Have you ever had the experience of encountering the same words at two different times in your life and hearing them in a totally different way?
For myself, I think about the statement:
Having kids changes your life.
Before I had children, I heard those words and I nodded in agreement. I said, yes, that’s right, having kids changes your life.
And then I had kids. And I said:
Having kids changes your life.
The words were the same, the information was he same. But my understanding of them was radically different.
A lot of theological statements are similar. I remember my wonderful Jesuit teacher, George Greiner, telling our class that there are certain statements about God and about life and about love that are true. But that you are required to do some real searching and some real struggling before you are allowed to say them with authority and with honesty. Dr. Greiner gave the example of the statement:
It is a mystery why there is suffering in the world.
Now, that statement is almost assuredly true. Maybe God understands where there is so much hurt. But as scripture says, our ways are not God’s ways. And so I can’t really disagree with those atheists who demand to know why a good and a loving God permits so much violence and so much injustice. It’s a fair and an important question. And to simply announce that suffering is a mystery is to give a flippant and way too easy response to one of the great questions of being alive.
We are morally and intellectually obligated to be more curious about the world than this, to struggle with this question, to wrestle with it like Jacob wrestles with the stranger in the night. It is after our struggle, during our struggle, that maybe we earn the right to say:
This is a mystery.
I think that the difference – and this is very similar to the example of parenting that I gave a moment ago – is that, in the first scenario, we are talking about the mystery. In the second scenario, we have experienced the mystery.
The words that we encounter in the Epistle to Philippians today are similar.
Jesus says something very similar in the Gospel. Are these words facile? Or are they profound?
Again, the test is not in the words themselves but, rather, the test is in the one who speaks them and in the one who hears them. Have you done the work, have you lived through the hardship, that allows you to say don’t worry?
Many of you know that I used to work in the performing arts in Vancouver, BC. And I remember being out for a walk with Phoebe. We were taking our dog, then much spryer than he is now, through our neighbourhood, when we ran into a mutual colleague. Our colleague – his name is James – is an inveterate actor in Vancouver. And James was in one of those stretches that comes in the performing arts, a stretch in which he had nothing in his calendar for months to come.
I have held a calendar or day planner in my hands that looked like that. That showed January and then February and then March with not a gig in sight. It was, at least for me, an awful feeling, a sense of dull panic that hung out in my gut.
But James, who was maybe 60 at the time, was reflective about his situation. He said, I’ve been in this business for years. And things have always worked out for me. I’m going to trust that things are going to work out this time as well.
James had, over the years of being an actor, earned the right to say Don’t worry and to say it with authority.
Paul – the writer of the letter to the Philippians – has similarly earned the right to say don’t worry, to speak those words in such a way that they are not Hallmark theology but, rather, are a profound consolation, a profound promise about God. Paul, like his master Jesus, is someone who knows about suffering, who knows about being on the margins, who knows about being knocked off of his horse by God.
The words are the same. But they are not the easy words of someone who knows nothing about loss and yet is telling you that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. They are not the words of someone who is ostensibly reassuring you but is really reassuring themselves. Paul’s Don’t worry comes from one who knows all about worry, all about loss, from one who follows a crucified God, from one who has a pretty good guess that his writing and his teaching will land him in prison and in a coffin.
Paul’s words are the same. But his understanding is different. And therefore, maybe, there is freedom and hope for you and for me in hearing them. For Paul’s words are the assurance of the man who, because he has seen death, knows that there is resurrection.
Are you basically an optimist or basically a pessimist? Do you tend to see the glass as half empty or half full? John the Baptist seems to be a bit of both – both optimist and pessimist. I tend to be a worrier myself, so I don’t see the glass as either half full or half empty. Instead I worry about the glass tipping over and spilling whatever water it might have. My tendency is to look at the future and think about the bad things that could happen.
I feel as if there’s a lot to worry about right now in our world. Global warming or global trade wars, the rising costs of healthcare, mass gun violence, the anger and hatred in our national political discourse, the growing divide between the wealthy and the poor. We seem to be going in the wrong direction, and bad things are coming. You probably share at least some of those anxieties.
John the Baptist confronted high anxiety in his own age. The Jewish people could look ahead and see disaster threatening them. John the Baptist does not try to reassure them; instead he tells them, “Yes, you’re right, disaster is coming! You better get ready for it!” He uses their anxiety to try to get people to act, to make changes in their lives that will get them back on the path to God. Now is the time to get right with God.
Because the other part of his message is a message of hope. We hear that in the gospel this morning. God is going to bring salvation to God’s people. There’s a glorious future that lies somewhere ahead of us. This is the vision that’s also laid out so beautifully in this morning’s lesson from the prophet Baruch: God is going to bring all of God’s children home, God is going to bring redemption. Looking at disaster ahead and yet still finding hope – that’s the balance.
In some ways this balance is essential to our spiritual lives. We are always on the knife edge between being anxious about disaster ahead and looking for the small signs of hope in God’s promised salvation.
I had an experience of this last week. I was in Seattle helping an aging family member move – always a difficult process, but made more so by the fact that they are in a relentless decline in physical and cognitive health. This is something that I know some of you have faced with your own family members or friends, and it’s a bleak kind of outlook to have. You know it’s not going to end well, there’s no bright light at the end, and this is so hard, because you feel there’s nothing you can do.
