At the Yule Be Merry concert the week before last, there was an amazing moment. (Actually, there were multiple amazing moments – it was a glorious concert – but there is one amazing moment on which I am going to concentrate.) The model of the evening was to have music punctuated by poetry readings. And at about the three-quarter mark, we were treated to an excerpt from Tennyson’s epic poem In Memoriam.
Completed in 1849, In Memoriam was Tennyson’s response to the death of his great friend, Arthur Hallam. And as its name suggests, it is a meditation on grief and on resurrection, on love and on loss.
The excerpt that we heard at the concert last week was full of bells. It was about ringing out the old year and ringing in the new, about ringing out that which is dead and broken and that is full of life and possibility.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
And then he goes on:
Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
In Memoriam was read for us by Christine, by one of two violinists in the concert. And as she read, you could see Christine’s tears building. They built the way tears do sometimes, the way that laughter does sometime, filling up like water into a reservoir until it is too much and the weeping or the laughing or both flows over the edges.
This is the line in which her weeping became too intense for her to keep going:
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
Eventually, Christine handed the poem to her colleague, to the viola player, Vicki.
And then she sobbed as Vicki finished reading.
It was an awesome moment in the old-school sense of the word “awesome.”
In that instant of grief and catharsis, Christine gave us a gift. She was for a little while a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of what most of us, all of us, are experiencing, of what we all have been experiencing over the past few years as our country has sunk further and further into uncritical tribalism, into officially sanctioned bigotry, into anger and irretrievably lost tempers.
This is a moment in which so, so many of us are longing to ring out false pride in place and blood, to ring out civic slander and spite. In which we are longing to ring in the common love of good.
Tennyson’s poem is almost 170 years old. But, my God, in moments like this one, it might have been written last week.
It is the end of the year and, to mark 2018 coming to its conclusion, to mark the moment when, in the newspaper cartoon, 2018 is a bearded, old man and 2019 is a wee child toddling her way into January, the lectionary has given us one reading about hope and possibility and new life after another.
Isaiah talks about getting dressed for weddings, about new shoots pushing up through the springtime earth, about the sun rising. The Psalm talks about the Lord rebuilding Jerusalem and healing the brokenhearted. Galatians talks about being freed from slavery about the adoption papers going through and us learning that, now, we are, hallelujah, truly and officially children of God. John gives us the staggering promise that the Word has become flesh and lived among us, that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not, cannot, will not overcome it.
As the year ends, here, just as in Tennyson, are stories of hope and of freedom. And here, as in Tennyson, is the knowledge, the hard promise, that hope and freedom come to us not instead of loss and grief and trauma and unfairness and brokenness but, somehow, hope and freedom come to us out of these things. Somehow these things are necessary. It is in that darkest of moments before the dawn when Jesus shows up, it is in the moment of chest-heaving grief outside of the tomb that we discover resurrection.
Christian hope is something different than optimism. Our hope is not in the facile promise, in the Hallmark theology, that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle, that what doesn’t kill us will make us stronger, that God is going to pull through and make us rich. It is rather, in the stark promise that death is real, but that God has defeated it and will defeat it again.
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out our anger at our fellow citizens.
Ring out our suspicion of those with foreign passports.
Ring out our fear of those whose skin is too brown or whose bank accounts are too empty or too full or whose gender is too ambiguous.
Ring out our love affair with violence.
Ring in listening.
Ring in open hearts and open doors and open minds.
Christmas brings us joy, but is anyone else tired right now? The demands of visiting, travel, and gift-giving associated with Christmas, combined with the ordinary obligations of life, can drain the wonder and meaning from the season and leave you weary. Christmas Day may start to feel like a race with a finish line rather than the beginning of a feast. And yet – some of you know this, because Epicopalians like that they celebrate this way – the season of Christmas in the Church actually begins on Christmas Day and runs for twelve days, up to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6.
Christmas is hard.
“Making time for God” feels like one more exhausting thing on our to-do list that we’re gonna fail at. But here you are. And here we all are. I’m going to quote my current favorite Christmas song a lot in this sermon. Like O holy night says, truly he taught us to love one another, his law is love and his gospel is peace.
