Love Story

I came across the best love story on Facebook this week, and I just had to pass it along to you.  A reporter was interviewing a man who had managed to get himself and his family out of Mariupol during the Russian bombing.  Here’s what he said:

“I left the bomb shelter and saw a car with keys in the ignition near the store.  I watched it for two hours, waited for the owner.  When the owner didn’t show up, I didn’t wait.  I took my family, got in the car and drove to Vinnitsa to stay with relatives.  I found a phone number in the glove compartment and called the owner:

“‘Sorry,’ I said, “I stole your car.  Saved my family.’

‘Thank God!’ he said. ‘Don’t worry, I have four cars.  I took my family out in my Jeep.  The rest of the cars I filled with fuel and left in different places with the keys in the ignition and the number in the glove compartment.  I received calls back now from all the cars.  There will be peace.  See you.  Take care of yourself.’”

As I said, it’s a love story.  Leaving those cars behind, gassed up and ready to go  with the keys in the ignition so that other people, strangers, could escape the hellish bombing of their city—that was an act of love.  That was God made manifest.  

“I give you a new commandment,” said Jesus, “that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

It isn’t doctrine that marks us as disciples of Jesus.  It isn’t our intellectual assent or understanding of the faith.  It isn’t embracing particular ideas about atonement or grace or the nature of Christ.  It isn’t our righteousness or our moral stance on hot-button issues.  It isn’t even “accepting Jesus into our hearts,” whatever that might mean.  “By this everyone will know you are my disciples,” said Jesus, “—if you have love for one another.” 

When Jesus was asked which of the commandments was the most important, he went straight to love.  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.  And love your neighbor as yourself.  There are no greater commandments.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Do this and you will live.”[1]

When some of the people in Corinth got all wrapped up in their charismatic gifts and started to take a kind of overweening pride in their spirituality, St. Paul wrote to them with a word of caution:

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge—if I have so much faith that I can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions—even if I give up my body as a martyr—but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

A few years later, Paul said in his letter to the Christians in Rome:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word.  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Paul’s descriptions of love in 1 Corinthians and Romans are excellent and instructive.  But they’re also rather passive.  When Jesus talked about love, he seems to have had something more active in mind.  Often when he talked about love, he would combine it with action.  “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”[2]  “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.”[3] When a lawyer tried to find a loophole in the commandment to love your neighbor by asking, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded with a story about a Samaritan who rescues a traveler who had been left for dead after being beaten up by bandits.  Clearly, loving your neighbor involves action.  Love also involves generosity.  The Gospel of John tells us that God so loved the world that God gave God’s unique son to us.  Giving is an act of love.

All people are called to love, not just Christians, but followers of Jesus have been commanded to love so that we can be known as his disciples.   Love is supposed to be the thing that identifies us. Love is what we’re supposed to be all about…but how do you that?  Especially, how do you do that part about loving your enemies—or even just people you don’t particularly like?

You may already know that the ancient Greek language in which the New Testament was written had four different words for love: agape, eros, philia, and storge.  Storge was a word used to describe duty to family and country—think of it as patriotism.   Philia is friendship.  It meant a lot to call someone your friend in the ancient world.  True friendship, then and now, is a kind of love.  Eroswas the most commonly used word for love in the ancient world.  Our word erotic comes from eros, but properly understood there’s a lot more to it than that.  

Agape is the word for love that’s used most often in the New Testament.  Agape is a love that is unconditional.  It has no motive other than to seek the well-being of the beloved.  It can be spontaneous, but usually it is decisional—you simply decide that you are going to love that other person or those other people.  Period.  Agape is indifferent to any kind of reward and it doesn’t seek reciprocity— agape doesn’t ask to be loved in return.  Agape is the simple yet profound recognition that giving of yourself is a worthy and good thing to do.  It is an unconditional willing of good.  Agape loves the beloved for their own sake, whether they are worthy and deserving or not.

Eros, on the other hand, speaks of desire and longing.  Eros seeks to possess what we find valuable but not to covet or desire a person at the expense of overall well-being.  Edward Vacek defined erosas “loving the beloved for our own sake.”[4]  Plato thought that eros was the pathway to God.  His reasoning went like this:  I see a beautiful person or thing and I desire them or it, but if I look beyond the person or thing I find that what I am really desiring is beauty.  But beauty is truth, so if I look beyond beauty, I find that what I really desire is truth.  But truth comes from God, so what I am really desiring is God.  

Ilia Delio reaffirms that the heart of eros is passion or desire.  “Eros,” she writes,  “is that ineffable longing that stretches beyond oneself for the sake of oneself.”  She goes on to suggest that eros and agape aren’t so much in contrast with each other as related to each other and that philia—friendship—is the thread between them.  In philia a person gives themselves over to the relationship.  Philia is expressed in camaraderie and companionship, in life together in community.  Edward Vacek says that philia “may be the most cosmic form of love because it is based on mutuality, reciprocity, and cooperation—with the purpose of promoting overall well-being.”  That’s how the Quakers understood it, which is why they officially called themselves The Society of Friends.

Agape is the word for love that’s used most frequently in the New Testament, but there are moments when philia comes into the text to give love a meaning that is broader and deeper.  Jesus brings agape and philia together in John 15:13 when he says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  No one has greater agape than to lay down one’s life for one’s philon—those who are loved with the deep bond of philia.  He goes on to say, “You are my friends (philia/philon) if you do what I command you.”  And what did Jesus command?—that we should love one another with agape love as he has loved us.  

