Tonight’s the Night the World Begins Again

Christmas Eve Sermon, 2016. 

I’ve been thinking about some Christmas gifts…and by that I mean some of the gifts that Christmas gives us.

It’s a season of giving – yes, it’s over-commercialized –but in the right spirit that can help us develop a habit and spirit of generosity.  And that’s a gift.

The months leading up to Christmas are a good time to practice delayed gratification.  Don’t buy that now…Christmas is coming.   I know I need to practice that sometimes.  So that’s a gift.

For some it’s a change of habit just to be thinking about what to get for other people, thinking more about others—who they are, what they need.  It can feel like an obligation but it can become a healthy, joyful, even life-giving habit.  That’s a gift.

At Christmastime we are intentional about asking people what they want.  That’s a good exercise for keeping us from being “curved in upon the self.”

Christmas, itself, is a gift.  It’s a change of focus.  It comes with some built-in themes that are important.  Giving.  Receiving. Gathering.  Family.  Peace. Hope.  Joy.  Love. Remembering.  Birth.  The Presence of God.  Wonder.

I don’t know about you, but I  really need the gift of Christmas, itself, this year. It’s been that kind of year.

I need to be reminded to stop and breathe and think about giving and receiving and gathering and family.  I need time to stop and remember.

I need to let words like hope and peace and light fill up my soul for awhile.

I need a time to stop and listen to songs about beauty and joy and angels and promises fulfilled…and God showing up in surprising ways and surprising places.

I need the wonder of it all.

I need the songs.  I especially need the songs and carols… because the music goes straight to my heart and heals me and rekindles my hope and my joy and my faith faster than words alone can ever do. “Those who sing pray twice,” said Martin Luther.

Do you have a favorite Christmas song or carol? Is there one—or maybe there are several?—that touch you in some particularly powerful way?

There are a lot of Christmas songs and carols that I dearly love and I listen to them over and over and over again.  But there’s one Christmas song in particular I keep coming back to these past few Christmases.  And this year, especially, I’ve been listening to it a lot.  In fact I’ve been listening to it off and on all year long.

It’s fairly recent—it came out in 2005, so by Christmas Song standards it’s almost brand new.  It’s called Better Daysby the Goo Goo Dolls, written by John Rzeznik.  Yeah, I know.  Goo Goo Dolls.  Silly name, but a great band.  And a powerful song.  Listen to these words:

And you asked me what I want this year

And I try to make this kind and clear

Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

 

‘Cause I don’t need boxes wrapped in strings

And designer love and empty things

Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

Better days.  When all is said and done, isn’t that what we all want?  For ourselves, for our families and friends?  For….  Everyone? Better days.

I need some place simple where we could live

And something only you can give

And that’s faith and trust and peace while we’re alive

Those are some pretty good gifts we can give to each other.  For Christmas.  For every day.  And the song is right… we’ll only have faith and trust and peace while we’re alive if we give those things to each other.  Faith.  Trust. Peace.  But the song knows we need something else if we’re going to be able to give each other faith and trust and peace…

And the one poor child who saved this world

And there’s ten million more who probably could

If we all just stopped and said a prayer for them

The one poor child who saved this world. That’s why we’re here tonight. That’s what we’re here to celebrate. But we’re also here to be reminded that because of that child, Jesus, Emmanuel, God With Us, we have the example and the power to save the world together.  God came in person to give us what we need so we can give each other the gifts of faith and trust and peace. 

 I wish everyone was loved tonight

And we could somehow stop this endless fight

Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

The thing is, everyone is loved tonight—loved by God, at least.  But they don’t all know it and they certainly don’t all feel it.  If they did, if they all felt loved, if we all felt loved, maybe it would stop the endless fight that seems to be the curse of the human race.  But the only way for that to happen is if we take the love God gives us and let it be real and meaningful in our lives.  And then give it to each other in real and meaningful ways.

