Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"The Voice of Night" - December 24, 2014

I am the Night.  Or I should say, “a Night”
Since every Night grows
Different from the next, just as the light
That opens sight holds
A different coloration every day.

I am the Night that Something happened once –
When Something happened –
And bear with me, I really want
To catch or trap and
Tame the words that could describe the change.

First there was Night: a primal Night, as when
The darkness covered
The face of the abyss, full darkness.  Then
The Spirit hovered
Across its surfaces and time began.

And after time began, Night multiplied
And darkness varied
As Days and Nights were summoned to subside
Or rise.  We carried
A different nature, every one of us.

I’ve known the dark of guiltiness and shame
That welcomes secrecy
Because it brings escape from daylight fame
Or infamy
That came into the world with human woe.

I’ve known the dark of illness when the mind
Grows clouded over,
And in between the real and dream the line
Will float and hover
The way a fever fluctuates or flame

May rise and fall with every draft, and gray
And black throw blankness
Over every thought, till night and day
Are just a blanket
Designation and unmeaningful.

I’ve known the dark of death, when eyelids close
And don’t reopen.
The weight of years bears down upon them so
They cannot cope and
Sleep becomes a silence more profound.

That is the dark of death, when earth falls down
On all the senses,
Not only sight, and heavily the ground
Enfolds pretences
And living claims to immortality.

I am the Night that saw the baby’s birth.
Nine months in sacred
Darkness growing like a seed in earth,
A simple, naked
Child came into the air of Night,

And all the universe beheld a light
That darkness never
Overcomes, from the deepest height
Before forever
Up to the highest depth of after-time.

O Holy Night!  No longer silent, speak
To every night the glories of the Lord!
O Holy Night!  No longer tyrant, seek
To serve the tiny, Heaven-spoken Word!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

“Advent: Peace, Love, and Other Good Things” - December 14, 2014

I Thessalonians 5:16-24

            What is your image of peace?  It can mean coexistence among countries or groups.  It could be a world without terrorism or where people are not afraid of their own governments.  It can be people within a home living side-by-side without squabbling.  It could be a workplace where nobody is trying to get ahead by undermining everybody else.  It could be a few minutes to sit down quietly and do a crossword puzzle.

            One of my favorite movies is The Lion in Winter, which is about the fighting among Richard the Lionheart and his brothers, but even more the struggle between their parents, Henry and Eleanor.  At one point in their arguments, Eleanor says to her husband,

“What would you have me do?  Give out?  Give up?  Give in?”
He replies, “Give me a little peace.”
She says, “A little?  Why so modest?  How about eternal peace?  Now there’s a thought.”

This is a movie that shows people who really, really, really want peace but are afraid to give out, give up, or give in, all of which are needed to make peace.  There’s another scene where the future King John goes running to his mother because his brother the future King Richard has drawn a dagger on him, shouting, “A knife!  He’s got a knife!” to which their mother responds,

“Of course he has a knife, he always has a knife, we all have knives!  It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians!  How clear we make it.  Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war: not history’s forces, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government, nor any other thing.  We are the killers.  We breed wars.  We carry it like syphilis inside.  Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten.  For the love of God, can’t we love one another just a little – that’s how peace begins.  We have so much to love each other for.  We have such possibilities, my children.  We could change the world.”

            That exclamation of hers in the midst of that wider speech, “For the love of God, can’t we love one another just a little”, is the key to it all.  Human beings, on our own, are pretty much incapable of living in peace.  I think that history and personal experience bears that out for most of us.  We may be the most gentle people in the world, but the next door neighbor or the driver in the car behind us may, for whatever reason, be wanting to pick a fight.  At one point in the letter to the Romans [12:18], Paul advises,

“If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

On the whole, though, peace comes when people act for the love of God rather than for the love of self.

            In the passage from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians that we heard this morning, there are a lot of directions for living.  It’s almost like one of those silly lists that fly around the internet, “Eight Simple Steps to Happiness”, or “Eight Life Hacks” if you want to sound cool:

“Rejoice always, 
pray without ceasing, 
give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 
Do not quench the Spirit. 
Do not despise the words of prophets, 
but test everything;
hold fast to what is good; 
abstain from every form of evil.” [I Thessalonians 5:16-22]

Still, all of that comes from us, and our powers are limited.  If they are to happen, and I do believe they can, it all depends on what Paul prays for in the very next breath:

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely”.
 [I Thessalonians 5:23]

            Peace, whether it’s peace with God, peace among people, or peace within yourself, comes when we “give out, give up, and give in” to God’s Spirit on the deepest levels of our lives.  It isn’t simply a matter of passivity.  It’s a matter of letting God channel all that is in us in better ways than we do it.  We all have within us an assortment of motives and emotions and experiences, and all of them can be used in ways that do not destroy or harm, but help and build up.

Before he became a wandering friar, Francis of Assisi was a knight who took part in the continual wars among the Italian city-states.  God took his sense of command and used it to organize for the protection of the poor instead of the search for fame and fortune.  He came to understand that God works through human beings to address human need.  What makes peace is when  “the God of peace himself sanctif[ies]you entirely”.  It’s when you can pray, like Francis did,

“Make me a channel of your peace:
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved, as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

Saturday, December 6, 2014

"The God of Birth" - December 7, 2014

Mark 1:1-8

Early on in each of the gospels we meet up with John the Baptist, although they jump in at different points in his life. 

