Love is born

It’s dark outside.  Night has fallen and the sun is hidden far below the horizon.  The darkness seems to seep into our bones.  The Advent and Christ candles are precious, in part because they are so fragile, barely able to fend off the night’s darkness.

It’s dark outside.  The economy is shaky.  Oil, on which so much of our life and livelihood depends in this city, is selling at $35 per barrel.  The stock market has become a roller coaster.  Racial and ethnic tensions are flaring again in our nation’s cities.  Our leaders act like petulant children toward one another, and they extol the dumbing down of our discourse and our culture as though it is a virtue.  Mass shooters and terrorists walk brazenly into restaurants and schools and make sport of snuffing out lives like so many candles, taking pleasure and perverse satisfaction at breeding confusion and fear.  The sun indeed seems to have slipped inexorably below the horizon.  It is dark outside.

A few years ago, in the midst of the Great Recession, the Chicago Tribune ran an article reporting that the birthrate drops dramatically during times of national uncertainty, especially economic uncertainty.  Person after person quoted in the story expresses dismay bordering on despair about the prospect of bringing a new child into such a troubled world.  The birth of a child is an act of hope, and these days sometimes seem to border on hopelessness.  One woman in the Tribune article said with stark and sad honesty, “I’m not confident about the future.”

As things spiral into the darkness, people quit having babies.  This phenomenon was imagined in its terrifying extreme in P.D. James’ novel Children of Men, in which women suddenly and worldwide lose the ability to conceive.  As the years go by, the last generation born grows to adulthood, and the narrator points out that a world without children’s laughter is a dark and hopeless world indeed.

Candle in darkness

The first century was no time for a child to be born.  In Judea, the heel of occupying Rome was pressing down ever harder on the Jewish people.  And the very ones who ought to have defended common folk—Herod the political leader and the religious leaders in the temple—were weak, corrupt, and sycophantic.  Drought, poverty, and even domestic terrorism plagued those days as they plague ours.  A comet traversed the sky, accentuating rather than dispelling the surrounding darkness and seeming to portend more bad tidings.  We must remember, Mary didn’t plan to have her child.  In addition to being young and not yet married to Joseph, we can imagine that her apprehensions about bringing a child into a world so dark were at least as potent as our own.

Madeline L’Engle paints the scene in the first half of her poem, “The Risk of Birth.”

This is no time for a child to be born,

With the earth betrayed by war and hate

And a nova lighting the sky to warn

That time runs out & the sun burns late.

 

That’s the first half of L’Engle’s poem.  But listen to the rest:

That was no time for a child to be born,

In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;

Honor and Truth were trampled by scorn—

Yet here did the Savior make his home.

 

When is the time for Love to be born?

The inn is full on the planet earth,

And by greed and pride the sky is torn—

Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

 

You see, even with all the evidence to the contrary, on that night—on this night—the darkness recedes!  Because despite the fact that so much in our experience tells us this is no world for children, God chooses to take the risk and be born among us.  God takes the risk to enter into the world that we have torn asunder, and he enters—miracle of miracles—as one of us.  From this night forward, we are not alone.  Any and every thing we face is faced alongside a God who walks and has walked this way with us, who enters in fullness into our lives, sharing our fears, our vulnerabilities, and most importantly, our hopes.

Nativity

The birth of a child is always an act of hope, and in this case the reverberations ripple out cosmically.  To the anxious parents shoved into the back corner of a barn to have their child among the grime and the animals, hope is born.  To the shepherds fearful in the fields with wolves pacing round, hope is born.  To us huddled in this sanctuary from the darkness outside, hope is born.  And as Madeline L’Engle says so eloquently, Love is born.

What do we do with this?  What does it matter when we walk from here back into the darkness?  It matters because we walk back into a world in which God walks with us, in which as John the Evangelist tells us, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.”  The light that shines is not like the taunting light of a fleeting comet or the fragile light of a candle.  It is, rather, the eruption into the night sky of the heavenly chorus, driving back all darkness and singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!”

This matters because each and every time we who have received this news respond to that light, every time we face down the darkness and express that love and live through that hope, then the heavenly host sings yet again, and the light of Christ is spread, driving back the darkness in another’s life.