But in fact I did experience moments of hope and moments of light last week. It came in small, unexpected moments, and it always involved an interaction with someone else. A brief moment of humor, a word of encouragement, acts of kindness and understanding and grace. It was like going outside on a dark night this time of year and looking up at the sky and seeing a few bright stars. Small signs of hope in the darkness, signs of God’s presence. It was enough to sustain me, even knowing the difficult path ahead.
I feel that Advent is a time like that, when we are experiencing darkness, experiencing maybe fear and anxiety about lots of things. And yet this is also a time when we can be aware of what the late President Bush liked to call the “thousand points of light.” Do you remember how he talked about this? It was about the people around us and their small acts of compassion and generosity that are pointing the way forward.
So that’s what we can do in this dark season. We can look for those points of light, those points of hope in the people around us, and we, too, can make our effort to be points of light, points of hope for others. We can do that in the acts of kindness we share with others – we become light to them in the acts of grace and of good humor. We become the light in the darkness, that gives us hope and confidence in the redemption and salvation that God is going to bring for all of us.
Be on guard, Jesus says, so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.
Or that day will catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.
It is the start of Advent, the start of a new church year, the start of a year with the Gospel of Luke. And as we begin, this is Jesus’ advice to us, maybe his command to us.
What does Jesus mean?
I am familiar with two-thirds of the things that Jesus speaks against. I know what Jesus means when he speaks of drunkenness. And I know as well about the worries of this life – gosh, do we all know about the worries of this life. But I am less sure about the first item in this forbidden trinity, about dissipation. Dissipation isn’t a word that most of us reach for all that often. Dissipate – this word in verb form – we drawn on a little more regularly. Smoke dissipates, so do clouds in the sky, maybe an audience dissipates when the curtain comes down and the lights go up. But in noun form, in the form that the New Revised Standard Version translates Jesus’ word, this word doesn’t just mean things moving apart and vanishing from sight.
Dissipation has the connotation of squandering something.
The Greek word that the NRSV renders as dissipation is kraipalē, so the ancient root of our contemporary word crapulence. And to leaf through one Bible translation after another is to find that no one can entirely agree about what kraipalē means in English. Various translators, the ones who don’t reach for the word dissipation, tell us that kraipalē means a drunken headache. Others tell us that it means carousing. The King James Version, with its lovely poetic English, offers us the old-school word surfeiting. Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase of the Bible called the Message, uses the word parties.
Actually, it’s worth pausing here for a second to hear Peterson’s rendition of Jesus’ sentence in its entirety. In the Message, Jesus says:
Do not let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping.
Think about that as our society enters into the lead up to Christmas, a time that is basically defined by parties and drinking and shopping.
Maybe this constellation of translational possibilities of kraipalē, maybe Peterson’s full-on sentence, get us a little closer to what Jesus means in this verse.
My sense is that we can say with some certainty that when Jesus says, Don’t let your hearts be weighed down with kraipalē and drunkenness and the worries of the life, Jesus doesn’t mean, “Don’t go to parties.” We know that Jesus loves partying with strangers and friends.
We can probably say as well that Jesus doesn’t mean, “No one should ever drink.” We know that Jesus loves to eat and drink. And besides, he doesn’t say doesn’t say “don’t drink,” he says, “don’t be weighed down with drunkenness.” Alcoholism is real: there are people whom I love and respect who must not and cannot drink. And that acknowledged, enjoying wine in moderation with your friends on a Saturday night is a really different thing than polishing off a dozen beers by yourself on a couch on a Tuesday afternoon. Drinking on the one hand: being weighed down with drunkenness on other.
Jesus is not, in other words, commanding us to engage in a humourless or a puritanical life. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say that when Jesus says don’t be weighed down in the worries of the life, he doesn’t even mean that we shouldn’t worry. Jesus is fully human, and so he knows that a certain amount of worrying is part of being alive. At the end of his life, Jesus will sweat blood in the garden because of his deep and entirely understandable worry about what is to come when Judas and the soldiers arrive.
I wonder if what Jesus means in this sentence is something like this:
Don’t do stuff that leaves you numb.
Now, the popular writer and researcher Brené Brown would be quick to jump in here and say that absolutely everyone engages in a certain amount numbing. Pain is the price of admission being alive and we all respond to it by – what? – logging on to Facebook, eating muffins, gambling, playing video games, staying frantically busy, shopping, the list goes on.
A certain amount of numbing is permitted, it is okay. After a hard or a disappointing day, you are allowed to apologise to yourself, to give yourself a treat, by turning on Netflix and eating bonbons.
The problem comes shows up when you are still on Netflix at 3am and just vibrating with the sugar in your bloodstream.
That moment at 3am (maybe you know that moment, or maybe you have an equivalent to it in your life) is when we approach or cross the boundary between reasonably healthy numbing on one side and obsession or compulsion or even addiction on the other. This is when we are numbing instead of living our lives, numbing instead of engaging with God and creation and neighbour. This is the moment, when these activities or things that are officially pleasures – Netflix, sugar, booze, eating, whatever – end up robbing us of our joy.
Most of us sense the joy-robbing nature of deep numbing, sometimes even as we do it. I’ve had the fork holding the piece of cake partway in my mouth and said, Why am I doing this? I’m going to feel awful after eating this and the sugar and the suspicious icing hits my bloodstream. I’ve been the guy still in front of a screen in the middle of the night saying Why am I still here?This stopped being fun hours ago.
