If you’ve spent much time churches, you might (like me) have a little bit of baggage with scripture in general, and shepherd imagery in particular.
I think we like to use shepherding stories for children. They’re so … pastoral. So tame. Sheep are so soft and cuddly and kid-friendly.
My childhood lessons of the gospel passage we read this morning focused on one verse: Jesus says “I am the gate, whoever enters by me will be saved”. The lessons focused on some variation of: gates keep good things in and bad things out. Gatekeeper Jesus defends us against the evils of the world so that they never come near us. The important thing, I heard, is to be inside the gate where it’s safe — far from dark valleys where evil and atheists lurk.
But if Jesus is the gate, and the point of believing in Jesus is to be safe — then how do we explain disease, addiction, depression, loss, abuse, and the innumerable other ways that people suffer — and yes, even people who follow Jesus, and yet suffer? Is our gate broken?
It’s only in looking at these “good shepherd” passages as an adult that I’m beginning to realize how much of the text was left out in my childhood verse memorization. Jesus doesn’t stop after “I am the gate, whoever enters by me will be saved” — he continues “whoever enters by me will be saved — and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Jesus says that the shepherd’s job is to call the sheep and lead them out. Which is a very different image than being locked in. Jesus seems to have a goal other than our safety.
The shepherd leads us out of the gated area — out into the world. Out to green pastures, out beside still waters.
And out into the darkest valley.
On Friday, I attended the funeral of my friends’ stillborn child.
Months ago, the couple learned that their baby had a genetic disorder. They found out so early that they had the option to terminate the pregnancy, but they decided to parent as best they could for as long as they could. They decided to see where the experience might lead them.
A few days past her due date, their daughter was small but kicking — until she wasn’t. My friend labored for a child she knew would be stillborn — labored, it must have felt, not to bring about life, but for death.
After the funeral service, the grieving mother and I embraced, and as she pulled away she noticed her hand, covered with the ashes of her daughter and the dirt she had, just moments before, buried her with. As she ended the hug and noticed, she instinctively apologized, and we looked at her hand. In a holy half-second, we beheld the messy and dark reality of death. All I could think was, this woman walks through the darkest valley.
And she is not in that valley because she doesn’t love Jesus, or doesn’t follow God. She is not in that valley because she wandered away from the good shepherd. She didn’t choose a path that God wasn’t on. Rather, she is in a dark valley precisely because she was present and attentive to where God led her. She was present to her daughter. She is present to her experience of motherhood. And she is present to her grief.
Both the psalmist and Jesus know that there are rhythms to life. We enter the fold for sustaining rest, and we go out from the fold to encounter both the beauty and the darkness of the world. We enter the gate and we exit. We lie down in green pastures, and walk in dark valleys. Sometimes the two are closer together than we would expect.
It strikes me that we read these texts in the Easter season. We read about the walking through the valley of the shadow of death when the memory of Christ’s death is so recent. We state, in the psalm, that even while walking through the darkest valley, we fear no evil — when the memory of Christ’s resurrection is fresh. The Good Shepherd is the one who has willingly walked into the darkest valley without fear — and has showed us that death and darkness are not the end of the story.
These texts, today, make me rethink the whole purpose of the spiritual life. As a child, what was emphasized was safety. As an adult, I doubt that safety is at all the point. God doesn’t seem ultimately concerned that I’m protected from the dark realities of the world. Safety does not seem to be the goal. Preservation does not seem to be the goal.
Jesus tells us that he came that we “might have life, and have it abundantly.” That word “abundantly” is the translation we use for a word that conveys a sense of “an extraordinary amount; going beyond what is necessary.” I love that — that Jesus came for “life beyond what is necessary.”
The goal of spiritual walk, then, is perhaps life beyond what is necessary — life beyond simple self-preservation. Perhaps the spiritual life is about becoming a person who regularly passes through the gate. Becoming a person who is willing to walk in dark places, and can tolerate the fear of darkness.
Perhaps it’s about becoming a person who knows there is no path that God is not already on. A person who trusts that there will be green pastures again, despite the darkness of the valleys in which he sometimes find himself. A person who can be present to the joy and the grief in her midst. A person who acknowledges evil — and yet does not fear it.
Jesus doesn’t promise that we’ll stay inside the safe fold of the gate. And the psalmist doesn’t write only of green pastures and cool waters. Indeed, the psalm seems to take for granted that we will walk dark valleys.
But we are reassured that we never walk them alone.
Cleopas and his companion, who was a fellow disciple, perhaps a woman, maybe even his wife, were discouraged, anxious and certainly confused. It was Sunday evening, just a few days since the death of Jesus. The shock and horror of his crucifixion was still very powerfully in their minds. It was the image they imagined every time their eyes were closed.
This was not how it was all supposed to turn out. This was not the result they expected when Jesus finally entered Jerusalem in triumph just over a week ago when the palm branches were laid at his feet. No one anticipated the rank power of politics, the fickle nature of crowds and the scheming of those who were threatened by the message and very person of Jesus. Now he was dead. The promise of change and a new life ended with him. His followers were afraid and in despair.
Then there was the strange message from those who had been at the tomb where the body of Jesus was placed. The women had seen a vision of angels. The other disciples confirmed that the tomb was empty. There was a claim that he was alive. No one knew what to make of all of this. It was too overwhelming. They weren’t sure they were ready to hope again, to trust again, to offer themselves to the possibilities of a new way and a new kingdom when it had all just collapsed.
Cleopas and his companion just wanted to get away from it all. They took the road to Emmaus. We don’t know why. Maybe they didn’t really know why. The journey gets them out of town. Like many before and since, they took the geographical solution to their sorrow and stress.
You know what it’s like when you are on a long walk or hike, covering the miles one step at a time. There is time to think. There’s time to talk things over, to consider and reflect. Walking does more than get you from point A to point B. Walking is transition time. Those who make pilgrimages remind us that “the way is made by walking.”
So it is for Cleopas and his companion. They begin to walk with a stranger, a stranger who starts by listening to all that they had recently experienced. The stranger listens as they pour out all they had experienced, the message and teaching that had changed their lives, the crucifixion and death that had crushed them, their dashed hopes, their sadness and grief, and the strange rumor that their Lord might be alive. The stranger listens and listens and listens.
Finally he speaks. He speaks to them of the everlasting love of God as revealed in the Hebrew Scripture. He reminds them of the promises God made to Moses, Miriam, and countless prophets. Their hearts, which were cold and shuttered, began to beat and burn as they remember all that they knew and had experienced of God.
