Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Many Members, One Body

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

I once read a science fiction novel called The Naked Sun by Isaac Assimov, and its premise has really stuck with me. It is set in a future where human beings have colonized other planets. It focuses on the strange traditions and culture of one interplanetary colony in particular. The people of Solaria have a rigidly controlled population of about 20,000 people. As a result, each person has a large personal estate and lives alone. In fact, they are conditioned from birth to avoid any personal contact at all. Their needs are attended to by robots who largely outnumber humans, and all communication with other people is done through technology. In this society, merely being in the physical presence of another person is considered to be obscene. Even reproduction is managed artificially, at a distance, and in a laboratory.

I read the book in high school but as the years have passed by, and I have observed that there are fewer and fewer reasons for people to have to leave their homes, I’ve often thought the story to be uncomfortably prophetic. The internet in particular has made it so that many do their shopping almost entirely online, they have any number of options for home entertainment, and can even conduct their social lives through online networks like Facebook and Twitter or via text messaging on robot master smart phones. There are even an increasing number of ways for technologically savvy Christians to worship online through live streaming religious services.

Even as we slide closer towards it, I think most us can recognize the world of isolation described in Assimov’s novel as monstrous. In the book of Genesis, when God creates the first man, he declares, “it is not good for man to be alone.” God created us for community, and not merely online community either, but real, messy, and up close community. We were made for relationship with one another.

In our epistle reading for today, Saint Paul addresses the subject of Christian Community. Throughout his letter Paul is addressing some of the complexities of doing life together. Even in the early days of the Church there were difficulties. There was immorality, disorder, factions, and petty rivalries. In other words, it was like any organization of sinful people! In our passage today, however, Paul attempts to express the true reality of the Church and how we should conduct our lives together on the basis of that.  The Church, he tells us, is the body of Christ. What does that mean?

First, it means what we have just been speaking about, togetherness. In order to have real togetherness, authentic community, you need more than just a group of individuals assembled together in one place once a week. A crowd at a movie theater together, riding a bus together, or eating at a restaurant together, may be in the same proximity, but they are not yet a community. In the same way, a group of individuals who merely  sit in church together on Sunday morning, sing the same hymns, and listen to the same sermon are not yet a community.  It is possible for a group to be together, but remain mostly strangers to one another.  This meal that we share together, the Holy Eucharist, is not meant to be taken in solitude like an individually packaged TV dinner. It is a community supper, a fellowship meal. It expresses not only our connectedness to Christ, but to one another.  We cannot be joined to Christ, but separate from each other. If we are members of Christ’s body, we are also members one to another.

So what does it mean to be members of one another? It means being involved in each other’s lives. It means supporting each other, encouraging each other, speaking into each other’s lives, holding each other accountable to God, and even when necessary gently rebuking each other in love. It means that our lives are not entirely our own. We belong to each other. As Paul tells us, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it, if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

If you are here today worshiping with us, but remain on the periphery of our community, we are so happy to have you with us, but we also want you to know that we long to get to know you on a deeper level. If you have joy in your life we want to rejoice with you, if you have struggles we want you to know that you don’t have to struggle alone. You can always share those struggles with me, one of our Stephen Ministers, or another member of our congregation. We encourage you to become more connected through participating in our classes and bible studies, our ministries, service projects, or one of our many opportunities for fellowship.

The second thing I want to say about community is this, although being in community means being together it does not mean being exactly the same. A group of people that only includes people who are alike is not a real community. It is a clique. If we want our fellowship to be authentic, we must be willing to reach out to people who are different from us, even people with whom we have disagreements.
In today’s lesson, Saint Paul writes to the Church in Corinth that the body of Christ consists of both Jews and Greeks, slaves and free. Likewise, the church today is made up of people of many different cultures, nations, and ethnicities. We are rich and poor, liberal and conservative, gay and straight. Here at Christ Church we are cradle Episcopalians, new converts, attenders from other denominations, high church, and low church. Despite our profound differences, God has called us together in Christ. We are the body of Christ but we are also individual members each different from one another.

Saint Paul says, “the body does not consist of one member but of many” and “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body.”
To use another illustration from the world of science fiction, the Church was never meant to be like the Borg, an alien race from the television series Star Trek, a species of cyborgs that dominate other species and assimilates them into their hive mind, destroying their individuality, and making them identical, mindless drones. Our unity is based on something more than conformity.

