Christmas Eve by The Rev. Martin Elfert

December 23, 2018

Lessons:

Isaiah 9:2-7

Titus 2:11-14

Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

Psalm 96

It is Christmas Eve and I would like to risk doing something with you. I would like to risk entering into what might be a heady or an intellectual exercise. Although it is a heady exercise with a purpose.

I’d like to wonder with you tonight about what scholars call Biblical hermeneutics.

(Put you hand up if you have used the word “hermeneutic” in a sentence in the last month. Good. So, most of you.)

“Hermeneutic” is a 5-dollar academic word that, like many of our words, comes to us from the Greek. And what it refers to is the method that we use for interpreting something or someone. Another way – a plainer way – of talking about hermeneutics would be to use the word “assumption”: when you and I encounter a given thing, a given person, a hermeneutic is what we assume or take for granted about the information that is coming in through our senses. Another way would be to say that a hermeneutic is a lens. When I put on these glasses, I see the world differently, I am now able to see other folks facial expressions with much more clarity. Mostly that is an advantage. Occasionally not so much. Still another way would be to say that a hermeneutic is a story we tell about something.

The popular science writer, Brené Brown, even though she doesn’t use the word, is talking about hermeneutics when she asks us the question: Do you think that, generally speaking, people are doing their best? Or to phrase that question slightly differently, Do you assume good intentions in the people around you?

Brown says that the folks who respond to her question are typically divided into two binary camps. The first camp is comprised of those who say Hell no. People are not doing their best. And then there is the second camp, the folks who, kind of sheepishly say, Well, actually that is what I believe. In case it’s unclear from those responses, Hello no is the culturally dominant hermeneutic or story in our culture. Folks who assume that others are doing their best are, therefore, kind of embarrassed to admit it.

But here is what Brown’s research has found. Those folks who choose to assume that others are doing their best tend to be more effective and open leaders and they tend to have more joy in their lives. Our time together tonight won’t let me go into the leadership part. But I think that all of us know the joy part from our own experience. If someone cuts us off in traffic or if someone bumps into us on the playground, we have a choice between telling a story in which that person is deliberately being a jerk or, alternatively, telling a story in which that person made a mistake.

Which story you tell, which hermeneutic you employ about the dude in the other car or the classmate on the slide, has huge implications for your blood pressure.

I’ve been thinking a tonne about Biblical hermeneutics, about the pair of glasses that we put on when we read scripture, ever since I attended a lecture put on this past summer by my friends David Taylor and Andrew Halladay. David and Andrew are a married couple, they are both priests. And their thesis is that our hermeneutic about the Bible shape us for better or for worse.

Have any of you seen that photograph meets Photoshop composition in which we look at an iceberg from the side in such a way that we see it in its entirety, that part that is above the water and the bigger part that is below? It is an amazing and striking image. Above the water line is all of the stuff that is in the light, that we can see easily. Below the water line is the stuff that is harder to see. And the further down you go, the darker it gets.

Hard as it may be to see, the stuff below the waterline is an integral part of the iceberg, it shapes the iceberg. No matter far out of the light it is.

What I realised during David and Andrew’s lecture, what I realised thinking about it since then, is that most of us have Biblical hermeneutics that live beneath the iceberg’s waterline. Most of us have never surfaced and interrogated our stories about scripture. We’ve never named them. In my case, my stories weren’t all that far below the surface – it wasn’t hard for me to find them – but below the surface they were. Notwithstanding being an official religious person (you can tell I’m an official religious person because I am wearing a costume), I had never taken my Biblical hermeneutics up out of the water and examined them.

Before I get to what I found when I surfaced that stuff, let’s talk for a little while about the hermeneutics that our culture brings to the Bible. Let’s start the story that goes something like this:

The Bible is either literally true, it is either a collection of facts, or else it is total nonsense.

There is a reason that folks transition fairly easily and fairly often from Biblical literalism to aggressive atheism. That’s because Biblical literalists and aggressive atheists – what we might call antitheists – have this hermeneutic in common. The only real disagreement between them comes when we get to the yes/no question that the hermeneutic implies. Is the Bible literally, inerrantly true? Or is it an anachronistic absurdity, a leftover from a time when humanity didn’t know any better about how the world works? If your answer is A, congratulations, you are a Biblical literalist. If your answer is B, congratulations you are antitheist, Richard Dawkins is waiting to give you a High Five.