When they reach Emmaus they’re not ready to say “good-bye.” They offer hospitality. They share a meal. When it’s time for the traditional prayer over the bread, the stranger takes the role of host. In the ancient Jewish tradition, he takes the uncut loaf of bread and raises it high, chanting the blessing. He breaks the bread so that he might give it to each of them. And in that moment, at last their eyes are opened and they recognize him, not just as a teacher of Scripture or as a companion along the way, but as the One to whom the Scriptures point and as the One who has gone before them on the journey from death to life.
Jesus walks with them in their grief and sorrow. Jesus opens the Scripture to reveal the grace and mercy of God. Jesus breaks bread and shares it to create the new community of love in his presence.
When disciples experience Jesus as he is revealed in the Scripture and the breaking of the bread, they get up from the table and practically run all the way back to Jerusalem so that they can share the good news with others. Lives are turned around at the revelation of the risen Christ. Hope springs anew. There is new purpose and promise. The body of Christ is restored and re-membered by the power of his presence at the table.
The Emmaus experience is not a one-time event but a universal offering for those who follow the risen One. Jesus has promised to be with us every time we gather at table in his name. He has promised to send his Spirit to open the Scriptures to us so that our hearts may burn with hope and be stirred by God’s passion for justice. Christ is made known to us in the breaking of the bread. Christ is revealed in Scripture. And just like those first disciples, we are compelled to leave this table to share good news with renewed passion and purpose.
Have you ever thought about why we break bread together at this table every week? Have you ever questioned why we use real bread instead of wafers? Maybe you’ve even wondered where the bread we use comes from. It looks homemade because it is. Every month a woman named Sally spends the better part of a day mixing, shaping and baking bread for St. Luke’s and for her home church. She has been doing this as a gift to us for nearly two years.
Sally and her husband were not practicing Christians most of their lives. They were busy running a small business and raising a family. They were good secular folks, ethical and generous. When they were in their late 50s, they met the pastor of a nearby church when he became a customer. Over the course of time they got to know him and he invited them to come to church.
They visited, they came to the table, they took part in the breaking of the bread, they joined the “Way,” which is like our Spiritual Pilgrimage and walked the journey of faith with their companions. Their eyes were opened in new ways. Their hearts burned with new compassion. Ken became a sponsor for other new folks. Sally started baking bread. For her it’s a spiritual discipline, a time for prayer and to draw close to Jesus.
This past month their journey took them into grief and deep sorrow. Although her husband’s health is not good, it wasn’t a health crisis for him but rather the suicide of their beloved granddaughter that overwhelmed them and their whole family. Sally and Ken are the only Christians in their extended family. Their son and his wife didn’t know where to turn for the funeral of their beloved daughter. Sally and Ken offered the help of their own church. They were confident that the loving welcome that had introduced them to God would be offered for all.
The service was held right after Easter. The pastor helped the family by choosing Scripture that speaks to an Easter hope in the midst of the sorrow of death. The table was open for those who wished to draw close to the presence of Christ in bread and wine. Of course, Sally baked the bread. Surrounding the family and all those who grieved was the Christian community, the companions along the way who shared with Sally, Ken and the entire family the faith, hope and love that they had experienced in the Body of Christ, the Word made flesh in that place.
Sally and Ken’s family had never really understood this late-in-life conversion of their parents. But something changed as they were offered hospitality during the very worst that life can deliver. Their eyes were opened as they saw Christ in the community. Their hearts were moved by the words of hope and healing they heard in Scripture. And as they witnessed Christ offered for all in the sacrament of bread and wine, they cried. They wept in sorrow but also in hope that the same one who broke bread with outcasts and sinners, the One who walked the long journey of grief with Cleopas and his companion, this Jesus who offers himself for all will welcome their beloved daughter to the great heavenly banquet of unending love. Amen.
Easter 3, Year A – April 30, 2017
Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35
The Rev. Canon Britt Olson
Today, we begin Week 2 of Easter, but in our gospel text today, the disciples are still on first Easter Sunday, the day of the Resurrection. Earlier in the day, Mary went to the tomb and wept. She spoke with angels, embraced her Rabbi, and preached the first post-resurrection sermon to the disciples, saying “I have seen the Lord!”
Just hours later, that very evening, we read about the disciples meeting in a room — locked up, in fear of their spiritual leaders, fear of being recognized for their relationship with Jesus.
Did they not believe Mary’s sermon? Or was their fear about what was happening on the other side of that door so overpowering that it clouded over any joy they had initially experienced?
Our friend Thomas the Twin isn’t with the rest of the disciples in their fear — the text gives no explanation as to where he is.
I say “our friend” because we recently heard about Thomas in the story of Lazarus’s death and resurrection. It was Thomas who said, “Let us go to Lazarus, that we may die with him.” I like Thomas. He feels so deeply. In that comment about dying with Lazarus, he invites us into the reality that any of us who has grieved knows: That when someone dies, it’s as though we die with them.
So when we hear, in today’s text, of Thomas’s so-called “doubt” — the moment when he says he wants to touch the wounds of Jesus — I suspect there’s more going on for him than doubt alone. Doubt is an intellectual concept and Thomas — he’s so heartfelt. In his response to Lazarus’s death, I know Thomas to be a man who knows that death is real, that trauma can’t be easily forgotten or overcome, that suffering lingers and remains. It seems that Thomas knows suffering can remain even after the impossibly-good-thing of resurrection happens.
Thomas knows, apparently without being told, that Jesus will have wounds. Not even healed over scars, but wounds. Open wounds — wounds he assumes he can put his fingers and hands inside. Something about Thomas’s deep feeling means that he knows he can’t move on until he acknowledges the reality of the woundedness, feels its literal depth for himself.
* * *
A few years ago, an art collective that works to disrupt rape culture made a memorial for survivors of rape. Floating in the quiet waters of the reflection pool of the Washington Memorial were their giant letters — each one taller than I stand — in bright red. The text was the entirety of a poem by an anonymous rape survivor. Floating peacefully before the monument, it read, “I can’t forget what happened, but no one else remembers.”
The wounds that many of us carry do not show on the body. Rape is just one example. The marks of physical abuse may fade, but the wounds sometimes don’t. Verbal, emotional, and spiritual abuse are invisible all along. Death of a loved one. Addiction to substances or behaviors. Even though the wounds we carry may not show on our bodies, the enspirited wounding is very real. For some of us, we can’t forget what happened, and it feels like no one else remembers.
For those of us who can’t forget, Thomas might be our patron saint. For Thomas, it is the wounds that are the point of entry into the resurrection reality. When Lazarus died, Thomas experienced death. And now, it’s Easter, and he can’t get to the good news of resurrection without going through death again.