This brings me to my final point which is this: as Christians the source of our unity does not consist in sharing a common race or culture, agreeing politically, or even having the same opinions on every subject–although we do share some fundamental convictions in common. The source of our unity is Christ who has reconciled us and brought us near to God through the blood of the cross. Despite our differences, we have all accepted Christ as  Lord and we have been joined to him through the covenant of baptism. Paul writes, “for in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”

One of my favorite contemporary artists is a painter named Chuck Close. He does these very large scale paintings that are basically composed like a grid. When you are up close to it you can see how each square in the grid is like its very own composition. It has its own beauty and integrity, and yet each unit works together in one unified piece. As you step back and see it from a distance it is revealed that each part works together to form one huge portrait. The painting is one face made up of many individual pixels.

In the same way, as the Church, each individual, each member, has its own uniqueness, but each of us in our unique way is meant to contribute to the larger whole, to reveal Christ to the world. Together we are one spiritual man, one portrait, one presence and revelation in the world, which is Christ. God has given us his Spirit in order that each of us can embody the presences of Christ to one another and together we can embody the presence of Christ to the world. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Bond and Covenant of Marriage

John 2:1-11

In 2011 my wife and I moved to Ambridge, a small town just outside of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, in order for me to attend Trinity School for Ministry. Ambridge looks like any other old factory town in the region, but I soon discovered its fascinating history.

While walking around our new neighborhood for the first time, we noticed that just a couple blocks up the street, the streets changed to cobblestone and the houses were all quaint colonial brick homes. It is the historical section of town called Old Economy, and it contains a museum and tourist destination in some ways similar to the Farmer’s Museum here in Cooperstown.  They call it Old Economy Village, and it preserves the home of the original European settlers in that area: a small, utopian, religious sect called the Harmonists. 

The Harmonists, or the Harmony Society, lived a simple and austere pietist lifestyle, modeled after the early Christian Church. They shared all things in common and each member contributed to the life and enterprise of the society through their work. Their industriousness and innovation earned the respect of some of the greatest leaders of their day, including Thomas Jefferson.       

Despite their early success, the Harmonists no longer exist. The last surviving members sold their land to the newly formed American Bridge company who founded the town of Ambridge as a home for their factory workers. The reason for the dissolving of the sect was in large part due to the fact that their leader, George Rapp, instituted a rule of celibacy for all members. He expected the imminent return of Christ and a Millennial kingdom. In anticipation, the harmonists sought to live a purely spiritual life like the angels in heaven. They believed husbands and wives should live together as brother and sister. Jesus was celibate, they argued, and so if his followers want to live a life like his they should be celibate too. Needless to say, Rapp’s expectation was misguided and membership dwindled through lack of procreation.

The error of the Harmonists is as old as the Church itself. Already in the New Testament Saint Paul speaks of false teachers who, “forbid people to marry” (1 Tim 4:3). In contrast the Church has always taught that marriage is a worthy vocation for Christians. It has taught that Marriage is a Sacrament and a means of grace. This conviction is based in part on our Gospel reading for today. Listen to what our Prayer Book says in the beginning of our marriage rite,

“The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. It signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church, and Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people” (BCP, 423).

This morning I would like to unpack this teaching for you a bit. 

First, “The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation.” The foundation of marriage is in God’s creation of human beings as male and female. Marriage is part of God’s original created order. In the beginning God declared his creation to be “good” and marriage is no exception. In fact it isn’t until God’s creation of man and woman in his image that he declares that creation is not only “good” but “very good.”

God made human beings male and female in order that they might be brought together in this special union. After creating man and woman, Holy Scripture tells us that, “God blessed them” (Genesis 1:28).  This is the first marriage! The priest reenacts this act at every wedding, pronouncing God’s special blessing on the couple.

After blessing them God tells them to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth. The unique relationship of marriage is the basic building block of civilization. Our prayer book declares,

“The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God's will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord.”

Next, let us turn to the statement, “Our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.”  At first look one might be forgiven for thinking marriage to be an inferior state to celibacy, because Jesus after all was celibate. Getting married was not part of Jesus’ divine mission, but we would be mistaken to conclude that he held it in less esteem. Not only did Jesus confirm the goodness of marriage in his teaching, but he also honored marriage through his presence at the wedding of Cana, and the miracle he performed there.