What Brown’s research has found is that when we articulate that why, whether it is in the moment or the next morning, we are naming the reality that deep numbing comes at a deep cost. That’s because human beings are wired in such a way, we are created in such a way, that we cannot numb the valleys without also numbing the peaks.
I guess I’m talking a bunch about screens this morning because they are one of the principal forms of numbing of our time. Through constant use of phone, through constantly being in front of a TV, we seek to eradicate silence and the sadness that can come with silence. The strategy works. The silence is gone and the sadness gets crowded out for a while. But what else gets crowded out when the silence is gone? Silence – in the woods, in a chair in the hum of the afternoon, even in church – is so often when joy shows up, when clarity shows up, when God shows up. When we are weighed down with kraipalē and drunkenness and worries (sometime worrying, too, is what we do instead of living, instead of paying attention to God and neighbour) the moment that matters comes and we are so far from ready that we are like someone setting off a trap.
A few days ago, I went to John Hammond’s 90th birthday celebration. There was one remarkable speech after another, one testament after another to John as teacher and as friend. At the end, John himself spoke.
This was one of the worst years of his life, John told us. This was the year that Alice died.
And then John said that, simultaneously, This was one of the best years of my life. Maybe the best year of my life.
Here are the peaks and the valleys together. Here is someone who, to use John’s own language, has chosen the hard and life-giving work of entering into an apprenticeship with his grief. John has chosen not to numb his grief. And as consequence, this thing that he did not want and would not have chosen and that he would not wish on anyone else, the decline and death of a spouse, has become an occasion for growth, for drawing nearer to God, for becoming more fully human.
Advent, like Lent, is a time of waiting, of getting ready. In the busyness and bustle of this time, may we take Jesus’ advice, may we obey his command. May we not be weighed down kraipalē and drunkenness and worry and food and shopping and screens, may we not be so numb that Jesus’ coming catches us like a trap. Or still worse, may we not be so numb that we do not even notice when the star hangs in the sky and the Christ child enters the world. May we be ready, may we pay attention, may we hold the holy and hard silence that permits us to listen for the voice of that child and to welcome him once more into our hearts and into our lives.
So. It is the end of 2017. We are in the Pacific Northwest. This is a time and place in which many of us are indifferent to church or ambivalent about church or allergic to church. And yet it is Christmas Eve and we are here. In church.
Well, maybe our parents or another family member dragged us here. Maybe we are here out of habit or tradition. Maybe we are here out of the amorphous sense that this is just what you do on the day before you open your presents.
But maybe there is something else.
Maybe there is an old part of ourselves that senses that coming here on this night matters, that if we let it, what we do here together might change us.
We gather to sing together, something that we do less and less of in our culture; to sing in 2017 without being a professional musician or, at least, on a reality TV show is an almost subversive act. We gather to pray together, to engage in that naïve mystery via which we whisper into the dark and dare to hope that someone or something will hear us. We gather together to share in a meal at this table, a meal in which we will encounter the absurd and impossible and glorious claim that in bread and wine we will meet God.
And we gather to tell a story. About a family. About a journey. About a newborn child.
I have a friend who comes to church just about every Sunday. But when you sit down with him in a moment of safety, in a moment of candour he will tell you:
I don’t actually believe.
And then my friend goes on:
But I come to church anyway because I think it matters.
I try to live my life as though the stories that I hear in the Bible were true.
You know what? I wonder, sometimes, if my friend believes more than he allows. Because living your life as though the stories of the Bible were true actually sounds like a pretty good definition of discipleship to me, a pretty good definition of being a Christian to me.
Tonight, we tell the story of Jesus’ birth. And those of us who study scripture closely have encountered certain questions about this story early and often. In particular, we have regularly encountered the question: is the account of Jesus’ birth as we find it in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke historical? Did it really happen? Or is this something that got made up by Jesus’ followers later, was it an effort to assign retroactive glory to what was, in reality, a pretty typical birth?
That’s an okay question, I guess. Maybe it’s even an important question. But I think that, sometimes, we have focused on it so heavily that we have missed a still more important question, a better question, the question that my friend who doesn’t believe poses:
What would it mean if this story were true? What would it mean to live your life as though it were true?
Listen again. The story goes like this:
There is a young couple who live in a dusty forgotten town in a dusty and forgotten corner an occupied land. The couple lives every day with the indignity of occupation, with the danger and the fear of violence, with the possibility that the soldiers who walk their streets will draw out their weapons and erect their crosses and dig out their bloody hammers and nails. The couple lives as well with another kind of indignity, that of poverty. The original Greek in the Bible says that the young man, Joseph, is a tekton, a word that we have traditionally translated as “carpenter.” But scholars tell us that a better translation of tekton in English would be something like “day labourer.” Joseph, in other words, is the brown-skinned man whom you see on the side of the road, his hard hat in his hands and his boots on his feet, hoping to be hired for a day of pushing a wheelbarrow or digging a hole or carrying drywall.
Notwithstanding the constant threat of violence with which they live, notwithstanding the poverty which they endure, Joseph and his fiancé – her name is Mary – are planning on engaging in the act of wild hope which is getting married.
Time passes. Joseph and Mary work – or not – as the whims of those with money dictate. They mostly keep hunger away from their door.