In Thomas, those of us who can’t forget are invited to tell the truth about our wounds. And Jesus does not turn away from that truth. The Resurrected Christ models for us: he shows, without shame, the effects of the worst thing that ever happened to him. He allows Thomas to enter into his pain — in a very physical, deeply intimate way, to enter into his wounds and to penetrate his experiences. The Resurrected Christ invites us to see and touch the site of pain.
What strikes me most about Jesus is his openness with his wounds. In his first appearance to the disciples, in that locked room of fear, the gospel-author writes:
Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
Jesus has a kind of casual insistence that they look at his wounds. There are no pleasantries, no catching up — there isn’t even any rejoicing at his presence, until after he’s opened up his robe to show his wounds. Without being asked.
And the blessing he greets them with, “Peace be with you.” Christ knows that a sense of peace that passes all understanding is exactly what we need to be able to witness to suffering and to encounter woundedness.
I think, in part, that Jesus can show his wounds so openly because he knows that the wounds don’t define him. The worst thing that’s ever happened in his life is not who he is. I might even go so far as to say that the way he bears his wounds — openly, insistently, vulnerably — I think that tells us more about his identity than the fact that he is wounded.
* * *
Around this time last year, I wrote a Facebook post in response to the “memories” feature on Facebook, a feature that shows what you posted on the same day in previous years. I hadn’t realized, until then, that much of the unsettledness and despair I feel each April comes from a kind of cyclical re-wounding, like my body remembers, even if I don’t. I wrote that, the first weekend of April 2009, I was raped. The first weekend of April the following year, my marriage ended as a direct result of that rape. Same weekend the year after that, my career was disrupted — largely as a result of my breakup. And the same weekend in 2015, I turned in my master’s thesis on grief and grace — a project that helped me make sense of each of those previous events. Last year, I wrote in that epiphanic post that I’m grateful for the ways the really painful experiences formed me, so much so that on some days I’m able to love the thing I most wish had not happened.
You could say that I stuck my hand in the wound.
I wrote the reflection, in part, because our cultural silence around the very real effects of rape don’t help anyone. And I wrote it because I can’t forget what happened, but no one else remembers.
In the days following, I was surprised at the number of comments. And surprised, further, that the majority of them included the words: “thank you.” I wept, more than once, when people sought me out at church or school to share their wounds with me — to tell me of experiences they had previously kept hidden. It was as though multitudes were appearing to say, “Peace be with you,” and drawing their robes aside to show where the sword had cut. Sharing led to much deeper connection.
* * *
Why wasn’t Thomas in that room with the rest of the disciples on that first Resurrection Sunday? Perhaps it’s because he wasn’t locked in fear. Perhaps he believed Mary’s sermon so strongly that he felt free to be in the world, a way-maker for post-resurrection life. Perhaps he’s Thomas the Believer, guiding the disciples out of the room — out of their fear — sending them into the world. Perhaps he sticks around the next week to help the other disciples get to the bottom of this pain, feel around the wound, make meaning of it.
What if we, like the disciples, are invited to witness the deep wound of the Resurrected One?
What if we, like Thomas, are allowed to penetrate the deep hurt of the Divine?
* * *
What if, like Christ, we’re invited to expose the worst thing that ever happened to us, or the worst thing we ever did? What if we didn’t secretly and shamefully hide our wounds because we know that they do.not.define.us?
Alleluia, Christ HAS risen, and IS risen, and the resurrection continues to occur, each time we are honest about our own wounds, each time we witness the wounds of another, always secure in our identity as Children of God, as Beloved Disciples, as the Body of Christ.
Peace be with you, Beloved Ones.
Peace be with you.
Happy Easter! Here at St. Luke’s we have been getting ready for the past 125 years just so we can welcome you on this happy morning and share with you the joy of new life in Christ. The Church throughout the world has been preparing for over 2,000 years so that you might join the saints who have gone before, our brothers and sisters in every nation and the host of heaven in the great proclamation, “Christ is risen!”
Each year Easter is preceded by Holy Week, beginning with Palm or Passion Sunday. What was your Holy Week like this year? Did you experience with the earliest followers of Jesus the events and emotions of the last week of his life? Traditionally we enter into Christ’s passion through prayer, confession, foot washing, a holy meal, silence, and the adoration or Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. These are ancient practices that often don’t fit into our busy, modern lives. But even if you didn’t came to church this past week, you probably experienced something of what Holy Week is like.
Maybe this past Palm Sunday you woke up to images of Coptic Christian worshippers at a church and Cathedral in Egypt who had been killed or wounded by bombs that went off while they were waving their palms and singing their praise to God.
Or perhaps you heard about or saw images of Pope Francis on Holy Thursday washing the feet of prisoners as an act of humble service, inspired by Jesus’s final commandment to love others as he loves us. I have a lot of Christian friends in South Sudan, which is currently in crisis because of famine and a civil war. My Facebook feed had photos of my friend Cathy washing the feet of some of the many orphaned girls she has sheltered at her rescue organization, Confident Children out of Conflict, in a church with no windows and only dirt floors.
On Good Friday, you may not have had a chance to listen to the Passion Gospel read aloud or to spend time at the foot of the cross, but you probably heard that our government dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb in its arsenal in Afghanistan. Perhaps you were struck by the irony of calling this the “mother of all bombs” on the day when we remember the agony of Mary, the mother of Jesus as she watched her son die a horrific and violent death.
Closer to home, this Good Friday I stood by helplessly as two exhausted and homeless women took shelter in our courtyard. One of them slept on a bench, while the other simply passed out on our stairs. And even though we had fed them, offered to help find them temporary shelter and prayed with and for them, they continue to suffer and be in sorrow, fear and danger.
So how was your Holy Week? What condition are you in as you come to this Sunday of the Resurrection? How is it with your heart? What are you passionate about? What causes you to burn with anger or calls you to take new risks? Do you struggle with hopelessness, despair or confusion? Are you grieving? This Holy Week many of us looked for hope and life but often all we saw was death.
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to that first day of the week, the first day of the resurrection overwhelmed with sorrow and with broken hearts. They grieved as those who had lost all hope. The love of their lives, the light of their world, the promised one had been brutally beaten and strung up to die in front of them. Everything they had expected and longed for was destroyed. Nothing had turned out as they had planned. Not only would Jesus be unable to change the government and reform society, but they were headed for a brutal crackdown on all they believed in. Their friends and fellow disciples were hiding in fear that they might be the next to be picked up by the authorities.
Early in the morning as first light was dawning, they went to see the tomb where the body of Jesus lay. Like many whose lives have been turned upside down by death, they needed to be as close as possible to the body of their beloved. Death had separated them. The power of the state and of the religious establishment had destroyed him. His own close followers had betrayed, denied and failed him. But Mary Magdalene and the other Mary could not/would not let him go.