So how do you love—how do you obey the command to love?  Well to start with, it helps to realize that the kind of love Jesus commands doesn’t have to involve any warm, fuzzy emotions.  You can decide that you will unconditionally will and work for goodness for others without expecting anything to come back to you.  You can decide to love with agape.  That’s the starting point.

But agape can be a poor kind of love if it doesn’t bloom into something more than just a decision.  If it remains simply a decisional kind of love, it can become rote, individualistic, non-mutual, and even task-oriented.  Yes, agape is patient and kind, it’s not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, it does not insist on its own way, it rejoices in truth, it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, and doesn’t quit—agape has all those qualities that St. Paul pointed out to the Corinthians.  But agape can be all that and a bag of chips and still not be warm enough to bloom into a real relationship.  Love, complete and healthy love at work in a community of faith, starts with a good base of agape, but mixes in a good dose of philia, friendship, and even a dash of eros, to keep us longing for God, for each other, and for the beauty of our relationships.

From the beginning of creation, God has been pouring love into the universe and calling us into relationship.  Love is the force that brings quantum waves together to form hydrogen atoms and hydrogen atoms together to form stars.  Love is the force that drives evolution, overcoming entropy to continually transform biological life into higher, more complex, more aware forms of life—forms capable of loving.  We are commanded to love because it is intentional love that identifies us as followers of Jesus, but even more importantly, because love is what God has been using throughout all time to transform the all of creation.  When we reflect that love back to God and to each other, we participate in God’s formative and transformative work.  

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “The day will come when, after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love.  And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, humanity  will have discovered fire.”

Love is patient and kind.  Love does bear all things and believe all things and hope all things, and endure all things.  But love goes beyond that.  Love puts gas in the car and leaves the keys in the ignition so that beloved strangers can escape to new life.  Love promises there will be peace.  

May the Spirit ignite in all of us the bright flame of God’s transforming love.


[1] Mark 12:28-34; Matthew 22:36-40; Luke 10:25-28

[2] Matthew 5:43

[3] Luke 6:27

[4] Edward Collins Vacek, Love, Human and Divine: The Heat of Christian Ethics, 1994, pp. 157-158; as quoted by Ilia Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being, Orbis Books, 2013, p.42

Light a Candle

You find yourself glancing at the calendar and the clock with a slight sense of panic. So much to do and the days are rushing by. Busyness blinds you to the presence and the present of the Present. Decorating. Shopping. Wrapping. Mailing. Visiting. Hosting.

Stop. Light a candle.

You find yourself constantly wondering just how much Christmas you can afford. You feel as if you dare not shut off your mental calculator and the joys of the season are clouded by the Ghost of Bills yet to come. Every gift becomes a bit of addition which, in turn, becomes an anxious subtraction.

Stop. Light a candle.

You find yourself lost in a lonely daydream as the Ghost of Christmas Past fills your thoughts with scenes of happier holidays from days gone by. An old familiar song reminds you of friends and family no longer near at hand and your heart aches more than just a little.

Stop. Light a candle.

You find yourself dizzy from trying to steer your way through the year-end collision of events. Reformation. Halloween. Election. Veterans Day. Christ the King. Advent. Christmas. New Year. Taxes. Fiscal Planning.

Stop. Light a candle.

You find yourself simply feeling as if something is missing, as if you’re forgetting something, as if there must be something more.

Stop. Light a candle.

Five candles. Three blue and one pink for Advent. One white for Christmas.

First, ignite the flame of Hope, the Prophecy Candle. Let this flame remind you that God’s promises not only echo through the past but draw us toward the future. Let the light remind you that just as a feather will rise naturally above the heat of a single flame, so you, too, can be lifted without effort by the Spirit that warms and enlightens us all.

Next, light the flame of Peace, the Bethlehem Candle. Let this flame remind you that the peace of God is found in humble moments and humbler places. Let this light remind you that the real gift we all seek is something no amount of money can buy. Peace.

Then light the flame of Joy, the candle of a different color, the Shepherd’s Candle. Sing the old familiar songs of Joy and surround yourself with light and music. Dance with the Ghosts of your past and know that they are very much alive in your memories and in the presence of God. Watch the old movies, taste the old, familiar flavors. Let this light rekindle your senses and remind you that this song of Joy is eternal.

Now light the flame of Love, the Angels Candle. Let this light bring equilibrium to these days of celebration. Let it guide you through the maze of these impacted days. Let the flame of Love burn a pathway through the adiaphorous clutter. Let its warmth empower you to embrace the days. Swallow its light whole so that it shines through you.

Finally, sit in the presence of the light of Christ. Let the Candle of Christmas remind you that the most humble child born in the most unlikely circumstances bears the image and likeness of the Maker of Us All. Let it remind you that the thing that has been missing in our lives, the object of our unsettled yearning, is not a thing or an object at all, but the very Source of our Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

Apocalypse

Mark 13:1-8

“When the end of the world comes,” said Mark Twain, “I want to be in Kentucky.  They’re twenty years behind everything.”

The word apocalypse comes directly from Greek and only drops one small syllable on its way into English.  Apokalypsis to Apocalypse.  The literal meaning is “to uncover” or “to unveil.”  It originally meant a disclosure, a revelation.  

The word can also describe a particular kind of literature.  That’s the first meaning in Merriam Webster’s dictionary:

one of the Jewish and Christian writings of 200 b.c. to a.d. 150 marked by pseudonymity, symbolic imagery, and the expectation of an imminent cosmic cataclysm in which God destroys the ruling powers of evil and raises the righteous to life in a messianic kingdom.