Mary is alone on the day that the angel comes. The angel asks her a question:
Will you bear the child who shall be the Son of God?
Now, Mary lives in a radically patriarchal culture. But notice: the angel, the messenger of God does not expect or require the presence or the permission of a man in order for Mary to make her decision. And notice as well: this is a decision, it is a choice. Mary is entirely free to say “no” to the angel. God respects her free will too much – much as God respects your free will and mine – to force this choice upon her.
Mary chooses to “yes.” And the story changes.
Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant. He knows that he is not the father of this child. And he figures that this means the end of their engagement – maybe you and I would think the same in his shoes. But then he has a moment of clarity, a moment of understanding. It comes to him in a dream. Later, he will tell his friends that in thedream an angel appeared to him. Joseph wakes up and, more than two thousand years before the hashtag #believewomen will first appear, Joseph believes Mary. And they remain together.
The young couple is on the road when Mary’s time to give birth draws near. They can find nowhere to stay. This tends to be a big moment in pageants, the moment when a hostile and officious innkeeper bars the door. But all that scripture says is that there is no room at the inn. Maybe that means that all of the rooms are full. Or maybe it means that no one is willing to rent a room to a tekton and his wife.
Where do Mary and Joseph go as her contractions begin? Again, pageants and nativity sets and oil paintings encourage us to imagine the holy family in a barn with immaculately clean hay and several politely reverent sheep, but scripture is silent on this subject. It says only that the newborn’s crib is a manger – a fancy word for an animal’s trough. Perhaps, like scores of refugees and migrants before and since, the child is born at the side of the road.
And then God enters the world in the carnality of birth. If you have given birth, if you have attended a birth, you will know that birth is an occasion on which any veneer of genteelness and euphemism is torn away. It is a time of bodily fluids and intensity and sometimes pain. In a birth, the pretense via which we imagine ourselves to be separate from our bodies is gone. Birth is a moment in which we inescapably remember that human beings are animals.
And now there are three of them. Mary and Joseph and the one whom they will name Jesus. In the midst of all of the violence and the poverty and the dirt and the injustice, unto us a child is born.
The young couple holds God in their arms.
What would it mean to live your life as though that story were true?
Let’s try out a few answers.
Living as though that story were true would be to allow the possibility that one of God’s defining attributes might not be power but, rather, might be vulnerability. We may assume that God could enter the world however God saw fit: as a superhero, as a demi-God, as Hercules. But God enters the world as an infant, as a creature utterly dependent on other human beings in order to simply live. That suggests that God not only loves humanity but profoundly trusts humanity. That God says to us: I am willing to completely and unreservedly share with you in the beautiful, painful messiness of life.
Living as though that story were true would mean having a theology in which, if we want to look for God, we start by looking in amongst the poor and the marginalised and those who suffer. Again, we may assume that God could have been born the child of Caesar if God wanted. But God chooses to be born to a pair of people whom society has identified as losers. In Jesus’ birth, he embodies what he will later teach: that when we take care of the sick, feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, clothe the naked, we are doing these things to him.
Living as though this story were true is to declare that being alive and having a body is good. That, to borrow a line from Herbert McCabe, “matter matters.” It is weird that so much of Christianity is suspicious of the body and of sexuality in particular. Because to live as though the Incarnation were true is to know that God has skin in the game, literally. That in the Incarnation, God embodies God’s words from Genesis: in God’s image God created them, male and female. And God saw all that God had made and said it was good. The Incarnation announces that our flesh is holy.
Last of all – and this is not and cannot be an exhaustive list, but it is where I am going to end today – to live as though this story were true is to realise that, as Ron Rolheiser puts it, God is scandalously easy to see. We don’t need to go find a mystic on a mountaintop or in the desert, we don’t need to become monk or some other kind of professional religious person, we don’t need to do nothing but say prayers for the next ten years. In being born to everyday people, in being born as an everyday person, God declares that God is already here, in flesh, close at hand, everywhere.
Imagine living as though this story were true. What kind of freedom might we find, what kind of compassion might we find, what kind of love and joy and healing and belonging and meaning might we find?
Maybe that’s why we’re here in church, even in the Pacific Northwest, even in 2017.
This is where our story this evening ends, with the young couple holding their new child. Or no, that’s not right. This is where our story this evening begins, with the young couple holding their new child. They gaze at him in wonder and adoration and maybe even a certain amount of confusion. They gaze in love at the child whose presence on this earth is going to change everything.
I grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia, in that part of the world that is sometimes called Cascadia and sometimes called the Pacific Northwest. (The latter name is testament to the gravitational pull that the United States exerts on those who live to its north: even the most cursory glance at a map of Canada will tell you that Vancouver is situated in it Pacific Southwest.) And while tourists who visit that coastal city in summer remember it for its mountains and its vast bay and its museum full of totem poles, those of us who remained come the fall know it for its damp and short days.
It is a cliché to call darkness inky. But ink is exactly what Vancouver looks like as fall wears on. The whole city is blurry and black, the victim of some nervous squid or of a Victorian novelist having trouble with her pen. While the broad geographical area in which Vancouver sits is called a rainforest, it rarely rains hard in my hometown; the low-lying, grey clouds prefer to drizzle, to leak like a forgotten faucet. Down below, on the wet tarmac, the taillights of the cars are diffuse and the fallen leaves move beneath their wheels.
