Why are we here this dark Wednesday evening?
Listen to these words…
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Those are John the Evangelist’s words announcing the birth of Jesus. We’re here this evening to re-enact, celebrate, and re-member that birth. More than two thousand years on, we remember it as a one of-a-kind birth unlike other births. We celebrate it as a divine and holy birth. Our children re-enact it for us here.
We also re-enact, celebrate, and re-member it as an entirely human event, in which we all share.
We’re here because we yearn to be part of that event. We yearn to share in the surprise of those shepherds, in the awe of those first witnesses to that little child’s new life.
This child is the long-awaited one, who’s called “wonderful, counselor, mighty God, everlasting father, prince of peace.” Even his given name, Jesus, means “savior.” Don’t we imagine that the birth of such a one should happen in a clean and comfortable room in a grand building? Don’t we expect a team of skilled midwives to be there encouraging and caring for his mom? Don’t we expect trusted scribes to be there recording the great event?
But we know that’s not the way it happened. Not at all. The circumstances of this singular birth are anything but great. In 1865 a poet called William Dix asked,
Why lies he in such mean estate, where ox and ass are feeding?
Mean estate, indeed! No midwife encouraged and helped Mary, just her teenaged fiancé. The other witnesses to this new life were shepherds, domestic animals, and some traveling foreign scholars.
Why lies he in such mean estate? It’s a question we wonder about as we contemplate Jesus. He was both Prince of Peace and a vulnerable newborn baby. At his execution the officer in charge of his Roman tormentors proclaimed, “surely this man’s the son of God.” Why?
Through the ages faithful people have wrestled with this question. Why do such divine power and glory emerge from this mean estate? How can this be? I wonder. I hope you wonder too.
Here are some words to wonder about. Angels – God’s messengers – came and greeted the unlikely participants in this lowly birth. What did the angels first say to the people they greeted?
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife.”
And to the shepherds at night, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy.”
Do not be afraid. Do not fear. Fear not.
Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds all needed to hear those words. They all lived uncertain and fragile lives. In their world, Caesar Augustus claimed the title “Son of God” for himself. Caesar’s soldiers and tax collectors took whatever they wanted from people like them. They lived lives full of fear.
And people in our world live lives full of fear too. Shepherds near Bethlehem make an uncertain living today, just as they did then. Many moms give birth in dangerous places. We all are subject to unpredictable human principalities and powers, just as Jesus and his parents were. We all have good reasons to fear that unpredictable human power. And, some of us are, ourselves, agents of that human power. We cling to whatever power we have, from fear. And, I daresay, we’re here because we yearn to live without being ruled by fear. We yearn to turn away from human fear toward divine life. We hope to live rejoicing always in holy power, majesty, and awe.
We’re here as witnesses to that power, majesty, and awe. We’re here because lesson of the stable and the manger is the lesson of the cross. Holy life springs forth from the most unlikely places, like an innkeeper’s stable. Holy strength comes from the heart of human weakness. The witnesses to that holy life are unlikely people: traveling sages, shepherds. Most unlikely of all, the witnesses are you and I. We’re here to rejoice that we’re in that company of witnesses to that life.
John put it this way. That “life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
May that life, the light that shines into this fearful world, shine in your heart this night and forever. Happy Christmas!
Recently I watched the movie based on The Giver a 1993 book by Lois Lowry. I highly recommend it. It is a compelling tale of a society that’s utopian veneer is chipped away to reveal its tragic underbelly. The take away for me was the idea that when we try to create a safe, comfortable and peacefully controlled world for ourselves – where chaos cannot break out – someone else ends up paying the price. I won’t ruin the book or movie for you, but suffice it to say that the paying of the price is artfully hidden from the general population of that imaginary society until one among them decides to unmask it.
To me it feels like something along those lines has happened to us in this country recently. Many of us who live fairly comfortable lives in the largely white middle and upper class suburbs have been woken up to the realities of what daily life can be like for many people who live on much lower incomes in urban neighborhoods, many of whom are descended from the African slaves of our ancestors. The recent protests of grand jury decisions to not indict white police officers who have killed African Americans in some of our cities have shaken us out of our illusion that things are as they should be in our country.
In both our first reading from the Prophet Isaiah, and our canticle -The Song of Mary – we are told of a reordering of reality based on abundance and God’s power to bring transformation. The old era passes away and the new one dawns. The passage from Isaiah is a vision of the future, spoken to the exiles who have returned to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon. The vision begins with words of comfort to them as they take in the ruins of the homes they used to inhabit. To their distraught hearts God speaks comfort promising “a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” Then the prophecy goes on to promise that these returned exiles will be instruments of God’s justice and transforming power:
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
In the song of Mary the tense has shifted. No longer are the words speaking about what will be, but rather what has already come into being. Mary sings out to magnify not what will be but of what already is
…the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.
And yet, if you looked at Mary’s life and the life of the Jewish nation of her day you would not have easily reached those same conclusions. She was a pregnant, unwed young woman whose people were suffering under foreign domination. And yet she sings out this song with boldness and courage.