Webster also gives what it calls the “Essential Meaning”:

a great disaster a sudden and very bad event that causes much fear, loss, or destruction.

In more common usage, apocalypse is often used as shorthand for “the end of the world.”

From disclosure to disaster.  That’s quite a shift in meaning.  

Why are people so fascinated with the idea of The Apocalypse, the End of the World?  What is it about the human psyche that wants to immerse itself in “end of the world” thinking?  And why has our interest in this topic been growing? 

I took a look at Wikipedia’s list of Apocalyptic films.  It paints an interesting picture.  Before 1950, there were only 4 apocalypse movies.  The first one was a Danish film made in 1916 called, prosaically enough, The End of the World.  And then we went fifteen years before anyone made another apocalyptic movie.  That one was a French film made in 1931, also titled The End of the World.  American filmmakers got into the Apocalypse business in 1933 with Deluge from RKO Pictures, and then the Brits took a turn in 1936 with a United Artists picture called Things to Come, written by H.G. Wells.  So in the whole first half of the 20th century, only 4 apocalyptic movies are listed.  Four.  

And then they stopped.  That’s probably because the world was at war in the 1940s.  People were living through an apocalypse, and they wanted their movies to tell them there was a brighter day coming, a time of rebuilding.  

Apocalyptic films reappeared in the 1950s, but they were still sporadic enough that it would be stretching things at that point to call them a genre.  From 1950 to 1959 there are eleven apocalypse movies on Wikipedia’s list, but things would pick up significantly in the 1960s.  

From 1960 to 1969, twenty-six apocalypse movies are listed, including the classics Dr. Strangelove and Planet of the Apes. The 1970s gave us 39 apocalypse or post-apocalypse movies.  From 1980-1989, producers cranked out 47 apocalypse movies.  In the 1990s the stream of apocalyptic films slowed but not by much.  That decade gave us 41 apocalypse movies, but the Left Behind series of books hit the market in 1995, smack in the middle of that decade, so maybe people were reading about apocalypse instead of going to see it on the screen.  

After slowing just a bit in the ‘90s, the genre exploded in the 2000s.  From 2000 through 2009, Wikipedia lists 69 movies with apocalyptic themes showing up on our screens and probably in our collective psyche, because from 2010 through 2019, that number blew up again.  In that decade Wikipedia lists 109 movies with apocalyptic themes.  It’s too early to tell how “apocalyptic” this decade will be.  The pandemic put a serious crimp in film production of all genres, but even with a Covid-imposed lockdown, the first two years of this decade have put 15 apocalypse movies on our screens.

So back to the original question: why are people so fascinated by apocalypse?  Why is there such a big market for dystopia and humanity’s grand finale? 

I don’t know what the social psychologists would say about that, but I do know what Biblical scholars and theologians say.  They tell us that apocalyptic literature appears—and movies are a form of that—when a people is oppressed, or under great stress, or experiencing persecution.  The Book of Ezekiel, with its strange visions and imagery, appears during the time of the Babylonian conquest of Judah to give hope and courage to captive and enslaved people who had seen their nation not just defeated but destroyed.  The Book of Daniel was written to give hope and courage to the Jewish rebels fighting against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the cruel Greek Seleucid ruler who desecrated Yahweh’s temple by setting up an altar to Zeus and sacrificing a pig on it.  John’s Apocalypse, which we call the Book of Revelation, was written to give hope and courage to followers of Jesus in Asia Minor who were being oppressed and persecuted by Rome. 

Hope and courage for people in dire straits.  That’s what all the ancient apocalypses are really all about when you wade through all the fascinating imagery.  They use imagery as a kind of code because the people writing them and reading them are living in dangerous circumstances.  If the empire is breathing down your neck, it’s not safe to say “Rome is a gluttonous, greedy, selfish pig of a nation that bullies other nations into handing over the best of everything while the rest of us are sucked dry.”  So instead you write about a harlot who sits on seven hills.  You can’t say that the emperor is a monster, so you write about a monster, a dragon with seven heads.

The writers of the apocalyptic works in the Bible, and the Holy Spirit who guided them, never intended to be giving a coded timeline of the end of all things.  That’s not why they were written.  They were written to give a simple clear message:  “Hang in there.  Yes, these are scary times.  But God is on your side. Nasty empires and oppressive regimes don’t last forever.  They either exhaust themselves, or somebody conquers them (see Darius the Mede bringing new management to Babylon), or enough people finally get tired of their rubbish and rise up to throw them out on their ear (see Antiochus Epiphanes versus the Maccabees), or they overindulge themselves to death and collapse from internal squabbling and rot (see Rome).  Once more for emphasis: Hold on to hope.  Have courage. God is on your side.  And God wins in the end.”

That is the uniform, universal message of pretty much all apocalyptic literature.

With one apocalyptic exception:  the “little apocalypse” in chapter 13 of the Gospel of Mark. 

Mark was written during the Jewish uprising against Rome from 66-70 CE.  There was tremendous pressure on the followers of Jesus in Palestine to join with the Jewish forces in the fight against Rome.  They were told it was their patriotic duty to save Israel.  Special emphasis was put on protecting the temple in this appeal to patriotism.