Brené Brown said,  “Jesus comes to show us what love looks like.  God is love.  But God knows that if God just comes down and says I am love and I want you to love each other, we’re going to go straight to hearts and unicorns.  We know it’s difficult and we don’t like difficult, so we’re going to romanticize it.  Hearts and unicorns.  But love is difficult.  So Jesus comes to show us how to do it.  He comes to show us that love doesn’t tolerate shaming.  Love doesn’t exclude people because they’re different.  Love reaches out and touches and embraces all the people we don’t want to touch or embrace. Love does the hard work.  Love does the hard things.”

But there’s something else that God shows us about love by coming as a baby, by coming, especially, as a poor baby.  Right at the beginning—Jesus shows us, God shows us, that love is willing to be vulnerable.  Love is willing to let down all its defenses.

When you think of all the ways that God could have come to us–all the ways we imagined throughout history that God would come to us—most of that imagery is all about power and royalty and thunder and smoke and lightning.  And then God shows up as a baby.  A poor baby. In a poor country.  A homeless baby.  A migrant born on the road on a journey his parents were forced to take.  A refugee baby forced to flee for his life.

One poor child who saved the world.

I haven’t quoted the refrain that runs through the song.  It’s repeated twice between the verses, but the song ends with it, too.  It’s both a promise and a call to action:

So take these words and sing out loud

‘Cause everyone is forgiven now

‘Cause tonight’s the night the world begins again

Take these words and sing out loud.  That’s the call to action.

‘Cause everyone is forgiven now.  That’s the promise. It’s also another great gift of Christmas.  In this baby, who is God With Us, we have a chance to start over with a clean slate.

In this baby, who is love itself coming to us in its most human and dependent and vulnerable form, we can find forgiveness and we can learn to give forgiveness— and if we can forgive and be forgiven, if we can let go of old hurts and forgive others, then we really can give each other the gifts of faith and trust and peace while we’re alive.  And then there really is a chance that maybe we’ll find better days.

So take these words and sing out loud,

‘Cause everyone is forgiven now.

And tonight’s the night the world begins again.

 

Tonight’s the night the world begins again.

A Two-Edged Sword

If you want to do violence in the world, you will always find the weapons.  If you want to heal, you will always find the balm.  With Scripture, we’ve been entrusted with some of the most powerful stories ever told.  How we harness that power, whether for good or evil, oppression or liberation, changes everything.–Rachel Held Evans

“All scripture,” we read in 2 Timothy 3:16, “is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient.”  That’s how it appears in the NRSV.  The problem is, that’s not exactly what it says in the original Greek.  There are, in fact, some missing words in the Greek and, of course the syntax is different. The original, literally translated, would read, “Every writing God-breathed and useful for teaching for reproof for correction for training in righteousness…”  That’s rather confusing, even in the Greek, and you can see that how this gets translated depends in part on making your best guess at some missing words, deciding where to put them, and making a few punctuation decisions. There are also some important word translation choices.  Writings, for instance, became scripture in most translations, a much more weighted word with implications that shift the meaning of the whole passage.  The great Greek scholar Richmond Lattimore, translated this passage this way: “Every writing that is divinely inspired is also useful for…”  Right at the beginning of the sentence is an enormous difference in meaning between the two translations.

This is a pivotal passage because Christians of almost every stripe will refer to the Bible as The Word of God and will appeal to its authority. We call it the Word of God but we often mean very different things when we say that.  We all have different hermeneutics—the lenses through which we read and interpret the Bible.  We read a text through the filter of our own life experience and a host of presumptions about the Bible on the whole and the text itself.  The same thing happens when we use a biblical text “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” or, far too often, to bolster our position in some dispute.  We often fall into the habit of eisegesis, interpreting and using a text according to our own agenda, bias, or presuppositions instead of using it in a way that is faithful to its context and faithful to our faith.  When that happens, we are abusing one of the great gifts God has given us—and that the Church historically gave itself.