Both Isaiah and Mary and the people of God in their contexts were standing in a places of vulnerability and plight and yet their poetry and song reveal deep conviction that God was in the business of transforming division and loss into mutuality and abundance for all people. I can almost hear Isaiah and Mary singing Psalm 126 together and really making a crescendo when they got to that final verse: “Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.” (Psalm 126:7)
What is the promise of God we hear from all of this, standing where we stand in our society today? Does it make us hopeful? It should! Does it make us quake in our boots a bit? It should! What power do we feel moving – can we trace that back to God?
For my own part, some of you may know that just over a week ago I had my purse and computer stolen out of my office here at the churchwhile I was momentarily down the hall in Deb’s office. By the current standards of our world this was a case of a bad guy victimizing at good guy. But with the eyes of my faith enlightened by the poetry and song of Isaiah and Mary, for me this week, I hear this crime longing to be turned inside out – to be recognized as a harbinger of a turning tide toward hope. The Magnificat and Isaiah 61 seek to get us to look past what is to what God is willing into being. And so, then this crime seeks to move me from the spot of feeling like the victim of someone else’s wrong doing, to instead catching sight of a place in which the sharing of God’s abundance will lead to very different interactions among people - black and white, rich and poor.
The morning of the burglary of my office, Ollie and I were able to track my purse because my iphone was in it and I have “track my iphone” enabled – if you have an iphone enable it! So we could see on the GPS map that my phone was across town. We called the police who came and took us to that location where we were able to reclaim my purse and all its contents as whoever took them had put them in a recycle bin at the end of someone’s driveway. But before we got the purse back, as we were riding across town I was talking to one of the officers and found that he has been on the police force here for 17 years. He put me very much at ease, and I felt a great deal of gratitude for his presence with us. At the same time, while we were riding along, I got an up close look at his gun in his holster, and in those moments I was jolted to the certainty that nothing that I had lost materially was worth anyone getting hurt to have it returned. It just put me back in mind of how sad it is that our world requires men and women of law enforcement to carry deadly weapons every day- putting themselves and others at risk – in order to enforce societal security that really does not provide security for anyone ultimately.
Please understand that I know that law enforcement is necessary. In fact before seminary I served as a probation officer for 4 years. It’s just that so often stories of law enforcement and crime and punishment in our society are told in a way that only requires one party involved to stand to accountability. This burglary of my office has been a stark reminder to me that in our society there are many who do not have what they need to lead lives of dignity and security. Our system of creating a sense of security and comfort for some while others suffer in destitution and daily insecurity is a system that we all need to be held accountable for. Until we do we will continue to need weapons of deadly force to preserve the illusion of security for ourselves.
That I believe is the hard truth that is being revealed to us once again through the recent events surrounding the Ferguson Grand Jury decision. It is actually a relief to me to see people taking to the streets calling for change. I hear echoes of Mary and Isaiah in their chants and cries. The crowd of protestors that marched across the Boston Common last weekend. during the annual lighting of the Christmas tree reminded me of Mary and her song of holy disruption. The protestors and the mother of God make it plain that something new is happening – a new order is gestating and holding it back is kind of like trying not to give birth when the baby is ready to be born. People went out from Jerusalem to John and tried to get him to say what he thought gave him the right to do what he was doing. One is coming who is greater than I – is already here but you do not know him he said. Change is coming!
If we are people of God with Isaiah, Mary and John – and clearly we are for we proclaim their words this morning to be God’s words – what are we called to do in response in this time and moment? How are we to cooperate with the turning inside out of the structures of our society that keep some in destitution for the benefit of our comfort? What Mary observes as happening in her song is a leveling of the playing field. God is lifting up the poor and the lowly and taking away the elevated position of the rich and the proud. It looks to me like God’s reality is on in which we live in relationships with one another that don’t have to be maintained with firearms. Can we hear the hope in this? Dare we?
I offer these thoughts and holy questions in the name of the One who will be born among us through the real power of love again at Christmas, Christ our Lord. Amen+
May grace and peace be yours in abundance in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Today’s readings — Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8 — both mark the beginning of physical and spiritual journeys out of exile, out of captivity, and away from violence towards peace. That’s good news. We need some signs of new beginnings. We yearn for signs of hopefulness.
Our world is in trouble. Violence seems to be gaining the upper hand over peace. El Salvador, Staten Island, Ferguson, Cleveland, Jerusalem, western Iraq, Yemen, you name it. There’s violence in many places.
Please forgive me; I’m going to talk about some unpleasant facts this morning. I confess I sometimes ponder all that violence and wonder whether there’s any hope for peace. The violence has been going on for ages, and yet it seems new.
Take a look at El Salvador. It’s been a quarter-century this month since soldiers murdered four Jesuit university teachers, their housekeeper, and her child outside their home on the campus of the University of Central America. That civil war ended and a beautiful rose garden was planted in their memory. But the violence didn’t end. People live in fear there. The lucky Salvadorans — yes the lucky ones — have enough money to send their children into uncertain exile. The less lucky ones simply do whatever the gang boss in their neighborhood says. If they can afford it they buy protection from the violence.