When a couple invite Christ into their relationship through the Blessing of Holy Matrimony, their bond becomes raised to the level of a sacrament and a means of grace. Although God declared marriage very good and blessed it at the beginning of creation, the relationship between man and woman has been weakened and corrupted through the introduction of sin. Without God’s grace and mercy, couples far too easily fail to live up to his intended purposes for marriage. I believe this is what the scarcity of wine suggests at the wedding at Cana. Left to our own resources human beings cannot know the full joy of what God intends for marriage, but through his presence,  Christ is able to transform our marriages and fulfill what is lacking. He changes our water into wine.

Just as in baptism, ordinary water is infused with grace by the Holy Spirit and the Word of God; just as in the Eucharist, ordinary bread and wine is transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ; so in marriage is the ordinary union of man and woman transformed into a sacrament through the presence of Christ.

If marriage is a sacrament what does it signify? Our prayer book answers, “It signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church.” In saying this our liturgy merely repeats the words of Saint Paul in Holy Scripture. When writing to the Ephesians about the meaning and purpose of marriage he says, “This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32).                                

What this means is that in marriage, each partner is meant to be Christ to the other. Just as Christ took the form of a servant for our sake, couples should submit to one another in love. Just as Christ died for us, couples should lay down their lives for their spouses. Just as Christ shed his blood to make us holy, so couples should spur each other on to holiness and love. Just as we are Christ’s body through the unbreakable covenant of baptism, couples are one flesh with each other through the unbreakable covenant of marriage.    

The wedding supper at Cana should point us forward to the wedding supper of the Lamb, in which we celebrate our union with Christ. This Wedding Supper of the Lamb is anticipated by the Church in the Holy Eucharist.

Just as Christ transformed water into wine, he is able to change wine into his blood and bread into his flesh. Christ gives to us his Body and Blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. We are given a foretaste of the heavenly banquet we all shall share in the age to come. Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after, but Christ has saved the best for last.

Finally, our Prayer Book teaches us “Holy Scripture commands that [marriage] should be commended by all people.” Christians should regard marriage as a holy and noble vocation. We should treat it with reverence and seriousness. Our prayer book also teaches, “it is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.”

Moreover, it is the responsibility of all Christians to give prayer and support to all who are called to this holy vocation. When they have children, it is also our responsibility to support and assist them in bringing up their children in the knowledge and love of the Lord.

Unless I be misunderstood, I feel I also need to add that singleness is, with marriage, equally a noble and holy vocation for a Christian. Not all are called to be married. As Christians we also have a responsibility to assist those called the single life, but that is a topic for another sermon.


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

They Call It "Timket"

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

I am not much of a world traveler. For most of my life, my idea of travel was a weekend trip to the Jersey shore. In January of 2014, however, I had my horizons dramatically expanded when I joined a group of fellow students and faculty from Trinity School for Ministry on a trip to Ethiopia. It was an eye opening experience to say the least! We landed in the capital city of Addis Ababa. My introduction to the city was through a hair raising taxi ride through the crowded streets. I looked in vain for a seat belt as we sped along. There didn’t seem to be any traffic lights either. Cars flew at us from every direction!

 From Addis we flew into the more remote area of Gambella a couple days later where we stayed with a former professor of mine Bishop Grant LeMarquand and his wife Dr. Wendy. We got to meet the local clergy and even got to celebrate Christmas in a small country church packed with worshipers. Even among Anglicans, Christmas is celebrated there on January 7th according to the calendar of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It was a joyful occasion. They slaughtered a calf and served us what they described as the best part, a portion of the intestine which I wrapped in injera and discreetly disposed of. 

Later that evening chatting over a cup of tea in Bishop Grant’s living room, he explained to us that although Christmas is an important feast, the real celebration for the Ethiopians wouldn’t occur until January 19th, the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, or what they called Timket.

In Ethiopia the event is a three day festival including colorful processions through the street, singing, and dancing along with solemn prayer and worship. The Bishop slid back into his place as our professor and began to quiz us, “Why should that day, of all days, be so important?”

“It marks the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry,” I volunteered.
“Yes, but that isn’t the main reason,” he said, “Think about it. What happens in the story?”