Unlike in autumnal oil paintings, Vancouver’s leaves are rarely crisp or red or ready to burn. Rather, they are pulpy and damp and brown, well on their way to being mulch.
I don’t know if it is a coping mechanism in the drizzly, inky darkness, but I have heard more than one Vancouverite announce that they love the fall. Maybe I have uttered similar words myself. My guess is that we are not being disingenuous, that we are not engaging in self-deception when we speak this way of our city.
There is a beauty in Vancouver’s autumn.
These days, I hang out in church on a fulltime basis and, as the late Leonard Cohen put it, “[The] Biblical landscape is very familiar to me.” And so I wonder: do Vancouverites love the dark and the wet because we see in it a glimpse of rejoicing always, of praying without ceasing, of resurrection?
When we encounter instructions such as, “rejoice always, pray without ceasing,” and ideas such as the resurrection, it is easy for us to mistake them for facile optimism, for a happy ending. But that isn’t the story that scripture tells at all. Scripture tells us that death is real and awful, that suffering is real and awful, that grief is real and awful. And then it adds at least three things. Scripture says that:
First, God knows from personal experience what these things are like. This is the promise of the Incarnation. The God shares with us in stubbed toes, in stomach bugs, in loneliness, in unfair and unjust and arbitrary suffering, in grief so great that we do not know if we can keep on saying “yes” to life.
Second, death and suffering and grief are somehow necessary to figuring out what it means to become fully human, to become fully alive. I don’t know how to quantify this, how to make intellectual sense of it. I do know that the Bible gets this one right. I have lost track of how many people have told me that getting seriously ill or being in a car accident or sitting with the one whom they loved in their dying taught them lessons that they could learn nowhere else. While love leads us into loss, the opposite is also true: loss leads us into love.
And that leads us to: Third, death and suffering and grief do not get the last word. They are not the end. Resurrection is coming.
When I was last back in Vancouver, I stood in a cemetery on a fall day as my friend Don’s coffin was lowered into the ground. Don wanted his last action on this earth to be as ecologically responsible as possible. And so he found a cemetery that was content to allow him to skip both embalming and grave liners – those odd rituals through which we announce to the darkness that decay is something that doesn’t apply to us. His body, worn down by his long illness, cold with the absence of his breath, rested in a plain pine box.
As Don’s coffin touched down on the earth, six feet below out shoes, the drizzle stopped for a while and the sun cut through the clouds. We took turns gathering shovelfuls of earth and dropping then down into Don’s grave. The earth hitting the pine lid made a percussive noise, a strange drumbeat. When I got home that day, I very nearly wrote that the drumbeat was the sound of finality. And in a significant sense that is true. But that drumbeat is also the sound of a beginning.
In the famous words of the funeral service:
Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
What I remembered on that fall day with that shovelful of dirt in my hands is that resurrection is written right into what Richard Rohr calls “the first Bible”: the earth itself. Maybe this is what Vancouverites are getting at when we say that we love the fall, that we love the dark, drizzly days. We love these days because we see in them what it might mean to rejoice always, to pray without ceasing. These days tell the truth about life, they name what is real. And as such, we see in them both an ending and a beginning.
Fall says that the leaves will not climb back onto the trees, that Don will not jump laughing out of his coffin, that things will not go back to normal. And fall says as well that the leaves and the pine box that holds the remains of the one whom we love are turning back into dirt and, come the miracle of March and April, this freshly formed soil will invite the flowers of spring to grow. Those flowers will drink the water that now drizzles down upon us.
With the dark ink of fall, the earth is writing something new
We are experiencing Advent….the preparation for the coming of Jesus. We hear from John the Baptist during the time when the Roman empire was causing great unrest, torture, killing, and brutality to the people who lived throughout the region but especially in the Galilee. The people were experiencing an occupation that was very cruel and many of the religious thinkers of the day were predicting an end to the world or a messiah that would come and lead an army to vanquish the Romans. Their expectations were many and varied.
But what happened was the most unexpected event that no one was predicting.
What happened was a man by the name of Jesus. Born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth in the Galilee, a person raised in the understanding of what it meant to belong to a tribe, it just so happened his tribe was Jewish. He was aware of the teaching of what we now call The Old Testament. He was aware of the danger of speaking out against the Roman occupation. Every breath he had taken, every step he took, every conversation he had, every person he met, was somehow affected by the cruelty of the Roman occupation. People lived in fear and yet hoped for a future without fear. They were hungry for the words of John the Baptist. And John was aware that a new moment in time was coming. He probably knew Jesus. He had probably heard him. And they were probably friends who disagreed on matters of religion and politics. Jesus would say, “You have heard it said by men of old but I say to you”. And he spoke with authority.
John recognized that authority and was preparing people for the ministry of Jesus. So much happened in the brief ministry of Jesus. No more than 3 years and maybe even less.
One of the most important teachings Jesus made was to equate the love of God, neighbor, and self that had never before been taught. He taught us the Great Commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment and the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
We have heard this so many times over the years; we fail to recognize it as a revolutionary teaching in the 1st century and remain revolutionary today.
At the time of Jesus, love your neighbor means that you love your neighbor within your tribe within your own family…..yet Jesus was revolutionary in teaching that to love your neighbor you were to love your enemies and to give special attention to people who were excluded such as Samaritans and all people could share and know the love of God as well as sinners and unbelievers.
