craves compassion and justice.  Jesus Christ invites us to be salt by seasoning a world that is hungry for hope and beauty. Above all, Jesus Christ invites us to be salt by filling the world with God’s love and helping the world be what it is supposed to be.

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.

Broken

Today is the feast day of Saint Mark the Evangelist.  Though it is frequently put in the same category as Luke and Matthew (the first three gospels are known as the “synoptic gospels” because they can be “seen together”), readers will notice that there is something a little strange and enormously compelling about the gospel according to Mark.  This strangeness is clearly evident in Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism, which is part of the gospel lesson appointed for the day:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  (Mark 1:9-12)

ssc-battesimoMost of us are much more familiar with Matthew’s account of Jesus’ encounter with John, which is characterized by an almost byzantine politesse.  Jesus arrives on the banks of the Jordan, asking to be baptized.  John obsequiously responds, “No no, I couldn’t possibly!  You should be baptizing me!”  Jesus tells John that it must happen this way to fulfill all righteousness, so John relents.  As Jesus comes up out of the water, the clouds part and the skies open in a beatific vision as the Holy Spirit descends and a heavenly voice proclaims to the onlookers, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

The account we get in Mark’s gospel, on the other hand, is gritty, impolite, in-your-face, and downright violent.  There is none of the courtly posturing that we get in Matthew; Jesus simply shows up and gets baptized.  As far as we’re aware, there’s not even any communication between John and Jesus.  As Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens are not opened, but violently torn apart; creation is invaded by the presence of God.  The Holy Spirit descends, not to provide a pretty picture that includes every person of the Trinity, but to drive Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan.  The most striking and unsettling aspect of this account is its violence.  In Mark’s gospel, God’s presence is made known in an almost destructive way.

Over the past week or so, many of us have been reeling from the devastation wrought by the bombings in Boston, the explosion in West, and the earthquake in China.  It’s been one of those weeks where many of us have wondered what could possibly come next.  And yet, even in the midst of this destruction and devastation, we have seen moments of compassion, heroism, and grace.  We have witnessed strangers comforting each other on the streets, first responders risking their lives to rescue those in danger, and people opening their homes and businesses to those without a place to lay their heads.  It is in images like these that we have borne witness to the presence of God even in the violence of the past week.  It is in images like these that we have had an opportunity to discern the Holy Spirit moving through a broken and desperate world.

broken-bread1As Christians, this should not surprise us.  Every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we break the bread that we believe has become the body of Christ.  In those broken fragments of bread, we discern the presence of Holy Spirit, the promise that God loves this world even in its brokenness.  Perhaps this is why the gospel of Mark is so compelling.  Mark does not paint a rosy picture; he does not sugarcoat the world Jesus Christ came to save.  Instead, he points our world with all its brokenness, violence, and degradation, and promises that even this world with all its faults is loved by God.