There’s violence here in the USA too. Next Sunday marks the second anniversary of the massacre at the primary school at Sandy Hook. Some of our cities – Chicago, Detroit, even Lawrence and Boston – are plagued by gang warfare just like El Salvador. How can we find any hope for peace?
As a culture, we in the US try to assure safety and peace for ourselves. School shootings and gang violence make us want to do that. So do all kinds of less dangerous crimes. As a culture, we’re looking to our soldiers and police to guarantee our safety from the violence of the world. We, as a nation, are in our own kind of exile from the world, surrounded by the people we hope will protect us. We want them to shield us from the dangerous people by fighting violence with violence. It seems necessary for us to do that. It’s certainly necessary to restrain evildoers.
But it’s not working very well. The violence seems to be escalating. Just take a look at the evil done on our behalf lately. Police officers, doing what they were trained to do, have notoriously caused the deaths of John Crawford in Ohio, Michael Brown in Missouri, Eric Garner in Staten Island, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland. Recently, people have raised their voices to demand that the police be held to account for these deaths, and that’s right.
Still: this may be hard to hear, but it’s true: their deaths and their families’ grief are visible examples of the evil that’s being done on my behalf, and your behalf. The actions of those police officers are signs of the fear and the exile you and I live in, with our whole society.
Please don’t misunderstand me: I don’t believe the people in those incidents, victims, police, or families, are personally particularly evil. I don’t believe you, or I, bear personal guilt for these peoples’ deaths. It would be nice if it were that easy, but it’s not. In the parable of the sheep and the goats we heard from Matthew a couple of weeks ago, Jesus said
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him.
All the nations. It would be easier if we, and if Jesus, could pin the blame on some single person. But it’s nations – tribes – who stand together to be judged before the throne of glory.
We’ve gathered ourselves into tribes, into nations. Out of fear we’ve exiled ourselves from tribes and people who are different from us, and by doing that we’ve exiled ourselves from God’s realm of justice and peace. The signs of our exile are evident. Folding the newspaper and turning off the TV won’t make those signs go away. It’s unpleasant, but it’s the truth.
In the midst of all this, there is good news for our nation, and for all the nations. Can we open our ears to hear it? God’s saving words, spoken by Isaiah, come stealing into this exile of ours. Those same words came stealing into the Babylonian exile of the people of Jerusalem in 540 BC or so. In their sixty-some-odd years’ absence from home, those exiles had claimed the illusion of peace in their new surroundings, just as you and I claim that illusion in our surroundings.
And the grace-filled words of the Lord, the words of redemption and comfort, come stealing in. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.” And then the prophet tells the people that the road – the highway of the Lord – is to be repaired, and made ready for their return from exile.
It’s the road from violence to peace, from bondage to freedom, from sin to forgiveness. The prophet invites the exiled nation to walk that road together.
There’s one condition, though, and it’s a challenging one. It’s also the road from pride to humility, away from human strength to God’s strength. “The people are grass, the grass withers, but the word of our God will stand forever.”
To walk along this road is to be changed. To use the words of those lamenting the recent death of Mr. Brown, the people – then and now – must all come to this road with our hands up.
To use the dying words of Mr. Garner, to enter onto that royal highway we must be willing to cry out, “I can’t breathe.”
Mike Kinman is the dean of the Episcopal cathedral church in St. Louis, near Ferguson Missouri, where Mr. Brown lived and died. He wrote a letter where he invited us all to consider how we walk along this royal highway, out of exile and back to God’s realm of peace and justice. He wrote these words.
We can approach this journey as tourists — consuming the experience as it comes to us on TV and social media.
We can approach this journey as missioners — and have as our goal to make the world a better place. These both have their place. Particularly, I believe there is a mission aspect to what the present moment calls us to.
But I want to suggest Christ calls to approach this journey as a pilgrimage — to have as our goal to be changed ourselves.
We come to God with our hands up. Without God, we can’t breathe. But God’s word of peace and justice will stand forever.
The good news continues in our reading from Mark. The world’s situation was much the same in the time of Jesus as it is today. City people were divided against country people and tribe against tribe. And still, people from all over knew they needed to be changed, personally and collectively. They went out all together! They went out to confess their sins (“Hands up!”). John dunked them all in the water of the Jordan River (“I can’t breathe!”) and washed them clean. He pointed them to the Way of the one greater than him, the way of Jesus, and invited them to walk that Way together.
Can we be quiet and hear the graceful word of God stealing into our exile? Can we trust God enough to allow God to use the sorrow of our country’s, and the whole human family’s violence, to invite us to put our hands up and admit we can’t breathe without God’s Spirit. Can we walk that royal highway out of our violent exile to the realm of God. Can we walk as pilgrims and risk being changed?
With hope beyond human hope, with confidence, I pray for the strength and courage to walk that road together and be changed. For the life of the world is at stake. Amen.