What was so revolutionary about the Commandments to love God, neighbor and self was that Christianity left its tribal heritage in Jerusalem. Under the leadership of the Apostle Paul Christianity became a worldwide religion that has incorporated many cultures, languages, and people of many colors. In fact, every child sees the baby Jesus as a reflection of their own part of humanity. At the Roman Catholic Basilica in Nazareth, Jesus and Mary are artistically celebrated as persons of color whether in India, Africa, Europe, Asia, South America and that is how it should be. The word becoming flesh in the person of Jesus is about all of humanity….at all times and in all places. One of my favorite places to visit in Jerusalem is the Church of the Paternoster where the Lord’s Prayer is on the wall in over a hundred languages. Proof of the way the Spirit has moved in the lives of millions of people over the centuries.
I would like to submit another way as to how the Spirit is moving in our lives today. Sixty-nine years ago today the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations produced a document that needs to be honored by all people throughout the world. But especially by Christians as they reflect the Commandments of Jesus. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, I will read from its preamble.
“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and unalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world,
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscious of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,
Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,
Whereas the peoples of United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress in better standards of life in larger freedom.
Now therefore, the General Assembly, proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples in all nations, to the end that every individual and every organs of society, keeping this declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observant, both among people of member states themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.”
Following this preamble, there are 30 articles that spell out the meaning of human rights. In your spare time you may wish to read it.
All of us know this past week the disruption that is taking place regarding Jerusalem. I received a letter that I wish to speak to you about as part of human rights regarding Palestinians and especially those who live in East Jerusalem.
Subject of the letter “Still occupied in East Jerusalem”.
The following letter is someone who works for an Israeli peace organization called B’Tselem. He as a Palestinian is employed for purposes of Jewish human rights organization issues.
“My name is Kareem Jubran. I am a Palestinian in East Jerusalem. On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump “recognized” Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Yet this announcement does not change the fact that East Jerusalem is occupied territory, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are deprived of political rights. We must recognize this reality and work relentlessly to change it.”
He goes on further to say:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”, states The Human Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 and marked every year on December 10th. Yet, since annexing East Jerusalem unlawfully in 1967, Israel has made it unequivocally clear that Palestinians are unwanted in the city and repeatedly demonstrated how little it values our lives. On a routine basis, Israel authorities wrongfully detain, wound, and even kill us, they deny us permits to build our homes, schools and roads and they bar us from living with our love ones who are not residents of Israel. After more than 50 years of deliberate underdevelopment, the Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem suffer from overcrowding, poverty and substandard infrastructure.” End of letter.
Human rights violations occur in every country throughout the world including our own country. It is our task as Christians throughout the world to challenge these violations and to adhere to the teachings of Jesus especially within the great commandment of love of God, Neighbor and Self. All three understandings of love becomes a focus for spirituality that reflects love to a world that often gives in to evil. We often do not advocate for our own rights much less the rights of others. Witness the explosion of sexual harassment and how women are now dismantling a male dominance over women. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 was a direct response out of the evils of World War II and the Holocaust and the ways in which we mistreat each other. We know there is a way that points us in a direction that leads to healing and hope. That way has been tried and tested and proven by countless pilgrims in their own journey of life in relationship to Jesus Christ. It is a way that leads us to accept and love God, our neighbor and ourselves. It opens doors into relationships, issues of human rights, new learning’s and brings into focus the future. That way is here and now and coming to us always as the future breaks into our lives. God is with us. Oh come, oh come Emanuel.
We will never know what Jesus was like as a child.
We will never know what Jesus was like as a teenager.
We will never know about his early adult life.
We will never know who his friends were growing up or who his teachers were.
We will never know how he learned about scripture or his worship patterns, his prayer life.
We can assume he learned a great amount from his mother and from Joseph.
We can assume he learned how to become a carpenter and how to work with his hands from Joseph, and Jesus was probably a skilled stone mason, since carpenters in the 1st century used to know how to build homes made with stone.
We can assume that he knew everyone in the small village of Nazareth where he was raised. A village of about 300 people in the 1st century.
We can assume he worked in a town a few miles from Nazareth. It was a Roman town built for the Romans in the Galilee and was the seat of the Roman government in charge of the Galilee. Sepphoris is the name of the town. It is not listed in the Bible and is an archeological site today. So Jesus would have learned first hand what it meant to live under Roman military occupation and to experience a foreign power ruling over his family, friends and neighbors. He probably observed the cruelty of crucifixion as some of the Zealots rebelled against the Roman presence at a time Jesus was growing up. In order to impress upon the people not to rebel, the Roman authorities crucified dozens of the rebellious Zealots and placed them on crosses along the road until they died and then left them on the crosses until the vultures picked clean their bones.
The cruelty of the Roman occupation would have been a part of the everyday life of a young Jesus and was part of all of his life story.
The hidden years of Jesus have always been a fascination for me and we are only given a snippet of Jesus in his visit to the temple as a young man.
Joseph must had died at some point as he disappears from the biblical record.
But we just do not know so much that we would like to know.
But today we are allowed to hear from a fully grown Jesus who has matured and has discovered what it is that he is being called to do.