They came to the tomb as dawn was breaking. They came with no expectation, nothing to gain, their hope and faith in tatters. As Matthew tells the story, something upended them. Something turned everything upside down. Something made their broken hearts beat uncontrollably and blinded their eyes with its brightness. The ground shook, the stone rolled away and they were confronted with a being and message that they could not comprehend. “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”
Nothing would ever be the same. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary did what their hearts longed to do. They knelt down. They touched the damaged feet of Jesus.
They offered their service and their devotion to him as he had offered his love and service to his disciples in the washing of their feet. Joy and fear all rolled up into one bundle of emotion and energy, propelling them up and away to share the news, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!”
The Marys weren’t alone that morning. The Roman guards witnessed the exact same angelic being and heard the same message. They saw the same empty tomb and were just as amazed that the body of Jesus was gone. But, their reaction was different. They shook with fear. They became like dead men. The Mary’s hearts came alive wondrously at the message, but the guards nearly died from fear and dismay.
What’s the difference? Both the guards and the women were present at the empty tomb. Both knew that something seemingly impossible had happened. I love the simple truth that children often bring us. Just a couple of weeks ago when we heard the story of the raising of Lazarus, one of our super smart kids said, “That’s not possible.” No one expected this. No one looked for it. Two different groups experienced it and they each reacted differently. Why?
Love is the reason why. Love makes all the difference. Fear sees the impossible and falls apart. Love sees the glorious impossible and leans into it. After that horrendous final, Holy Week, after all the pain and sorrow and suffering, love sees and believes. As the light grows that Easter morn, faith and hope are made new in Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. Only love believes the resurrection. Only love responds with joy and worship and the willingness to share the great good news.
On Easter we find what our hearts have been searching for. We behold the one who has loved us with an everlasting love. Love shines in our hearts so that we might love others. We see a tomb which has become the womb of new birth and we are willing to enter the dark places where despair and death dwell and to shine the light of life. We leave the Garden of Gethsemane where our weakness and fear have failed to prevent the injustice of the arrest of an innocent man and we are invited into a new Eden where love wins and we are compelled to speak truth and love to the powerful. We come to the end of life and find that death doesn’t get the last word and that love believes the resurrection, hopes the resurrection and trusts the resurrection.
God met the Marys where they were that Easter morning, but he didn’t leave them there. Love turned them around, gave them courage and boldness, put in them a new Spirit and sent them out to change the world. God meets us this morning where we are, but God doesn’t leave us there. We, too, are shook up, turned around, startled by grace and surprised by love. We are sent forth to bear love into the world and to be messengers of hope. This very day is the new dawn of life and love. Alleluia, Christ is risen!
Martha and Mary were right, in their accusations against Jesus. If he had been there, their brother would not have died.
The author, in recording these events, goes out of his way to make sure the audience understands that Jesus intentionally stayed away from the place until Lazarus was certainly dead. Jesus knew of the illness; he had the opportunity to go, but he didn’t. He refused to intervene.
I’m not sure what to make of God if Jesus, even in this moment, embodies the character of God. A God who waits to act when someone is in need seems cruel — perhaps even sadistic. I want to shout at Jesus: Your friend is suffering! The one you love is in agony! Go help him! I don’t even need Jesus to travel there to be with him; Jesus healed others from a distance — why not heal Lazarus from right where he is?
But he doesn’t intervene. He allows Lazarus to die. It feels like he makes Lazarus go through death. And not just Lazarus — Martha, Mary, the disciples — in their grief, they all go through death. Thomas the Twin even names this, saying “let’s go, to die with him.” So they go. They weep. Through their grief, they experience death, feel the weight and the realness of it. The finality. The very present absence.
Recently, an artist named Phil Elverum released a new album under his stage name, Mount Eerie. He wrote the songs in the wake of his wife’s recent death. The lyrics read like heartbreaking prose poetry. A few times he uses this line, almost like a grounding mantra: Death is real. In one song he sing-speaks:
Death is real
Someone’s there and then they’re not
And it’s not for singing about
It’s not for making into art
When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb
When I walk into the room where you were
And look into the emptiness instead
And in another song:
And I’m left living like this
Crying on the logging roads with your ashes in a jar
Thinking about the things I’ll tell you
When you get back from wherever it is that you’ve gone
But then I remember death is real
It’s easy, when we know the end of the story, to want to jump to the end. It’s easy to remind ourselves that resurrection is around the corner for Lazarus, so all the present pain is tolerable, even acceptable. It’s easy to think that it’s okay that Jesus let his friend die because eventually he raises him from the dead, and Lazarus should be glad to have been used for God’s glory. Next Friday, it would be easy to think that it’s okay that God let Christ die, naked, publicly executed on one of the most brutal torture devices known to human history, because God eventually resurrects him.
Maybe. I don’t find much satisfaction in that narrative. It has a tone of “ends justifying the means” that I never see Jesus enact in his life — the means are always important to him.
So. There must be something important about going through death — not just approaching death but actually going through it. Grief seems to be important: for Jesus, for Lazarus, for Martha and Mary. For Phil Elverum, in his songs. For us.
Death is real. And death is real in more ways than only when a physical life ends. Addiction is another name of death; any number of substances can put someone in a tomb even while they’re still alive.
The end of a relationship is a death, and one that must be grieved. Even — perhaps especially — when that relationship is abusive, codependent, or otherwise bad, if the experience is to be learned from, there’s an additional death of certain patterns of behavior and ways of being that were learned in that relationship.
Church splits, too, are a face of death and a cause for grief, as some here know all too intimately.
Jesus wept. God cries. There must be something meaningful about going through death, about grieving, about ….. being heartbroken — that is, allowing our hearts to break open. Perhaps, grief breaks open our heart to let in something new.
Phil Elverum, the musician I cited earlier, released this statement:
Why share this much? Why tell you, stranger, about these personal moments, the devastation and the hanging love? We carefully held our family life behind a curtain of privacy. Then Genevieve died and I belonged to nobody anymore.
My internal moments felt like public property. The idea that I could have a self or personal preferences or songs eroded down into an absurd idea // left over from a more self-indulgent time before I was a griever. I make these songs and put them out into the world just to multiply my voice saying that I love her.
DEATH IS REAL could be the name of this album [which is actually named “A crow looked at me”]. These cold mechanics of sickness and loss are real and inescapable, and can bring an alienating, detached sharpness. But it is not the thing I want to remember. A crow did look at me. There is an echo of Geneviève that still rings, a reminder of the love and infinity beneath all of this obliteration. That’s why [I share this much].
I think he’s touching on the transformative nature of shared grief. That when grief breaks my heart open, “the love and infinity” is what is allowed to flow out from my heart and into others … and the love and infinity is what is allowed to flow back into me.
