Our Down-to-Earth God

Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. –Luke 2:9 (NRSV)

It’s funny how you can look at something a hundred times or more and then one day someone will point out something you hadn’t noticed and the whole thing looks different to you.  That happened to me last week when a colleague pointed out one simple word in Luke’s Christmas story that had always just flown right by me.

Stood.

The angel stood before them.  On the ground.

In all the years of reading or hearing this Christmas story I had always imagined this angel and the subsequent multitude of the heavenly host hovering in the air.  I think the Christmas Carols taught us to picture it that way.  Angels we have heard on high.  It came upon a midnight clear, that glorious song of old, from angels bending near the earth.  

But that’s not what it says in the Gospel of Luke.  The angel stood before them.

If you were a shepherd in a field on a dark night, it would be pretty unsettling to have an angel appear in the air above you making announcements, but at least if the angel is in the air there’s some distance between you—a separation between your environment and the angel’s.  But if the angel suddenly appears in front of you standing on the same ground you’re standing on, shining with the glory of the Lord… well I think my knees would turn to rubber.  And then imagine what it feels like when the whole multitude of the heavenly host is suddenly surrounding you and singing Glory to God.

Angels in the air feel slightly safer than angels on the ground.  If the angels are above, that means that they came from above.  It means that heaven is “up there” somewhere.  But if the angels appear standing in front of us or behind us or around us, what does that say about heaven?  Could it be that heaven, the dwelling place of the angels, is not just “up there” but also here, with us?  Around us?  Could it mean that the angels of God are standing near us all the time and they simply choose not to show themselves?  Or that we’re just blind to their presence? Could it mean that this ground we walk on and build on and live on is also part of the dwelling place of God—so holy ground?

The angels didn’t bend near the earth.  They stood on it.  

We have this tendency, we humans, to want to separate the material from the spiritual, the divine from the physical.  We are such binary, black and white thinkers in a universe that’s full of colors.  We want to put borders on oceans.  And we certainly seem to want a border between heaven and earth.

We seem to be most comfortable when there’s a little distance between us and angels, a little distance between us and God.  That seems to be the way most people talk about it, anyway.  “Put in a good word with the man upstairs,” they say.  And then there’s that song: “God is watching from a distance.”

But that’s not what Christianity says.  That’s not what Christmas says.  The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.  In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.  Not from a distance, but right in front of us.  As one of us.

We have trouble seeing the presence of God, seeing Christ in creation.  We have trouble seeing Christ in each other.  We even have trouble understanding Christ in Jesus.  How can Jesus be both divine and human?  We struggle to wrap our minds around that idea, so we have a tendency to make him either all human or all divine.  We picture that baby in the manger with a halo, and it doesn’t cross our minds that he might need to breastfeed and need his diapers changed.

“We need to see the mystery of incarnation in one ordinary concrete moment,” wrote Richard Rohr, “and struggle with, fight, resist, and fall in love with it there. What is true in one particular place finally universalizes and ends up being true everywhere.”  In other words, Christ is present everywhere, in, with, and under everything.  Including you.  And me.  And all those people we’re inclined not to like.

That, in the end, is what Christmas, the incarnation, is all about.  Christmas is God’s way of teaching us that there never really was any distance between heaven and earth, between the divine and the human, between the spiritual and the material.  Christmas is God proving once again that Christ is in, with, and under all the things we think we oversee and all the things we overlook.  Christmas is angels standing on the earth to sing to shepherds and surrounding them with the glory of the Lord to remind them that they, too, are spiritual beings immersed in a human experience, as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said.  

Christmas is God’s love made visible.  Pope Francis said, “What is God’s love? It is not something vague, some generic feeling. God’s love has a name and a face: Jesus Christ, Jesus.”  I would add that, if you open your heart and your mind to it, God’s love can have your face, too.

Christmas is earthy and concrete.  It needs to be fed at a mother’s breast.  It needs its diapers changed.  It cries when it’s hungry and shivers when it’s cold.  It looks out at the world with new eyes and tries to see and understand.  Christmas wants to be loved and to give love.  

