The Right Thing To Do

Matthew 3:1-6, 11-17

Large crowds were coming out to hear John preach and to be baptized by him.  His preaching was pretty pointed.  He called the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers” and he publicly rebuked Herod Antipas for stealing his brother’s wife.  His fiery preaching was probably one of the things that drew the crowds—that and the fact that he dressed and lived like a wild man of the desert, but the main attraction was clearly the baptisms.  Matthew says “the women and men of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and the whole region of the Jordan, and they were baptized in the river Jordan by him, confessing their sins.”

It never really struck me before, but all these people going down to the river?  It’s  kind of remarkable.  What was it that made them feel a need to go out to the wild man at the river to confess their sins and be baptized?  Something made them all feel that they needed to clean house and have a fresh start.  I think we’ve all known that feeling at one time or another.

Their religious institutions with sin offerings and a Day of Atonement apparently didn’t seem to offer enough relief for the sense of not-rightness were feeling.  Watching a priest slaughter a poor animal on their behalf or send one wandering out into the wilderness didn’t give them the catharsis they were craving.  They wanted an experience that told them body and soul that they were washed clean inside and out—that their sins were forgiven and it was a new day. So they came to the wild man at the river.  It seemed like the right thing to do.

There is something deeply, powerful and symbolic about going into the water, whether it’s a baptistry, a swimming pool, the ocean, a lake, a river or stream—or even just the shower or bathtub.  It speaks to the body, mind, and soul all at once.  That’s what all those people coming to John at the Jordan were looking for—something that spoke to them body and soul.  They wanted that deeply personal, powerful feeling of being washed clean and made new, and at the same time a feeling of being part of a community of others who had the same experience.  

John made it clear that his was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  And that raises a question: why did Jesus come to John to be baptized?  He didn’t need to repent of anything.  In Matthew’s telling of the story, John, himself recognized this and said to Jesus, “I can’t baptize you!  You should be baptizing me!”  

Jesus tells John, “Let it go now; for this way is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  Basically, he tells John it’s the right thing to do.  But what does he mean by that?  Why is it the right thing to do?

Could it be that Jesus came to be baptized not because he needed something from the baptism, but because he wanted to give something?  

In his baptism, Jesus gives a gift of affirmation.  When he enters the water of the Jordan, he affirms the ministry of John.  He affirms the power and importance of confession.  He affirms the power of forgiveness, redemption and renewal.

When Jesus goes into the water, he affirms all those others who have come to John for a new start.  He acknowledges that he is one of them—one of us—and that he will do whatever is right and necessary so that they—and we—have no doubts about him being one of us.  He declares his solidarity with them, with us, with all humanity.  He inaugurates a fresh start for all of us.

When Jesus goes into the water, he affirms the goodness of water—the waters of the Jordan and all the waters of the earth.  He affirms creation, itself.  When he immerses himself in the water he is acknowledging the God-made goodness of the created, material world and showing us, if we have eyes to see it, that God is deeply present, immersed in this creation.

When Jesus was baptized by John at the Jordan, he was immersing himself into all the beauty and intricate complexity of the earth and at the same time into both the astonishing meanness and surprising generosity of humanity.  He immersed himself into all the joys and sorrows of daily life with all its battles and triumphs and defeats. He immersed himself in life as we experience it.  And so doing, he blessed it and affirmed it.

At the Jordan, Jesus affirmed the goodness and sacredness of all that God has made.  And that includes you…and me.  When he immersed himself in our world, our lives, Jesus affirmed that those words, “This is my child, my beloved with whom I am well pleased” were spoken for us, too.

When Jesus immersed himself in the Jordan, he affirmed the power of grace and the bravery of new beginnings.  He affirmed our desire to turn things around and make things new when it’s the right thing to do.

We forget sometimes that this is exactly what Jesus has called us to do.  We forget that in our baptism the Holy Spirit has given us the power to  turn things around and make things new.  We forget sometimes that with a word we can bring the light of Christ to the bleakest places and situations.  

Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love tells a story about someone who did exactly that on a cross-town bus during rush hour.  

“Some years ago,” she writes, “I was stuck on a crosstown bus in New York City during rush hour. Traffic was barely moving. The bus was filled with cold, tired people who were deeply irritated with one another, with the world itself. Two men barked at each other about a shove that might or might not have been intentional. A pregnant woman got on, and nobody offered her a seat. Rage was in the air; no mercy would be found here.

“But as the bus approached Seventh Avenue, the driver got on the intercom. ‘Folks,’ he said, ‘I know you have had a rough day and you are frustrated. I can’t do anything about the weather or traffic, but here is what I can do. As each one of you gets off the bus, I will reach out my hand to you. As you walk by, drop your troubles into the palm of my hand, okay? Don’t take your problems home to your families tonight, just leave them with me. My route goes right by the Hudson River, and when I drive by there later, I will open the window and throw your troubles in the water.’

“It was as if a spell had lifted,” wrote Gilbert. “Everyone burst out laughing. Faces gleamed with surprised delight. People who had been pretending for the past hour not to notice each other’s existence were suddenly grinning at each other like, is this guy serious?

“Oh, he was serious.

“At the next stop, just as promised, the driver reached out his hand, palm up, and waited. One by one, all the exiting commuters placed their hand just above his and mimed the gesture of dropping something into his palm. Some people laughed as they did this, some teared up but everyone did it. The driver repeated the same lovely ritual at the next stop, too. And the next. All the way to the river.”

Gilbert goes on to say this: “We live in a hard world, my friends. Sometimes it is extra difficult to be a human being. Sometimes you have a bad day. Sometimes you have a bad day that lasts for several years. You struggle and fail. You lose jobs, money, friends, faith, and love. You witness horrible events unfolding in the news, and you become fearful and withdrawn. There are times when everything seems cloaked in darkness. You long for the light but don’t know where to find it.

“But what if you are the light? What if you are the very agent of illumination that a dark situation begs for?  That’s what this bus driver taught me, that anyone can be the light, at any moment. This guy wasn’t some big power player. He wasn’t a spiritual leader. He wasn’t some media-savvy influencer. He was a bus driver, one of society’s most invisible workers. But he possessed real power, and he used it beautifully for our benefit.

“When life feels especially grim, or when I feel particularly powerless in the face of the world’s troubles, I think of this man and ask myself, ‘What can I do, right now, to be the light?’ Of course, I can’t personally end all wars, or solve global warming, or transform vexing people into entirely different creatures. I definitely can’t control traffic. But I do have some influence on everyone I brush up against, even if we never speak or learn each other’s name. 

“No matter who you are, or where you are, or how mundane or tough your situation may seem, I believe you can illuminate your world. In fact, I believe this is the only way the world will ever be illuminated, one bright act of grace at a time, all the way to the river.”[1]

When John asked Jesus why he wanted to be baptized, Jesus replied, “Because it’s the right thing to do.”  It was the right thing to do to remind us that by our actions we do have influence on each other. It was the right thing to do to show us that he was calling us to immerse ourselves in each other’s lives and in the life of the world.  It was the right thing to do to show his compassion for us, to show that he understands that sometimes we all need to take our troubles down into the water and let them be swept away.  It was the right thing to do to show us how we are constantly refreshed and renewed so that we can shine as children of the light, created in the image and likeness of God.  It was the right thing to do to show us how we can illuminate the world “one bright act of grace at a time, all the way to the river.”