As Rev. Laura Jean Truman says, “This is the season of God becoming vulnerable.”
A tiny baby – not one that just makes his parents and aunties happy, but that brings a new light into the life of everyone on the earth. This one special human being was sent to give us a glimpse of God, a glimpse of what God is like and what God sees, and a glimpse of ourselves from the point of view of God.
There’s a lot of part s of having faith that seems like it’s out of our control, and sometimes it even feels like we don’t have a say in what is happening. if I say yes to God’s plan for my life, does that mean I’m still me? If my sins are erased, what’s actually left? Do I have a personality? Monastic communities, and even ordained people in our church, take vows of obedience and agree to submit to Christ, and to the church. What if…now, go with me here, what if God becoming fully human in Jesus and being fully vulnerable, is God’s way of having faith in us? Of submitting to us? God wants to work with us, and to live with us, and to die with us. As Rachel Held Evans says, God stoops.
And as Rev. Jes Kast says, I love the thought of human God so much.
The one whose heart hurt. Who got splinters in his hands when he was working as a carpenter. The one who had crushes. The one who needed hugs as much as I do.”
When God becomes Jesus, God is asking us to stand beside Jesus, as Jesus stands beside us. And oh what light reflects on us from standing by Jesus Christ! When we stand by him, so something of that light also reflects from us. Then we can turn to the world and, we bring light in places and situations of darkness. And ever since the first disciples, that light of Christ has traveled near and far, around our world, been passed on and magnified. Where the light of Christ shines with truth and honesty, it has brought healing out of brokenness, hope out of despair, peace out of hatred, and joy out of sorrow.
In the Nicene Creed we say: God from God, Light from light
Jesus’ light is the search-light cutting through the night sky.
Jesus’ light is the candlelight burning gently in the room where you let down your guard with someone you love.
Jesus’ light is the light of the stars under which we dream of a better society built on a common good where all may flourish.
Jesus’ light is the Northern Lights that dance in the sky and allow us to wonder at God’s creation.
And Jesus’ light is the beam of a lighthouse, so we know where we are and where we are going in a world with many dangers.
When you stand with Jesus, and see the light, what light does that shine in the darkness of our world?
Back to the hymn O holy night: Til he appeared at the soul felt its worth. What does it look like when a soul feels its worth?
When I was trying to answer that question, in preparation for talking to you all here today, I kept thinking of Harriet Tubman. What a great example to us of how to live a life bravely, no matter what everyone else is doing. She followed a star, it led her to freedom, and she believed that she had a right to be treated with dignity and respect, on the same level as any other person, right? Absolutely. What she believed about her soul and its worth, seems to me exactly like what God is showing us through Jesus. We’re lucky enough to have some words from her that remain through time, telling us what she thought about her first journey after walking about 90 miles in the cover of darkness, what crossed her mind when she stepped across the Mason Dixon line, which separated the slave states from the free states as the sun rose “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven” And then when she was safe, she did the unthinkable. She went back. Back into the slave states to free her brothers, her sisters, her mother, her father and her friends.
As I said when I began speaking, today is the beginning of Christmas. And, maybe that’s actually a great thing, because you already bought all the presents, and did all the stuff that society expects you to do on Christmas. A lot of other people consider today to be the end of Christmas. But now, with all that out of the way, you can focus on Christmas. Between now and Epiphany, I invite you to have, well, an epiphany. As you stand in the darkness and behold the light of Jesus, what does it mean to you? What does it call you to do, or to be? What are the things you can do, because God is with you, vulnerable, like a tiny baby, and ready to lighten the world with you? You can weave the old stories of the gospel into something new this year, as you go. Jesus did it. Mary did it. You are just as wondrous as them. So, Now you.
Again, O Holy Night: A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
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.
Why does it matter? Why does the story of Christmas matter?