Grief breaks open our hearts, and in doing so, delivers us great gifts. Theologian Roberta Bondi wrote in the wake of her mother’s death that “In grief, she found herself in a state of heightened awareness [a sharpening of the senses in wonder over the world]…all that she saw spoke messages to her of goodness, gratitude, hope, longing, love…the encounter was with reality itself, which reflects God, at a deeper level than we customarily meet it.”
Another theologian, Serene Jones, writes, “Grief is hard, actually the hardest of all emotions and perhaps most intolerable because its demands are so excruciating. It requires a willingness to bear the unbearable. It requires turning private agony into public, shared loss. If you can learn to truly mourn, then there is at least the possibility of moving on — not because the wound is mending or traumatic scars suddenly vanish… The gift of mourning is that fully awakening to the depth of loss that enables you to learn, perhaps for the first time, that you can hold the loss.”
A much more succinct theologian put it this way: Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
And Jesus does comfort, though not by preventing death. Rather, he invites our grief, and joins us in our grief. He allows his heart to be broken open alongside ours, so that we might have the possibility of moving on.
It’s when we are in a tomb, bound in a place of death, it’s there in the midst of grief that the possibility of transformation is somehow strongest. When we feel overwhelmed and alienated by the cold mechanics of sickness and loss, Christ calls to us: Come out! When we want to stay in the dark, Christ invites us: Come out! When we feel the impulse to lock ourselves away until the brokenness of our hearts is put back together, Christ implores: Come out!
Death is a part of life, sure. It can occur at any time, often with no warning. In her wisdom, the Church made death a part of her liturgical year. The church is a place of community that first gathered around an event of trauma and of grace. We first gathered because of the suffering of a man from Nazareth.
And we continue to gather around those events, and their echoes, in our own lives. In the Eucharist, we hear Jesus joining in suffering with those facing death: the grieving, the addict, the rape survivor, the brokenhearted. His body, too, is broken at the beckoning of abusers. And the church not only remembers this, it enacts it. The church refuses to turn away from systemic abuse, exploited power, a humiliated victim, a broken body, blood prematurely poured. We don’t shield our eyes to the violence, we don’t skip the happy end of the story. We continue to observe it, to expose it, to name evil for what it is.
By tolerating the remembrance of this one act of death, we teach ourselves to see, hear, and hold all acts of death. By seeing the glory of one victim, we can narrate the glory we see in one another’s grief. And, yes, by remembering the resurrection of one man, we can hold the hope that new life is available after loss.
Next Friday, Good Friday, we’ll witness to the suffering of Christ on the cross. We’ll acknowledge that death is real. Through Holy Saturday, we’ll grieve, and we’ll wait, and we’ll sit vigil — with crusted tears, catatonic and raw, to see what light might enter our shattered hearts.
My senior year in high school, my choir director chose a song that made many of us uncomfortable. We were a wealthy, white, suburban school, and for our state competition, he chose a slave spiritual that repeated the lyrics, “Sun up to sundown pickin that cotton, no more auction block for me.”
Yeah, we were uncomfortable. The two black students stopped coming to class. The other 92 of us, white, mostly avoided eye contact with anyone. Because the director was a family friend, I thought I would inform him of the murmurs that were happening outside class. My friend — who was one of those two black students — sat with me in his office after school as I explained that many students thought it was inappropriate for us to sing this piece — and he laid into us about the role of students, and how students shouldn’t criticize their teachers, students should respect their teachers. We ended up in the principal’s office. The choir director threatened to fail us. Eventually, we came to an agreement: anyone who was uncomfortable would still have to rehearse the song in class, but would be allowed leave the stage when it came time to perform the song at the state competition — though no promises on whether or not this would result in a failing grade.
Be perfect. There’s so much pressure built into those words, so much expectation.
Perfection, as we all know from very personal experience, is impossible. We all make mistakes. We all sin by what we have done and by what we have left undone. So in these words, perhaps Jesus is being hyperbolic. Perhaps perfection is not his actual expectation, but an ideal, a sentiment to strive towards knowing that we’ll stumble on the way.
So, we dismiss it. We favor other values that seem more attainable, or at least give us some direction.
I think one of our most cherished values is authenticity. Whatever your beliefs or opinions, we desire that those inner workings be congruent with our outward actions. Many of us work for this integrity for ourselves. We expect it of others. We work against self-deception and hypocrisy and the impulse to mimic whatever the cool kids are doing — because we value authenticity.
In a way, it seems authenticity is the very antithesis of perfection. Authenticity is about the inner priorities manifesting into outward actions; perfection is an external demand on our actions. Authenticity is about inner and outer working together; perfection is about an outer imposition.
The disappointing thing about authenticity, at least as a Christian who takes scripture pretty seriously, is that the word is never used in scripture. Which is perhaps unsurprising when we remember that the men and women who wrote scripture lived in a certain time and place and had their own set of values — and authenticity wasn’t even a possibility. To be authentic to yourself relies on a sense of individual self — and self was a concept that didn’t exist until centuries after our scriptures were written.
Which, for me, then raises the question: if self wasn’t a thing, what about perfection? What did that mean to Jesus’s first audience?
In biblical times, there were a limited number of ways to be a person in the world, and it was determined not by your story and your family dynamics and your experiences, but by your social position. Your birth into a social position gave you a role in society that you were expected to perform. The lepers perform their role by hiding themselves from society. The wealthy perform their role by becoming patrons to support the poor. The choir students perform their role in the state competition. And there was a real sense that it was possible to perform your role in society perfectly.
I wonder what Jesus would have thought about the way we live out authenticity.
In the life of Jesus, we see that there is a value higher than authenticity. In authenticity, our actions are centered on an internal source of righteousness and justice — Jesus’s actions are centered in God, centered in a transcendent source of righteousness and justice. Jesus acts in a way that is congruent not between inner self and outer action, but congruent between God’s character and his action.
The command is not simply to “be perfect” — to play our role in society perfectly — but to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Healing those in need; socializing with the outcasts; feeding the poor; caring for the marginalized — these are Jesus’s actions, authentic to God’s character. Jesus performed his role in society — in a way that perfected the possibilities and powers of that role — power that a low-income Jewish bastard should not have had in Roman-occupied land.
God said in Leviticus, “Be holy, as I am holy.” Jesus shows us what that means. In Jesus, God’s authenticity was manifest — and in Jesus, God opened up to us the possibility of true authenticity, an authenticity that centers not on our own values, but on God’s. But in order to become truly authentic, we must attend to God’s perfection.
Being perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect isn’t about avoiding certain behaviors; it’s not about never spilling the milk. It’s not about living without sin, thanks be to God. It’s not even about playing your role in society.