Luke has a lot to say about the birth of John the Baptist that we sort of gloss over.  The story goes that his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were well on in years and did not have any children.  Zechariah was a priest in the temple in Jerusalem and was performing his duties there when the angel Gabriel appeared to him and informed him he was going to be a father.  Zechariah didn’t believe him, so the angel arranged for his ability to speak to disappear until the boy was born.  Luke goes on to tell the story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary, where she learns she will bear the Messiah, and she, on the other hand, believes right away.  Of course, that creates a problem for her because she isn’t married, so she went away for a short while to stay with (of all people) Elizabeth, whom Luke calls her cousin.  That would have made John Jesus’ older cousin by about six months, both of them born under extremely unusual conditions.

            So, is God or is God not still the one who tends to matters of birth?  CNN had a story about something that happened in Western New York last month.  They reported,

“Bethany Hojnacki of South Buffalo, New York, went into labor early Tuesday… She couldn’t get to the hospital because of an epic snowstorm, but found help along the way.
… First, the couple encountered a woman who was stranded who just happened to be a labor and delivery nurse, Hojnacki said.
She stuck with them throughout the labor, and delivered their baby at a firehouse.
…Second, another stranded woman at the firehouse was, by coincidence, a maternity nurse, Hojnacki said, describing both nurses as angels.
What are the odds they were there?
‘It’s not odds; it’s God,’ [Jared Hojnacki] said.  ‘It’s more than amazing.  We’re so blown away by God’s grace.’
Mom, Bethany Hojnacki, said, ‘It was crazy for a time, sure, but a happy ending.  Her name is Lucy Grace – her name means grace illuminated.  On a day that was so sad, how many people died – this baby is such a bright light in such a dark storm.’”[1]
Make of it what you will.

At the beginning of the gospels, however, with the miraculous births of John and Jesus, we see God as the Lord of beginnings.  It is a hint of what is to come, as they eventually get around to Jesus’ message that God is the Lord of new starts and starting over and resurrection and new life.

But birth can also be rough.  Not everyone is surrounded, maybe miraculously, by medical personnel.  It hasn’t been that long, no more than a couple of generations, since giving birth was just about as dangerous to the mother as to the child.  Even in a safe delivery, labor pains were considered part of the curse humanity brought upon itself with the sin of Adam and Eve.  Forget epidaurals.  They didn’t exist.

The kind of new birth that John the Baptist would urge on people had its own kind of labor pains.  Again, the different gospels point to different aspects of that.  In Matthew, the pains are to be borne by those whose lives are to be made new, and it is a dangerous business.

“But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” [Matthew 3:7-10]
There’s another, stranger kind of birth involved for John himself, though, and it’s a stranger experience than even his miraculous birth.  It’s mentioned again in more than one of the gospels and this morning we heard Mark’s version:

“He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’” [Mark 1:7-8]
He would need to become a humbler person, not the most powerful figure.  John describes how John the Baptist sent some of his own followers away so that they could become disciples of Jesus instead.  John the Baptist himself would have to change from the thunderer of judgment into a servant, who, looking at his master, says,

“I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”  [Matthew 1:7] 
That is hard for someone as proud as John the Baptist, but he did it.  I enjoy the way that Frederick Buechner tells that story.
“Where John preached grim justice and pictured God as a steely-eyed thresher of grain, Jesus preached forgiving love and pictured God as the host at a marvelous party or a father who can't bring himself to throw his children out even when they spit in his eye. Where John said people had better save their skins before it was too late, Jesus said it was God who saved their skins, and even if you blew your whole bankroll on liquor and sex like the Prodigal Son, it still wasn't too late. Where John ate locusts and honey in the wilderness with the church crowd, Jesus ate what he felt like in Jerusalem with as sleazy a bunch as you could expect to find. Where John crossed to the other side of the street if he saw any sinners heading his way, Jesus seems to have preferred their company to the WCTU, the Stewardship Committee, and the World Council of Churches rolled into one. Where John baptized, Jesus healed.
Finally John decided to settle the thing once and for all and sent a couple of his disciples to put it to Jesus straight. "John wants to know if you're the One we've been waiting for or whether we should cool our heels a while longer," they said (Luke 7:20), and Jesus said, ‘You go tell John what you've seen around here. Tell him there are people who have sold their seeing-eye dogs and taken up bird-watching. Tell him there are people who've traded in aluminum walkers for hiking boots. Tell him the down-and-out have turned into the up-and-coming and a lot of deadbeats are living it up for the first time in their lives. And three cheers for the one who can swallow all this without gagging’ (Luke 7:22-23). When they asked Jesus what he thought about John, he said, ‘They don't come any better, but when the Big Party Up There really gets off the ground, even John will look like small potatoes by comparison’ (Luke 7:28).
Nobody knows how John reacted when his disciples came back with Jesus' message, but maybe he remembered how he had felt that day when he'd first seen him heading toward him through the tall grass along the riverbank and how his heart had skipped a beat when he heard himself say, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world’ (John 1:29), and maybe after he remembered all that and put it together with what they'd told him about the deadbeats and the aluminum walkers, he decided he must have been right the first time.”[2]

[2] Frederick Buechner, “John the Baptist” in Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (New York: HarperOne, 1993).