If you braved the ice for the late service on Christmas Eve, you may have heard Fr. Martin pose a similar question. I, myself, did not make that treacherous drive through the icy hills of Portland. There are a few too many un-scalable peaks between our house and Grace, so I didn’t get to hear him preach, but I did read his sermon online and there it was: this sneaking suspicion that, whether we believe a specific thing or not, being here together at Grace on Christmas – or, on the First Sunday after Christmas – mattered for some reason.
So why does it matter? It may seem like a strange thing to ask in the midst of a service filled with hymns that offer, in their own way, an answer to that question. And the answer is generally, Jesus, right? It matters because… Jesus?
Yes. I could end the sermon now. It matters because, Jesus. But, I think we could, and probably should, dig just a little bit deeper into what that answer, Jesus, even means.
Asking Why does it matter? Why does Jesus matter? is – I think – an invitation into both a deeper reflection on the meaning of a holy day, and, potentially, a deeper experience of wonder at the very meaning of existence, itself.
Now, I don’t think we are offered that kind of reflection by the mainstream Christmas fanfare. The Christmas Holiday Industry has branded Christmas with generic expressions of hope, well-dressed dioramas of warm, tender moments with loved ones, and a generalized sense of joy. The unspecific joy of the mass marketed Christmas is part of what makes it such a hit, even (or statistically speaking) almost more with people who do not see this as a religious holiday.
But I am both a religious person and one who has seen the behind-the-scenes of brand building. I have been a part of the Disney branding machine, and I have witnessed the emotional, psychological, and even spiritual impact that a carefully marketed product — from Mickey Mouse to Santa Clause — can have on people from all walks of life. So, when I encounter pre-packaged meaning – simple, ubiquitous, de-contextualized joy – I start asking questions.
Joy, why? Hope for what? Or, why does Christmas matter? If we did away with all of the Christmas window dressing, all of the cultural markers of Christmas – all of the ways that American Christmas is supported by global industry – what would we say that Christmas is?
In our own consumption of some mass-marketed Christmas goodies – specifically, the Charlie Brown Christmas Special from 1965 – we heard a clear depiction of the true meaning from none other than Linus, the blanket carrying theologian. He lays out the Christmas story from the 2nd Chapter of Luke, King James Version (of course); the one in which shepherds in the field, keeping watch over their flock, are told by an angel that Christ the Lord is born and is currently lying in a manger. It was, in essence, the Christmas pageant. (And if you missed that… well, you missed something truly angelic.)
But today’s Gospel reading (also in the Christmas pageant, but not in the Charlie Brown special) offers us a more esoteric take on the meaning of Christmas, but that – to Linus’ credit – gets us to about the same place.
Let’s visit John’s poetic prologue once again:
In the beginning was the Word, or what the Greek calls the Logos. The Logos can be understood as the foundational creative principle underlying all that is, was, and ever shall be. Here and everywhere. And this foundational principle of creation — this universal particular — was with God and was God. All things came into being through this universal particular, and without which not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people – not some, not the chosen – ALL people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
That’s John’s creation story. But it doesn’t end there…
The Word became flesh and lived among us…. full of grace and truth.
So, the universal particular through which all things were made was born to Mary in Bethlehem.
This is, understandably, the point where your brain may break a little, and I think that’s a fantastic thing. The Incarnation of God in Jesus is brain-breakable. Always has been, and likely always will be. And the Incarnation is not a one-off in the story of God’s work of liberation, either. We simply proclaim it as the culmination point.
God, in the stories of our ancestors, starts out removed – an overseer – creating from on high. God begins to speak to God’s creation, appearing on a mountain to Moses. Then God takes the form of a pillar of smoke, leading God’s people through their journey of isolation and exile. Then, God sets up shop inside the Holy of Holies, and the people of God develop a complicated system which governs who gets to have access to God in God’s most sacred dwelling place. And the prophets cried out in defiance of the hard-heartedness of God’s people, saying that the God who made all things is not the property of any one nation, but rather the sovereign of all nations. And then, God – the Creator – becomes incarnate. The Word – the foundation of all being – takes on flesh.
