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Grace

“By grace are ye saved, through faith …”  That’s what Saint Paul told the Ephesians.  He goes on to say that this grace – and this redemption – is the gift of God, and that we cannot be saved through our own efforts or by piling up good works.  In fact, we were created to do good works; that is part of our nature, and so it cannot be a payment for the favour of being saved from our sins.

Gallons of ink, billions of brain cells, and years of intellectual effort have been devoted to this idea that we are saved from our sins by the grace of God, and that we cannot buy redemption by performing heroic feats of goodness.  Because we know that, if people think they will be saved by Grace (capital G), they will just not bother do do anything special to be redeemed, human nature being what it is.  Also, it seems pretty unfair if a bunch of lazy people who lie around all day eating chocolates and ignoring the poor get to be saved along with Mother Teresa and Saint Francis and all.

It occurs to me that we may have totally misunderstood this idea of grace.  Maybe it isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card.  Maybe it is more like unconditional love, which is freely given, never withdrawn, and which cannot be destroyed no matter what we do, either positive or negative.

When a 5-year-old tells a whopper,  a good mother does not throw her out into the street.  A good mother will reprove her; teach her what is right and wrong; perhaps administer an appropriate punishment; and welcome her back into her loving arms.  The good mother sees the lie for what it is – a mistake, an attempt to push boundaries, an experiment, a learning opportunity.  And she sees the 5-year-old for what she is – a little child who needs to learn how to be an honest adult.  Her love for her child never wavers.  In fact, her impulse to teach her child is part of her love.  She knows her daughter is not evil; she sees her potential for good and wishes to nurture that.  That is grace, I think.  The good parent is God.  We are the wayward and ignorant children.  Grace is the unconditional love which allows us to sin, to repent, and to be forgiven.

Likewise, the good parent does not favour her goody-two-shoes son over her wayward daughter.  She loves them both.  They both live within the grace of her unconditional love for them.  Even if Goody-Two-Shoes turns out to be Albert Schweitzer, the good mother will still love her Jezebel of a daughter and try to encourage her to live a better life and live up to her potential, which St. Paul explains to the Ephesians as her inheritance of goodness which comes from God.

I think we understand this when we are talking about our beloved little children.  But what about the child abuser, the rapist, the murderer, the con artist thief?  What about the guy who lies indiscriminately about everything?  Is there grace for that guy?  St. Paul says there is.  No matter what?

I think again about that 5-year-old.  To God, that is who we are.  We are the little children pushing boundaries, experimenting, and making fatal mistakes.  We know – most of us – what is right.  But we continue to do wrong.  Still, God does not give up on us.  God sees our potential for good. God wants us to learn; God wants us to grow; God wants us to become moral and spiritual adults. God wants us to learn honesty, empathy, and self-control, to grow into full, healthy trees bearing the fruit of the spirit:  love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness,  and temperance, to paraphrase Galatians.  So, the grace of God’s unconditional love is always there for us, always available.  God does not consign us to hell without giving us infinite opportunities to accept that love, to repent, and to grow.  He or She waits for us to come home and to step into those infinitely comforting arms, a beloved child.

We often don’t.  We don’t believe in grace or unconditional love.  We believe in guilt and pain and exclusion.  We believe in hell, and, as a result, many of us live there.  If only we could come back to God as if we were little children.  All we have to do is believe that redemption is possible, to believe that our Divine Parent will welcome us back home.

And what about good works?   Doing good is our job.  We can’t earn our way into heaven.  As Hamlet says:  “Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?”  We all sin.  And it really isn’t about some heavenly set of scales on which our good works are weighed against our sins.  It is about God’s love for us, which embraces us even if the scale tips heavily on the sin side.  If we love ourselves, if we love God, if we love our neighbours, we will do good.

I can live with this definition of grace.  It makes sense to me.  And it makes sense of Jesus’ statement that we must come to the “Kingdom of God” as little children.  Although grace technically means that we can get out of jail free, it does require us to reach out and take the card.  It requires us to believe that the card will work.  And it doesn’t mean that good works are useless.  Doing good works, as Aristotle might have said, teaches us how to be good.  Practice makes … well, as perfect as we can get.