We began to recount the story together of how Jesus came to John in the river Jordan, and of how John initially refused to baptize him, replying that it was he who had need of being baptized by him, of how the spirit came down in bodily form like a dove, and of how the Father declared from Heaven that Jesus was his beloved son in whom he was well pleased. "Is it the Trinitarian reference?" another student volunteered.

“Exactly,” Bishop Grant continued, “In that moment, for the first time in salvation history, the mystery of the Trinity is publicly revealed for all to see. It is what the Greeks call an Epiphany, a sudden appearance or manifestation of God, the revelation of some hidden truth.”

I can honestly say that I never really thought of it in quite those terms, but this is where the distinctly Christian understanding of God as triune really begins. This morning I want to talk about the three ways in which God is reveled in the story of Jesus’ baptism and what that means for us.

First, let us look at how God the Father is represented by this passage. Saint Luke tells us, “the heavens were opened.” When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he taught them to address their Father who is in heaven. Where is heaven? On one level heaven simply refers to the atmosphere around us, the cloudy sky and starry firmament, but I think it would be a mistake to conclude from this that the Father literally lives up in the sky. No, the language of heaven is meant to be figurative. It tells us that God in simultaneously near to us and also high above us, both immanent and transcendent. For the ancients the heavens suggested the realm of spirits and other invisible powers, the hidden dimension of reality. For just a moment the veil between this world and that one is opened.

The Father remains hidden and unseen in this passage. Indeed Jesus tells us that no one at any time has seen the father. He is spiritual and non-bodily, the invisible creator of both spiritual and earthly entities, but here he speaks with a voice that is audible to all. Rarely does God speak in such a direct fashion. More often he speaks through mediators such as prophets or angels. If God is so dramatic and unambiguous about his speech, we would do well to mark with great seriousness what he says. He speaks directly to Jesus saying, “You are my Son, the beloved, in you I am well Pleased.”

We will return to those words in just a moment, but first let us look at how God the Holy Spirit is represented in this passage. Unlike the Father, the Holy Spirit does in fact make a visible appearance. Luke tells us that he descended in bodily form like a dove. I don’t think we should assume, based on this passage, that the Holy Spirit is actually literally a bird. The Holy Spirit, like the father in non-bodily, but he temporarily takes on a physical appearance.

What should the form of a dove suggest to us? The dove has become a symbol of peace and gentleness for us, and perhaps it had many of the same associations for those gathered at the river Jordan, but I believe that it would also have another association for them, that of Noah’s dove. Do you remember the story?

God sent a horrible flood upon the earth to cleanse the world of wickedness. Noah, his family, and the animals were kept safe on the Ark. When the rains had ended, Noah sent out a dove to find some evidence of dry land, and it returned with an olive leaf in its beak.

Both holy scripture and the Church Fathers see the flood as a type of baptism. It is a washing away of wickedness and a kind of new creation, a second beginning. Just as in the story of Noah, the dove brings a token of peace declaring God’s judgement has ceased, so here the Spirit’s appearance as a dove, does the same. He comes from heaven to declare God’s mercy and favor.

This blessing and love fall on Jesus in particular. Let us look now at how God the Son is represented in this passage. In order to do so, we return–as promise--to the words of the Father, “You are my Son, the beloved, in you I am well pleased.” Jesus is the son of his Father’s love. The son whom scripture describes as the image of the invisible God and the first born over all creation (Col. 1:15).  In the Gospel of John we read, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known” (John 1:18). In these last days, God has revealed to us the Son. He is the very Word of God, the revelation of his heart and mind, in human flesh. The Father speaks from heaven to confirm this fact.

During the festival of Timket in Ethiopia, a model of the Ark of the Covenant which is present on every altar of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, is wrapped in sacred cloth and bourn in procession by the Priest to the nearest body of water. This is to represent the coming of Jesus to the river Jordan, as the Word of God wrapped in human flesh. The Divine liturgy is celebrated and a blessing is said over the water. It is sprinkled over the people and some of the people even jump in and immerse themselves in the water reenacting their baptism. The environment is one of jubilant praise and celebration, because at the celebration of the Baptism of our Lord we remember the fact that Christ came as one of us in order to restore us to the love of the father. 