The temple was in particular danger for several reasons.  It was the natural rallying point in the heart of Jerusalem, their ancient capitol.  That would make it a target for the Romans.  It was also the largest temple to any god in the Roman world, something of a point of pride for the Jewish people.  It was an important tourist attraction, drawing both pilgrims and tourists.  It was the heartbeat of Jerusalem’s economy.  It was also one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful building complex in the ancient world.  Most importantly, though, it was central to every Jew’s sense of identity.  The temple was Israel.  Israel was the temple.  To destroy the temple would be to destroy the nation.  That, in turn, would put every Jewish person’s sense of identity adrift.  Their spirit and resistance would be broken.  For all these reasons, protecting the temple was the rebellion’s top priority.

In Mark 13, when the disciples are gobsmacked by the beauty and grandeur of the temple, Jesus just flatly tells them, “It’s all coming down.  Not one stone will be left on another.”  A bit later as they gather on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sits down to teach.  The disciples, having just heard a tantalizing tidbit of apocalypse want details.  “When is it going to happen?  What will the signs be that it’s about to happen?”  

Remember, this gospel, unlike Matthew, Luke, and John is being written while the temple is still standing, but in great jeopardy.  The questions the disciples are asking in the text are the questions that Mark’s faith community, his companion followers of Jesus, are asking.   They are desperate for a timetable.  As Mark writes his account, the Roman legions have vacated Palestine temporarily to go fight one of their frequent civil wars, but everyone knows they’ll be back. And with a vengeance. But when?

They want a timetable.  They want signs to look for.  But Jesus isn’t going to give them one.  “Stay on the path,” he says.  “Don’t let anyone lead you astray.  Others are going to come claiming they’re the Messiah.  Don’t fall for it.  If people try to tell you that various wars or natural disasters or famines are signs of the end and it’s time to get in the fight, don’t fall for it.  All these things are going on always and everywhere.  They are not signs of the end.  They are birth pangs.  Something new is being born.”

When they continue to pester him to be specific about the time of the temple’s destruction, Jesus finally says, “No one knows.  Even I don’t know. Only the Father knows.”  

This “little apocalypse” from Jesus in Mark is radically different from other apocalyptic writings in one major point.  Other apocalyptic writings—those included in the Bible like Daniel and Revelation, extra-biblical books like 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra, and the apocalyptic pamphlets that circulated throughout Palestine during the rebellion—all focused on the basic universal apocalyptic message: hang tough, fight the good fight, God is with you, hope and courage.  But this homily from Jesus is almost the opposite.  Ched Myers and other scholars suggest that he is telling his followers to abandon the temple.  He is telling his followers not to join in the resistance.  He urges them not to be led astray from their path of nonviolent resistance by charismatic leaders with messianic claims, swords and spears.

Jesus calls us to a different pathway of apocalypse.  This is not the pathway of Judas Maccabeus picking up his sword to fight the Greeks.  This is not the pathway of Simon bar Giora, claiming to be the new King David as he leads guerilla bands in surprise attacks.  This is not Mad Max with a sawed-off shotgun.  

Jesus is telling them that the rebellion is not the kingdom of God.

This is the pathway of Jesus, the Way of nonviolence.  The way of critiquing the bad by doing the better.  The rebellion is not the kingdom. But the kingdom is a rebellion…done a different Way.

In the Gospel of Mark, the kingdom of God, as it is embodied by Jesus, is revealed to us as a nonviolent rebellion against business as usual, economics as usual, politics as usual, government as usual, and religion as usual.  It is also very much a rebellion against rebellion as usual.  The entire mission of Jesus in the gospels is, in its way, an apocalypse.  A revealing.  It pulls back the veil to show us the serious flaws in our ways of doing things.  It critiques the bad by giving us a vision of the better.  Yes, the Way of Jesus does describe the end of the world.  It ends when it is gradually, nonviolently reimagined heart by heart, mind by mind, one person at a time until the reign of God has come on earth as it is in heaven.  

How’s that for an apocalypse?

The Light Over the Barnyard

John 1:6-9; 19-28; 1Thessalonians 5:16-24

If we’re lucky and there is no cloud cover, on December 21, the night of the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, we will get to see something like the Star of Bethlehem.  Jupiter and Saturn will appear in a great conjunction, within 0.1 degrees of each other as viewed from earth, so that they will appear to be not two bright planets, but one very bright star.  Close conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn happen every 20 years, but the last time they were this close was more than 800 years ago, in 1226.

So in these closing days of 2020, a strange year of plague and politics, protests and polemics, could it be that we are being given a sign in the heavens as two great planets combine their radiance into one great light?    

One of the things I loved to do when I was a kid, during the times when we would visit the family farm in Kansas, was to go out at night and stand in the middle of the field and just stare at the brilliance of the night sky.  I loved to see the lights of heaven spread out above me in the Milky Way.  We would get far enough away from the house so that the house lights didn’t interfere with our stargazing, then just let ourselves get lost in those deep fields of space and all those millions of stars.  

On a night with a full moon the stars were fainter, but we could see well enough to nose around a bit in the pasture and to make our way back to the house without our flashlights if we were careful.  But on a night with no moon it was another story altogether.  On a night with no moon it was easy to lose yourself in the sky and get turned around, and if the lights at the house went out, as they did one time, you could lose your bearings in the dark.

On those nights, standing in the dark, marveling at the stars, I would feel such a strange mixture of awe and vulnerability.  I learned fairly early about the distance and strangeness of the stars and planets and it was always a source of wonder to me to think about the great journey through time and space those lights had taken to reach me standing in a field in Kansas.  It made me feel both important and insignificant at the same time—important because God had given me the eyes to see and a mind to comprehend the vastness of creation—insignificant because I realized that I was one kid standing on a small planet orbiting a minor star on an outer spiral arm of one galaxy among billions.