 

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Promises, promises

The lectionary for today begins with the Davidic Covenant from 2 Samuel.  In it, God promises King David that He will make him a great name; that He will give the people of Israel a safe place of their own to live, unafflicted by evildoers; that He will give David rest from his enemies, and that He will establish an everlasting kingdom for David and his heirs.  God says that He will be a father to David, and that David will be a son to him.  And, in Psalm 89, we see the other side of the contract.  To receive the gifts of God, David and his people must follow God’s law and keep his commandments.  If they don’t, they will be punished.

This is a contract that we can all understand.  God contracts with David to give him territory, power, and a great legacy in return for obedience.  The penalty for disobedience is a painful punishment.

And this is the way I was taught to understand the covenants of the Old Testament.  They are promises of material wealth and power in return for good behaviour.

The New Testament shows us a different kind of covenant or contract.   This time God promises spiritual gifts – forgiveness, grace, eternal life – instead of material gifts.  And what do we have to do in return?  We have to believe in Jesus.

We have spent a couple of millennia living with this idea that, if we are good, we will go to heaven, and if we are bad we will go to hell.  As if we had signed a legal contract with God.  If we violate our contract, we forfeit our right to receive grace, forgiveness and/or eternal life.  And we will be punished with the lake of fire.

Here is what I think.  THERE IS NO CONTRACT.  In fact, there never was one.

In Psalm 89, the psalmist, speaking as God, says that, even if the people do not follow the law and even if they violate the commandment,  ” I will not remove from him (David) my steadfast love, or be false to my faithfulness. 89:34 I will not violate my covenant, or alter the word that went forth from my lips. 89:35 Once and for all I have sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to David.”

So, basically, God will uphold his/her side of the covenant no matter what – as if I were to contract to buy a house for $450,000.00, and then failed to pay the full amount, and then the seller just gave it to me anyway because I needed it.  That, folks, is not a contract.  That is something entirely different.

This is more like a loving relationship between a good parent and a child.  The good parent protects her child, shelters her, teaches her, nourishes her, and gives her gifts both spiritual and material.  This is not done out of fear of punishment, or fear that the child will abandon her; the good parent does all this out of love for her child.  On the other side of this loving relationship, the child will love and look up to his parent, and try to please him, to learn the rules and values which are passed on to him, and to follow them.  Some children break the rules or flout the values of their parents; some parents do not care for their children.  The good, loving parent disciplines his child gently so that the child can learn what is right.  But the good, loving parent never stops loving his or her children.  No matter what they do, no matter what kind of trouble they get into, parents – even not very good ones – love their children and want the best for them.

God is like the good loving parent.  We are like children.  If we love God, we will try to understand and follow his laws out of love; not out of fear.  What keeps us coming back to the family; what encourages us to try to do things that will make our family proud of us – that is love.  It’s just love.

So, I will take the time to worship; I will honour my parents; I will not put the pursuit of wealth or power before the pursuit of what is right; I will be honourable to my neighbours and friends; I will care for my own soul because I love God, and I love God in my neighbour, and I love God in myself.

That is the gospel.  Tear up the old contracts.  They were never real in the first place.  God is our good loving parent, and we are his children, and, if we love Him/Her, we will not need a contract anyway.

 

The Deity is IN

I listened to this podcast this morning:  http://www.cbc.ca/radio/tapestry/religion-is-not-something-that-is-carved-in-tablets-of-stone-quakers-reconsider-the-divine-1.4688407.

In it, Paul Parker discusses some of the aspects of Quakerism with Mary Hines, host of CBC’s show Tapestry.

According to Parker, Quakers believe in “continuing revelation,” which is the idea that God continues to reveal him/herself to us even in the 21st century.  Ergo, the revelations which we read about in the Bible, the revelations from 6000 or 4000 or 2000 years ago are just the beginning.  God has not retired.  He/she is not sitting up in the clouds watching CNN and reading good books or working in the garden or trying his/her hand at writing a book – or blogging.  God is still working, despite all appearances.  The good news was not carved in tablets of stone a long time ago.  The good news continues.

Quakers, according to Parker, deliberately seek new light.  So that means they are willing to look at the Bible and see new truths in it.  And that means they are willing to look at the world and see new truths in it as well.

Quakers are “comfortable with seeking and doubt.”  Good.  Cuz we are all doubters at some point, and we ought all to be seekers after truth as well, and if it’s all been done before what is the point?  Being comfortable with doubt is important if we are to seek the truth about God.