Recently, for example, Romans 13:1-7 was cited by our US Attorney General as a way to counter some of the significant opposition he and the administration have been facing in their policy that has separated immigrant children from their families.  “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.”  That seems pretty clear and straightforward.  Except, like so many things in the Bible, it’s simply not as cut and dried as it looks on first glance.

Remember, this was written by St. Paul, a man who had spent significant time in jail for disturbing the peace and for civil disobedience, so clearly he believed that conscience trumped the legal system. He was also a man who frequently relied on the “get out of jail free” card of his Roman citizenship.  He could afford to encourage obedience to the law because, as a Roman citizen, he could appeal to have his case heard and re-heard all the way up to the Emperor if necessary.  Not everyone who read his letter had that option—nor do they today. Remember, too, that he’s writing to people who had been involved in tumultuous riots not too many years before (c.49), riots so disruptive that Emperor Claudius expelled all Christians and Jews from Rome for a time.  So he’s basically telling them to keep calm and stay under the radar because “the governing authorities” are still looking for an excuse to nail you.  Don’t give it to them.

But ignoring all that, even if you take Romans 13:1-7 strictly at face value, when it’s pulled out of its context and used as a blanket instruction to always obey all authority then you’re missing the point of the chapter and, indeed, of the entire letter to the Romans.  “Owe no one anything except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law…Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”  Clearly Paul has a higher ethic in mind than simple blind obedience to human law. Love can do no wrong to a neighbor. If you find yourself stuck between law and love, go with love.  It might break human law, but it’s the heart of the law and ethic of Christ.

This is not the only problematic verse in the Bible that can have powerful and dangerous consequences when misused, but it is one that has been abused most frequently.  In our own history it has been used in numerous unsavory ways, most notably in the subjugation of native peoples and in perpetuating slavery.  The Anchor/Yale Bible Dictionary has this to say about this passage: “The Apostle Paul’s admonition to “be subject to the governing authorities” on the grounds that “those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” has caused much needless suffering and much misery even in the 20th century. This passage seems to lend support to any existing government, regardless of how tyrannical or how corrupt, and any governmental policy, however repressive or unjust. This passage has been invoked by Christians to put down revolt, support war, and justify genocide. In fact, many Christians in Hitler’s Germany appealed to this text as the decisive biblical warrant for obedience to the Nazi regime. And it has been regret over the Church’s alignment with the Nazi regime that has forced a reconsideration of these verses, particularly by German biblical scholars.

            “Again, a careful reading of the text along with an awareness of the historical context is essential for understanding this problem passage. It must be noted that Paul does not say “obey” or “disobey” governing authorities. He instead speaks of “being subject”, which can include disobedience.” (©1992, Anchor/Yale Bible Dictionary, p. 288)

 We all may mean something different when we say that the Bible is the Word of God, but what we mean when we say it will determine how we use these sacred texts—for good or for evil. We should remember that the Bible, itself, says that Jesus is the Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1)  For those of us who call ourselves Christians, Jesus should be our hermeneutic, our lens for reading, interpreting and understanding the words of scripture.  And he was executed for challenging authority.

Hesitant to Enter the Endless Understanding

“Remember, mystery isn’t something that you cannot understand—it is something that you can endlessly understand! There is no point at which you can say, ‘I’ve got it.’ Always and forever, mystery gets you!” –Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance

I was at the Paul Simon farewell tour concert at the Hollywood Bowl a couple weeks ago, along with my family. Go ahead, take a moment to envy us. I’ll wait. I’ve been to some truly amazing concerts by some truly inspiring performers in my life, but this one topped them all. Really. That’s not just hyperbole. It’s true that his voice is not quite what it once was, though not at all bad for a 76 year old guy singing in such a wide variety of styles. But you don’t really think much about his vocal quality because he still has that astonishing and unique combination of intimacy and energy, humility and confidence that just draw you in to him and the music. Well, I could go on. And on and on. Because Paul Simon is in my not-at-all-humble opinion the very best songwriter and lyricist of my lifetime and I’ll be more than happy to defend that assertion if you’d like to quibble. But I digress.