[1] Elizabet Gilbert, posted by St. Alban’s Episcopal Church

Painting: Baptism of Christ by Vladimir Zagitov

God Gets Physical

John 1:1-14

This past week, NASA launched the James Webb Space Telescope, a remarkable remote observatory that will travel 1.5 million kilometers, about 3.9 times the distance to the moon, before it parks itself in a Lagrange point—a kind of neutral zone in the tug-of-war between the sun’s gravitational pull and Earth’s gravitational pull.  There it will unfurl its highly polished mirrors made of gold-plated beryllium, and begin to stare deep into space—deeper than we have ever seen before with any other instrument.  As it peers into the depths of space it will also be looking back in time because the light it sees was generated billions of years ago.  It will be able to see celestial events that happened before the earth was formed.

The astrophysicists, astronomers, and engineers who designed and programmed the Webb Space Telescope have given it four primary missions:

  • to search for light from the first stars and galaxies that were formed in the universe after the Big Bang;
  • to study the formation and evolution of galaxies;
  • to study the formation of stars and planetary systems;
  • to study other planetary systems to see if they can tell us anything about the origins of life.

The writer of the Gospel of John didn’t have a telescope, but in a poetic way John did have a clear view of the beginning of all things.  In the beginning was the logos he said.  The Word.  The Blueprint.  The Narrative.  The Story.  The Content.  The logos was with God.  The logos was God.  All things came into being through the logos, and not one thing that came into existence came into existence except through the logos.  

Here in the prologue of John’s gospel, the logos is another term for Christ.  John is telling us about the Cosmic Christ who existed before all things, who is present in, with and under all things because all things came into being through the Christ.  Christ, the logos, is that aspect of the Divine Presence where Spirit intersects with matter.  Christ is in those distant stars and galaxies that the Webb telescope will show us.  Christ is in the giant nebulae and dust pillars that Hubble has shown us, those columns of interstellar dust and gas where stars are born.  Christ is in the quasars and pulsars, the black holes and gravitational waves and dark matter.

But Christ, the logos, is not just in the macrocosm. Christ is also in the microcosm.  Christ is in the strings of string theory.  Christ is in the strange interactions of quantum mechanics where quite literally anything and everything is a possibility.  Christ is in the anomalies of quantum flux. 

The writer of John goes on to tell us that Christ was not only in the inorganic dance of chemistry and physics, but that through the logos, through Christ, life came into being. Through Christ nitrogen and hydrogen and carbon and oxygen came together to form amino acids.  Through Christ amino acids formed long chain proteins which then formed protein blocks which then evolved into single-celled organisms.  Through Christ single-celled organisms bonded to form symbiotic colonies which then evolved to become multi-celled organisms.  Through Christ life began to take on more and more diverse forms.  Plants, ants, beetles, fish, mice, dinosaurs, cats and dogs, monkeys, apes, humans.  

John tells us that Christ was the origin of life.  In the logos was life, and that life is the light of all humanity.  I suspect that’s because humanity not only lives life, but we also seek to understand it.  

In an age when we have figured out so much about the essential structure of things in physics and the intricate functions of things in biology, an age when we have delved deep into the geology of our own world and have begun to poke into crust of other planets, it’s tempting to think we can explain esoteric things like existence without God in the equation.  But one of the beauties of real science is that the more we learn, the more we realize there is so much more that we don’t know.  Those who dive deepest soon realize there is no bottom, no stopping point, because they have thrown themselves into the mystery of existence.  As Werner Heisenberg said, “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.” 

The word Christ, Christos, means anointed.  John is telling us that through the logos,through Christ, all of creation is anointed with, infused with the presence of God.  As Saint Paul said, God is never far from us because “in him we live and move and have our being.”[1]  Saint Patrick understood this intimate and inescapable presence of Christ when he prayed: 

“Christ with me, Christ before me, 

Christ behind me, Christ in me, 

Christ beneath me, Christ above me, 
Christ on my right, Christ on my left, 
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, 
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me, 
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, 
Christ in the eye that sees me, 
Christ in the ear that hears me.”[2] 

Then entire physical universe is where God hides…but it’s also where God is revealed.  God is not “up there” somewhere—well, not only “up there”—God is right here.  Christ is in you.  Christ is in me.  That is what Jesus, the Christ is all about.  Jesus came to show us that God is with us.  In us. Working through us.  “We spend so much time trying to get “up there,” says Richard Rohr, “we miss that God’s big leap in Jesus was to come “down here.” So much of our worship and religious effort is the spiritual equivalent of trying to go up what has become the down escalator.”[3]

Once we really accept the idea that through Christ God is present in all of creation, the world becomes “home, safe, enchanted, offering grace to any who look deeply.”[4]  The Webb Space Telescope will be looking deeply. It may even be able to see as far as the dawn of creation. There’s no telling what we will learn.  But whatever it shows us, it will simply be telling us more about Christ, in whom we live and move and have our being.


[1] Acts 17:28

[2] Prayer of St. Patrick, 5th century

[3] Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For and Believe

[4] Ibid. 

A Table Set For All

As I write this it is evening on the third day of Christmas.  Earlier today was family time—opening gifts and eating our traditional Christmas breakfast of eggs scrambled with cream cheese, little smokies, bacon, chocolate waxy donuts, and orange cinnamon rolls.  Last night we had the best rib roast ever, courtesy of P.A., our son-in-law, along with Yorkshire pudding, and for dessert Brooke and P.A. made a Bouche de Noel that was to die for.  

I love Christmas.  All twelve days of it.  I love the way the house is decorated.  I love the music.  I love the giving.  I love the tree.  Most of all, though, I love it that this is a time when our family comes together.  We make time for each other, not out of obligation, but because we all genuinely like each other.  We love each other, yes, but more than that, we really like each other. And I think the reason we have always liked each other so much is that we’ve always accepted each other just as we are.  

So much of the joy we’ve experienced as a family has been around the table.  There is something about eating together that makes the conversation flow.  

I’ve been reading a fascinating book called After Jesus Before Christianity: A Historical Exploration of the First Two Centuries of Jesus Movements written by Erin Vearncombe, Brandon Scott, and Hal Taussig for The Westar Christianity Seminar.  Westar is the same organization of scholars who brought us the controversial Jesus Seminar a few years ago, so I’m reading it …carefully.  These scholars are highlighting the enormous diversity and variety among the various communities who called themselves Jesus followers—they rarely used the word Christian to describe themselves, and those who used it to talk about them often used it as a pejorative.  

Despite significant differences in their practices and in how they understood Jesus and his teaching, most of these groups had a few central things in common.  Most of them understood themselves to be engaged in a movement of resistance to the Roman Empire.  Rome ran on violence from top to bottom, so these groups resisted with nonviolence.  And humor.  They resisted by seeing themselves not as subjects of the Roman Empire, but rather as citizens in the Empire of God.  One of their chief acts of resistance—and almost all the groups did this—was to meet together every week for a meal.  Some of the Jesus-follower groups, in fact, were basically supper clubs!  

At these meals they could enjoy each other’s company freely.  They were all equal in status—there was neither slave nor free, Jew nor gentile.  They would sing.  They would dance.  Yes, they danced.  The Empire believed that they existed solely in order to enrich the Empire one way or another.  They themselves, on the other hand, believed that God had created them to enjoy life in all its fullness (John 10:10).  So they would gather to share a meal, to share stories about Jesus, and to enjoy each other’s company.  Gathering together, enjoying each other’s company, and encouraging each other were acts of resistance against an Empire that saw them as mere tools.  In an empire that systematically disintegrated the families of the poor through slavery, these Jesus followers formed new families.  In an empire that didn’t regard them as fully human, they found ways to be humane and reinforce each other’s sense of dignity and humanity. 