Quakers go to meeting to be “fed, challenged, and sent out.”  That’s as good an argument for going to church, synagogue, temple, or mosque as I can think of.  We need to be fed; we need to have our preconceptions and prejudices challenged; we need to be encouraged to challenge ourselves; we need to be sent out with a new idea, a new truth, a new goal.

It’s interesting that the popular Christian denominations today are not comfortable with doubt and do not believe in continuing revelation.  People want certainty; not doubt.  They want a clear set of rules and a coherent story.  Well, it’s a very uncertain time in the world.  Who wants to walk the knife-edge, never knowing where the path is taking us or if we will fall off and be lost?

But we must, because if we don’t, we will miss the new revelation, the new understanding, the new truths that are being revealed today.  Because God is at work today, sitting at his/her desk, writing mission statements, setting goals and objectives, and implementing programs.  The deity is IN.

We’re all in a relationship.  We’re all in a relationship with God, whether we want to be or not, whether we realize it or not.  Sometimes it is a pretty dysfunctional one.

But I had this epiphany yesterday as I listened to Mary Hines talk to British Quaker Paul Parker.  The gospel says, in the words of the old King James version:  “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us” (Matthew 1:20-23).  So the good news is that now God is with us.  He/she is no longer living on Mount Sinai or up in the clouds or in the wind or in heaven.  God is with us.

If God is with us, then God is with every person.

If God is with every person, then our relationship with God cannot be one to one.  We cannot pretend to be honouring and loving God if we focus just on our personal relationship with a God who is outside us and outside every other human.

If God is with every person, then our relationship with God happens through our relationships with every other person.  We must recognize and honour and love God in every other person.

It’s pretty simple as epiphanies go.  I could already see at least half of this idea, but I needed to turn it around a few times to see the light catch this particular bit of it.

And it’s already there in the Bible.  As usual, it’s important to read and listen with new ears.  As Jesus often said,” Those that have ears, let them hear.”

Here it is from the New King James version:  

Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:35 for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; 36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? 38 When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? 39 Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’

 

Well, we already knew this.  We just need to remember that we know it.

 

Studies show that churches which are more fundamentalist and more evangelistic are more successful.  This means a real focus on the gospel, a belief that the teachings in the Bible matter, and that Christianity is the only way to “get to heaven.”  

 

My hypothesis is that these churches are growing because they do not seem hypocritical.  If it is in the Bible, it is true, and there is no waffling about that. Jesus is our Saviour, so no other religion can possibly have validity, so why tolerate them?  If Christianity is the only way to get to heaven, then it is really very important to convince non-Christians to convert.

 

More liberal-thinking churches, which might acknowledge that all world religions have value, and that the Bible is partly an historical-cultural document may not be appealing because they look like hypocrites.

 

Solution?

Gospel-centred is good.  Let’s do as much as we can to preach the tenets of the good news as we have it from Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul.  It’s the good news that God is WITH US. Here. And that the only rule we need to remember is this: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; love yourself, and love your neighbour in the same way that you love yourself.  If that is our starting point, we will not shun or condemn sinners; we will not disallow gay marriage; we will not judge others or let our prejudices rule our actions. We also will not do anything or allow anything to be done to us that will damage our good relationship with God.  We will care for our own souls.

 

Is the Bible true?  Yes, but not literally.  The Bible is a collection of stories, poetry, sermons, laws, and historical information.  It was never meant to be a detailed, accurate history or even a good record. It was meant to reveal God to us.

Our goal is to understand the important messages which are there. One example is the story of the Garden of Eden.  Was there really a garden somewhere in Mesopotamia planted by God and peopled with just one man and one woman? Maybe.  But the important thing about that story is that it is eternal. We are all born into the garden of innocence and beauty.  As soon as we learn that there is the possibility of disobedience and evil, that innocence is lost. We understand the realities of human life.  We understand that we can sin and displease our Father/Creator. We are cast out of Paradise. For some of us, this happens over and over again. We are tempted to sin.  We sin. We understand our new sad reality. We lose our sense of happiness and wonder.

So, if the Bible can reveal truth to us without being literally true, let’s not mince words about that.  Let’s talk about our understanding and our beliefs. Let’s listen to what others think. Some will believe literally; some will understand on a different level.  Let us ponder on our differences and let that thinking help us to grow as Christians.