Part of what made this concert so powerful was the amazing musicians who were performing with him on stage: Vincent Nguini, the impressive Nigerian guitarist; Mark Stewart, the astonishing multi-instrumentalist from New York; yMusic, the avant-garde string ensemble… the horns, the percussionists…I’m telling you, that was a killer band up there on the stage with him. And as they played together all the music of the decades of his life as a songwriter—his songs with South American roots, his songs with African roots, his songs that floated up out of the Louisiana bayou and cemeteries of New Orleans, and even a few of his old original 60s folkish songs, I couldn’t help but reflect on the decades of his musical journey, the path of his creativity, and how he had taken so many of us along for the ride with him.

I found myself remembering back to the first time I saw him in concert. It was November 15, 1969 at the Long Beach Arena. I confess, I had to look up the date, but I can close my eyes and still see and hear moments of that concert. It was Simon and Garfunkel, then and they were near the apex of their popularity as a duo. For the first two thirds of the evening they sang all the popular songs we all knew and loved from the albums we all already owned. Paul played guitar. I think a pianist and a couple of string players accompanied them on a few songs. Then Paul said they would like to introduce some new songs from their new album that was about to be released. With that a drum kit, a bass amp and a couple of electric guitar amps were rolled onto the stage along with some other percussion instruments, and an assortment of new musicians stepped up and plugged in to this new group of instruments. This did not look like Simon and Garfunkel folkish music. This looked like Rock. And some people started to boo.

Hard to believe, but more than a few people started to boo. I thought of that as I watched Paul Simon perform all these decades later accompanied by two electric guitars, a bass, a full horn section, an accordion, a zydeco organ, a very full percussion section including two large drum kits—I thought of those people who booed all those years ago and wondered if any of them were with us on this night to celebrate where the journey of music had taken him. I wondered if they regretted booing him in 1969. I wondered if they even remembered.

On that night in 1969, when the people booed, he simply smiled and said, “Now, now, give it a chance. I think you’ll like it.” And then they played Cecilia. And then El Condor Pasa. Then Keep the Customer Satisfied, and Baby Driver… and when they played Bridge Over Troubled Water there wasn’t a dry eye in the arena. And from then on they could do no wrong.  And I think we began to get an inkling that their music, his music, was going to take us in a new direction.  And behold, it was good.

NEW YORK, NY – JANUARY 20: Paul Simon performs onstage during The Nearness Of You Benefit Concert at Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center on January 20, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images)

When we love the old familiar songs so dearly it is sometimes hard to allow room in our hearts and minds for the new songs. Mary Chapin Carpenter once quipped at a concert that she wanted to break some songs out of “new song jail.” I think this same dynamic can apply to our theological thinking. Sometimes we’re reluctant to hear the melodies of our beliefs rearranged and played by different instrumentation, to different rhythms. We’ve lived so long with words like “grace,” and “atonement,” and “Trinity,” and “Incarnation,” and even “Creation” that they can sometimes trigger within us a neuro-theological version of Name That Tune. Just hearing the word activates a mental shortcut to an old recording of a belief structure and it’s enough to know it’s there even if we haven’t actually payed any attention to it in ages. And yet, if we dare to listen what some unexpected voices are singing on these themes, we might hear the ancient songs come alive and dance in a whole new way that reinvigorates our faith and our lives. And if you don’t like the new arrangements…well the old cantatas will still always be there.

“Music is forever; music should grow and mature with you, following you right on up until you die.” –Paul Simon

The same can be said for theology.

How Are You Translating?