Earth rise

Forty-seven years ago on this very night, three men found themselves in the most remote and opaque darkness ever experienced.  They were 239,000 miles from home, and the men of the first manned lunar mission passed over to the moon’s dark side, losing all visual and radio contact with every other human being in existence.  There is no light on the far side of the moon.  The darkness is absolute.  Can you imagine what it must have felt like?  But then the command module came back round the moon’s horizon, and Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders became the first three people ever to witness an earth rise.  From their perspective—which must have been something akin to God’s—what they saw was not a world shrouded in darkness but a world alive with light!  On that Christmas Eve, overcome with the blazing glory of the earth, Borman, Lovell, and Anders read the first ten verses of the Book of Genesis.  Their words sounded across the scratchy radio waves like the chorus of angels in the night’s sky over Bethlehem.  Borman ended the message by saying, “And from the crew of Apollo 8 we close with good night, good luck, and merry Christmas—and God bless all of you, all of you on the good earth.”

When is the time for Love to be born?

The inn is full on the planet earth,

And by greed and pride the sky is torn—

Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

 

When we walk from here back into the darkness, we do so knowing that the light shines alongside us and for us, that God has been born again, sharing our lives to show us the way of hope and love.

Merry Christmas, and God bless all of us, all of us on the good earth.

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Being Human

You have to hand it to John the Baptist.  He certainly knows how to get one’s attention.  Today’s Gospel picks up immediately where last week’s Gospel left off.  A crowd has followed John out to the River Jordan, waiting with anticipation to be inspired by his teaching.  John looks them in the eye and says, “You brood of vipers!”  Let’s pause for a moment and think about that.  How do you think the good people of Christ Church Cathedral would respond if I stepped into the pulpit on a Sunday morning and launched into the sermon by hurling insults at them?  I might end up with my head on the chopping block, which is, well, exactly what eventually happens to John.

“You brood of vipers,” he begins, and then he warns the crowd that they can’t claim safety from God behind their Jewish pedigree.  God cares nothing for your street address, your job title, your club membership, your race, your nationality.  God can cut down one person and raise up another without blinking, and God will do it, too.  “Even now,” John says, “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.” These are John’s words, not mine, and they certainly get the crowd’s attention.

John the Baptist

“You brood of vipers!”

These people have walked from town and across the countryside to be inspired by John.  They came yearning for a life-giving word, and instead they’ve been put on notice.  Now the people are scared.  “What, then, should we do?” they ask John, and one senses that they fear he’ll ask the impossible of them.  Their faults run so deep, their sins are so abundant.  I mean, they’re a brood of vipers, after all.

And then John the Baptist drops the bomb: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  To the tax collectors, he says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”  And to soldiers, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

Oh, the horror!  The burden! The heavy load Johns asks them, and us, to bear!  But wait…what, exactly, is John asking?  What, says John, makes the difference between the viper and the penitent?  And by extension, what is it that God asks of us?  Look again at the essence of what John is saying:

  • If you have more than you need, and there is another whose needs are not met, help him.
  • Do not cheat in your work or, for that matter, in your life.
  • If your work puts you in contact with those who are vulnerable, do not use your power or authority to take advantage of them. They depend upon you.
  • Tell the truth.

And the Gospel passage ends by saying, “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.”

And so we, like the crowd, slowly begin to realize just how good the good news is.  Through John, God is not exhorting us to be superhuman.  God is asking us, merely and blessedly, to be human.

On the surface, it seems to be so simple.  And yet, we know that it is not.  Ours is a culture that has long been one of aspiration, ambition, self-sufficiency.  In more recent years, it has increasingly also become a culture of individual isolation, ironically made more so by the very technology and social media that intend to connect us.  Attendance at high school and college reunions has dropped.[i]  Civic clubs face a crisis due to a 60% decrease in membership.[ii]  The researcher Robert Putnam calls this phenomenon, “bowling alone,” and it points to the ways in which we increasingly walk through the world avoiding the relationships that make us human rather than seeking and nurturing them.

Bowling alone

“We increasingly walk through the world avoiding relationships rather than seeking and nurturing them.”

These passive realities were challenging enough before our current political ethos of fear, in which we are actively encouraged to disregard, or malign, or increasingly actually act out against our human brothers and sisters.

Be human, John says.   Recognize your shared humanity with those around you.  And that includes, of course, your shared origin in God, whose very image is stamped upon each and every one of God’s children.  John is telling us to connect with those we love and with those we don’t.  Be fair.  Seek understanding.  Repair injustice.  Extend a helping hand.  Be human.  (That’s all God commands, I suspect, because our track record demonstrates that being human is challenge enough.)