Do we accept the binary question posed by this hermeneutic? Or is there another way of reading the Bible?

Another common contemporary hermeneutic could be expressed this way:

Being a Christian is totally congruent with consumerism, and therefore faith is best understood as a transaction in which you pay to get something from God.

This hermeneutic says the Bible is an instruction manual and it explains, among other things, that you and I are putting money into a cosmic bank account by going to church, by giving money to church, by believing correctly and uncritically. In return for your payment, God will make you healthy, wealthy, and wise. If you are not healthy, wealthy, and wise, then you are doing faith wrong. If you are sick, you kind of deserve that. If you are poor, you kind of deserve that.

What do we think about that hermeneutic? Does it sounds like good news?

Still another hermeneutic – and this is the one the David and Andrew concentrated on in their presentation – goes like this:

God is terribly angry and terribly disappointed in you.

David and Andrew said that, when they talk about this stuff with folks, this is the moment when the handkerchiefs come out, when folks start to weep. Because an amazing number of us, without ever having brought it above the waterline, have been taught and have internalized this hermeneutic about the Bible and about who God is.

And it is not an exaggeration to say that this is a story about God that utterly poisons our reading of scripture. If God is like Santa, an old man on a cloud with a beard except thinner and with a bigger anger-management problem, if God is watching you to see who is naughty and who is nice and is constantly shaking his head at your screw ups, then the Bible is one passage of condemnation and contempt after another.

John 3:16 is maybe the most famous passage in scripture. God so loved the world that he gave his only son that so those who believe in him might not parish but have eternal life. Read through the lens of God’s anger and disappointment, this is terrifying news. Totally gone from the verse is God’s love. Totally gone is eternal life. Suddenly this passage is all about things it doesn’t actually say, suddenly this is about meeting God’s impossible standards or perishing, or going to hell.

Again, let’s ask: is this the lens that we want to use when talking about the Bible and, in turn, when talking about God?

A couple of minutes ago, I told you that I had started the work of bringing my own stories about the Bible above the waterline. I don’t know if these are the best stories about the Bible, I don’t know if they are right. I do know that I walk a little lighter when I look at scripture through their lens, that I encounter a little more joy. Results may vary. If they are useful to you, that’s great. If you reckon that they are wildly mistaken… that’s great. Take my mistaken hermeneutics as an invitation to craft your own hermeneutics.

Disclaimers aside, here are Martin’s Three Hermeneutics for the Bible.

One. 1John is telling the truth when it says that God is love. The word “God,” John says, is followed by an equals sign. And after that equals sign – amazingly, impossibly, wonderfully – comes the word, “Love.” That means that Richard Rohr is correct when he says that the test for discerning whether or not something is authentic revelation goes like this: if an assertion or a story about God that you are hearing, in the Bible or somewhere else, is less loving than the most loving person whom you know, then that is not and cannot be authentic revelation. Another way of putting that would be to say that reading the Bible through the lens of love means that an authentic reading of scripture can never lead us to violence or to exclusion.

Two. To riff just a little on the maxim popularised by Marcus Borg, we are called to take the Bible seriously but not always literally. Now, a lot of lefty Christians are good at not taking the Bible literally. But we are sometimes less good at taking it seriously. This hermeneutic says that we have a responsibility to wrestle with the Bible, to struggle with those passages that leave us confused or disoriented or irritated or whatever. If you don’t like Paul, for instance – and I hear from a lot of people who don’t like Paul – maybe get curious about that. If you don’t like the epic and sometimes violent family dramas in Genesis or Judges or Kings, maybe get curious about that. Take these passages seriously enough to ask what they might have to teach you about how our ancestors understood God, about how you understand God.

An addendum to Hermeneutic Two: If your wrestling with scripture takes you to a place of doubt, that’s okay. To borrow a line from Rob Bell: Doubt is evidence that your faith has a pulse. Looking at the Bible and wondering if these are nothing more than a bunch of stories that human beings made up, a way of explaining things, a way of whistling in the dark – that’s allowed, that is encouraged even. God created us to think, created us to question, created us to search. So God doesn’t mind when we doubt.