It occurred to me that the worship of these early communities of the Anointed would have looked a lot more like our family’s Christmas feasting than what we typically do in church.  And that got me to wondering…what would church be like if we were starting over from scratch?  If we didn’t have liturgy and a building and hymnals, if all we had was a desire to be together, to share each other’s company and tell stories about Jesus, how would we do it?  If we did find a space to meet in, how would we arrange it?  What if we had tables and chairs instead of pews?  What if there were no walls between the kitchen and the gathering place?  What if all the furnishings were movable so that they could be put aside to make room for dancing?

What would it be like if we simply focused on following Jesus and loving and supporting each other and welcoming others to the feast?  Wouldn’t that be a good way to resist all the forces of modern life that try to dehumanize us? 

We are entering a new year and all indications are that the Church is entering a new era.  No one knows what that’s going to look like.  There’s an old saying: I do not know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.  I wonder, though…maybe God in Christ isn’t so much holding the future as leading the way into it and inviting us to dance along.  Maybe, as we have said in some of our songs, in Christ there is a table set for all.

Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year,

Pro Gloria Dei,

Pastor Steve

What’s in a Name?

What’s In A Name?

Matthew 1:18-25

In Act II, scene II of Romeo and Juliet, Juliet is on the balcony lamenting the long-running feud between her family, the Capulets, and Romeo’s family, the Montagues.  Some ancient grudge that no one remembers keeps the two families at each other’s throats.  If you are born a Montague, any Capulet is your enemy.  And vice versa.  Their names are at war.  So Juliet, mooning over Romeo, protests to the night air:

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;

Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.

What’s Montague?  it is nor hand, nor foot,

Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

Belonging to a man.  O, be some other name!

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

In one sense, of course, Juliet is absolutely right.  If you took away their warring surnames they would still be basically the same people—a couple of infatuated adolescents making bad decisions.  

In another sense, though, she’s absolutely wrong.  A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but its name has power.  If I ask you to imagine a flower, you might imagine a daisy or a carnation or any number of other flowers.  But if I ask you to imagine a rose, you will not only see a rose in your mind’s eye, you might even smell its fragrance.  Names have power.

Do you have a nickname?  Most of the time—certainly not always—but most of the time we’re kind of fond of our nicknames.  A good nickname is a kind of gift.  You can’t make up your own nickname.  You really can’t even ask for one.  Nicknames just sort of happen, organically, or spontaneously.  One day friends or family just start calling you Goober or Dobie or Winkie or Duke and it just sort of sticks.

Nicknames are often descriptive in some way or have a story behind them.  And very often the use of that nickname is reserved for a certain circle of people.

My sister has a nickname.  It’s the name we in the family have always called her, in fact I sometimes have to think twice to remember her actual name.  All her close friends from high school and college know her by that nickname, but everybody else just knows her given name.  Her business name.  A couple of weeks ago she was Facetiming with her best friend from high school and one of her work colleagues overheard her friend call my sister by her nickname.  The colleague said, “Oh!  That’s a great nickname!  I’m going to call you that from now on.”   This left my sister in a quandary.  On the one hand, she likes this colleague well enough, but on the other hand, she’s not “that kind of friend.”  She’s not part of the circle that uses that name.  That nickname belongs to a particular group of people from a particular time in her life.  That nickname belongs to family and certain long-standing friendships that are almost family.

Names don’t just label us as individuals, they can also socially locate us.  They carry context.  My dad, for instance, was known to everyone in his work life and social life as John or J.B.  But his brothers and sisters and all his nieces and nephews called him Norman or Uncle Norman.  He was always known by his middle among family and among all the people who lived in rural area of the Ozarks where he grew up.  But the military and the government and the business world don’t make allowances for people who are known by their middle names.  All the standard forms that you have to fill out at one time or another ask for first name and middle initial.  Those forms essentially renamed my dad.  In doing so, they not only changed his official identity, they changed his self-understanding.

The names people use for us can shape us.  They say something about how we relate to each other, about who we are and what we do in the world.   My wife’s students call her Dr. B.  Her grandsons call her Nani.  Same person, different roles, different contexts.  

Titles are something like nicknames.  If I talk about Professor Studious or Doctor Pokenprobe or Senator Foghorn or Judge Fairheart,  for instance, their titles immediately tell you something about them.  If nothing else, you know something about their role and function in society.  It’s interesting that both officially and in common practice, the title becomes attached to the name and can even function as the name.   

Messiah is a title.  So is Christ—and let’s be clear, Christ is not Jesus’ last name.  Originally Messiah and Christ meant the same thing.  Anointed.  Messiah is Hebrew and Christ is Greek.  

Some of the oldest Greek manuscripts of Mathew 1:18 read, “This is how the birth of Messiah happened…”  These older manuscripts don’t include the name of Jesus at this point, but everyone understood that Jesus is who the writer was talking about.  Ever since Peter’s confession, those who followed Jesus knew him as Messiah or Christ.  The Messiah, the Christ, is Jesus.  When Matthew introduces this story with the title of Christ or Messiah he is not only telling us that this is a story about the birth of Jesus, but that it’s also a story about God’s mission in the world through the person of Jesus and those around him.  It’s a story of how God works through people like us—people with doubts, fears, misgivings, but also hope and grace and a willingness to trust, even if it means suspending disbelief to believe the unbelievable.  The name Messiah, Christ, carries all that weight.

This is how the birth of Messiah happened.  Mary was betrothed to Joseph.  It was named a betrothal, but it was in fact a marriage.  It just hadn’t been consummated yet.  “But before they came together,” Matthew tells us,  “she was found to have a child in her womb from the Holy Spirit.”  Mary is pregnant but she’s a virgin.  And that circumstance gave her a new name.  She will be known forever as Virgin Mary, and just saying her name brings the whole birth story of Jesus to mind.

Because the marriage isn’t consummated, Joseph plans to divorce her quietly and privately so as not to expose her to all the cruelty, ridicule and meanness that she might experience if he were to denounce her publicly.  Certainly it’s his right in these circumstance to shame her and her family along with her.  That would be regarded as perfectly righteous and just according to their law, tradition, and culture.  According to the law, she could even be stoned to death—although that was almost never actually done.  But Matthew tells us that Joseph is a just man.  A righteous man.  And now Joseph has another name:  Joseph the Just.  Fortunately for both Mary and Jesus, Joseph understands that there is more to being just and righteous than simply adhering to the letter of the law or meticulously observing cultural traditions.  Joseph understands that real justice, real righteousness requires compassion and mercy. 

The fact that he is unwilling to expose Mary to public shame says something really touching about his affection for her.  What he decides to do is, in fact, an act of love in its own way.  He decides to divorce her—to release her—but quietly.  Privately.  He doesn’t want to see her punished. 

It’s a good plan.  A grace-filled plan, but before Joseph can act on it, an angel intervenes in a dream and tells him to go ahead with the marriage because the child Mary is carrying was conceived by the Holy Spirit.  So now the unborn child has an additional name, a title:  Holy.

Joseph agrees to proceed with the marriage as instructed.  But the angel wants more from Joseph than just his forbearance.  The angel tells Joseph to name the child.