When the first man, Adam, fell, heaven was closed to us. A flaming sword was placed between us and intimate communion with the Father. But at Jesus’ baptism heaven was opened to us in the second Adam. When we  are baptized, we are joined to Christ, the peace of God descends upon us, and we hear with him the words of the Father, “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

Today, let us give thanks that God has revealed himself to us. That he has made a way for us to share in the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that is from everlasting. Lets us give thanks for our own baptism and the peace we have with God in Christ.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Feast of Epiphany 2016

“Where is this one born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” On the night of the Candlelight Evening at the Farmer’s Museum this year I spoke that line again and again to a stable full of visitors. It was a fun and memorable evening. The weather was mercifully warm, besides the fact that John Cannon, Paul Hager, and I were dressed in layers of garments trying our best to look like the Magi from the gospel story. It wasn’t my first time in the role of a Magi either, just a few years ago I was a Magi at our seminary’s Christmas party, and at least once in my childhood I played one in our church’s Christmas pageant.

My imagination has always been captivated by the story of the mysterious travelers from the east, and I am not alone. The picture of three wise men on camel back following a star to a babe in a manger is one of the most popular and recognized images from Holy Scripture. Tonight, on the Feast of the Epiphany, we commemorate that event, and as we do so I want to focus on three iconic elements of the popular story: the star, the travelers, and the babe in the manger.

First, the star.  I watched a fascinating documentary this week which presented a compelling case for understanding the star of Bethlehem as a real astrological event.  The case is presented by a lawyer named Rick Larson who became fascinated by the subject after doing research for a class he was teaching at his church.  He argues persuasively that Jupiter (the “king Planet”) and Regulus (the “King star) were conjoined in the night sky in the constellation of Leo the Lion, suggesting the lion of Judah, which would have indicated to the astrologers that a king would be born of the tribe of Judah. Nine months later there was a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus that together formed one dazzling star that led them to Jerusalem. Not only that, but around the time when the travelers would have arrived in Jerusalem, Jupiter entered retrograde motion and actually stopped directly over Bethlehem, just as the Gospel of Matthew suggests.

There have been other theories explaining the star, but I found this one to be especially compelling. I don’t have time to go into his case in detail but you can look up the film which is called simply, “The Star of the Bethlehem” or visit his website http://www.bethlehemstar.com/

Along with investigating astrological phenomena Larson also presents some fascinating biblical exegesis. As an evangelical Christian, he was somewhat nervous to be getting involved with astrology which he always associated with the occult. Indeed scripture has some strong warning against such practices associated with star worship or the belief that the heavenly bodies determine the course of events. Larson, however, argues that—according to scripture—the stars speak to us about their creator. They were placed there by him as guide posts to the truth. He cites psalm 19 which reads,

The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
    no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
    their words to the ends of the world.
 (Psalm 19:1-4 NIV).

What this means is that along with his particular revelation of himself in the Word, God has also given to all people a revelation of himself in his creation, the book of nature. Even those who have never read the Bible or heard the name Jesus, are not wholly without a witness to God. Saint Paul writes,

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:19-20 ESV).

This star also means that science and faith are not conflicting endeavors. The investigation of the natural world leads the mind of the believer to the contemplation of God and the heart to worship.

Next we turn to the travelers, or the wise men as they are popularly called. We are told very little in the gospel about who these individuals were. The names Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchoir are not included in scripture, but were assigned to them at a much later time. We are not even sure how many there actually were. We assume three based on the three gifts that they bring. What we do know about them is that Matthew calls them Magi, the word we sometimes translate as wise men. It is also where we get the word magician describing someone who practices the mystic arts. Most scholars connect these individuals to a caste of astrologer-priests from Persia based in the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism. The name Magi was in fact often simply used as shorthand for a follower of Zoroastrianism.

Why would these pagan priests be interested in the birth of a Jewish king? Why would they come all that way to worship him?

Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic faith believing in one eternal God who created all things. Besides monotheism, they share many other beliefs in common with Christians and Jews including the idea that the world was created good but fell into corruption, the future resurrection of the dead, and the restoration of creation to righteousness.

The Persians conquered Babylon when the Jews were in exile and it was a Persian king, and Zoroastrian, Darius I who not only paid for the construction of the second Jerusalem temple out of his own funds, but also commissioned Jewish priests to offer prayer and sacrifice there on behalf of himself and his family (Ezra 6:8-12). Persians and Jews lived side by side for centuries and the Jewish scriptures and prophecies no doubt influenced the Zoroastrians who respected the Jews as fellow monotheists. They would have been familiar with the prophecies of Daniel which spoke of the Son of Man who would be given royal authority over all people. Zoroastrian texts even speak of a great deliverer who would be born of a holy maid who would bring restoration by destroying the powers of evil.