Third, and last of all. The Bible is about you and me right now. These stories and sayings may have been put to paper 1800 or more years ago, but God is speaking through them still. When the lector reads for us, she ends the reading by saying, “The Word of the Lord.” She doesn’t say, “The thing you just heard is the word of the Lord.” It’s broader than that, more ambiguous than that, more beautiful than that. The word of the Lord is what is happening in this room right now. It will be what happens in your heart and through your hands later on today when you are back home.

It is Christmas Eve. The child will soon be laying in the manger, the exhausted and proud Mary and Joseph looking on, the animals nearby, the shepherds and the Magi on their way.

What would happen if you looked at this scene through a lens that tells you that this is a story about love? That it is evidence that God loved us enough to risk everything for us? Not that humanity was so broken and so sinful that God needed to come fix our problems. But that God loves us so completely that God couldn’t stay away?

What would happen if you looked at this scene through a lens that says that it is our job to struggle with this story? To ask, for instance, how God could be willing to take on all of the beauty and all of the pain of being alive? To name that it is okay to doubt? I mean, God coming to live with us on this earth, well it’s too good to be true. Isn’t it?

What would happen if you looked at this scene through that says that this story is about you and me right today? And that if we make a manger in our hearts, the Christ child will come and live with us, right now.

Christmas Eve by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

 

Jesus just keeps on asking you and me questions.

After telling us the story that we know as The Good Samaritan, Jesus asks us, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” At the beginning of the parable that we call The Lost Sheep, he asks, “If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?” In a conversation with his disciples that sits in the territory that is somewhere between teaching and argument and diatribe, he asks, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” (Stop and think about that one before you answer “yes” too fast.) And as he hangs from the cross, fighting to breathe, fighting against exhaustion and agony and dehydration, Jesus quotes Psalm 22 and demands of the one whom he calls Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

If we brainstormed together for a few minutes, we could come up with a whole lot more of Jesus’ questions.

I recently finished reading a book called Community: The Structure of Belonging. Community is written by a guy by the name of Peter Block. And while Block’s book isn’t billed as a theological text, while it doesn’t officially have much of anything to do with religion or with church, I kept on thinking about Jesus while I read it. That’s because Peter Block shares Jesus deep interest in questions. Block’s thesis is that a really good question is transformative, that a really good question can sometimes be way more important than a really good answer.

Block argues, however, that many of the questions that you and I pose tend to be limited and limiting. At work, at home, at church, we tend to ask things like:

How can we get more money?

How do we get more people to show up?

How do we hold those people accountable?

Where is the thing that we want to do working and how do we import that knowledge?

And while Block acknowledges that such questions are sometimes necessary, he argues that this style of questioning – a style which directs us into a place in which we engage in analysis, explanation, argument, and defence – holds virtually no power to create something new. Rather, this style of questioning calls us to try harder at what we are already doing.

These questions invite us to create a future that looks like the past.

Block contrasts questions of little power with (no surprise) questions of great power, with what those of us who follow Jesus might call holy questions. He argues that a powerful question has three characteristics. A powerful question:

Is ambiguous. There is no attempt to define precisely what is meant by the question. Each person, in responding to the question, must bring their own meaning.

Is personal. A powerful question is in some way about you. About your passion, about your joy, about your fear, about your yearning and hope and commitment.

And wait for this last one. A powerful question:

Evokes anxiety. Everything that matters to us, Block says, in some way makes us anxious. And then he goes on: “It is our wish to escape our anxiety that steals our aliveness,” that steals our vitality. “If there is no edge to the question,” he says, “there is no power.”

Block gives several examples of powerful questions. He asks you and me to consider, for instance:

What is the crossroads that you face right now?

What is it about you or your team or your group or your neighbourhood or your family that no one knows?

What is your contribution to the very thing that you complain about?

And he suggests that we begin meetings or gatherings by asking everyone assembled:

What are you planning on getting out of our time together?