Naming a child is an act of adoption.  Even before the baby is born, the instruction to name the child creates a new relationship between the boy and Joseph.  Joseph will be his adoptive father.  The baby will be Joseph’s adopted son.

Joseph is told to name the boy Jesus.  Yeshua.  Which means God Saves.  That name will guide his destiny.  That name will define his relationship to all who follow him throughout history.  God saves.  Jesus saves.

What’s in a name?  Identity.  Relationships. History.  Even destiny.  Messiah is the long-awaited liberator who fulfills the hopes of the Jewish nation.  Christ is the savior of all humanity but also the very presence of God in, with and under all things in creation.  Jesus bears in his very name the message that God saves.

But Mary’s child, Joseph’s adopted son, has yet another name, and that name may be the most important one for all of us who long for the presence of God.  Matthew tells us that he will be called Emmanuel, which means “God with us.”  

To my mind, there is no name more meaningful, no rose as sweet as that one.  Emmanuel.  God with us.

The Keys of Heaven

The Keys of Heaven

The body of the old man lay stretched out upon the table, prepared according to custom and covered with a shroud.  The priest, who had been gazing out the window, or perhaps deep into his own thoughts, broke from his reverie, stood up, and removed a papyrus scroll from the folds of his robe then moved to the body lying on the table and gently, reverently, lifted the edge of the shroud and took something from the right hand of the old man lying beneath it, and lifted it high in the lamplight for all to see.  Everyone reacted to the familiar object dangled before them.  Some smiled wistfully, a few nodded in recognition, one woman buried her face in her scarf and wept.  It was a plain thing, a simple leather thong suspending ten stones, seven smaller, three larger, each separated from the others by a knot in the leather.  They did not catch the light in any particular way.  They did not glow or sparkle.  There was no mystic aura about them.  But the faithful people in that gathering would not have traded those stones for rubies or diamonds or sapphires or pearls. “The Keys to Heaven,” said the priest.  With care bordering on ceremony he handed the odd artifact to the Deaconess who stood at the feet of the old man’s corpse.  She continued to cradle the leather strip and its stones in her hands so all could see it in the soft glow of the oil lamps.   The priest unrolled the scroll and began to read.

By vocation the priest was the chief reader at a busy scriptorium.  Six days of the week he would read aloud to a phalanx of copyists—reading slowly, distinctly, and loudly enough to be heard at the back of the room yet fast enough to keep up with the demands of the business, to meet its deadlines and keep it profitable.  The qualities that made him so very good at his job also made him an excellent public lector, a role which added to his income.  This talent also served him well, of course, in his role as priest in this small community of the faithful.  But now, as he began to read his dear friend’s last will and testament, he put aside his professional voice and tried to find in himself the deep wells of strength and gentleness that characterized his departed friend; he did his best to summon his friend’s voice for his friend’s words.  This is what he read:

My dear friends, my brothers and sisters, grace to you and peace in the name of the One we follow, who was, who is and who is to come.  Amen.  I pray you know how much you are loved.   I have so very little to leave to you in the way of earthly things.  My little house and my poor purse I entrust to this community.  Perhaps they may be used to benefit a widow or two.  Let the Deaconess administer these things as she is most capable.  Let the tools of my trade go Nathaniel, my apprentice.  I have no other possessions except the Keys to Heaven.  These I bequeath to you all for your common use and good, but I must tell you how I came to have them.

I think that almost every one of you, most when you were children, but some when you were older, have asked me, “Andreas, what are those stones hanging from your belt?” and I would say, “They are the Keys to Heaven and I am giving them to you.”  Then you would say, “When can I have them?”  And I would say, “When you can tell me how they are made!”  So now, I will tell you their story.

For all the years I have lived among you, you have known me as Andreas the Leatherworker.  That was not always my name.  For that matter, working leather was not always my trade, but that is of no importance.  When I was much younger and full of anger at the world I did some dangerous and stupid things.  One thing in particular was even evil, though I did not think so at the time.  As a consequence, I found myself on the run, hiding from the patrols of soldiers that seemed to be everywhere on the road.  I cut my hair and shaved my beard.  I stole the tunic, mantle and belt of a tradesman while he was bathing in the river and left my very fine and costly clothes in their place.  Then I fastened a sword to my belt and kept on running.

Three nights later, just at nightfall, I saw a man sitting by a campfire just to the side of the road.  Half mad with hunger and exhaustion, I moved toward him, drew my sword and said, “Give me your food and your money.”  I meant to growl it out in a menacing way but my throat was so parched I must have croaked like a raven.  “We will gladly share our food with you,” said the man, “but what money we have with us is not ours to give.”  I started to move toward him with my sword when his words pierced the fog of my hunger.  We.  He had said “we.”  I blinked, looked again, and could not believe I had not seen them the first time—four other men. Two of them were some small distance behind the man by the fire but were now walking briskly toward us.  Another man was emerging from the brush carrying an armload of wood for the fire, and another with a water skin was just coming up from the stream.  Five men altogether.  Even if I were not nearly dead from hunger and thirst I could never take on five men.  My head began to swim, my knees gave out and I fell, unconscious.

I awakened to find one of the men bathing my forehead with a cool, wet cloth while another was bandaging my arm.  Apparently I had cut it with my own sword when I fell.  The man I had first seen, the one I had threatened and tried to rob, lifted a cup of cool water to my lips but urged me to drink it slowly.  As soon as I was able to sit up one of the men gave me a piece of bread and a piece of dried fish which I devoured immediately without a word. 

I didn’t know what to expect next and I was too weak to try to run.  When the big man, the first man I had seen by the fire, picked up my sword I half expected him to kill me with it. Instead he laid it in front of me in the dirt.  “This is yours,” he said, “though I think you might be better off not to keep it.  That’s a Roman Gladius.  A soldier’s sword.  And you don’t strike me as a soldier. I think maybe that sword has already brought you trouble and if I were you I would just bury it here at the side of the road.”  

I was dumbstruck.  That sword had been nothing but trouble.  That sword and my hot temper were the whole reason I had had to flee for my life.  

I looked at the big man.  He was smiling at me, and I realized, looking at him, that there was no fear in him.  No anger.  “You must still be hungry,” he said.  “I tried to rob you!” I said, incredulous.  “I threatened you!”  “Yes.  You did,” he said.  “I forgive you.”  “But I…”  I started.  “Let it go,” he said, quietly.  “I have.  What you bind on earth is bound in heaven.  What you release on earth is released in heaven.  I release it.  I release you.  Let it go.”

I sat staring at the ground for a long time, confused, not knowing what to think.  

I heard him chuckle, looked up and saw him smiling at me.  He leaned over and picked up a smooth agate pebble from the ground, walked over and placed it in my hand.  “Here,” he said. “Keep this.  This is the first Key to Heaven.  Forgiveness.”  “I don’t know if I can be forgiven.” I said.  His expression became reflective and he gazed into the fire for a long moment. “I felt that way once,” he said at last. “I betrayed my best friend…my teacher…my master.  I betrayed him three times in one night to save my own skin.”  “What happened?” I asked.  “They crucified him,” he said simply.  “But I got away because I pretended that I didn’t know him. Three times in one night someone accused me of being one of his companions and three times I denied it.  And I didn’t think I would ever be forgiven for that.  But he forgave me.  And he helped me forgive myself.  He released me from my sin and he helped me let go of my sin—helped me to stop clinging to it..”  “Wait a minute,” I said, “I though you said they crucified him.”  “They did,” he said.  “Well then how…when did he forgive you?”  The way he looked at me I could tell he was trying to decide something and it was another very long moment before he said, “That’s another story and if you would like to travel with us I will gladly tell it another day.  For now,” and here he smiled again, “hold on to that little piece of forgiveness and let that be enough for today.”