And in the middle of these kinds of thoughts, always, every single time, something would happen to remind us that the night was not our natural habitat.  Some noise or movement would remind us as we stood out there in the field that the night was full of other creatures and that some of them were not our friends.  Fortunately, that also always seemed to be about the time when Mom or Aunt Betty would decide we had been out in the dark long enough and they would turn on the big mercury vapor light that glared over the barnyard.  The message was clear.  Time to come home.  And there was no mistaking which way to go once that light was turned on…provided you were turned in the right direction so you could see it.

Sometimes, if you get turned around in the moonless night and you are facing the wrong direction, you need a nudge from someone to turn you toward the light so you can find your way home.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.  To give people a nudge in the right direction.

This happened during a time of tension and anxiety, but for many it was also a time of anticipation and expectation, so when John began baptizing and preaching it was understandable that the priests and Levites would want to know who he was and what he had to say for himself.  What was surprising was that John started by telling them who he was not.

“I’m not the Messiah.”  He said that pretty plainly, right off the top.

So they asked him, “Well… what then.  Are you Elijah?”

“Nope.”

“The prophet?”

“No. Not the prophet.”

“Well then who are you?”

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’  Just like the prophet Isaiah said.

“Well if you’re not the Messiah and you’re not Elijah and you’re not the prophet, why are you baptizing?”

“I’m baptizing with water.  But if you knew who was already standing here among you… the one who comes after me… I’m not worthy to even untie his sandals.”

For what it’s worth, a little thing should be noted here.  It says in the text at the beginning of this passage that John was sent by God.  But it says that the people giving John the third degree here, the priests and Levites, were sent by the Pharisees.  It’s an interesting contrast.  The one who is sent by God wants to focus the attention, to shine the light if you will, on someone else.  But the interrogation team sent by the Pharisees are laser-focused on John.  John keeps trying to redirect their attention to the one they’ve really been expecting for eons.  He tells them,   “Guys, at best I’m the moon.  You should be looking for the sun.  And if you had eyes to see it, you would realize he’s already here among you.”

John comes to a people who, as Isaiah said, are walking in darkness and points to the light that is dawning among us.  He comes to a people who are disoriented in the night and turns us to face the beacon that can bring us home.  

And here we are in the closing days of the year of Covid and Chaos, craving Christmas, singing Christ be our Light.  And God hears our prayers.  God sends us John the Baptist to turn us in the right direction, to face us toward the light of Christ. 

God sends us a sign in the heavens.  In a year when politics has pulled us ever further apart, two gas giants (make of that what you will) have drawn close to each other, Jupiter and Saturn in a rare conjunction, shining with a single bright light to remind us that we are brighter when we shine together.

In a year when we have not been able to come together as the body of Christ in the familiar surroundings of our sanctuaries, God reminds us that Christ is, as Luther said, in, with, and under the common things of life like bread and wine and water so that life, itself is sacred.  God reminds us that Christ is in all of creation.  God reminds us that Christ is in you and in me.  And, more importantly, that we are in Christ, so that even in our individual homes, gathered together by way of our computers and phones we are still the body of Christ.

At the end of a year when we have had so many reasons to weep, God sends us the words of Saint Paul writing in his first letter to Thessaloniki, the oldest of his letters:  “Rejoice always.  Pray without ceasing.  Give thanks in all circumstances.  Do not quench the Spirit.”  

So if you feel like you’ve been walking through a moonless night and you’re all turned around, stop.  Take a minute.  Take a breath.  Look up.

There is a sign in the heavens to remind you that you are not alone.  Christ is in, with and under all of creation and that includes your own sacred life.  

Rejoice.  Pray.  Give thanks.  Do not quench the Spirit.  Any minute now the light’s going to come on over the barnyard.  And if necessary, someone will nudge you in the right direction so you can see it.

Until then, may the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  

The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

This Is The Time

It’s time.  

Time to get out the boxes with the special decorations, each one with its own story and all of them together part of the bigger story.  It’s time to deck the halls, to fill the home with light and music.  It’s time to dig out recipes and to bake.  It’s time to prepare.

I loved Christmas as a kid.  I still do.  What I didn’t realize for years, though, was how much I loved Advent.  I loved all the preparation. I loved the anticipation.  I loved the way the house looked when it was all decorated.  I loved the way the kitchen smelled when it was full of baking and roasting.  I loved how everyone, even though they were a bit frazzled, still managed to be in a pretty cheery mood.  

I love the honesty of Advent.  I love the sense of longing in the texts and prayers.  “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.”  And yes, Christ has already come to us, but no, Christ has not yet returned, and we surely do feel sometimes like he’s overdue.  There is an honest yearning for things to be better, especially in this year when everything has been scrambled and turned sideways by the pandemic.  “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”  Isaiah shouts for us.  We’re in over our heads.  “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we might be saved!” the Psalmist cries out for us.  But we also hear, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God… Every valley will be lifted up.  Every mountain and hill made low.  The uneven ground shall be made level and the rough places a plain.”  Things will be smoother.  Something better, something brighter is coming.  Help is on the way.  A new day will dawn.  