In telling us the story of the Magi, Matthew wants to show the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, such as our reading from Isaiah, which speaks of the kings and dignitaries of the gentiles paying homage to Israel’s Messiah. I believe this story also demonstrates to us that, along with being the long awaited messiah of the Jews, Jesus is the fulfillment of everything good and true even of the pagan religions. Jesus will be the savior of all people. Here we have a foreshadowing of the Gospel coming to the gentiles.

(Click here and here)

Finally let us turn to the Babe in the Manger who is this promised deliverer destined to be the savior of the world. The three gifts that the Magi bring proclaim who he is. First, gold is a precious metal associated with wealth, splendor, and opulence. It proclaims Jesus’ royalty and divine authority. Second, frankincense is a white resin used as perfume or incense. It is commonly burned in worship, representing holiness and the prayers of the faithful. This gift thus proclaims the divinity of Christ. Third, myrrh which was commonly used to perfume the bodies of the dead, proclaims to us that Christ was born to die in order to rescue us from sin and death.

Although Jesus found no welcome among his own nation, and his birth was unheralded by his own people with the exception of the poor and despised shepherds, these travelers from a foreign country recognize his true identity and honor him.

What about you? Have you recognized the truth about this child born in Bethlehem? The heavens themselves declare his majesty. He is the fulfillment of all our most noble and cherished longings. He is King, Lord, and Savior. What will you offer him this day?

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Learning to Walk

What a difference a year makes! Just a year ago my son Isaac was a babe in swaddling clothes. It seems as if I blinked and suddenly he is a toddler. The shift was especially dramatic this past month, as he crossed a major milestone and began walking. He is so proud of himself! He cackles like a villain as he toddles around the living room, glancing at me every few steps for approval.

Last week he even got to show his new skills off to his grandparents. I took him across the street from my parent’s house to the same playground I played on when I was his age, and he got a lot of practice walking across the blacktop and falling into the wood chips. My father said to me, “Y’know it seems like just yesterday that it was you who was learning to walk!”

My children are still so little, so I can only imagine what it must have been like for many of you to watch your children grow from babies to adults. To go from learning to walk to learning to drive, to leaving for their first day of pre-school to moving away to college. I want to keep my children close to me always, but I know that inevitably they will grow into independent adults and live their own lives, following the path that God has prepared for them.

To be born is to begin a journey. To be human is to learn and to grow. None of us sprang into existence exactly as we are now; we began weak and helpless and only gradually attained greater independence. Jesus was no exception to this rule. Each of us had to learn how to walk. Isn’t it remarkable to think that the great God and creator of the universe would submit to this process? That the Eternal Son would need his mother to wipe his chin and change his diaper?

There is a stain glass window in our chapel directly across from where I sit to say Morning and Evening Prayer. It depicts Jesus as a young boy standing beside Joseph who is a work in his carpentry shop. The child’s head is bowed submissively as his earthy father and guardian patiently instructs him. Does it strain your imagination to think that there might be something this poor laborer could teach to the incarnate God?
In the Islamic faith, Jesus is not divine, and yet neither is he as human as our Jesus! In the Koran, Jesus’ mother gives birth to him alone in the desert under an olive tree. When she returns home carrying the baby in her arms, her family is distressed and assumes that she has compromised her virtue. They cry,

 “O sister of Aaron! Your father was not a man of evil, nor your mother a woman unchaste.”

But the infant amazingly begins to speak and defend his mother. He declares,

 “I am indeed a servant of God: He has given me revelation and made me a prophet.”

Following the example of many fanciful apocryphal texts, the Koran also depicts Jesus as performing miracles as a child such as bringing clay pigeons to life.  Such tales are notably absent from the Gospel narratives. We are told very little about Jesus’ boyhood. He no doubt had a typical childhood, despite his miraculous birth. I imagine it was fairly easy—in the day to day responsibilities of raising the child—for his parents to put his divine identity out of mind and to treat him as any parents would their little boy. Can it be doubted that in those years—despite what the Angel told her, despite the words of Simeon’s prophecy—his mother Mary cherished the same wish that every mother has of keeping her little boy with her always? And yet, in our Gospel reading today, she is reminded that her boy—now on the cusp of manhood—must soon leave her, that he has a greater destiny, that he must be about his heavenly father’s business.