And that, my beloved brothers and sisters is how I came to have the first of the Keys of Heaven, the Key of Forgiveness.  Having nowhere else to go and nothing to lose, I became a travelling companion of Petrus, the Fisherman, who taught me the ways of his Master and baptized me into a new life with a new name.  And along the way he gave me the Keys of Heaven and taught me how they are made, or where they can be discovered, so that each of us can have them and carry them with us and unlock Heaven around us wherever we are.  

The first key is Forgiveness.  The Second is Gratitude.  The third is Generosity.  The fourth is Compassion. These four open your heart to the world God made, the world God loves.  The fifth key is Integrity.  The Sixth is Thoughtfulness.  These two open the soul and mind to look beyond yourself and deal fairly with all others.  The seventh is Be Not Afraid.  This key gives you the presence of mind to remember that you have all the others at your command and it helps you to use them wisely.

Then there are the three larger keys.  These give the first keys their power.  At the same time, the first keys can unlock the power of these three.  They are Faith, Hope and Love.

So, my beloved friends, these are the Keys to Heaven.  I hope you can see that I spoke the truth all these years when I said, “I am giving them to you.”  I hope and pray that in my life you saw forgiveness, gratitude, generosity, compassion, integrity and thoughtfulness.  I hope you saw me live without fear.  I pray that you are gathering these keys for yourself by the example of our Master.  May you all continue to grow in Faith, Hope and Love until we are reunited in the Life to Come.

Peace be with you.

I am always your brother,

Andreas

The small assembly sang a hymn.  The priest pronounced a benediction.  The Deaconess replaced the Keys of Heaven in the old man’s hand, and in the dim lamplight they reverently carried his body to its place of rest.  

Wait

Thoughts Along the Way…

“The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.” – Frederick Buechner, Advent

Waiting.  It’s about waiting.  It’s about holding your breath as you pause for what’s coming.  It’s about remembering to breathe so you’re awake to see it arrive.  It’s about closing your eyes so you can hold on to the dream of what is possible, what might be.  It’s about opening your eyes to the beauty and pain and joy and sorrow and harshness and gentleness and passion and peace of everything that already is and everything about to unfold.  It is the excited pins and needles of anticipation.  It is the queasy uneasiness of suspense. Waiting.  We live in a season of waiting.

“The thing I love most about Advent is the heartbreak. The utter and complete heartbreak.” –Jerusalem Jackson Greer; A Homemade Year: The Blessings of Cooking, Crafting, and Coming Together

Yearning.  Feel the yearning.  Let yourself fall into it for a moment.  Wallow in it for a moment.  Let it break your heart that the world is not yet made whole.  Let it break your heart that the promise is not fulfilled.  Let your eyes well with unshed tears for all the tears shed in this world. Stare hard at the reality that our species seems to be forever a painful work in progress.  Feel the weighty disappointment of our failure to be what God made us to be and balance it on the sharp pinpoint of the promise we, all of us, feel—the promise of what we could be, the promise of what we’re supposed to be.  Let yourself feel that deep knowing that things are not now as they are intended to be.  Let it break your heart.  Then understand that it is through the broken heart that God enters the world.  It is through the broken heart that the promise is revived.  It is through the broken heart that the vision of what should be moves forward toward what will be.  It is through today’s broken heart that we see tomorrow’s vision of the world God is calling us to build together.  It is the light aglow in the broken heart that illuminates the faces of those around us whose hearts are also breaking.  It is in the yearning of the broken heart that we find the Advent of Emmanuel, God With Us.   

 “Advent is the time of promise; it is not yet the time of fulfillment. We are still in the midst of everything and in the logical inexorability and relentlessness of destiny.…Space is still filled with the noise of destruction and annihilation, the shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, the weeping of despair and helplessness. But round about the horizon the eternal realities stand silent in their age-old longing. There shines on them already the first mild light of the radiant fulfillment to come. From afar sound the first notes as of pipes and voices, not yet discernable as a song or melody. It is all far off still, and only just announced and foretold. But it is happening, today.” –Alfred Delp; Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings, 1941-1944 

Arriving.  But not yet.  Almost.  Get ready.  It’s coming.  It’s arriving.  But we are still in the midst of everything and in the logical inexorability and relentlessness of destiny.  Keep moving toward the moment.  Keep moving toward the encounter.  Keep still in the not-yetness of it all.  Decorate.  Decorate your house.  Decorate your heart.  Decorate your language.  Decorate your greetings, your symbols, your understanding.  Decorate your soul—from decoratus in the old poetic Latin that still connects our thoughts and words with those who decorated before us, who handed down their most important and enduring ornaments.  Decorare – the verb that tells us to adorn, to beautify, to embellish.  From decus—to make fit, to make proper so that we might be ready with decorum.  And yes, we need to decorate.  Yes, we need to fill the space around us, to fill our homes, our souls, our hearts with brighter things to see, more solid and enduring visions than the shadow parade of destruction and annihilation.  We need to fill our ears with more stirring melodies than shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, songs that lift the heart above the drone of lamentation, the weeping of despair and helplessness.  We need to keep moving toward the music and the light.  We need to lift our eyes to that first mild light of radiant fulfillment to come.  We need to fill our ears with the first notes of pipes and voices no matter how faint and far they may seem.  We need to hum and sing and play the old familiar songs that move our hearts to that softer, readier place where the True Song will be born.  We need to light the ancient candles one at a time to guide our steps down the corridor of waiting, the pathway of arrival.  We need to bring each flame to the heart until the soul is aglow with the depth of its meaning and power.  We need to reignite the flame of Hope to show us our way through the numbing fog of sameness.  We need to internalize the flame of Peace to quiet our anxieties and give us patience.  We need to swallow whole the flame of Joy to whet our appetite for the feast to come.  We need to embody the flame of Love to warm us as we journey together, to show us again that we are walking arm in arm and our fates are intertwined, to illuminate the purpose of life, to lead us to the Light of the World.

“For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass if ever we are to reach home at last.” –Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat

Arrive.  But understand in your arriving that even after the meaningful journey of Advent we don’t arrive at Christmas.  Christmas arrives to us.  The Gift comes to meet us on the road to take us to a place we could never attain on our own. We celebrate.  We ponder.  We dance and revel in the laughing lights of Hope and Peace and Joy and Love that we carried with us, that brought us to this place.  We gaze amazed at the Gift before us, almost comically humble and plain, artlessly displayed and wiggling inside its wrappings, laid out on a bed of straw in a manger, and yet more artistically subtle, more beautiful and precious than the Magi gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  And if you take a moment to think about what this Gift really is, what this baby really means to the world and what this baby means to you, in particular,  you may just hear the voice of Emmanuel saying, “Now the journey begins in earnest.  Be not afraid.  I am with you.”

Mothers of Reconciliation

Luke 1:39-45

Do you have any favorite relatives, favorite cousins, aunts, uncles?  If you found it necessary to make yourself scarce for a while, do you have a relative you know you could go stay with who wouldn’t judge you and would maybe even be glad to see you?  