So it is that what, in John’s raucous preaching style, began with fear and apprehension culminates in joy.  Luke tells us that the people ultimately are filled not with fear, but with expectation because they recognize that John’s exhortation is really an invitation to be what God creates them to be.  In the end, John’s message is not only a call to repentance, but also a call to Advent, to new birth, to a way of being in which God’s presence within each of us finds new expression through us, as we reach out, and connect, and form relationships of grace and care with one another.

For over a thousand years, this third Sunday in Advent has been called in the Church “Gaudete Sunday” marked by a rose candle in the midst of purple or Sarum blue.  Gaudete is the Latin word that means “rejoice,” and the lectionary today takes care to tether the Gospel passage with readings from Zephaniah and Philippians, both of which seek to lighten our hearts, to encourage us in our faith, to assure us that God loves us deeply, ceaselessly, and without condition.

gaudete candle

We must balance John’s opening words—his brood of vipers talk and his threats to cut the tree off at its roots—with the words of the prophet and the words of Paul.  “Rejoice!” says Zephaniah, “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you…he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.”

“Rejoice!” says Paul, “Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near…And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

We rejoice because God—the God who will arrive in just twelve days in Jesus—approaches us not in condemnation and not sowing fear, but as a human being.  God does in Jesus exactly what John asks us to do.  God shares our humanity; God rejoices in our humanity; God imbues our humanity with God’s own image; and, most essentially, God invites us to embrace our humanity.  And that means, this season of Advent, embracing the humanity in others—all others—in thought, in word, and in deed.

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[i] http://www.technologyreview.com/view/423944/how-facebook-killed-your-school-reunion/

[ii] http://www.sourcenewspapers.com/articles/2012/12/26/news/doc50db7e7a69a2b336424596.txt

People Get Ready!

“People get ready!  There’s a train a-coming.  You don’t need no baggage; you just get on board.  All you need is faith to hear the diesels humming.  Don’t need no ticket; you just thank the Lord.”

That’s the opening stanza of Curtis Mayfield’s well-known and beloved song.  The tune is a call for preparation, for attentive readiness.  It’s a charge to act, to be alert, and it implies that, if we are inattentive, we may miss something important, and we will feel the lack.

Joshua Bell is, arguably, the world’s most famous violinist and also consistently ranked among the world’s best.  He is certainly the most entertaining.  In addition to filling concert halls, Bell has judged the Miss America Pageant, played for the television show “Dancing With the Stars,” and written music for the likes of Scarlett Johansson (who has a surprisingly good voice, I might add).[i]  Bell has been called a heartthrob.  His playing is described as “athletic and passionate.”  A ticket to see Joshua Bell in person, to hear the sublime music he makes with his Stradivarius violin, costs $200.[ii]

In 2007, the Washington Post decided to see how aware and attentive contemporary Americans are in their surroundings, how open to wonder and surprise.[iii]  The Post approached Joshua Bell, asked him to don a t-shirt and baseball cap, and set up as a panhandling musician at L’Enfant Plaza metro station in Washington D.C.

Before the experiment, the Washington Post interviewed Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, for his opinion on how people would respond to Bell’s presence and music in the subway.  Sublime music, coupled with Joshua Bell’s magnetic presence, Slatkin predicted, would undoubtedly draw a crowd.

JoshuaBell

Violinist Joshua Bell

On the day of the experiment, Joshua Bell set up next to a shoe shine stand and a lottery ticket kiosk near the escalator.  And then he began to play Johan Sebastian Bach. The Post reports this:

“[Bell] played with acrobatic enthusiasm, his body leaning into the music and arching on tiptoes at the high notes. The sound was nearly symphonic, carrying to all parts of the homely arcade as the pedestrian traffic filed past.”

And no one noticed.  Three minutes into the piece, one man hitched and turned his head, a momentary pause as if—maybe—there were something dimly different about this morning, about what he was encountering in the world.  But then he turned back and continued on his way.  In forty-five minutes of playing, the Washington Post’s hidden camera captured one thousand seventy people pass by Joshua Bell, not to mention the thousands of others within earshot.  Seven people stopped to listen.  Seven.

Of course, the travesty is compounded by the fact that the thousands of people who crowded by never even realized what they’d missed.  The Post reports, “You can play the recording once or fifteen times, and it never gets any easier to watch. Try speeding it up, and it becomes one of those herky-jerky World War I-era silent newsreels. The people scurry by in comical little hops and starts, cups of coffee in their hands, cellphones at their ears, ID tags slapping at their bellies, a grim danse macabre to indifference, inertia and the dingy, gray rush of modernity.”