 

Is Christianity the only way to get to heaven?  Is it the only way to live? A realist would say no, but that flies in the face of the belief that Jesus is not just a Son of God, but the literal Son of God, in fact that Jesus is God.  If Jesus is God, how can any other religion have validity?

My personal belief is that God is Jesus; not the other way around.  The angel tells Mary that his name will be Emmanuel, which means, God with us.  Jesus himself tells his disciples that their belief will make them Children of God.  I would say that the central revolutionary idea of Christianity is that God is right here, right now.  It follows that, to be righteous, we must honour and love the God that is in us and with us right now. We are no longer trying to please some punishing parent God who lives up in the sky; we are trying to be God in the world.  We are accessing the love of God within us and then projecting it out into the world.

And what is heaven?  Is it a place with silver and gold palaces somewhere in the 92nd dimension?  What does it mean to “get to heaven”? What if heaven is the state of grace we can live in if we recognize God with us, nurture God within us, and show that God to the world, extending God’s love and care to the world?

 

Again, this is a conversation which we should be having.  There can be no right or wrong answers. The point is to have the conversation about what we think and believe about other religions.  Let’s be up front about it. My mother once famously scandalized my aunt by saying that, if she had been born in Japan, she would probably have been a good Buddhist or Shintoist.  She was right. She was brought up in the Christian church, and was a good Anglican all her life. If she had been born elsewhere in the world, she would have been a faithful adherent of the religion taught to her as a child.  Would that mean she was doomed to hell? I can’t believe that. Maybe others can. Let us, as Leonard Cohen wrote, compare mythologies.

 

We can be the thinking church.  But we have to stop pretending. We have to stop hiding.  We have to be up front about what we believe and what we do not believe, and have real, honest conversations about that without judging the beliefs of others.  

 

Clearing the Temple

The last two posts were based on readings for the third Sunday in Lent, March 4, 2018.  The gospel reading for that day tells the story of Jesus clearing the temple.  Here it is:

John 2:13-22
2:13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
2:14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.
2:15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.
2:16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

It’s an interesting gospel to follow the 10 commandments and Paul’s commentary on the cross.

This is not gentle Jesus meek and mild.  This is not the monosyllabic, suffering hero of the Passion.  This is a Jesus who vents his anger with some violence.  It’s a Jesus who could present a bit of a problem for those of us sporting WWJD bracelets.

Of course, this story may have been included by the gospel writer for some political reason or to make a necessary point for the time.  Or it could show us a growth in understanding for Jesus – or even a moment of weakness.

But as I watch and read and listen to the news of 2018, I think this gospel shows us how necessary it is to stand up and speak truth to power.  In a world that has forgotten the 10 commandments, and repudiates the law of love, in a world of irreverence, lying, stealing, covetousness, adultery, and murder, we need to act.  We cannot simply go about our business, ignoring what is wrong, and pretending everything is okay.  It is not okay when children and teachers are being slaughtered; it is not okay when people are so sick with worthlessness, loneliness, depression, and anger that they are compelled to vomit out violence and death; it is not okay when power is corrupted by greed; it is not okay when half the population is subjected to harassment, abuse, rape, and humiliation; it is not okay when blind Justice peeks under her blindfold and makes decisions based on religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.  Hate is not okay; violence is not okay; overweening pride is not okay.

It is ironic and wonderful that the leaders in the movement against gun violence in the United States are literally the disenfranchised – teenagers, children.  It is wonderful that a few voices against the abuse of women have grown into a tsunami with the #MeToo movement.

We are watching as the temple is cleared.  The tables are being turned over and the moneychangers turned out.  Truth is being told to power.  It’s a little.  It’s late.  But it is happening.

So here’s what I think.  I think the wise priests who designed the lectionary for the third Sunday in Lent understood something important.  First, we live in a world that needs the 10 commandments desperately.  Second, we live in a world that needs to understand the foolish way of the cross and to begin living by the principles represented in the cross.  Third, we live in a world in which this understanding must be translated into concrete actions, actions which take courage and backbone.  Luckily for us, we do not have to clear the temple all alone.  We can join others, and we can protest, and we can write letters, or tweets, or posts, and we can vote.  We have the power to clear the temple.  Let’s do it.