And with flesh comes the need to be held, to be loved, to be looked after. God, the One beyond all comprehension, becomes the most vulnerable of things – a human baby who cannot walk, who cannot speak, who cannot defend itself against the weather, or animals, or other humans – so that he might be loved with the tenderness of a mother’s heart.
Jesus the baby, that tiny mewling infant, becomes the most sacred dwelling place of God. Imagine, a God willing to look through the bewildered eyes of a baby, willing to have no control of arms and legs, to have a deep need to take naps, to need a diaper change. That’s the new temple of God. The human being becomes the tent pitched in the desert, in which God seeks to encounter creation in the most intimate of ways.
In the Incarnation, humanity has a chance to love God with unparalleled intimacy because that is how God has loved us. Jesus becomes embodied evidence that God is with God’s creation, so much so that God’s own Self is discernable in the messy stuff of human life, death, pain, and suffering.
And should this mystery, this poetic vision of John, be allowed to take root in us just as Christ was allowed to take root in Mary – if we can make enough spaciousness within us to become pregnant with the very Spirit of God, then perhaps Christ will become visible through our flesh.
Perhaps if we can see the human body as the sacred space in which God can encounter God’s creation, we might be able to see the spark of the Holy in the bodies of other people. Perhaps all bodies will begin to look like places in which the indwelling of God’s Spirit occurs. Perhaps, then, it will become difficult – impossible, maybe – to see anyone’s body as discard-able. Perhaps the bodies which we have been conditioned to look down on or to hate will start to look like sacred dwelling places for an encounter with God, and this awareness will inspire in us the willingness to stand up and protest, with the voice of a prophet, when the powers and principalities of this world systematically oppress God’s creation.
It can start with the simple awareness that God was made manifest in Jesus, and then all flesh will begin to look different. Yours. Your neighbor’s. Your enemy’s. I don’t know about y’all, but I would feel a genuine, sincere, specific joy if we all began to move in this direction.
Jesus is God’s beloved, and to all who receive him, who believe in him, who inwardly digest and give their heart to his generative, life-giving, creative being, he gives power to become children of God.
This is how it has been, by design, from the beginning.
I hope we continue to ask ourselves, “What does Christmas mean?” “Who was Jesus?” “Who is Jesus?”, for these are the questions that help to establish the foundation of our own discipleship. And when we stumble to answer that question, or when we wonder about whether these bodies of ours are worth anything, I hope we remember this:
God took on this flesh so that we all might learn to love God and one another more deeply.
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?
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,
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:
Just sit there right now
Don’t do a thing
For you separation from God,
Is the hardest work
Let me bring you trays of food
That you like to
You can use my soft words
As a cushion
Translated by Daniel Ladinsky
Scholars tell us that, in Ancient Near East when Jesus was born, our ancestors conceptualised creation as being comprised of a Three Story Universe. Floor Three is heaven, the place above the sky where God (or, depending on what culture you lived in, the gods) lived. Floor Two is the Earth (which, for most Ancient people, a handful of brilliant Greek mathematicians excluded, is flat), where you and I live. Floor Two is supported by the columns which run through Floor One: the underworld, in some traditions the place of the dead.
Paying attention to the Three Story Universe matters, and not just because it illustrates how fluid our understanding of “how the world works” can be. (I sometimes wonder about the future: when people look back on the early part of the 21st Century, what will they hear about us and say, “I can’t believe that they thought that”?) Becoming aware of the Three Story Universe provides insight into scripture as well as into faith right now. There are three things in particular that I would like us to notice.
First, because the Three Story Universe is one of our ancestors’ starting assumptions about reality, because it is their model for reality, it informs the stories that they tell us across the Bible, the images that they employ. When we hear imagery of the Holy Spirit coming down on Jesus, or God speaking from a cloud on the mountaintop, or angels ascending and descending on a ladder, or going down to Hades, we are hearing ideas that are congruent with the Three Story Universe.