Being perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect is about living in such a way that centers your actions in God’s character — the character that was made manifest in Christ, the character that works to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, and to recognize the dignity of every person.
My choir’s state competition went perfectly — but it was not perfected. At the end of our first pieces, the director lowered his baton, bowed, then turned to us and raised his baton to start the contentious piece — and all at once my heart is in my throat, my breathing constricted, I’m lightheaded under the spotlights, realizing we haven’t talked about this, I have no plan, I don’t know if anyone will walk off stage with me, I don’t even know where to walk if I step down, and as I’m realizing all this — his baton drops for the first beats. We’re in the song, and I’m on the stage, and my black friend is next to me and I have failed her.
You see, she needed that credit to graduate — and I didn’t. I had all the privileges that come with being white in that community — and she had all the stigmas that come with being black. She was in a vulnerable position — and I wasn’t. She needed me to be the one to step down first — and I’d panicked. I performed the role of “student” perfectly, by the society’s expectations, by the director’s expectations. But I acted without authenticity to my own self. And I acted imperfectly in the true role — To be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect would have meant claiming more power than a student is given and doing the uncomfortable, anxiety-ridden thing by leading the march off stage so that others were freed from enacting an oppressive performance. And I failed.
[Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it.]
If I could reach back across the chasm of time to my 18-year-old self and whisper in her ear while those stage lights illuminated her imperfection, while she was paralyzed by her own hypocrisy, petrified by anxieties about how she’d be perceived, I would tell her this:
You’re not doing this alone.
God gave you the Spirit to perfect you, and to make you holy, as God is holy.
Be perfect. The task is not to avoid certain behaviors or pretend you don’t sin. The task is to receive the Spirit of a God who is holy; to discern – with the Spirit and with one another – the character of God; to work and act and live in that Spirit as far as it is possible.
We are to let the Spirit and scripture be our guides. From only our first reading this morning, we are given a wealth of information about the character of the God who works to perfect us.
The text tells us that God cares about “the poor and the alien,” so much so that God implores God’s people to leave unharvested food in their fields just in case a poor family, an immigrant, or a refugee, walks by their land. What might it look like for us — who don’t have actual fields that we labor in — to leave food for the poor and the alien? On a local level, it might look something like Edible Hope; the character of God can be discerned there.
The text tells us that God cares about the proper location of vengeance; vengeance is not ours to enact — not on families of terrorists, not on death row inmates.
The text tells us that God care about honesty. That God cares about people getting paid for their work. That God cares about ease of access for the disabled. That God cares about justice and mercy, together.
Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. We are not perfect, but we were created for perfection.
May you experience the presence of the Spirit that is Holy today. May your grounding in discernment and awareness of God draw you closer to a knowledge of yourself. May your understanding of the character of God perfect you to live authentically in service to the world.
The people who are blessed — or translated better, happy, fortunate, honored — aren’t at all the ones described by Jesus’s words in our gospel reading today. The happy, the fortunate, the honored in our world aren’t poor in spirit — or poor in anything else, really. They don’t mourn, or cry, or lament. They don’t hunger or thirst for righteousness.
If our world were to write a set of beatitudes, it would go something like this:
Honored are the self-sufficient who don’t need anything from anyone.
Happy are people who are content with the world exactly as it is. Happy are the happy.
Honored are the people who own lots of stuff and have money to throw away.
Fortunate are those who are prioritized by the system; those who get ahead.
Happy are the merciless, for they will always get their way.
But Jesus’s words are as plainly and definitively spoken as these truths. Some translations put Jesus’s words in the present — Jesus speaks with certainty. Although the circumstances he describes are not yet reality, he speaks as though their coming is so certain that they can be spoken of as though they already are reality. The poor in spirit possess the kingdom. The mourning obtain comfort. The meek inherit.
In his certainty of what the future holds for the suffering, Jesus is certainly his mother’s son. Mary, in the moment of receiving the child of God into her womb, lets out one of the most hopeful laments humanity has ever known. She proclaims, “God has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, And has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”
Mary speaks in recognition that the world is not as it should be, and she is certain that God will right it — so certain that she speaks as though it has all already happened.
The only problem with it is that it’s, you know, both Mary and Jesus seem to get it all wrong. Two thousand years later, those still aren’t real circumstances. The mighty remain on the thrones; the hungry remain hungry. The poor in spirit — the people who acknowledge they have needs; the people who can’t get by on their own, and know it — their living situation is hardly what I would call fortunate. And “happy are those who mourn?” The mournful are not happy. Come on. Happy are those who are happy.
I wanted to come up with an illustration of the world’s values of self-sufficiency and happiness, but I realized that these values are so ubiquitous that I didn’t need to. You have better examples in your life than I could bring in. That friend whose Christmas card is full of their latest good news and photos of yet another picturesque and seemingly conflict-free family vacation. The acquaintance whose Instagram is photo after photo of their beautiful, white-walled, always-clean, sunlit home. Advertisements that show smiling faces roller-skating on rooftops. Fortunate are the go-getters. Happy are the happy.
I’ve heard some people say that, since Jesus’s words don’t fit into the way the world works, he must be calling us to live this way: to be poor in spirit, mourners, persecuted.
I have a hard time believing that. Mourning and persecution are not ends unto themselves, but only when they serve a larger cause. I don’t believe that Jesus is calling us to walk around wearing black and being generally tearful just for the sake of being “one who mourns,” without any expectation of comfort.
Perhaps, instead, the traits that Jesus lists here are the natural outcomes of being a Spirit-led person, a person who dwells in God. A person who has a righteous and honorable way of seeing the world will naturally become poor in spirit, mournful — perhaps even persecuted.
The prophet Micah, from our first reading today, exhorts his listeners “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” The kind of person who has framed their life around justice, kindness, and humility is probably likely to notice — in themselves, in others, and in society — the many failures of justice, kindness, and humility. Likely to notice the injustices of our systems. The meanness that people repeatedly enact on one another. The lack of humility that makes people feel confident in their assumptions, confident in delivering judgments on others. A person who does justice, loves kindness, and walks humbly probably very quickly also becomes a person who mourns.
Jesus’s words, then, are not calling faithful people to behave any differently or to live in a certain kind of way. Rather, his words speak to the reality of people who live in the Spirit. His words offer consolation for those who see how far we humans fall short of God’s desire for us. Jesus doesn’t burden the faithful with moral imperatives; he brings solace to the faithful with broken-open hearts.
I know that this room holds a wide variety of political stances and opinions on how the issues facing society today could best be addressed. That diversity of opinion is something I value about our community here at St. Luke’s. But I hope that wherever our personal beliefs are, we are able to acknowledge mournful laments when we see them.