During the family’s annual trip to Jerusalem, Jesus wanders off from his family. He is drawn like a magnet to the Temple, to the place where the learned scribes and teachers discuss the Holy Scriptures. Jesus is becoming an adult. He is beginning to show signs of the remarkable man he will be. The teachers of the law are surprised at just how wise and gifted he is for a boy his age.

You might wonder, how is it that it took his parents a whole day to realize that their son was missing? But remember Jesus is twelve years old now. A boy his age, in his culture, was allowed a larger degree of independence. Mary and Joseph were traveling with a whole group of relatives. What twelve year old boy wants to hang around the skirts of his mother when he could be off with his cousins? They were probably used to the older children doing their own thing while the parents did theirs. It soon became apparent to them, however, that Jesus was not with his cousins or any of the other relatives.

When I was around the same age Jesus is in this passage, I can recall wandering away from my parents while on vacation and my parents being simultaneously angry and relieved when they finally found me. It is that awkward age when you are beginning to feel like an adult, but your parents still think of you as a child. Jesus is no different. He is genuinely puzzled as he says to her, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?"

Luke tells us that at the time Mary didn’t understand what he meant, but that she pondered all of these things in her heart. Just as Jesus’ emergence into his destiny was a gradual one, so is his mother’s understanding and acceptance of who her son is and what he is called to be is a gradual one.

When reading this scene, I can’t help but think also of another event later in Jesus’ life. Jesus is teaching the multitudes when it is reported to him, “Your mother is outside with your brothers and sisters. They want to speak to you.” His response seems a bit insensitive, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”

I think that perhaps Mary was having trouble accepting the fact that her Son was not her own, that he belonged to the world, and that he was the son of God the Father before he was her boy. I imagine when Mary heard Jesus’ response she pondered it in her heart just as she had with the story of the shepherds at his birth, and with what her son told her when she found him in the temple. It was dawning on her that she needed to let her son go. How could she have known what she was getting into when she said yes to the Angel Gabriel?

What about the wedding at Cana? Jesus was reluctant to act, but Mary insisted that he do something. How could she have known where it would lead when she pushed him out into the spotlight?  Soon the words that the prophet Simeon spoke to her would come to pass. A sword would pierce her heart as she watched her Son die, lifted up as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.

I think it is natural for parents to keep their children sheltered from the world, after all God has entrusted them to our care and guardianship, but eventually we must begin the painful process of letting them go, and of entrusting them to God and to their wider destiny. I think it is also natural for children to sometimes be reluctant to leave the comforts of home and follow where God leads them. Parents need to have the wisdom and strength that Mary had to nudge their children out of the nest when it comes their time to fly.

The life of faith is all about learning to walk. We put one foot in front of the other and step into an unknown future. The process can be hard and sometimes it requires a lot of sacrifice. What is it that God has in store for you? What is the purpose to which he is calling you? Put your trust in God, and with each passing day, with every turning of the year, you will increase in wisdom and in his grace and favor. 

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Heart of Christmas

John 1:1-14

Brothers and sisters, we are gathered here this morning to celebrate Christmas Day. All around the world bells are ringing, people are gathering in churches like this one, choirs are singing, and families and friends are feasting together. Few days are met with the joy of this day. The Christmas season has been rightly called “the most wonderful time of year.”

As loved ones celebrate together today, not a few will relax in front of the television to enjoy one of the many holiday movies, although at this point they may have had their fill. They have been airing them since mid-November! The plots of these films are usually fairly predictable. Ever since Charles Dickens’ classic story The Christmas Carol, with the unforgettable character Ebenezer Scrooge, Christmas stories have followed a similar pattern. There is an individual, perhaps a crass materialist or libertine, a high-powered business woman, a jaded Manhattan lawyer, a Grinch, or a cynic who over the course of the plot discovers the true beauty and meaning of Christmas. Even if they don’t follow quite the same pattern, each of these films promises to unveil the authentic heart of the season. 