Immediately after Gabriel told Mary that she was to be the mother of Jesus, Mary decided to get out of town.  Nazareth was a small town, and a small town is not always the friendliest place for a not-yet-married mother-to-be.  People talk.  And when they don’t have all the facts, they tend to invent them, often with an unkind or salacious spin.  So, the Gospel of Luke tells us, “Mary set out in those days and went in a hurry to a town in the hill country of Judah.”  In a hurry, with haste, Mary went to stay with her older, loving, wise, nonjudgmental relative, Elizabeth, who also happened to be miraculously pregnant.

If someone told you that you that you could only have one of the four gospels to read and study for the rest of your life, the Gospel of Luke would not be a bad choice.  Luke has a good sense for drama and he tells the story of Jesus in very human terms.  

Luke anchors his version of the Good News in history.  After a brief introduction, his narrative begins with the words, “In the days of Herod, king of Judea…”  He tells us that Jesus is born during the reign of Augustus Caesar, when Quirinius is governor of Syria overseeing the collection of the first census and poll tax.  He wants us to have historical context, not so much so we can pin events down to exact dates, but rather to give us a political, social, and cultural backdrop as he stages the story of Jesus.

Another reason to consider Luke if you could have only one gospel is that political and economic justice are important themes in Luke.  Jesus inaugurates his ministry in Luke’s gospel by reading in the synagogue from Isaiah 61, using Isaiah’s poetry to make it clear that his proclamation of God’s reign is all about good news for the poor, healing, justice and liberation (Luke 4).  Subversion of the dominant paradigm is insinuated between the lines.

In Luke’s gospel, the Holy Spirit is named more often and more directly and plays a more visible role than in Matthew and Mark and John.  Jesus tells more stories in Luke.  Some of our favorite and best-known parables are found only in Luke.  And Luke uses scripture from the Tanakh, the Old Testament, in subtle ways to link the story of Jesus to his ancestors, because when all is said and done, Luke understands that Jesus is the crowning glory of generations of his people and his family; his story is the ultimate chapter of a long continuous narrative about the trials, triumphs, and brokenness of God’s people.    

But if you only get to have one gospel, maybe the best reason to choose Luke is the women.  Women play a larger role in Luke and speak more in Luke than in any of the other three gospels.  And the things they say are prophetic. 

When Mary meets with Elizabeth, even their names are telling part of the story and linking them to the heritage of their people and a family tradition of liberation and new order.  The name Mary is a diminutive form of Miriam.  The name comes from the same root as myrrh and has multiple meanings:  bitter, beloved, rebellious.  Miriam in Exodus was a prophet, sister of Moses.  According to a tradition[1], when Pharaoh’s army was about to overtake the Israelites, Moses held out his staff and his hand to part the Red Sea, but Miriam is the one who led the people through the parted waves, calling the women to follow her, the women in turn then calling their men to follow them as they raised their tambourines and sang and danced her way across the dry path between the walls of water.   The name Elizabeth is a form of Elisheba from El shava, meaning “God is my oath.”  Elisheba was also part of the Exodus story.  As the wife of Aaron she became the mother of all the priestly line of Israel.  When Mary and Elizabeth meet, it is a meeting of generations of priesthood and prophecy, but in a marvelous twist the mother with the priestly name will bear a child who will become a prophet, and the mother with the name of a prophet will bear a child who will be later be called, “a high priest in the order of Melchizedek.”[2]

And where are the men in all this?  Absent or silent.  Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah the priest, has been silenced because he did not believe the angel Gabriel when Gabriel told him that Elizabeth would bear a child.  He will not speak again until his son John is circumcised.  And Joseph, Mary’s betrothed?  The surrogate father of Jesus barely appears at all in Luke’s gospel. He is named only four times and never speaks.  And Luke gives the distinct impression, reading between the lines, that Joseph stayed behind in Nazareth while Mary went to see Elizabeth.  Luke tells us that when the order for the census came, “Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem…”[3]  The implication is that he stopped by the house of Elizabeth and Zechariah “in a town in the hill country of Judah” to pick up Mary on his way to Bethlehem.

The men are silent, but the women speak.  Oh do they speak.  When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.  Elizabeth exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  A loud cry.  Krauge megale it says in the Greek.  A very loud shout.  Elizabeth’s words are included in the prayer of the rosary, but I’ve never heard them shouted.  Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.  BLESSED ART THOU AMONG WOMEN AND BLESSED IS THE FRUIT OF YOUR WOMB…

No, it’s not usually said that way. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was—to remind us of the great joy Elizabeth feels when she is filled with the Holy Spirit and recognizes the child that her young relative is carrying in her womb.  She speaks prophecy.  She speaks profound blessing.  Why should that be merely whispered or mumbled?  These are words of joy for the whole community of humanity!

This is a story of women proclaiming the Word of God.  This is a story of a family living out God’s power and presence.  God builds community, peoples, nations from proclamation and from families.  

Sadly, far too often proclamation is misguided and families are dysfunctional.  Too much of our story as a human family is a story of anger, disruption, fracture, and violence.  Maybe because the men have been doing most of the talking.  Too much history and not enough herstory. The descendants of Abraham fighting the descendants of Abraham—the children of Sarah and the children of Hagar locked in hostility for generations.  The descendants of one race locked in a vicious spiral of fear of and hatred for other races when we are all related in the human race, when we are all family.

These two women who meet in this unnamed town in the hills of Judah, these two women who rejoice loudly and prophesy in each other’s presence, these two women are the mothers of reconciliation and renewal.  Their sons will enter a fractured world of unreconciled peoples to bring a call for change and a vision for peace and understanding . God will use this family to bring healing and renewal to all families—to the whole human family—if we can learn how to listen. 

The son of Elizabeth will preach repentance, metanoia, a summons to change course.  The child of Mary will proclaim a direction for that change of course, a vision of the reign of God, a new way of being, a way of embracing our heritage and responsibility as children of God and siblings in humanity.  One will embody God’s call to be transformed.   One will embody God’s power of recreation and renewal.

These two women are family.  Their sons, these cousins, enter the world to remind us that we are all family, all related, all our stories intertwined.  Mary and Elizabeth remind us that God speaks and works through families even if it’s the slow work of generations.  Mary and Elizabeth remind us that God speaks and works through women to heal the world.  They are the mothers of John and Jesus.  They are chosen by God to be the mothers of renewal and reconciliation.


[1] Exodus 14-15

[2] Hebrews 5:10

[3] Luke 2:4

Painting by Corby Eisbacher @ArtByCorby

Look Again

Luke 1:26-38

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a town in the Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the name of the virgin was Mary.”  If you’ve been a Christian for more than five minutes, you’ve heard these words before.  These are the opening words of The Annunciation, that part or the Christmas story we all know and love so well when Gabriel tells Mary she will become the mother of Jesus.  We know this story.  We know this episode of the story by heart.  But I wonder… When is the last time we really listened to it or read it carefully?

Look again at the opening line: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a town in the Galilee called Nazareth…”  I have always pictured Gabriel just suddenly appearing before Mary and probably startling her.  Certainly it’s depicted that way in any number of paintings.  But look at what Luke has actually written here—he is bringing the focus of the story from heaven to earth, to a specific territory, then a town, then to a person.  Gabriel comes from God to Galilee to Nazareth to Mary.  As I re-read this, I suddenly had a picture of Gabriel arriving unseen on a hilltop in Galilee then making his way down the hill past grazing goats and sheep to the road, cloaking himself to look like a traveler as he made his way into town and found his way through Nazareth’s dusty streets until he came to Mary.  Maybe she saw him coming and was watching him as he walked toward her house.  Maybe she wondered who this mysterious stranger might be as he approached and then became a bit wary as she realized he was coming directly toward her. Maybe she thought he had some business with her father. 