And perhaps the most public laments recently have been the protests. This week, thousands gather to lament our lack of justice and kindness towards orphans, widows, and foreigners. (There’s an emergency rally at 5pm tonight in Westlake.) Last week, the Women’s March created a global lament, a global gathering of mourners. Whether or not you think their complaints were legitimate, millions of people gathered together to say: We hurt.
And I have to admit: Jesus was right to speak with such certainty. The people who gathered together to mourn the powers that be and to lament the current situation of the world — they did receive comfort in their connection to other mourners. The evening of the march I scrolled through my various social media apps, seeing friends’ photos of marches from Seattle to D.C., LA to New York City– and, perhaps even more touching, smaller groups from my hometown and others across the Midwest. Breaking from the anonymity of everyday life, these mourners found each other — simply because they mourned publicly and loudly — and there was so much comfort in that solidarity, in having another person say, “Yes, I see it, too; I feel it, too. You’re not alone in this.”
Jesus’s words, then, are absurd, yes, but they are also true, in a deeper and more subtle truth than Facebook posts or roller skating on rooftop advertisements can ever convey.
Happy are those who mourn.
Honored are those who desire righteousness and do justice.
Blessed are those who love mercy.
Fortunate are the poor in spirit, the people who know they need, the people who walk humbly.
If you are rich in spirit, Jesus words aren’t for you today.
If you are happy with the world the way it is, Jesus’s blessings aren’t for you.
If you value merciless and antagonistic behavior — Jesus’s words aren’t for you. You don’t need them. You have the entire world.
But if you know yourself to be poor in spirit;
if you are one who mourns and laments the current situation of the world;
if you are in the business of working for peace;
if you do justice, love kindness, and value mercy
— then Christ speaks to you. Christ blesses you. Christ mourns with you. Christ comforts you. Christ is with you.
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A January 29, 2017
It is traditional for Episcopal churches to have their Annual Meeting on the third Sunday in January, and this is the case for St. Luke’s. Although it might have been easier if we had delayed it like my husband’s Lutheran Church. What a week it has been! A major transition has taken place in our nation as a new president has been inaugurated. The following day some of you, along with hundreds of thousands in Seattle, across the country and around the world participated in Womxn’s marches in support of people, values and causes they believe in.
What galvanizes people into action? What provokes people to find their voices and to speak out for what they believe in? What compels someone to leave the safety and comfort of their life and take a risk, make a sacrifice, begin an adventure, initiate a change? What helps folks to find their courage and their purpose and to live into it? How does a movement begin?
For Jesus the precipitating event was the arrest of John the Baptizer. Did you notice what Matthew wrote about the start of Jesus’ ministry? “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested…” The news of John’s arrest propels Jesus to make a move, to leave his hometown, and to begin his public work. “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
From this moment everything changes. For Jesus. For the fishermen Peter and Andrew, James and John, for the people who hear his message, for the sick he cures, for the people who will oppose him, for the ones who will fall in love with him and follow him to his death and even to their own. And for you and for me. Everything changes.
John’s arrest propels Jesus out of obscurity and security. John is arrested for preaching truth to power. He has offended Herod the ruler of the Jews, and he has frightened religious leaders by his strict ethics and his radical call to repentance. Until this point in history John was the best known religious leader in Israel. John had lots of disciples and Jesus had none. John drew the crowds and Jesus was an unknown. But Now, Now when Jesus hears that this prophet, this forerunner of the Messiah, this baptizer has been arrested and will most likely be put to death, Jesus knows his time has come. He can no longer be silent. The preaching of the Kingdom of heaven is now his mission and his responsibility.
Nothing will ever be the same. For “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” Jesus has come and light shines in darkness. Jesus speaks and hope is born anew. Jesus has come and a people who were downcast catch a glimmer of joy. The disciples will never be the same. They leave their fishing profession. They walk away from the path they and their families have been on for generations. They discover new purpose. They become part of the gospel movement. They begin to belong to the beloved community that gathers around their beloved Jesus.
Oh, it won’t be easy or painless or successful in the world’s eyes. There will be opposition and suffering, and in the case of John the Baptizer, Jesus and most of his closest disciples, there will be death. But there will also be the good news of God’s salvation, the promise of God’s presence, the light that no darkness can overcome, the forgiveness of sins and the healing of wounds. There will be a new community without outcasts where the poor and the rich feast together; women and men both are filled by the power of the Holy Spirit; people of different religious faiths, Jews and Gentiles are united, and those on the margins are treated with respect and honor.
There will be hope that overcomes despair and love that is stronger than hate. All this because Jesus was ready when God called him. Jesus was willing to offer himself fully for God’s vision for the world. Jesus, the light of the world shines in the darkness.
Good people of St. Luke’s, this mission of Jesus is our mission as well. Now, now is the time for the light of Christ to shine in the people of God. Now is the time for us to answer the call and to leave the comfort and security of our path to walk in the way of Christ. Now is not the time to be silent, to hide our light under a bushel or to cling onto what can never offer us true life. It has never been, nor will it ever be easy, but God has placed us here at this time to be light bearers, messengers of hope, people who bring good news.
Many of you know the story of this congregation, of the split that happened 6 years ago when 80% of the members left to form another church. It was a dark and difficult time for the faithful remnant who stayed here to continue worship and ministry. The challenges were enormous, the resources were few, the church was viewed with suspicion and many folks thought St. Luke’s had closed. But there are those who refused to give up hope. They planted the SLUG and new growth sprung up from an abandoned lot. They prepared and opened a shelter, and those who had been unprotected and in the cold found a warm and dry place to sleep. They found a way to keep feeding the hungry, providing clothing to those without and serving the most vulnerable in the neighborhood.
And now St. Luke’s is ready to move forward into a new chapter in its dramatic 125-year history. This past year many of you found your way here where there is food for the soul and the cup of new life. Our average attendance has doubled and continues to increase. Our Children’s Ministry, under Jasen’s initiative and Grace’s care, has increased exponentially. We have formed community and made connections. We have provided a gathering place for Ballard as together we try to address the complex needs of this rapidly changing neighborhood. We celebrated the start of a new era as I was appointed the permanent Vicar and we have been blessed and ministered to with grace, compassion and skill by our Ministry Interns, Sara and Kate. Deacon Phyllis is simply a treasure. This campus is a constantly busy place, hosting a variety of groups and programs in a lively and diverse context.
We have moved on from crisis and conflict. We have flourished with the resources we need to care for our people, our buildings and our obligations. We even finished the year with a bit of a surplus in our budget and will present a balanced budget for 2017.