I love the way Advent, if we pay attention to it, sets the scene for Christmas by reminding us that we are not the first ones to live in a time of shadows hoping for light.  “During the rule of King Herod of Judea…” we read in the first chapter of Luke.  This is the same King Herod who, in Matthew’s gospel, murdered all the male babies in Bethlehem under age two.  This is the Herod who killed two of his own sons because he suspected them of plotting against him, the Herod who killed his wife Mariamne, the Hasmonean princess, along with her brother and her mother.  This is the Herod who replaced the High Priest in the temple with a Sadducee who would be more inclined to do things the way he wanted them done.  This is the same Herod who, according to Josephus, as he lay dying, ordered that one member of every family in Judea should be slain so that the whole country would be in mourning when he died. Fortunately the order was never carried out, but the people never forgot that it had been issued.  

This is the time, Luke reminds us, when Quirinius is appointed legate of the expanded Roman province of Syria with the specific mandate to carry out a census, something forbidden by Jewish law, so that Tiberius can impose a new tax.  This is a time when Rome’s domination of Judea is iron-clad and iron-fisted with no velvet glove to make it less harsh.  This is a time when work is hard, taxes are heavy, and freedom is limited.

But this is also the time when an angel appears to an aged childless couple, Elizabeth, whose name means “God keeps promises” and to Zechariah, whose name means “God remembers.”  The angel promises them that they will have a child and that they are to name him Yochanan, John, which means “God is gracious,” and that many will rejoice because of him and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.

This is the time when a kinswoman comes to visit Elizabeth, a young, unmarried kinswoman named Mary, who is also pregnant with a miraculous child.  And when Elizabeth sees her, her unborn child leaps in her womb.  This is the time when Mary sings a prophetic song of joy and rebellion that has been bringing hope to people on the margins for two thousand years.  My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant… He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…”

This is the time to sit with the candles of hope, peace, joy, and love.  This is the time to remember.  And to look forward.  This is Advent.  And soon, Christmas.

The King shall come when morning dawns and light triumphant breaks, when beauty gilds the eastern hills and life to joy awakes.

Waiting for the Light

Waiting for the Light

Mark 13:24-37

“But in those days, after that suffering,

         the sun will be darkened,

                  and the moon will not give its light, 

25       and the stars will be falling from heaven,

                  and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 

26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.  27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. 

28  “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.  29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.  30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.  31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.  34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.  35 Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,  36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.  37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

As of this weekend, 270,000 people in the United States have died of the Corona virus.  That’s two hundred seventy thousand empty seats at the Thanksgiving table this year, enough people to fill every seat in Angels’ Stadium in Anaheim six times.  

Because of the Corona virus, job losses and general economic disparity, only 44% of American households with children feel confident that they will be able to afford the food they need for the coming week.[1]  Put another way, 56% of American households with children are food insecure.  Twelve percent of those households reported that they sometimes or often do not have enough to eat.  

One in 5 renters in America are behind on rent and worried about eviction.  Persons of color were likelier to report difficulty affording rent because they have been harder hit by pandemic job losses.

In so many ways and for so many of us, this is a grim and precarious time.  The words of Isaiah ring in us like a bell:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,

                  so that the mountains would quake at your presence—  

          When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,

                           you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.[2]

O God, why won’t you do for us the kinds of things you did in the past?  Where’s our parting of the sea?  Where is our manna falling from the sky?  

It was a grim and precarious time for the people of Judah when Isaiah wrote those words.  They were suffering under the harsh oppression of Babylon.  They wanted divine intervention.  And isn’t that what we want now?

It was a grim and precarious time when Jesus sat on the Mount of Olives and shared his apocalyptic vision with his disciples.  As we read the story in chapter 13 of Mark, Jesus is telling his disciples about the end of the world not long before Judas betrays him, not long before he is crucified.  And it’s a very perilous time when the writer of the gospel records all this.  If biblical scholar Ched Myers is correct, Mark is writing this gospel some time during the Jewish revolt against Rome, the rebellion that will end with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

“But in those days, after that suffering,

         the sun will be darkened,

                  and the moon will not give its light, 

         and the stars will be falling from heaven,

                  and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 

Those words take on new weight on the first Sunday of Advent when you think of them being spoken during a time of violent political oppression, a time when any hint of opposition is quickly and decisively squashed.  These words have a sharper edge when you think of them being written down and preserved while the streets of the city are filled with the noise and bloodshed of battle between Roman soldiers and Jewish partisans.  

Beware.  Stay alert.  Stay awake.  The advice Jesus gives is practical.  Keep your eyes open.  Don’t fall for false messiahs and conmen. Don’t make yourself crazy trying to figure out God’s timetable because only God knows.  It’s going to be a bumpy ride.  There will be trying times.  Stay awake.

Advent is a time for pragmatism and preparation.  

Advent is a time to walk into the turmoil and the pain of life with your eyes wide open.  In an age and a season when it is all too easy to live in denial, when we would love to jump straight to Christmas, Advent calls us to take a hard look at the world around us.  Advent calls us to see the world as it really is, to see ourselves as we really are, to open our eyes to things that we maybe don’t want to see, to listen to things we might prefer not to hear.  Advent calls us to be realistic…about the world and about ourselves. 

In 1952, as the Korean War was dragging on and the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was becoming more intense, William and Annabeth Gay wrote a haunting and profound hymn that, to my mind, perfectly captures the spirit of Advent for our age.  The title that Annabeth gave it is Carol of Hope, but you might know it by its first line which is how it’s titled in most hymnals, a line that sounds anything but hopeful:  Each Winter As the Year Grows Older.

Each winter as the year grows older, we each grow older, too.  