 

The second reading for the third Sunday in Lent presents a revolution in ethics which turns the 10 commandments upside-down.  St. Paul says:  “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”  He adds,” For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles …”

The cross – as a symbol and as a reality – is foolish because it stands in direct contradiction to the wisdom of the world.  Where the world would counsel us to take up arms and fight, the cross stands as a symbol of non-violence.  Where the world says, “Speak up!  Don’t let anyone push you around!” the cross represents acceptance.  Our world values the individualist, the fighter, who stands up to “the man,” but Jesus is obedient in going to the cross.  Where the man of the world lies and manipulates facts to get his way, Jesus tells the small, quiet, unvarnished truth.  When the man of the world is accused, he seeks to justify himself; Jesus does not.  The man of this world is proud of himself and his accomplishments, but Jesus does not claim anything for himself.  Finally, instead of  secretly plotting vengeance against his attackers, Jesus forgives them in front of everyone. Instead of words of vitriol and anger, he recites Scriptures.  Instead of personal gain, he accepts loss and death.

In the story of the Passion, Jesus demonstrates a state of being which is grown up, and an understanding which has grown beyond “thou shalt not” rules.   He understands the meaning of the 10 commandments so deeply that he can synthesize that long text into three “thou shalt “statements that include everything the 10 commandments are saying:  Love God; love your neighbour, love yourself.

If I am really grown up, I will be governed by compassion and empathy rather than fear. If I love God, I will want to live in harmony with the universe, including society, and my neighbour.  I will try to see the world and myself as God sees them.  That compassionate, empathetic vision will prevent me from stealing, lying, murdering, and committing adultery.  I will take time every day to contemplate the source of all life, all power, and all goodness.  I will make my understanding of God the most important thing in my life.

If I love my neighbour, I will have compassion and empathy for him or her.  I will understand how much he values his possessions, his partner, and his life, and so I will not try to take those things from him.  I will respect his right to live a happy life.

If I love myself, I will try to live in harmony with God, and I will try to act righteously, because wrong actions will fill me with guilt and shame, and will chip away at my self-esteem and destroy my sense of inner peace.  It will be more and more difficult to see myself as a beloved child of God, and so I will not accept the forgiveness or compassion which is freely offered to me.  Above all, if I love myself, I will try to see myself as God sees me.

In taking up his cross, Jesus’ behaviour exemplifies the law of God.  He demonstrates his love for God; he demonstrates his compassion for humanity; he demonstrates his love for himself as a child of God.  In his passion, he honours his ancient parents, he tells the truth, and does violence to no one.

Non-violence, acceptance, obedience, truthfulness, humility, forgiveness – this is the way of the cross.  And this is not the way of the world, not 2000 years ago, and not today.

 

 

 

 

 

Turn on CNN these days … or CBC … or MSNBC … and you can lose yourself for hours in outrageous stories of lies in high places, hypocrisy, fornication, covetousness, and lust for power … and that is just in the White House.  This is our world.  And it is pretty scary.

So what is the point of spending an hour in a hard pew once a week? What kind of relevance can 1500, or 2000 or even 4000-year-old religious traditions have in the 21st century?  It’s a question we need to consider – those of us who have a mad desire to keep our places of worship open and solvent – because if we can’t say why it is important to take a little time each week for the things of the spirit, who will speak up for religion in this increasingly secular world?

The lectionary readings for last Sunday included the 10 commandments, the story of Jesus clearing the temple, and some typically turgid offering from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  The 10 commandments?  Really?  A little shop-worn, aren’t they?  Not much more than a Sunday School memorization assignment, really.

But listen to them inside out, and they make a little more sense.  By that I mean, listen to them as responses to a situation – as an attempt to change the world.  What kind of world needs the 10 commandments?  Well, first of all, a world of people who worship false gods, like money and power and beauty and celebrity and sex and good luck; a world of people who believe that by following these gods and appeasing them, they will receive everything they have ever wanted and live happy lives.  Sound familiar?

What kind of world needs the 10 commandments?  What about a world which does not make time for God, for soul, or for spirit;  a world which is preoccupied with the accumulation of toys and pleasures, or which spends its precious life in work, work, work, falling asleep in front of the boob tube/laptop/smartphone in the wee hours of the morning?  That world needs a reminder to keep at least one day in seven for rest and for the soul, doesn’t it?