I’m particularly captivated by that last question. Notice that the question is not, “What do you think you will get out of our time together?” and nor is it, “What do you want to get out of our time together?” It is “What are you planning on getting out of our time together?” Powerful questions insist on the agency, the choice, and the commitment of the one who answers. They are not about the question-asker’s needs or expectations or pre-determined answers.

Block is very clear, by the way, that unpopular answers to powerful questions are not only permitted but are celebrated. If I were to say to you, for instance, “What are you planning on getting out of church tonight on Christmas Eve?” You are 100% allowed to say, “I am planning on getting nothing out of church: my family dragged me here.” But Block argues is that, even if you are planning to get nothing out of this experience, naming that plan means that you have chosen ownership. You are no longer passive, you are no longer a spectator, it is no longer entirely up to me or entirely up to the choir or entirely up to your Mom whether or not being at church tonight will be worthwhile.

Jesus’ questions consistently meet Block’s test for being powerful. They are consistently ambiguous, consistently personal, consistently anxiety provoking. Here again are the questions that we began with this evening:

Which of these three was a neighbour to the man?

Well, if you have been hanging around church for a while, you know that it can’t be the Samaritan: Samaritans are foreigners whom Jesus’ audience doesn’t like and doesn’t trust, they are foreigners whom we need to keep out, against whom we need to build a wall. But then again, the other two guys, the ones who keep on walking, don’t look so great either. What does it say about me that I’m not sure?

If one sheep out of a hundred goes astray, will the shepherd leave the ninety-nine and go search?

Well, I do want to find the one sheep. But wouldn’t it be irresponsible to leave the ninety-nine on their own?

Do you think I have come to bring peace?

Is this a trick question, Jesus? I mean, yes, I think you here bringing peace. You’re the Prince of Peace, right? But then I hear you talking about bringing a sword. And I’m not so sure.

God, why have you forsaken me?

God, why are you allowing this suffering and this injustice to occur? God, why aren’t you doing your job?

This Christmas Eve, Peter Block’s work has got me wondering: if Jesus consistently asks us questions, and if those questions are consistently powerful, then what powerful question is Jesus asking us through his birth?

Now, the child who rests in Mary’s arms won’t learn to talk for another couple of years. So I don’t mean to imply that Jesus’ first miracle is sitting up in his crib and engaging in a Socratic dialogue with the donkey. Rather, what I am wondering about is the question that he poses simply by being born as a human child, simply by being born when and where he is.

Maybe we could phrase the question this way:

Who is God?

Or

What is God like?

Or, following Peter Block’s advice, let’s make the question a little more personal. Let’s borrow a question that Jesus asks of his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew and again in the Gospel of Mark and again in the Gospel of Luke. Given the story of Jesus birth, part of which we just retold together tonight,

Tell me:

Who do you say that Jesus is?

Part of me feels like I should just sit down now. If Peter Block is right and questions are more transformative than answers, then I probably should let the question of who Jesus is stand on its own and not mess it up by venturing a response. But I think that I’m more or less required to say something more. So what I’d like to attempt is not to offer a definitive answer to that question (I’m not sure that a definitive answer would be possible – I suspect that there are at least as many answers to that question as there are people in this room) but, rather, I’d like to offer a few possibilities, a way of priming the pump, a way of inviting you to add your own responses.

Who do you say that Jesus is?

Jesus is the one who chooses total vulnerability. What could be more vulnerable than to become a human child, to become a baby? Jesus is not a God who takes on human form but who holds back from fully participating in the human condition by giving himself super powers. The Gospel is not the story of Hercules or Thor or Superman, who even as toddlers can lift boulders and cars over their heads and catch bullets in their hands. Jesus is utterly dependent on Mary and Joseph for food and shelter and love. To build on a turn of phrase that we sometimes hear in the world of finance, Jesus doesn’t just have some skin in the game: he has all of his skin the game. And the total vulnerability that we see as Jesus rests in the crib will last throughout his life. When he grows up and faces the forces of demons and Empire and death, he is always, always unarmed. And that leads us to:

Jesus is the one who shares in our experience completely. As a child, he will cry with hunger and restlessness and the pain of half-digested milk and several other baby complaints that, no matter how much Mary and Joseph rock him, they cannot quite figure out. He will be born into poverty, born into a refugee family that is on the run from violence. As an adult he will share in the joys and the sorrows of this beautiful hard sad wonderful life. He will like eating and drinking so much that people will accuse him of being a glutton and a drunkard. He will witness a friends’ death and weep outside of his tomb. He will stub his toe and get the flu and get sunburned and trip while going down the stairs. And at the end of his life he will critique the government and the religious authorities long enough and vigorously enough that they will torture him to death. There is no grief and no loss and no pain that we cannot bring to Jesus and say with confidence: Jesus, you know what this is like.