The chill sets in a little colder; the verities we knew

seem shaken and untrue.[3]

When race and class cry out for treason, when sirens call for war, 

they overshout the voice of reason and scream till we ignore

 all we held dear before.

Yet I believe beyond believing that life can spring from death,

that growth can flower from our grieving, that we can catch our breath

and turn transfixed by faith.

So even as the sun is turning to journey to the north,

the living flame, in secret burning, can kindle on the earth

and bring God’s love to birth.

O Child of ecstasy and sorrows, O Prince of peace and pain,

brighten today’s world by tomorrow’s, renew our lives again;

Lord Jesus, come and reign!

Advent calls us to be realistic about the shadow side of life, to mark where we’ve not only grown older but colder, where the verities we knew seem shaken and untrue.  Advent calls us to identify those voices that overshout the voice of reason so we can be more attentive to reason and to the Prince of Peace and pain.  

But Advent doesn’t simply ask us to dwell in gloom and shadows.  Advent also calls us to bring light—four lights to restore brightness and health to a self, a nation, a world stumbling in murky obscurity—four lights to prepare the way for the true light of Christ. 

And the first light is Hope.

“Genuine hope is not blind optimism,” said Jürgen Moltmann.  “It is hope with open eyes, which sees the suffering and yet believes in the future.”

And perhaps Barack Obama was thinking of Moltmann when he said, ““Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it. Hope is the belief that destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by the men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.”

Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us.

“The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for,” wrote Barbara Kingsolver. “And the most you can do  is live inside that hope.  Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”[4]

So on this first Sunday of Advent we light the candle of Hope.  

On this first Sunday of Advent as we begin a new year in the calendar of the Church, we light the candle of Hope.  If the sun is darkened and the moon will not give its light and the stars seem to be falling, light the candle of hope.

If we are suffering now because of the pandemic, Saint Paul reminds us that, “suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,  and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”[5]

“If we hope for what we do not see,” he said, “we wait for it with patience.”[6]  

So if it looks like the sun has been darkened and the moon won’t shine and the stars are falling and the world is more or less metaphorically ending, in the spirit of Advent, let’s be realistic and honest about it.  Let’s stay awake and aware.  And then let’s light a candle of Hope.  Because Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.[7]


[1] https://www.cbpp.org/blog/as-thanksgiving-approaches-fewer-than-half-of-households-with-kids-very-confident-about;  also https://www.marketplace.org/2020/05/07/44-of-americans-fear-they-wont-be-able-to-afford-food-poll-finds/ (Marketplace/Edison Research)

[2] Isaiah 64:1-2

[3] Each Winter As the Year Grows Older, William Gay, 1920-2008;

  Tune: Carol of Hope, Annabeth Gay, 1925-2020;  Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #252

[4] Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

[5] Romans 5:4-5

[6] Romans 8:25

[7] Romans 15.13

Sowing Generosity

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Listen!  A sower went out to sow.

Karsten Lundring is an alum of California Lutheran University who really loves his alma mater.  Karsten attends every CLU football game and when the Kingsmen score he throws out handfuls of Jolly Rancher candies to the crowd in the stands.  Some of those candies fall through the bleachers and land on the ground.  Some are caught by people who are dieting or diabetic so they get passed along to someone else.  Sometimes people catch the orange ones but they just don’t like the orange ones, only the red ones so they give them away.  Some are caught by fans of the opposing team.  But a lot of the candies are caught by hungry children and CLU fans who are enjoying excitement of the touchdown and are delighted to celebrate with a taste of something sweet.[1]

A sower went out to sow.  

Jesus doesn’t usually explain his parables, but because his disciples pestered him about it he explained this one.  Well, partly.  He explained about the ground where the seeds landed.  The different places where the seeds end up serve as analogies for the different people who will hear the message that Jesus and his disciples are proclaiming, the announcement that the reign of God is about to begin.  Some will get it, some won’t.  Pick your reason.  Some are too shallow or too self-involved.  Some are too busy.  Some are too worried.  Some are misguided by their own misconceptions—these are all things that can keep the domain of God from really taking root in your life or, to put it another way, that can keep you from taking root in the domain of God.  

We have an natural habit when we read the parables of asking “What does this mean?” Please explain this.  We want to read them all as allegories—sometimes they are, sometimes they’re not.  We want to translate the analogies, to solve the riddle and walk away from the parable knowing The Point.  But Jesus tells parables not so that we can ask questions of them and arrive at some moral maxim like an Aesop’s fable, but so that the parable can ask questions of us.  Jesus tells parables to help us see the world, ourselves and God differently.  

When I’ve preached or taught on this Parable of the Sower in the past, I’ve always focused on the soil since that’s the part that Jesus explains.  My sermons were usually some version of “What Kind of Soil Are You?” with sometimes a side order of “What Are You Going To Do To Become More Productive Soil?” 

If you ever heard me preach one of those sermons, I apologize.  I messed the point.  I also missed the point.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s always a good thing to be looking at what we can do to let the love and life of God take deeper root in our lives.  It’s always good to pay attention to how our faith or lack of it is manifested in the lives we lead.  But that’s not the point of this parable.  There are other parables for that.  The fig tree in the vineyard comes to mind.

Parables ask us questions, and as I sat with this parable and listened to it again, the question it was asking me was “What do you see here that you haven’t seen before?”  Jesus is giving his disciples some answers, but not all the answers.  There’s more to see here.  And then I saw two things that made it a whole new story for me.