When you picture it this way, it opens you up to the idea that maybe angels walk among us all the time.  Maybe they emerge from heaven make their way into town then find their way through the streets until they get to where they were sent.  It makes you wonder how many times you might have walked right by an angel or sat a few seats away from one at McDonalds.  

So maybe she saw him coming, but even if Mary had seen Gabriel approaching, it really would have been a surprise when he spoke to her.  And what he said was so unusual: “Rejoice, favored one!  The Most High God is with you!”

Between timidly formal translations, millions of persons repeating the rosary millions of times,  and Franz Shubert’s lovely but overly romantic musical setting of Ave Maria, the shock value of Gabriel’s greeting was bled off a long time ago.  And that’s unfortunate, because what he said rocked Mary’s world and, if we’re paying attention, should rock ours, too.  

Hail Mary, full of grace?  Not exactly.  First of all, “Hail” or “Greetings” are subdued translations of the angel’s first word to Mary.  “Chaire!” is what he says.  It can mean “greetings” or “hail” but those are timid choices.  Chaire!, which is what Gabriel says in the original Greek text, is the imperative form of Chairo – to rejoice!  Rejoice, favored one!  The Most High God is with you!  Rejoice!

No wonder Mary was “thoroughly troubled by what he said and tried to discern what sort of greeting this was.”  Some translations say she “pondered” what sort of greeting it was, but the sense of the Greek word, dialogizemai, is that she had a pretty serious inner conversation with herself as she tried to sort it out.  The word dialog is in the word and the word means inner dialog, to think or thoroughly reason through something.  It’s easy to read right past all that, or listen right past it, but this is one of the places where we really are supposed to slow down or even stop for a moment and stand a moment in Mary’s bare feet.  

Imagine what she was thinking.  Who is this mysterious stranger?  Why is he telling me to rejoice? Why is he even talking to me, which is not exactly smiled upon in our society, and why did he call me “favored one?”  Favored by whom?  What does that mean?  He said the Most High God is with me.  Why me?  What makes me so special?

Now imagine Gabriel watching her as she puzzles through his words and wonders about his intentions.  Imagine him seeing that she is thoroughly troubled by his presence and what he’s said.  Imagine him letting her take a good long moment to think before he speaks again.

“Fear not, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”  That’s the second time he has told her that she is favored.  Favored by God.  

And now he will tell her what that favor brings with it.

“You will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Sovereign God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his sovereignty there will be no end.”[1]

“Hang on a minute,” said Mary.  “Let’s back up to the ‘conceive in your womb’ part.”  Actually, what Mary said is better than that.  “Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be since I have not known a man intimately?”  In one question she does three things: she lets the angel know that she knows how babies are made, she makes it clear that she has no personal experience of that kind of relationship, and she challenges the divine messenger to explain how this impossible thing will be accomplished.  

The name Israel means “wrestles with God” or “contends with God.”  It is an important part of the tradition of Israel to question God, to ask for explanations, to challenge God or bargain with God.  Jacob physically wrestled with God.  Abraham bargained with God.  Moses tried to talk God out of using him to lead the people because he wasn’t good at public speaking.  Elijah on the mountain top begged God to just go away and let him die.  And now Mary, good daughter of Israel, says to God’s messenger, “Hang on a minute…I know how this works and what you’re describing is simply not possible under the current circumstances.”

It’s okay to argue with God.  There is a lot of precedence.  If you find yourself arguing with God, contending with God, questioning God, you’re in good company.  

“How can this be?” asks Mary.  So Gabriel explains how it can be.

And here is a place where we have missed something important in just about every English translation ever.  In Greek, the word spirit, pneuma, is gender neutral.  All our translations simply say, “The Holy Spirit will overshadow you.”  What we miss is this:  Mary, in Nazareth in Galilee, would have been speaking either Aramaic or Hebrew, most probably Aramaic.  In both Aramaic and Hebrew, the word for spirit is feminine.  Ruach in Hebrew.  Rukah in Aramaic.  

So what Mary heard Gabriel say would have been something like this: “The Holy Spirit, She will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the one born will be holy.  He will be called Son of God.”[2]

The feminine aspect of God would envelop her and bring the power of God to do the impossible.  

What does that do to your understanding of this story?  What does that do to your understanding of who God is and how God works? 

Gabriel then tells her that her pregnancy is not the only “impossible” conception.  Her kinswoman, Elizabeth, well past child-bearing years has also become pregnant.  “For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Mary surrenders to God’s plan.  Mary surrenders to God.  And once again, most of our translations have drained most of the power out of Mary’s words by being too genteel.  Most of our translations say something like, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”  Some use a more gender-specific term; she calls herself a handmaiden or maidservant.  But what she actually says is, “Look!  The woman-slave of the Lord.  Let it happen to me according to your word.”

“Look, Angel.  See me.  See what saying yes to God, yes to this plan will make me.  You make it sound so glorious.  You tell me I’m ‘favored.’  But I know that saying yes to all this makes me a slave.  So look.  See the slave woman of the Lord.” 

Have you heard a different story now?  Have you heard this familiar story in a different way?

What is the takeaway?  For me there are four.

  • If you take time to look again at things you think you already know, you can learn a lot.  You can hear old stories in new ways.  And maybe they can speak to you in a new way to draw you deeper into the mystery of the presence of God.
  • It’s okay to wrestle with God, to debate and discuss and challenge God when God is calling or challenging you to embark on something impossible.
  • When you do say yes to the thing God is asking, God will take you at your word, so it’s best to surrender completely.  Mary understood that.
  • When God asks you to do the impossible, it helps to remember that “nothing will be impossible with God.”  And you have an angel’s word on that.

[1] Translation by Dr. Wilda Gafney, A Woman’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W

[2] Ibid.

Advent

(1994)

Listen.

The thunder is approaching.

The noise of distant battle,

the clashing of Powers and Principalities rages in the 

air.

The bleating of goats sings counterpoint to the fright of sheep

as six trumpets play their fearsome harmonies,

six seals are broken, six bowls poured out,

and the distance which holds back the seventh note

is only a pause

for breath.  For thought.  For thunder.

Not so far away.

Not so far away.  The heavens are shaken.

            O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

Look.

Lightening and artillery flash

across the gloaming sky.

One horseman rides a hog, one swoops in stealth,

one tops his tank with the juice of 

corn that would have fed millions,

one walks door to door, shaking hands, smiling,

spreading death.

The lamps of the foolish are burning low.

They have spent their oil in shopping,

moving from stall to stall in markets filled with dazzling

darkness,

seeking The Thing to fill their gnawing emptiness,

never seeing in their dimming sight 

The Whom it may concern.

The oil is nearly gone and the wise have not 

enough to share.

Six billion souls behold the descent 

of shadow.  Of dusk.  Of night.

Just at the horizon.

Just at the horizon.  The flames of faith are flickering.

          O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

Smell.

An acrid hint of fear

insinuated in the stiffening breeze:

a distant conflagration sweeping closer.

Fires, not of judgment but of consequence,

burn away both chaff and grain,

roaring across plains, up mountains, through forests

sucking away the breath of humankind before it is ever

breathed.

A stench of mistrust mingles with the uncollected 

garbage

strewn along city streets,

stashed in dark corners, dark alleys, dark lives

sodden with acid rains.