Jesus is the one who embodies hope and healing and possibility and new life. Those of us who are parents will know that, before we had kids, we said, “Having children changes your life.” And then we had a child and we said, “Oh! Having children changes your life!” As Mary and Joseph hold this newborn child in their arms, with his perfect and tiny fingers and his head that smells like possibility, they feel their whole world shift. To hold a newborn, as the expression has it, is to see your heart running around outside of your body. But the amazing love that Mary and Joseph experience in this moment isn’t confined to them, and it is not confined to Jesus’ infancy. This amazing love suffuses Jesus’ life. To be in Jesus’ presence is be safe, it is to feel the horizons of your imagination get bigger, it is to find wholeness and love.

Throughout his life, Jesus will heal.

What else? What other answers might we give? What answer do you give? What do you see as you gaze upon the child in the manger? What does it mean to you to encounter Emanuel or, in English, God with us?

This is the powerful question that Jesus asks as he is born in the poverty of the stable. This is the powerful question that he asks across his life. This is the question that Jesus asks of you and me right now. Tell me, Jesus says. Tell me:

Who do you say I am?

Christmas Eve by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Isaiah 9:2-7

Titus 2:11-14

Luke 2:1-20

Psalm 96

 

 

To you is born this day a saviour.

We are in a room with a dirt floor. Electric light will not be invented for almost two thousand years. And so we see by the flame of a single flickering candle. Furnaces will not be invented for about the same length of time. And so what keeps us warm are the animals shuffling quietly about around us in the shadows.

In the midst of the room is a young woman, a teenager really. She has just given birth and, like so many new mothers before and since, her face is the picture of exhausted jubilation, the picture of love. Beside her is a man, a number of years older, his face lined but smiling.

The man and the woman whisper to one another. They whisper about how life will never be the same for them again. And how that change is the greatest gift that they could have hoped to receive.

In the woman’s lap is the child. Six pounds, seven ounces, a tuft of dark, still damp hair on his head, the yellow stub of the umbilical cord tied off with rough string. The child stretches and shifts, looks around at the world with that strange, searching expression that babies sometimes have. And then he latches onto the woman’s breast and begins to drink.

In a few hours, the shepherds will come with their songs and their questions. And then a few days later the Magi with their expensive and confusing gifts. But right now. Now, Baby and Mother and Father are quiet and alone with the animals. Even the sheep are silent.

The man whispers: He is the most beautiful baby in the world.

And the woman replies: He is the one that the angel told me about.

A look passes between them for which there is not quite a name. It is something between awe and fear and wonder and joy.

To you is born this day a saviour.

So. I didn’t grow up in with religion as part of my life. I was in a university English class before I first opened the Bible. I was 22 years of age when I first risked entering into a church. I was 33 years of age when I first self-identified as a Christian, when I was baptised.

And yet, as a young man, something drew me to church and to Christmas in particular. I wonder if it is the same thing – or maybe, the same combination of things – that drew you here tonight.

Part of what drew me in was music. Church is one of the last places left in our culture in which we sing together. And I love to sing. Part of it was a longing to formally mark the solstice, to formally mark the days getting longer, the return of the light. Part of it was a sense that I needed a set of practices and symbols within which to respond to love and loss, within which to respond to the changes of life. But the thing that I want to concentrate on this evening, maybe the biggest part of what brought me to church on Christmas, has to do with the story that we just heard. A big part of what called me into a worshipping community was a deep and ineffable intuition that telling the story of Jesus’ birth together will change us, that this story can and will transform us.

To you is born this day a saviour. 