The first was this:  the soil can’t change itself.  It is what it is.  The pathway is going to be the pathway as long as people are walking on it.  The rocks are going to be the rocks.  Thorn bushes don’t uproot themselves.  

Jesus is telling his disciples and “anyone with ears” who will listen to not make themselves crazy trying to talk people into signing up for the reign of heaven if they’re just not ready to do that.  Just sow the seed.  Go out and announce it: the Domain of God is within reach.  Live it.  Be it.  Those who are ready will get it, and it will surprise you how many of them there are.  As for the rest, let the Holy Spirit work on them.  Rocks can be moved or worn down.  Pathways can be rerouted or tilled and fertilized.  Thorn bushes can be removed in any number of ways.  But right now that’s not your job.  Leave the Holy Spirit and the circumstances of life to soften them up.  You sow the seed.

The second thing I saw that absolutely turned this into a new story for me is this: this is a story of unbridled abundance and generosity.  There is no shortage of seed.  The sower throws it everywhere with no regard whatsoever about where it’s landing.  The word of the kingdom, as Jesus calls it in his explanation to the disciples, is an endless resource and when it lands with someone who hears and understands it, it reproduces itself even more abundantly. 

God has created this world to be a world of abundance and generosity.  As Gandhi said, this world has enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.  The earth itself participates in the generosity of God. The generosity of God was spoken in the word of creation.  The word of the kingdom is a word of perpetual regeneration.  Genesis.  Generation.  Regeneration.  The creative love of God is grounded in Generosity.  

“God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees and flowers and clouds and stars,”  wrote Martin Luther, and surely God’s message of generosity and abundance is written in every harvest and planting.  

I remember being on our family wheat farm in Kansas once in the spring when the new wheat was standing bright green and knee-high in the fields.  I looked out and saw a family of deer grazing on the new shoots down by the creek.  I asked my mother’s cousin, Frank, if we shouldn’t maybe do something to shoo them away.  He just smiled and said, “Oh there’s plenty for them and us.  We’ll share it.”  

There was good soil there in Kansas where my family grew wheat.  The harvest was plentiful.  There’s good soil for the word of the kingdom, the domain of God, in many, many hearts out in the world.  Many people are already living in the heart of the kingdom whether they know it or not, living lives of generosity that produce more generosity in others.

When Michelle Brenner was furloughed from her job at a menswear store in Gig Harbor, Washington, because of the Corona virus, she was, naturally, upset, so she went home and made herself a big pan of lasagna using her grandmother’s recipe.  Nothing works like comfort food to soothe the soul.  Michelle realized that if her grandmother’s lasagna was making her feel better, it might lift other people’s spirits, too, so she posted on Facebook, “Hello favorite friends… if any of you want some fresh, homemade, no calorie-counting lasagna, let me know and I will gladly prepare it.”

A few requests trickled in—a retired neighbor, an out of work friend… Then Michelle took it on herself to deliver a few pans of lasagna to hospital workers and first responders, a few struggling single parents and others she knew of who were just scraping by. Word began to spread.  Soon she had so many requests that making homemade lasagna for others had become her full-time job.  When the president of the Gig Harbor Sportsman’s Club got wind of Michelle’s mission, he offered to let her use their commercial kitchen which had been closed because of Covid-19.  Three months later she’s still at it.  So far she has given away more than 1200 pans of homemade lasagna, although she’s lost track of the exact number.

Michelle initially used her $1200 stimulus check to pay for lasagna ingredients but that money was soon gone.  Fortunately, without being asked, people began to contribute what they could.  Some would give a dollar.  One person gave $100.  Somebody set up a Facebook fundraiser for her that raised $10,000.  All in all, people have given about $22,000 to the woman who is now known affectionately as The Lasagna Lady.  Every penny goes into lasagna while Michelle, herself, gets by on unemployment insurance. 

“It’s a pan of love,” says Michelle. “A lot of the people I make lasagna for have lost their jobs, and this is my way of saying, ‘I understand and I’m here for you.’ ”

When Jesus explained the Parable of the Sower to his disciples he said, “As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”  Or 1200 pans of lasagna. 

I don’t know where Michelle Brenner heard the good news of the kingdom of heaven, the good news of God’s abundance and generosity.  I don’t know if she ever attended any church or is part of any faith.  Maybe she learned it from the earth itself.  Maybe it was layered between the noodles and the meat and the sauce and the cheese in her grandmother’s lasagna recipe.  I don’t know where or how she learned it, but she learned it.  And she’s passing along.

And a sower goes out to sow.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.


[1] Thanks to Pastor Kirsten Moore, Calvaray Lutheran Church, Rio Linda, California for this story.

Waiting

“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.

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 decoratusin 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.”

Tonight’s the Night the World Begins Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I need the wonder of it all.

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

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

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

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

And you asked me what I want this year

And I try to make this kind and clear

Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

 

‘Cause I don’t need boxes wrapped in strings

And designer love and empty things

Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

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

I need some place simple where we could live

And something only you can give

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

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

And the one poor child who saved this world

And there’s ten million more who probably could

If we all just stopped and said a prayer for them

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

 I wish everyone was loved tonight

And we could somehow stop this endless fight

Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

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

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

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

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

One poor child who saved the world.

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

So take these words and sing out loud

‘Cause everyone is forgiven now

‘Cause tonight’s the night the world begins again

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

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

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

So take these words and sing out loud,

‘Cause everyone is forgiven now.

And tonight’s the night the world begins again.

 

Tonight’s the night the world begins again.

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