Then, think about the other conditions which must have been part of the world in which the 10 commandments appeared.  That must have been a world full of lies, of bearing false witness, of jealousy, of greed, of adultery, of stealing, and of murder.  It must have been a world in which elders were often not respected, and in which nothing was really sacred.  Everything was for sale; everyone could be bought.  In fact, the 10 commandments pretty much describe the world we live in today.  Turn the news on right now.  It’s all there, isn’t it?

So those 10 ancient rules haven’t made much difference in 4000 years or so, I suppose.  But, like any good parent, God had to make some rules for the benefit of his or her children, to help them live better lives, and to learn to value what is valuable and lasting instead of what is, in the end, worthless and ephemeral.

The 10 commandments are really just description, a set of instructions for how to live a good life.  If we follow them, we will be happy; if we don’t, well … no one can claim that lies, jealousy, coveting, adultery, stealing, and murder have ever given anyone lasting happiness.  Following those 10 commandments changes us, benefits us.  God is the ultimate parent who has spent millennia contemplating what he or she wants for humanity.  It’s not about the “thou shalt nots,” and it’s not about the rules.  It is about teaching us to become rational, ethical, happy adults living in harmony in a well-ordered world.

 

 

Homily for a Service of Light

I posted this last year as a response to a service of light we attended in Toronto, but I think it is worth a repost.

It’s a service of light but many of us are here because we feel surrounded by darkness. We walk in darkness, we eat in darkness, we live and move in darkness and have our being in it. We are suffering. We are in pain. We are weeping for our children, our husbands or wives, our friends, our parents, our brothers and sisters, and we cannot be comforted, do not want to be comforted, do not even believe it is possible to be comforted. We have lost hope for the future, and feel the burden of our lives stretching before us. We feel abused, misunderstood, and alone, and we are so angry. For some of us, the darkness has become a refuge, for some it is protection, for some,even a comfort. And so, for some, the glitter and tinsel, the strings of electric stars are not just pointless, they are an insult to our suffering. And they are certainly not strong enough or pure enough or true enough to lighten our darkness or ease our pain.

In spite of that, we are here. We know what the story will be and we have heard the message many times before, and we are still suffering, but we are here.

Listen. Two thousand and some years ago, in a godforsaken little country the Romans wished they had never invaded, in a filthy little stable stinking of piss and manure and rot, a baby was born to two nobodies, and they were insanely happy about it. They worshipped that baby as if a giant star had parked over the stable, as if strangers were dropping in just to see him, as if he deserved to be crowned with gold and perfumed with frankincense, as if King Herod himself might be jealous of them and their one perfect, beautiful baby boy.
Because we do that with babies, don’t we? I work in a high school. It is not uncommon to see 16-year-old single mothers bringing their babies in to show them off to their friends. It is not uncommon to see middle-aged teachers oohing and ahhing and trading baby wisdom with these girls, the same girls we tsk-tsked about 6 or 8 months earlier. It’s a baby. It is beautiful. It’s a miracle, and we stop to acknowledge that miracle, even when we know that, given his or her rocky beginning, life will probably not be a walk in the park for that baby.
The two nobodies wrapped up their beautiful boy in rags and put him to sleep in a feeding trough. They probably sat cuddled together for warmth just watching their baby sleep and praying that he would survive the cold and the dirt.
Do you know anyone who is expecting a first grandchild? Over the moon, right? Crazily, insanely happy, right? Why? It’s a baby. There are 353,000 of them being born around the world every day. What is so special about a baby?
When a baby is born, everything changes. Life will never be the same, whether we welcome the baby with joyful arms or send it away sight unseen. That tiny life which is our responsibility will always be with us, in our minds if not in our hearts.
And think of that baby two minutes after he or she emerges into our crazy, cold, mixed up world. For that helpless body, for that innocent mind, everything is possible. No sorrow, no disappointment, no betrayal, no prejudice, no loss has touched that brand new soul. That baby is our hope for the future, a brand new chance to change the world.
If you are walking in darkness, I ask you to focus your mind on a picture of that newborn baby lying in the manger. That baby is a miracle; that baby represents hope for the future; that baby is without spot or stain or sin; that baby is a light shining in the night. That baby is stretching out a tiny perfect hand to you, and whimpering for you to gather him into your arms. That baby is nuzzling against your breast looking for warmth and nourishment. That baby is gazing into your face learning about human love from you.
If you can’t provide him with a clean, safe, warm room in your heart, if you don’t have a cradle and soft blankets for him, maybe you can find some space for him in the smallest, humblest part of your soul. Maybe you can make a bed for him from a drawer or a cardboard box. Maybe you can spare some time to watch over him.
There is a star and there are angels, and there are three wise men carrying gifts waiting close by for that baby, that miracle, that hope, to be born in you.
Because the promise the angel made to Mary was not that her baby would show up once for 33 years in first-century Palestine. The promise was that her baby would be Emmanuel, which means God with us. With us. With. Us. With. You.
Merry Christmas.