The smoke which rises before the Altar

spews from the barrel

of a cigarette.  Of a crack pipe.  Of a gun.

Just around the corner.

Just around the corner.  Our incense makes heaven weep.

          O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

But listen.

A shout rends the veil of darkness

hiding the wholly holy.

Keening contractions of anguish, fear,

anticipated joy, pierce the thunder.

The Announcement, wrenched 

from the throat of an unwed teenage girl, her belly full of

wonder,

is panted in cleansing breaths

across the crowning:

“He comes

for Judgment.  For Hope.  For Help!”

Nearly here.

Nearly here.  Creation writhes in labor.

          O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

But look.

Angels gather at the borders

to sunder with a song

the Kingdom of Consuming.

“Gloria in Excelsis Deo and Enough.

Enough for all who live.  Enough pain.  Enough greed.

Enough darkness and damnable domination.

Enough of nations, noble causes and nonsense.

Enough manipulation and murder.  Enough.

For unto you is being born the illegitimate savior

who brings your only hope for 

legitimacy,

your only hope of hope, your only plausible future,

your only real choice, 

your only second chance.

Unto you is being born 

the One who brings 

enough

to eat.  To share.  To begin anew.”

Any moment now.

Any moment now.  The world is trembling.

           O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

Now taste.

Crush the tart grape,

ripe for pressing 

into the cup of pain and cleansing

which always overflows.

Chew the plain grain,

ripe for milling into the bread of journeying—

the flat bread by which we flee the Pharaohs,

escaping between their monuments into the desert.

Taste 

and see the goodness and the realness of all 

that is not yet here.

All is not ready.  All is not ready.

Come to the table which is not yet set

for the feast not yet laid.

We are anxiously awaiting You

for a supper.  For a blessing.  For a signal.

We are almost ready.

We are almost ready.  We are unmade.

          O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

Dear Pontius Pilate

Dear Pontius Pilate

John 18:33-38a

Dear Pontius Pilate,

I have spent much of this week reviewing a single moment from your life, to be specific, your brief interrogation of Jesus of Nazareth.  Surely you remember it.

One of the advantages I have, looking at this moment twenty one centuries after the fact, is that I know things you could not possibly have known. You could not have known, for instance, that this moment when Jesus stood before you was, in fact, a pivotal moment in the history of all humanity.  I’m sure that to you he just looked like another troublemaker and the whole business seemed needlessly tiresome.  As he stood in front of you awaiting judgment, with his overeager accusers prodding you from the wings and insisting on his execution, how could you possibly have known that your decision either way would have repercussions that would change the course of history?  I wonder…if you had known how monstrously important your moment with Jesus really was, would it have changed your decision? Would you have taken more time to think about it?  To make your choice?

After your exchange with him about whether or not he was a king or had made any claim to be a king—an issue which, it seems, was left somewhat unresolved—Jesus said something that was both intriguing and a bit enigmatic.  He said, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 

That last part is a little tricky in translation—that’s one of the problems with reviewing things centuries after they happened.  Details can become blurred.  Languages don’t always translate precisely.  Words and phrases seldom bring their cultural context with them when they plunge into a new language.  Did Jesus say “everyone who belongs to the truth” or “everyone who is of the truth” or “out of the truth” or “from the truth”?  All these are reasonable and acceptable translations of that potent little Greek word ek.  The differences in meaning are subtle, but not unimportant.  The choices we make in how we choose to hear it carry weight.  Personally, I like belongs.  It reminds me that truth, even as a philosophical concept, is bigger than I am.  Truth is my master, I am truth’s servant.  This means, of course, that I must be very careful that it’s not my own subjective version of truth or my wishful thinking version of truth that I am serving.  I have to be careful that I haven’t bound myself in service to a propaganda version of truth.  I belong to truth.  It owns me.  So I listen to the voice of Jesus.

You asked a simple question in response to Jesus.  Well that’s not quite true.  It’s not a simple question at all.  It is, in point of fact, a question that has kept various philosophers, theologians, and even scientists awake at night for two millennia.   Three small words in our language, also in your language, and also the ancient Greek that handed the question down to us:

Quid est veritas?  What is truth?

Were you being cynical when you asked that, my dear Prefect?  Or did you ask it, as Frederick Buechner suggests, with a lump in your throat?  Is this a question that had kept you awake at night, also?  Or had you dismissed the whole idea of objective truth after so many years on the judgment seat hearing people give competing versions of “the truth”?  

Did it occur to you for even an instant, my dear Pontius Pilate, that the truth was standing right in front of you as you asked the question?  Did it occur to you that the truth was not an idea or philosophical concept, but rather a person?

The truth was standing right in front of you, Prefect.  I don’t say that out of piety.  I don’t say it to be in conformity with the holy writings that arose from his followers in the years after your time with him.  I don’t say it merely to resonate with his own words when he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  I say it, dear Pontius Pilate, because it is true. Objectively true. The answer to your question, the truth, was standing right in front of you.

Here is the truth that you were not seeing, my dear Pontius, as Jesus stood before you in silence with his hands tied and his fate all but sealed:

Heaven was confronting empire.  

As you faced each other, it was more than Jesus of Nazareth fronting Pontius Pilate of Rome.  In you, Prefect, was all the relentless and violent might of the empire spilled down through its systems of hierarchy and bureaucracy.   In you was oppression and military organization used ruthlessly to maintain efficiency, protect investment, and continue the empire’s  domination.  All that might and power and agenda was condensed into your title, Prefect.  And in that moment with Jesus, all the authority of that title was condensed into your word, your yes or your no.  

Across from you was Jesus, unadorned humanity in the image and likeness of God.  Challenging your word of imperial authority, your yes or no, was the yes of life,  the yes of creation, the yes of generosity, the yes who spoke light into the shadowy hearts of all humanity.  Creation, life, the light of understanding, love, which is the presence of the divine, grace and her twin sister mercy, equity and her twin sister justice—these things have always been opposed to empire, and Jesus of Nazareth embodied all this as he stood facing you in silence.  Standing before you was one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.  

All the natural flow and goodness of earth and heaven was standing before the empire’s paranoid, overzealous, and slightly incompetent middle management, waiting for a decision.  

But so was everyday life.

The truth came before you, Pontius, in plain clothes.  Truth came to you as one of the invisible people you passed without seeing as you rode your chariot through the city.  Truth came before you already roughed up and mistreated by those with less authority but more fear, anger, and frustration.  Truth stood before you as one of the little people.

Truth came as a workman turned rabbi, a teacher who was trying to open the eyes and widen the embrace of his people—of all people—a teacher who was trying to give us a larger vision of how life could be with real justice and real fairness and real concern for persons.  He was trying to show us how life could be in a kin-dom of God where we love our neighbors as ourselves.  

The truth stood before you armed only with words and a vision, the most powerful tools humanity has ever known.  But words and vision have always found themselves contesting swords and spears because empire knows that words and vision are inevitably its undoing. 

Heaven confronted empire, Prefect, and heaven came armed with nothing but truth, words, and vision. 

“What is truth?” you asked.  Can you see now, my dear Marcus Pontius Pilatus, that truth is not an idea, nor merely empirically proven facts?  Can you see yet that truth is a person?  All of us stand in that truth one way or another.  And empire will always have trouble seeing that.  The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has never understood it.  

Truth was staring you in the face, Prefect.  

Know that truth, Pontius, and the truth will make you free.