Second, while we have learned a lot about creation since Jesus’ time – we know that the Earth is round, that it is several billion years old, that it orbits the sun, that the solar system is rocketing around the Milky Way, and so on – the Three Story Universe remains a remarkably durable part of our consciousness, of our imaginations. It is an archetypal image of how creation works. Listen to people speaking of a loved one being up in heaven, sing the 19th-Century hymn Love Came Down at Christmas, listen to us sing the Gloria, in which we offer Glory to God in the Highest and you are hearing echoes of the Three Story Universe. It remains a common metaphor or archetype with which we speak of God.
Third – and this is what I most want to underline – the physical structure of the Three Story Universe holds the risk of inviting assumptions about who God is and where God is. Assumptions that scripture repeatedly and emphatically refutes.
Cast your mind back to being six years old, lying on the grass on a summer’s day and looking at the sky. What is it that you notice? Well, the sky is blue. Perhaps there are some clouds, maybe in the shape of a dog or dragon or a boat. There is that great orb, the sun, at which you cannot look directly. Maybe the moon is hanging around as well. And: The sky is really far away. Even with the biggest crane, you can’t touch it; even with that tower that the citizens of Babel built, you can’t touch it; even with Icarus’ wings, you can’t touch it.
Floor Three, heaven, is distant. The place where God lives is distant.
In English, distant has two meanings. Distant means physically far removed: London is distant from Portland. And it also means reserved or even aloof – if you go to a wedding reception, and the person sitting at the table beside you answers all of your questions with one or with a grunt before going back to staring off into the distance, you will likely go home and remark about how distant he was.
I suspect that these two meanings overlap because when you are physically far removed it is way easier to be aloof. When you’re distant it’s easier to be distant. It’s why it’s so much easier for us to care about people whom we have met or places that we have actually been than places with which we have no direct contact. It’s why people say that travelling to a Third World country changed them. It’s why people say that breaking bread with people of other religious traditions or no religious tradition at all changed them.
What the Bible declares over and over is that God isn’t distant, God isn’t up on Floor Three. God is right here. The Bible says as much starting right at the beginning: remember the beautiful and whimsical image of God at walk in Eden during the cool of the day. Remember God leading the people of Israel through the wilderness, God with them the whole time. Remember God feeding Elijah and the widow and her son.
And remember the Incarnation, remember God becoming a human being: the Word became flesh and lived among us. In the Incarnation, God says: I am here. I am with you. And I always have been.
I want to emphasise that “always,” because it seems to me that there is a risk of talking as though the Incarnation fixes something that wasn’t there before, that there is a risk of suggesting that the New Testament “corrects” the Old. No. The Incarnation is not a departure from the Hebrew Bible: it is in continuity with it. God has been with us since the beginning. And – here’s the next vital thing – God is with us still.
Sometimes, after a near miss in a car, we will say, “God was with us.” Or after we get an “A” on a test, or get the job we were hoping for, we will say, “God was with us.” And yes, God was with us in those times. And God would have been with us if we had been T-Boned, God would have been with us if we had gotten an “F,” God would have been with us if we had been rejected yet again.
God doesn’t just come down from the Third floor every now and again to, as Rob Bell marvelously puts it, “do God things” before retreating back to heaven. God is here all the time. Across history. Right now. God was there to set a fire in people’s hearts to put an end to slavery. God was there to set a fire in people’s hearts to give women the vote. God is here to set a fire in our hearts right now, perhaps to find ecological justice, perhaps to end poverty and hunger in our country, perhaps something else. And God is with us as well as we wash the dishes and walk the dog and brush our teeth.
Richard Rohr tells the story of visiting a monastery. There is a monk there, a hermit, who lives in silence. Everyone is accustomed to respecting the monk’s quiet, to simply nod in wordless greeting when they see him. One day, Richard sees the monk coming – they are walking towards one another on a path. Richard nods quietly, he is going to keep on walking. But it is clear that the monk wants to talk. The monk stops and, in some excitement, he says:
Richard! You get the chance to preach and to write. You have to tell people: God isn’t somewhere else!
Scripture proclaims that God isn’t somewhere else, that God is not hiding out on the Third Floor. God is right here.
Scripture proclaims that separation from God, from love: well, it’s the hardest work there is.
God is not distant. God was with our ancestors. And God is with us, right now.
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.
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.