Here’s the challenge. Most of us – including those of us who didn’t grow up in church – have heard the story of Jesus’ birth so many times, we have watched it in so many cartoons and seen it on so many greeting cards, that we are at risk of not hearing it at all, we are at risk of our brains saying: I know this tale already. I’m going to save some energy by switching off for a little while it is told.

I’d like to see tonight if you and I can override our brains’ energy saving feature, if we can hear this story anew again, if we can be surprised by it again. And in doing so, I’d like to see if we can venture an answer to the question of what it is that has called us here.

Notice.

As you look around the room with the one candle where Mary and Joseph and the animals sit with that impossibly small newborn, notice four things that make this story dangerous and wonderful and surprising and freeing.

First, notice the family’s faces and hands. Their skin is brown. Notwithstanding the thousand and one oil painting and stained glass windows that, in the coming two millennia, will depict these three as whiter than fresh cream, as white than new snow, there is nothing at all white about this family. They are browned-skinned residents of a country in which privilege and power belongs to power of empire, to the pale-skinned soldiers who occupy their land.

Second, when Mary puts her newborn down, notice where the baby sleeps. Manger is an old-school word that means trough. Then, as now, there is always room in the inn if your pockets are deep. But Mary and Joseph’s family is poor, perhaps even destitute. They cannot afford to stay in a house, they cannot afford a crib, they cannot afford to call a midwife to usher their child into this world. To you is born this day a saviour. And there he is, lying in the trough. Later on in his ministry, when Jesus grows up and says, “Just as you have done it to these least of these, you did it to me,” he will not be speaking from abstraction. Jesus knows deep, generational poverty from the very beginning.

Third – and this one is a big deal, given what is in the news at the end of 2015 – notice that the members of the holy family are refugees. It is the Gospel of Matthew that tells us that Mary and Joseph and Jesus will soon to flee to Egypt in order to escape Herod’s murderous rage. Like millions of other refugees, they will load everything that they have onto a horse or a donkey or a raft and go forth into a foreign country, seeking safety and hope.

Last of all, look at the infant, all six pounds, seven ounces of him. And then hear the staggering claim that scripture makes about him. This is the Son of God. Or, as we shall say in the Creed in but a few minutes, this is very God of very God. God is right here in Mary’s arms, God is right here with all of the limitations and indignities and joys that comes with having a body.

To you is born this day a saviour.

This is the story that called me into church at age 22 and, eventually, that called me into faith. This is the story that calls you and me here tonight.

I believe that we are here because, no matter how much repetition may have dulled our ears to this story, some old part of us understands that this story changes everything, that telling this story together changes everything. The Son of God could have been born white. But look at his skin, look at what he chose. The Son of God could have been born in a palace, amongst wealth, surrounded by servants. But look at him in the trough, look at what he chose. The Son of God could have been born safe from a murderous empire. But look at his family getting ready to flee from extremism, look at what he chose.

And the Son of God could have skipped all of the hardship of being made human, the pain and the sickness and the sensuous wonder of having skin with which to touch the world and with which to be touched. The skin with which he eat and hug his friends and heal and through which he will be nailed to the cross. The Son of God could have descended on a cloud, a radiant light. But no. No. Look at what he chose.

As John has it, the word became flesh and lived among us.

Maybe this is uncomfortable news: we are so used to a sanitised and safe version of this story, a version in which the straw around Jesus is clean enough to eat off of. But uncomfortable though it may be, this story is also good news. It is the best news that there is. Because this story proclaims that God is not distant, that God is not removed from suffering, that God is not unfamiliar with love and loss. This story proclaims that God is found in the margins, that God is found among the forgotten. This story proclaims that God is deeply, personally invested in the struggle for justice, that God knows that struggle firsthand. This story proclaims that it is good to be alive, good to have a body. This story proclaims that, no matter our circumstances, no matter what happens to us, how good or how hard our lives become, you and I may turn to God and say with confidence, You know what this is like.

To you is born this day a saviour.

Mary and Joseph look at one another across the dirt floor. Joseph whispers,

He is the most beautiful baby in the world.

And Mary replies: He is the one that the angel told me about.

This is the child who is going to change the world.