Homily for a Service of Light

It’s a service of light but many of us are here because we feel surrounded by darkness. We walk in darkness, we eat in darkness, we live and move in darkness and have our being in it. We are suffering. We are in pain. We are weeping for our children, our husbands or wives, our friends, our parents, our brothers and sisters, and we cannot be comforted, do not want to be comforted, do not even believe it is possible to be comforted. We have lost hope for the future, and feel the burden of our lives stretching before us. We feel abused, misunderstood, and alone, and we are so angry. For some of us, the darkness has become a refuge, for some it is protection, for some,even a comfort. And so, for some, the glitter and tinsel, the strings of electric stars are not just pointless, they are an insult to our suffering. And they are certainly not strong enough or pure enough or true enough to lighten our darkness or ease our pain.

In spite of that, we are here. We know what the story will be and we have heard the message many times before, and we are still suffering, but we are here.

Listen. Two thousand and some years ago, in a godforsaken little country the Romans wished they had never invaded, in a filthy little stable stinking of piss and manure and rot, a baby was born to two nobodies, and they were insanely happy about it. They worshipped that baby as if a giant star had parked over the stable, as if strangers were dropping in just to see him, as if he deserved to be crowned with gold and perfumed with frankincense, as if King Herod himself might be jealous of them and their one perfect, beautiful baby boy.
Because we do that with babies, don’t we? I work in a high school. It is not uncommon to see 16-year-old single mothers bringing their babies in to show them off to their friends. It is not uncommon to see middle-aged teachers oohing and awing and trading baby wisdom with these girls, the same girls we tsk-tsked about 6 or 8 months earlier. It’s a baby. It is beautiful. It’s a miracle, and we stop to acknowledge that miracle, even when we know that, given his or her rocky beginning, life will probably not be a walk in the park for that baby.
The two nobodies wrapped up their beautiful boy in rags and put him to sleep in a feeding trough. They probably sat cuddled together for warmth just watching their baby sleep and praying that he would survive the cold and the dirt.
Do you know anyone who is expecting a first grandchild? Over the moon, right? Crazily, insanely happy, right? Why? It’s a baby. There are 353,000 of them being born around the world every day. What is so special about a baby?
When a baby is born, everything changes. Life will never be the same, whether we welcome the baby with joyful arms or send it away sight unseen. That tiny life which is our responsibility will always be with us, in our minds if not in our hearts.
And think of that baby two minutes after he or she emerges into our crazy, cold, mixed up world. For that helpless body, for that innocent mind, everything is possible. No sorrow, no disappointment, no betrayal, no prejudice, no loss has touched that brand new soul. That baby is our hope for the future, a brand new chance to change the world.
If you are walking in darkness, I ask you to focus your mind on a picture of that newborn baby lying in the manger. That baby is a miracle; that baby represents hope for the future; that baby is without spot or stain or sin; that baby is a light shining in the night. That baby is stretching out a tiny perfect hand to you, and whimpering for you to gather him into your arms. That baby is nuzzling against your breast looking for warmth and nourishment. That baby is gazing into your face learning about human love from you.
If you can’t provide him with a clean, safe, warm room in your heart, if you don’t have a cradle and soft blankets for him, maybe you can find some space for him in the smallest, humblest part of your soul. Maybe you can make a bed for him from a drawer or a cardboard box. Maybe you can spare some time to watch over him.
There is a star and there are angels, and there are three wise men carrying gifts waiting close by for that baby, that miracle, that hope, to be born in you.
Because the promise the angel made to Mary was not that her baby would show up once for 33 years in first- century Palestine. The promise was that her baby would be Emmanuel, which means God with us. With us. With. Us. With. You.
Merry Christmas.