For this is how God loved the world—all of it, everything: God gave God’s unique son so that everyone who trusts into him need not be destroyed but may have eternal life. For God did not send this son into the world to judge the world, but so that the world might be made whole through him. – John 3:16-17 (my translation)

I know.  That’s not the way your Bible says it.  It’s not the way my Bibles say it, either.  I have several.  It goes with the job.  No, that’s not the way it reads in your Bible or mine, but it is a perfectly legitimate translation from the ancient Greek text.

So how does it sound to you, this word about the Word in different words?  Does “trust into him” make you pause?  Before you mentally substituted the more familiar “believe in him” did you stop to think about the difference?  What do you mean when you say “believe?”  Is there a difference between believing as intellectual affirmation versus trusting?  Can you believe in someone but still not trust them with your life?  What’s the difference between in and into?  Subtle, that one.  But doesn’t in sound more like stasis, something settled, while into is more of an ongoing process?  Why do so many translations say condemn when the Greek word most frequently means to judge.  True, it can mean condemn, but why leap to that?  Oh, and saved.  Such an interesting, interesting word.  Sozo in Greek.  It can mean to be rescued, to be made safe, to be removed from danger, but its oldest meaning is to be healed, to be made whole.

So how do you prefer to hear it?  Heard one way it can be about God’s plan for fire insurance of the eternal kind. Heard another way it can be a message about God’s intervention to heal this world, all of us and everything else.  Which translation speaks to you?

How are you translating the world around you?  How are you translating the other people you encounter in life?  How are you translating yourself?

“Love one another as I have loved you,” says Jesus, later in the Gospel of John.  He makes it a commandment of all things.  Really loving each other involves learning to really hear each other and see each other. David Augsburger wrote, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” To love you, I need to hear you.  To love me, you need to hear me.  We need to translate each other accurately.  To do that we each need to know something about how the other person is translating the world and interpreting their experience.

We are not looking at the world through the same eyes or hearing it through the same ears, but if, when we disagree, we stop to ask why we are seeing and hearing things so differently—if we take the first step in translating each other—then we’re taking the first steps in loving each other.  If nothing else, paying close attention to those around us can teach us all kinds of interesting things, even when they are not being particularly relational. “I learned silence from the talkative and tolerance from the intolerant and kindness from the unkind,” wrote Khalil Gibran.  And that’s love, too.

gethsemane_thumb11
After your feet have been washed
and the perfect meal’s been served
and all has been said that need saying,
will you be staying?

Thursdays are so busy.
There’s still so much we must get through.
But tomorrow will be worse,
so may your host make one request of you?

Could you stay with me a little while?
Would you pray with me for just a while?
A little while?

I know a little garden
up on a hillside, set apart,
where we can share all our troubles,
heart to heart.

I know it’s late.  You’re tired.
Frankly, so am I.
But tonight I need your moral support
because tomorrow there’s a harder hill to climb.

So will you stay with me for just a while?
Please– pray with me a little while…
a little while.

After your feet have been washed
and the perfect meal’s been served
and all has been said that needs saying,
will you be staying–
will you be praying
with me
for just a little while?

 

Thursday Night

Easter in a Dying Church (1996)

They come because they have always come…

2015-12-13-Nearly-empty-churchand on this day of days,

not to pass through the beckoning door,

not to let their careful footsteps drum

old echoes from the wooden floor

would deny the pattern of their ways

and all the times that they have come before.

They sit where they have always sat…

each in the customary pew,

with room enough for all,

even for the visiting few

who do not hear the sweet, unearthly voices

singing Alleluia in memories so loud;

room enough for those who do not recall

the passings, the accidents, the choices

which have thickened the witnessing cloud

and left this sparse, embodied remnant of the hosts

surrounded by their ghosts.

They come to meet where they have always met…

to taste the wine with a beloved friend

who has faded from sight

but still shares the cup in the world without end,

to break bread with the cherished spouse

who, though swallowed by the light,

still prays beside each member of this house,

to meet children, uncles, sisters, mothers,

cousins, aunts, fathers, brothers,

in soul or body distanced from their common place—

to allow for them a sanctioned space.