There is a great interest in this sort of thing precisely because it is so very easy to allow all the glitz, glitter, and commercialism of the season to become a distraction. Most people, when they really pause for a minute to consider it, believe there is something much more to Christmas than pretty lights, presents, cookies, and eggnog, as lovely as all of those things are.  These films, that seek to get at that deeper meaning, offer something much more noble and substantial in its place. They tell us that Christmas is about generosity, peace, joy, love, and togetherness. All of these are wonderful things and Christmas does indeed mean all of these things, but they are more the effects than the essence. They are the light shed by the lamp, the heat generated from the fire, the crater after the explosion, the ripples after the stone is cast in the water. 

Of course, once in a while, the television shows and movies really do get it right. One of my favorites is The Peanuts’ Christmas Special. At the climax of the story, Charlie Brown, exasperated, cries out, “Isn’t there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about!?!” At that point Linus steps to the spotlight and begins to tell the story of Jesus’ birth. Christmas is more than the celebration of an abstract ideal, it is the proclamation of a definite event in world history that when received as good news and believed, changes everything.

The prologue of John’s Gospel doesn’t tell the Christmas story in the same way that Luke or Matthew does, but it does seek to explain to us the true meaning of Christmas by unveiling the profound mystery at its heart. Its content is fathomless, but I would like to highlight three truths revealed by this great mystery.

The first is that God has a son and that son is the eternal Word. This is a statement that is very shocking for monotheists, those who profess one God, including Jews, and especially Muslims, but it does not mean that we believe in more than one God. Nor does it mean that God produced offspring in the natural way that humans and animals do. God did not produce a Son through intercourse with the Virgin Mary. Jesus is not the progeny of a god and a human being in the way that mythological figures like Hercules and Achilles are. The Son existed long before his mother Mary was even born. He existed before all things. As our Gospel reading says, all things came into existence through him. In fact there was never a time when he did not exist.
John calls him, “the only begotten” not to imply that there was a time when he came into being—he is eternal like the father—but in order to explain his relationship to the Father. He is called the Son, because he is of the same substance as God the Father. The son of a man is a man, the son of a horse is a horse, and the son of God is God. As our creed says, “light from light, true god from true God, begotten not made.” Another way to explain it is to say that Jesus is the Word of the father, the expression of the Father’s heart and mind. Or, as our reading from Hebrews puts it, the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being. John tells us that in the beginning, before time, there was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 

The second truth I would like to highlight is the incarnation, that the Word became flesh and lived among us. This is the spectacular event that Christmas proclaims. The eternal Word, the Son of the Father, the one through whom all things were made, divested himself of glory and took the form of his own creation. The God of the universe became a zygote, then a fetus, he dwelt in the womb of a poor woman from a despised people, and finally was born as an infant in the most humiliating of conditions. God became a human being.

The creator of the world became a helpless child. He had to learn to walk, and speak, and eat for himself. It wasn’t as if God just temporarily appeared as a human being, he subjected himself to all the limitations of being a human and ultimately even submitted himself to death. He did it for our sake. He came all that way, descended that low, to declare to us the love of God, to rescue us from sin and death, and to reconcile us to his father.

The third and final truth I want to highlight for you all is that through Christ, we too are made true sons and daughters of God our Father. You remember what we said about Jesus being the only begotten son of God? What man begets is man, what God begets is God, but what man creates is not man, and neither is what God creates God. It is true that God created us in his likeness and adopted us as his own, but that isn’t enough for him. He wants to make us his true offspring, his sons and daughters. In order to do that he needs to give us the same kind of life that he has, eternal life, the life that he shares with his son. Jesus became one of us in order to spread that life to us.
In one of Goethe’s fairy tales, “The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily,” he writes about a poor fisherman’s log cabin in which is set a little magic lamp. When the lamp is lit and the whole room illuminated by its light, the logs with which the hut was built, its door, its window, the furniture, and everything else in it is magically transfigured into pure silver. The story illustrates what happens to us when the light of Christ illuminates our soul, by faith. We are changed just as the furniture of that cabin changed from wood to silver, just as Jesus changed the water into wine. We receive new life. We are born again, not naturally but supernaturally.

Saint John writes, “But to all who received him, who believe in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”

Brothers and sisters because of Christmas Day we have generosity, peace, joy, love and togetherness, but most of all we have the Son of God, the Word became flesh, who gives to us eternal life. He is the true heart of Christmas! O come let us adore him!