Christmas is our down-to-earth God made manifest.  Yes, gloria in excelsis deo, glory to God in the highest, but glory, too, to God on earth where the angels stand to sing to shepherds, because the Spirit of God is in them, too, and God loves them like crazy.  Just like God loves you.

My prayer for you this night is that you would enter deeply into the concrete, down-to-earth, human and divine mystery of incarnation.  May your eyes and ears be opened to the angels who stand upon the earth and minister to all God’s children.  May you come to see Christ incarnate in all creation so that you are always standing on holy ground.  May you dispense with artificial borders in your heart, in your mind, and in this lovely world.  And may you come to see yourself and all the others who share this world with you as spiritual beings immersed in a human experience.  May Christ be born anew in your heart.  In Jesus’ name.

The Keys to 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 weren’t 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

No Place Like Home

2 Corinthians 5:6-11, 14-16

“We’re at home in the body,” says Paul the Apostle…at home in this vessel that bruises and jostles and ages and wrinkles and sneezes and bleeds, at home in this meat case of incessant needs, at home in this temple of hungers and appetites yearning for ecstasy, longing for paradise, wishing escape from our aches and our pains, our own wounded psyches, our time-addled brains. From the tips of your toes to the crown of your dome, be it ever so…broken… there’s no place like home.

There’s no place that needs such upkeep and maintaining. One day you’re feasting, the next you’re abstaining. One day it’s easy to carry your weight, the next day you wonder “Who packed all this freight?” One day you’re an athlete racking up points, the next you’re a senior with bionic joints. One day you’re a tower of strength, in your prime. The next day lumbago is twisting your spine. The years pile on and give you a licking, but with diet and meds the ticker keeps ticking. So we take baby aspirin and pray for catharsis because, after all, home’s where the heart is.

Home’s where the heart is…so, although we are slowing, we’re still pretty confident about where we’re going. We walk by faith, not merely by sight–especially when nature calls three times a night. But despite all our physical hurdles and hobbles, despite how our little world teeters and wobbles, despite all our blindness and deafness and woe we still, pretty much, know which way to go. Though our feet may meander, our attention may roam, softly and tenderly Christ calls us home.

Christ calls us home. And yes, we are judged. We stand here before him all battered and smudged, we feel every scar—especially those we’ve inflicted—every lie or dark deed–we stand here convicted. But we stand here with Christ who died once and for all so that our death is wrapped up in his in one ball of death-killing love and mercy and grace that lifts us right out of that self-centered place where we wallow in fear and ego and worry and gross self-importance and anger and hurry. We find mercy and grace, forgiveness, shalom—our souls wrapped in love until Christ is our home.

Christ is our home. So we see with new eyes—a new point of view—and to our surprise, because Christ is more than a mere human being, we see that there’s really no mere anything. Or mere anyone–we are, all of us, deeper, more complex, more cherished, and no life is cheaper than yours or than mine or than anyone else’s. We find our true selves when we learn to be selfless, when we fall into Christ and let love conform us, let the Spirit inspire, reshape and transform us, till in this slow stew of transfiguration we see that in Christ there is new creation.

In Christ, new creation. All things are reborn—the ones you love most, the parties you scorn, the planet itself, the stars in the skies—all things are made new and we see with new eyes. Old habits, old angers, old grudges, old fears, addictions, obsessions, your old unshed tears, old guilts that trouble your sleep in the night, opinions and bias that narrow your sight—it all fades away to allow a fresh start in Christ, your new home, in Christ, your new heart. The old fades away as the new takes its place and life becomes grace upon grace upon grace.

Grace upon grace, even through the long waiting that drags on our days as we’re anticipating that final renewal, the post-mortem waking, when you’ll shine like a jewel at the final remaking of all things that are and all things that will be and all things that were. And all you. And all me. The blossom that hides in the seed is concealed and what we will be has not yet been revealed. And though we’re impatient to make our escape, like a nymph in a chrysalis we’re still taking shape. But home’s where the heart is and our hearts are glowing, so we speak with confidence about where we’re going. We walk by faith, not merely by sight. Love urges us on and Christ is our light. Our feet may meander, our attention may roam but softly and tenderly, Christ guides us home.