They come to be seen with the unseen…

to testify to the most revered of their presumptions:

that before and beyond here and now

the empty tomb

leaves a hole in all assumptions.

The Gift

The little boy stopped in his tracks and pulled his mother’s hand tight to his chest.  His father, catching up to them, stopped and rested a hand on the boy’s shoulder.  The fog of the boy’s breath sparkled for a moment with a halo from the streetlamp before vanishing into the cold night air, and his glistening eyes reflected a kaleidoscope of colors from countless lights on the amply decorated houses competitively decked out for the season.  A passable version of Jingle Bells wafted down the street from a group of not-too-bad carolers but was soon overwhelmed by an odd assortment of recorded music pouring out of various holiday displays, some sacred, some not so much.

The thing that had stopped the boy as he skipped down the street was not the seemingly endless cascade of colored light nor one of the comical inflated cartoon characters in Santa hats, nor even the impressive electric train set and miniature Alpine village filling an entire front yard.  The thing that stopped him stone still there on the cold December sidewalk was an old-fashioned crèche, a simple manger scene.

Compared to all the other neighborhood displays the crèche was almost embarrassingly understated.  There were no shepherds or angels or magi in this tableau, just Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus.  Their figures, though, were particularly well crafted and cunningly lit.  They looked so real that one had to do a double-take to make sure that they were, in fact, sculptures and not human actors holding a pose.  The figures looked decidedly Middle-Eastern and even, if such a thing is possible, a bit dislocated in time, as if they had been transported to this sanitary American cul de sac from a dusty, distant, Palestinian past. But perhaps the thing that was most arresting was the way they looked at you if you stood just where the boy and his parents were standing.

Mary is usually depicted with her hands on her heart as she ponders her child in the manger.  Joseph, too, is most often shown gazing at the baby.  But this scene was different.  The boy, the mother, the father almost felt as if they had intruded, as if they had inadvertently stumbled into something serious and secret and would now have to be initiated into its mysteries.  Joseph seemed to be giving them a stare of careful appraisal and assessment as he looked directly into their eyes. “Can you handle this?  Can you treasure this precious thing you did not ask for, this responsibility, this honor, this gift that will give you everything and also demand everything? Can you stay with him when it would be easier to walk away?” he seemed to be asking.  Mary, too, gazed intently, unblinking, into their eyes and seemed to be asking, “Do you understand the weight of this gift?  Do you even begin to understand what you have here? Do you know what is happening here? Do you know who he is?  Will you let him show you who you are?”

And then there was the baby.  How to describe this baby?  He, too, seemed to be looking straight into their souls, but in his face there were no questions.  There was instead an indescribable mix of innocence and wisdom.  There was promise and foreshadowing.  There was the shining hint of divinity and the burbling drool of humanity.  There was life, organic and messy, full of merriment and ecstasy and pain and tears and plain everydayness.  There was light, revealing, illuminating, probing, warming, piercing and soothing, burning and healing.  There was love, gentle and compassionate, fierce and yearning, ruthless and gracious. Love in all its purest shades.  Love in all its joy.  Love in all its anguish.  There was all that in that baby face and something else.  Deep in those eyes was God’s own Yes.

They stood transfixed at the crèche for what seemed like a long time—a moment out of time—one small family regarding another across and through time, still-life speaking to life in a held breath of stillness, until the not-too-bad carolers drew near and broke through the little family’s reverie with  tidings of comfort and joy that were a just a bit rushed ever so slightly out of tune.

A few minutes later, without much thinking about it, the boy, the mother and the father found themselves in their car making their way home.   The father drove a little more slowly than usual as they rolled across the familiar bumps and dips of familiar streets.  The boy watched the reflections of Christmas lights dance and swirl across the windows of passing cars.  And the mother’s eyes were focused on something only she could see as she softly hummed Silent Night.