______________

“The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

John the Baptist

“Prepare the way of the Lord!  Make his paths straight.”

John the Baptist is saying, like Curtis Mayfield, “People get ready!”  We have entered the Season of Advent, when we prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus, both in remembrance of the Nativity and in expectation of Jesus’ return, when all God’s purposes will be fulfilled and the world will be made new.  The former is, of course, chronicled in the Gospels, with a piercingly bright star, the very heavens opening, and an angelic chorus singing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, goodwill toward all people.”  And our image of Jesus’ triumphant return is at least equal in its majesty, also tantalizingly alluded to in the Gospels, a description of the Son of Man coming in a cloud with great glory.  How could we ever miss that?

But, lest we forget, eons ago most failed to notice that star, and when the shepherds ran through the streets of Bethlehem proclaiming the Incarnation, most people simply turned over in their beds.  In Bethlehem on Christmas Day, the King of kings was born, but he did not reign.  Indifference, inertia, and the dingy, gray rush of life continued to hold sway.

What does this mean for us, this Advent?  It means we have work to do, and I don’t mean the work of putting up the Christmas tree and doing the gift shopping.  (Although I’m not one of those priests who zealously combats such things.  My own tree went up three days after Thanksgiving.)  Our work is to make the path straight, to clear the tracks, to ready ourselves for the star, for the chorus, for the return of the Jesus we claim we want to meet, and to know, and to follow.  What does that look like?

It begins with looking up from our lives, raising of our heads, peeling our attention from smart phones, from the cadence of our lockstep walk, from the dingy, gray rush of life to pause, and listen, and see.  When we do, we’ll notice three things, all of which are crucial, but not all of which are pleasant.

First, we’ll see the pain we’ve caused, both by our will and by our indifference, by things done and left undone.  We’ll see hurt in the eyes of those we love.  We’ll see the wake of what we’ve wrought in our acts of uncharity and unkindness.  We’ll recall that there are moral consequences to our individual decisions, small and large.  We’ll acknowledge, and probably resist, and, hopefully, finally accept our need for repentance, which means not only feeling sorry but also, asking for forgiveness and, where possible, repairing the harm we’ve done.  Until we have repented, the path remains crooked, the tracks remain blocked, and the way of the Lord is obscured.

Second, we’ll see people.  (What a novel notion.)  We’ll notice the person in front of us.  We’ll look at her rather than through her.  We’ll recognize that she inhabits this world, just like us.  That God inhabits her, just like us.  Once we see her, we’ll never again be able to mistake her as a means to our end, as a statistic, as an obstacle to be avoided or overcome.  We’ll see that she is a child of God, and so is he, and so are they.  All the calculus is computed differently once we see that this is true.

And third, when we lift our heads, when we open our ears, when we raise our eyes to the horizon, we’ll ache in wonder at the beauty of the world that, in every moment, God creates.  It will leave us breathless, and humble, and grateful.  We will grieve for the world’s brokenness and rejoice in its light.  And then the path will straighten.  The track will clear.

The Washington Post concludes its story about violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, hidden in plain sight beside the shoe shine stand in that D.C. subway station, playing divine music as thousands pass by unaware, in this way:  “The fiddler’s movements remain fluid and graceful; he seems so apart from his audience—unseen, unheard, otherworldly—that you find yourself thinking that he’s not really there. A ghost.  Only then do you see it: He is the one who is real. They are the ghosts.”

This is Advent.  The one who is Really Real is coming, fluid and graceful, to make all things new.  We will not pass by unaware.  We’ll not fall prey to indifference, inertia, and the dingy, gray rush of lie.  In our blessed fragility, our ghost-like transience in this world, we’ll lift our heads.  We’ll pause to hear the music.  And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

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[i] http://www.sinfinimusic.com/uk/features/guides/artist-guides/top-20-violinists

[ii] http://www.vividseats.com/concerts/new-york-philharmonic-tickets/new-york-philharmonic-avery-fisher-hall-1-2-1770923.html

[iii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/pearls-before-breakfast-can-one-of-the-nations-great-musicians-cut-through-the-fog-of-a-dc-rush-hour-lets-find-out/2014/09/23/8a6d46da-4331-11e4-b47c-f5889e061e5f_story.html.  All details of the experiment comes from this article.