Now, now it is time to come together to seek God’s vision for what we are to become. We know we are here to shine light. We know we exist to work for justice and truth and to respect the dignity of every human being. We know God has blessed us with abundance that we might be good and compassionate stewards of the resources we are responsible for. This year, with this new Bishop’s Committee, we will begin a process of discerning the vision for St. Luke’s. We are pretty clear on our mission. We will not abandon our responsibility to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.
We will be asking the questions about our next steps. How are we called to speak up for those whose voice is not heard? How can we share the good news of God’s mercy and love with those wounded by life’s circumstances? How can we put this property and these buildings we utilize to the best use for the most good?
I am looking ahead to the Retreat on Joy, Simplicity and Mercy that we will co-host with Church of the Apostles and Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church on February 17-18. I believe we will be exploring these important questions both individually and collectively. I am looking forward to another night of Community and Connection at the Royal Drummer as we gather together and build the web of relationships that makes us God’s beloved community.
And I am anticipating the Spiritual Pilgrimage during Lent and Easter where we will explore how God is calling each one of us to take another step on the journey of faith that will last a lifetime.
Jesus proclaimed the arrival of the Kingdom of heaven. There are so many metaphors for what it might be to live into that reality. But the one that seems so present and powerful for us at St. Luke’s is the image of the great banquet feast where everyone is invited and honored. It is the feast where Edible Hope, soul food and the cup of new life are on the menu. It can be found wherever good news is proclaimed, light shines and love flourishes. It is the Jesus movement and we have all been called to walk in that light. Amen.
Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year A January 22, 2017
Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 5-13 St. Luke’s, Ballard
1 Corinthians 1:10-18 Annual Meeting
Matthew 4:12-23 Britt Olson
You may also listen to a recording of this sermon:
Like many who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, I had a mostly secular childhood. We celebrated Christmas along with most of the people I knew, but it was mostly a sentimental season with decorations, carols, cookies and presents. More important than the religious significance of Christmas was my family’s cultural background including Swedish ornaments and meatballs from my grandfather’s side and the annual singing of Silent Night in German around the Christmas tree with my grandmother.
It’s a beautiful time. There are candles and lights, music and singing, the sharing of gifts and extra generosity towards those in need. It was enough for me as a child, and I still love it along with all the traditions that come with Christmas.
But now that I am an adult, it’s not enough. No amount of Christmas cheer can take away the pain and sadness that many are experiencing. All the lights and tinsel cannot cover up the poverty I see on a daily basis. No matter how much I give away at the end of the year, it cannot cover up the gap between my wealth and so much of the world’s need. And no proclamation of peace on earth and goodwill toward all can silence the violence and hatred that is taking place on a daily basis.
It’s time to take a closer look at the Christmas story, to examine the relevance of a birth narrative over 2,000 years old. This night we proclaim Jesus as Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, but what does that mean? What difference does it make? What lasting effect does Christmas have once the ornaments are stored away and the bleak days of January with its alarming news cycle continue?
Have you ever noticed how Luke’s famous gospel reading begins? “A decree, all the world, Emperor Augustus, registration, governor of Syria.” The birth of Jesus takes place in a particular political reality. The intimate lives of a poor, peasant girl and her carpenter fiancé are impacted by an occupying Emperor who ruled over a huge amount of territory and people. In name, Augustus was the “First Citizen” of Rome and had established a Roman Senate, magistrate and a legislative assembly, but in effect he ruled as a military dictator with absolute autocratic power.
The forced registration of all those in occupied territories was a burden and a terror to the populace. It didn’t matter that Mary was nine months pregnant or that a journey would be costly and dangerous. If the government required you to register there was no other alternative. The powerful can always demand what they want from those with little power.
Another thing about this story. Have you ever wondered why the angel went first to shepherds in the fields? The gap between the rich and the poor was great in first century Palestine and shepherds were near the bottom. They camped outside with little shelter and warmth. They were often nomadic, seasonal laborers, traveling where they could find pasture for their sheep. Their hygiene was suspect along with their morals. I’m sure that smoking and drinking helped them to make it through the long, cold nights. I can’t believe they would make trustworthy witnesses to God’s most important message. Who would listen to them?
How amazing this experience must have been for them to head right into town, unwashed and scruffy to find the baby and deliver the message of the angels! These are the guys who when you see them coming, you might cross over to the other side of the street, but they are the ones to whom the great good news is entrusted.
Finally, where are the religious leaders in this narrative? Why aren’t the priests informed? Why doesn’t the chorus of angels deliver their song in the synagogue? And why does this take place in the backwater village of Bethlehem rather than the holy city of Jerusalem? Who’s going to hear or believe this when it happens so far from all the seats of political and religious power to people who are poor, outsiders and oppressed?
But that’s the point Luke is making, isn’t it? God comes first to those on the margins. Jesus isn’t born in a palace or a capitol or a tower. God’s messengers don’t arrive in the Temple or a place of worship. Jesus is born among the poor and lowly. Jesus is born to those who have been outside so long that they have nearly given up on God. Jesus is born into the whole risky human reality. And Jesus continues to be born where people need him most.
This world needs him now. We need to hear the message: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” There is no political leader who can deliver us from the terror of a world torn apart by violence and threatened by destruction. There is no religious leader who can smooth over sorrow and suffering by promising wealth, health and prosperity. There is no amount of goodwill that can prevent the tragedies of addiction, illness, sin and death.
But there is one who has promised to come and dwell with us, Emmanuel, the God who arrives in vulnerability and powerlessness. He is the one who shakes the world by his coming and provokes the powers by his presence. He upends our expectations by being born among the poor and dying next to criminals. The light that shone in the darkest night of his birth will never go out. The love that he brings will ultimately triumph over all the “boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood.”
The Christmas story is not about sentimental escapism from a broken world. It’s about repairing it. It’s about small acts done with great love. It’s about courage and resistance in the face of overwhelming odds. It’s about witnessing to a different reality not covered in the headlines and twitter feeds. It’s about discovering the Christ in unexpected ways and in unexpected people.
Each Christmas I return to a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and pastor who returned to Nazi Germany in order to build Christian community and foster Christian hope. He opposed Hitler as a dangerous, political despot and was ultimately imprisoned and executed by the Nazis. Like the Lord he loved and followed he lived in the real world of dangerous political figures, cowardly religious leaders and people willing to ignore what was happening to the least, last and lost in their midst. He wrote from prison:
“Jesus stands at the door knocking. In total reality, he comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for help. He confronts you in every person that you meet. As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor, as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, makes demands on you. That is the great seriousness and great blessedness of the [Christmas] Advent message. Christ is standing at the door; he lives in the form of a human being among us.”
Emmanuel, God with us, the hope of the world. Come let us adore him.
Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016