The Penalty For Neglect

Thoughts Along the Way…

For the past 2 years our congregation has been enjoying a Sunday morning Adult Ed class called Occupy the Gospels. It has been an enlightening and stimulating study and discussion that has taken all of us who participated into a deeper level of understanding of why each gospel is so different from the others and just what each of the gospels is all about. We’ve done a close reading of each gospel examining such questions as who was it originally written for, what kinds of stresses and pressures were they dealing with in that community, why does Jesus say things one way in this gospel but differently in another gospel, and so on.

If you’re going to call yourself a Christian, a follower of Jesus, an apprentice of Jesus, it’s important to be deeply familiar with what Jesus said and did. In his tract How Christians Should Regard Moses, Martin Luther suggested that we are not really properly equipped to understand the rest of the Bible unless we first come to a clear understanding of the gospels.

One advantage of doing a close reading together in a group is that very often others will spot things you haven’t seen before or ask questions that hadn’t occurred to you. I honestly couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve been through the gospels, but in our class together I was frequently seeing new things or seeing them from a different perspective than I had before. And sometimes that new little thing I saw would sit with me for weeks and make me rethink a lot of other things about my faith and my understanding of my faith.

Here’s a case in point. The 25th chapter of Matthew has always been important to me. I’ve even sometimes called myself a “Matthew 25” Christian. This chapter is the only place in the gospels where Jesus, himself, describes the final judgment, where the “sheep” are separated from the “goats,” and the criteria are not at all what a lot of people expect. He doesn’t say a word about what you believe or don’t believe. There is no mention of whether or not you accepted him as your personal Lord and Savior or invited him into your heart or any of those other popular ideas that some people think are the doorway to being “saved.” Nope. Nothing like that at all. No statement of creed. No tally of church attendance. Not a bit of it. Instead, the final exam is all about one thing and one thing only: how well did you take care of people who were in need?

34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

A few years ago I realized that the “sheep” in this text, the people who did these good things and are being rewarded and inheriting the kingdom, are quite surprised to find that they are, in fact, the Grand Prize Winners! They didn’t know that by taking care of those in need they were also taking care of Jesus, himself. They just did it because it was the right thing to do.

Rereading this text in our class a few weeks ago, though, I was suddenly hit between the eyes by yet another little epiphany. Words I had read maybe hundreds of times before suddenly hit me in a way I just had not thought of before. And this time it was the flip side of the coin. This time it was the “goats,” who got my attention– you know, the ones who did not feed the hungry or visit the sick or give a drink to the thirsty, the ones who ignored those in need, or worse, went out of their way to do nothing for them.

41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink…

These are the words that hit me like a ton of bricks: “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” I confess, I’m not real big on the idea of Hell and eternal punishment. I like to think that God’s grace trumps everything in the end. On the other hand, the punishment motif crops up several times in the Gospel of Matthew, so in this gospel, at least, it is kind of unavoidable. But seeing that the “goats” get punished wasn’t the thing that arrested me. It was that they were being consigned to a punishment prepared for the devil and his angels. In other words, the failure to take care of those in need is not merely a “failure” or sin of oversight. It is something far worse. It is evil. If the punishment is the measure of its severity as a sin, then the failure to care for those in need is demonic.

I think the ramifications of this are huge. Jesus, as I read it here, is saying that any actions on our part that deprive those in need of food, water, clothing, shelter or medical care, actions that deprive the imprisoned of hope and comfort, actions that alienate the stranger– such actions are evil, even demonic; the punishment is the measure of the crime.

At our little congregation, the little church with a big heart, we have much to be proud of in the ways we have fulfilled the positive side of this equation. We have been wonderfully generous in feeding, clothing and providing for those in need. Our benevolence is extraordinary, and I am so proud, as their pastor, of this congregation’s generosity in spirit and in practice. I know and trust that we will keep up the good work that leads us into God’s presence.

But think about those “goats.” As you read the headlines or watch the news, as you watch what our elected officials are voting for or against, what they are funding or not funding, remembering that they do all this in our name as our representatives, think about those “goats.” Think about the final exam as Jesus describes it. Think about how Jesus sees it. Are we on the road to inherit the Kingdom? Or are we stumbling toward that place prepared for the devil and his angels?

Pro Gloria Dei

Pastor Steve