Jesus appears to have been close to John. We know he was baptized by John in the Jordan River. John was like a magnet. People came to him in the desert to see and hear him. John had the kind of personality that drew people to him and his desert spirituality appealed to his followers. He was not soft spoken and if you saw him on the streets in Portland, Oregon you would probably pass by on the other side of the street. He could rant and rave and was the kind of person the established Jewish community in Jerusalem would have ignored. They would not have sent people into the desert to hear him.
John was caught up with the fervor of people who wanted a messiah to come and take charge of what had become a disaster for the Jewish people. The Romans had the Jewish religious leaders in their back pocket and corruption was rampant. The temple authorities had sold their soul to the Roman occupiers.
So John was in prison. His days were numbered he want to know if Jesus is authentic.
And we hear the response of Jesus.
“Go and tell John what you hear and see, the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
The 1st century in Jerusalem was like a powder keg getting ready to explode. The religious Zealots were those who were trying to bring about an armed rebellion to get rid of the Romans. They made no bones about it. Violence was the answer to getting rid of the violence of the Roman occupation.
The Zealots wanted nothing to do with Jesus. They viewed him with suspicion. Why? Because he spoke of a kingdom that for them did not exist and would never exist. A kingdom of God and a kingdom of relationship with one’s neighbor, one’s God, one’s own self. A kingdom that defined the meaning of love. A nonviolent message. A message that could not connect with the Zealots’ violent approach.
The Zealots admired John. His harshness and language was a symbol to them of a messiah that would ride a horse into Jerusalem at the head of a Jewish army and take back the city from the Romans.
So John’s followers were not convinced that Jesus was authentic in his teaching and ministry. “Convince us,” they said. And Jesus replied.
We know from the biblical record that many followers of John never were convinced that Jesus was authentic. Baptism was an especially difficult issue in the early church. Followers of John baptized people as followers of John.
So by the time the passage in Matthew was written in about the year 85 AD, it is obvious that John’s role has been held up to prepare the way for Jesus.
Jesus steps into the void that is being left by the beheading of John. The cauldron is beginning to boil over. The Zealots are looking for a military leader. Jesus is not that leader. The people are fed up with the religious leaders. The Romans are fed up with people like Jesus and John who attract people to them and give teachings that are far from the Romans’ point of view.
The person of Jesus became a threat to the Romans.
The person of Jesus became a threat to the religious authorities in Jerusalem.
After John’s beheading many of his followers turned to Jesus.
The people were hungry.
Hungry for relationship.
Hungry for spiritual relationship.
Hungry for what Jesus referred to as the kingdom of God.
The were searching for their humanity.
They were searching for a way that would lead them into a relationship with each other and God.
They found that in Jesus.
As any authoritative regime has done and will do, the answer for the Romans was to join with the religious leaders in Jerusalem and stifle the message of Jesus that could be seen as a threat to those in power.
Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
One of the major gaps in my theological education is that I have never read any of the Left Behind books. Nor, for that matter, have I seen any of movies or TV shows that fall into the same broad genre as it does, a genre that, I suppose, we could call “rapture action” – here are a lot of people disappearing, here is a lot of stuff blowing up, here is a lot of Second Comingitude in general.
Notwithstanding this deficiency in my training, I have a hard time hearing the passage that we just heard from Matthew without thinking about the rapture. Maybe you have the same experience. I suppose that’s because the notion of rapture so thoroughly permeates our collective imagination; it permeates it in the same way that the story of Dracula and Frankenstein permeate it. Even if you have never read Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley, even if you have never seen a screen or stage adaptation of their work, you know about guys wearing capes with pointy fangs and shambling monsters built from stolen corpses. And even if you never read even one of the seventeen, count ‘em seventeen, bestselling Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, you know about people abruptly vanishing from their homes and their cars, you know that these disappearances are evidence that God is on his way and that he’s feeling cranky.
You know that there’s going to be some wailing and some gnashing of teeth.
Rapture gives us a ready-made hermeneutic for reading Jesus’ words this morning. “Hermeneutic” is a three-dollar academic word. And notwithstanding its multisyllabic and slightly pompous nature, all that it refers to is the lens or the technique or the method that we use to interpret something. A hermeneutic is the set of glasses that we put on in order to read scripture or – let’s try a couple of different metaphors – it is the shovel that we use to dig into scripture, it is the X-Ray machine that we use to examine scripture’s body.
The given hermeneutic that we employ radically affects how we understand scripture. When you read with the hermeneutics, with the assumptions, of Calvin or Luther or Augustine you will end up in way a different place than when you it with the hermeneutics of Nadia Bolz-Weber or Sallie McFague or Rob Bell.
And that may tempt us to say, “Well, I’ll just read or listen to scripture without a hermeneutic.” But – and I’m going to risk making a bold claim here – that is an impossible goal. The popular turn of phrase notwithstanding, there is no such thing as “the plain meaning of scripture.” All of us come to scripture with a particular perspective, a particular set of assumptions, a particular set of biases, a particular history, a particular context. How we understand scripture is shaped by the culture and the time in which we live, by the people around us, by the very language in which we read the Bible. (There are all sorts of plays on words in Hebrew, for instance, that just don’t translate into English. And there are fascinating studies that explore how human beings actually think differently when we speak or write or read in different languages.)
Our choice, therefore, is not “Will I or will I not read the Bible with a hermeneutic?” Our choice is, “Will I be aware of the hermeneutic (or probably more accurately, the hermeneutics) that I bring with me to the Bible? Will I name those hermeneutics and will I engage with them critically?”
Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.
What does the hermeneutic of Left Behind and of similar stories tell us when we apply it to these words of Jesus? What are the assumptions of the “action rapture” genre?
Well, here are three of the assumptions that I see in Left Behind. One, the people who are being taken are being taken by God. They are being taken back home to heaven. Two, with the exception of a handful of people whom God deliberately leaves in order to carry out some kind of divine special mission, it is the good and the devout and the holy people who are taken. When the rapture comes, you want to be taken. It is bad news to be left behind. And three, this business of being taken will happen at the end of days – at the apocalypse, if you like – when Jesus comes back.
But let’s try a different hermeneutic. Let’s see if we can recapture the hermeneutic of Jesus’ audience and of Matthew’s audience, which is to say the hermeneutic of an oppressed people, a people who live under the boot of a brutal empire.
What does it mean to be taken when you live in a context like that one?
My paternal grandfather knew the answer to that question. Born in the late nineteenth century, he lived in Germany, first under the Nazis and later under the communists. And I don’t think that he saw a lot of distinction between the two of them. While the Nazis were officially far right and the communists far left, my grandfather’s experience was that the political spectrum is actually a political circle, so that far right and far left end up in the same place, a place of cruel totalitarianism.
Both under the Nazis and under the communists, my grandfather saw people taken. To use slightly different language, he saw people disappeared. In rare instances, the disappeared people would resurface. My grandfather told the story of a neighbour who returned home after a number of months. All of his teeth had been kicked out of his mouth and no one dared ask what had happened to him. But most of the time, the disappeared were just gone.
And my grandfather saw neighbours who were taken in another way. These were the people who didn’t physically disappear. These were the folks who disappeared morally, the people who responded to the violence of the state with silence, with indifference, with apathy. And maybe with collaboration.
The Roman soldiers who oppress Jesus and his friends and, later, Matthew and his friends wear different uniforms than the Nazis and the communists. Their instrument of death is the cross rather than the gas chamber or the bullet to the back of the head. But there isn’t actually a whole lot more than distinguishes them from one another. In every case, the reality of Empire refutes the hermeneutic of Left Behind.
Let’s go through the three points that I listed earlier again.
One, those who are taken (and I mean those who are taken physically as well as those who are taken morally) are not taken by God. They are taken by the state.
Two, being taken is not a reward. Being taken is a terrible kind of punishment. The hope, for your body and your soul alike, is that you will not to be taken. Notice that Jesus likens being taken to being swept away in the flood, he likens it to a brutal death by drowning. It is only Noah and his family who survive. The hope is to be like those on the ark. The hope is to be left behind.
And three, being taken does not occur at the end of days. For Matthew and for my grandfather after the taking, after the disappearances, the world continues. For Jesus’ friends after Jesus is taken, taken to the cross, the world continues. For better or for worse, for those left behind, life continues and they have to figure out what to do next.
I don’t want to dump on the left behind books: they have strengthened a bunch of people’s faith, and that matters. I do want to suggest that Left Behind is entirely unhelpful for interpreting Jesus’ teaching today. I want to suggest that, once we escape the hermeneutic of the Left Behind books, once we stop reading this passage from Matthew in an action-movie kind of way, Jesus’ words start making a whole lot more sense and carrying a whole lot more power.
Because when we realise that Jesus’ words are about right now, that suddenly means that the coming on the Son of Man is not some apocalyptic future to be hoped for or to be prayed for. The coming of the Son of Man is a reality that, with God’s help, we are called to create today.
And how do we create that reality? Well, the command that Jesus gives us is as simple as it is difficult:
Notice that a number of liberation movements use the language of waking up or sometimes, simply, of being woke. To wake up is to become aware of the oppression that is part of our culture: the oppression of women, of people of colour, of GLBTQ folk, of undocumented immigrants, of the physically or mentally atypical, of the poor. And having become aware, it is to offer resistance to that oppression. Now, some of us are waking up pretty slowly. And there is a temptation to be impatient or disdainful when we see a slow awakening taking place, to react with a hoot of derision when a straight white man first allows the possibility that privilege might be part of his life.
But I hope that we can celebrate every step closer to being awake, even as we push for that awakening to deepen. And – this might be harder – I hope that we will accept the pushes that our allies may give us when they ask our own awakening to deepen.
A number of my colleagues, including Grace’s own Ken Powell, travelled a couple of weeks ago to Standing Rock to join those protesting against the pipeline, to join those protecting the water. They slept in tents. And my colleagues say that the day began early when a voice from outside the tents began to chant:
Wake up! Wake up!
This call was one of those moments when the literal and the figurative intersect. Because, on the one hand, this call was purely functional in nature: like at summer camp, it was a call to get out of bed and to get the day started. But it was also a deeper call, a kind of parable.
Wake up, that voice called. Wake up and see what we are doing to the earth.
We often speak of Advent as a season of waiting. And that is, indeed, what it is. But what Jesus tells us today is that waiting is not a passive exercise. Waiting is something that we do intentionally and actively, it is something that we do as a community, it is something that we do with God’s help. The kind of waiting that we do in Advent is about connecting with those on the margins, it is about seeking out allies, it is about learning. It is about declaring that we are ready, that we are awake and that we are getting more awake every day, that we will not be taken without a struggle, that we will not disappear, that we intend to be among those who will be left behind to greet the Son of Man.