Thursday, December 28, 2006

realism for Christmas Eve

Our Christmas Eve candlelight communion service is at 9:00pm, and since we had cleaned up from our family dinner by 8:00pm, I decided to walk to church that night. We live only 4 blocks away from the church, so it usually only takes me about 7-8 minutes to get there. The evening was chilly, but not cold, and it provided me the time to pray and reflect on the evening's liturgy without being too rushed. The walk also provided me the opportunity to step in something. I was not aware of this ripe addition to the sole of my shoe until, of course, I had gotten into the sanctuary, walked up through the chancel a few times to fix the altar for communion, traveled up and down the middle aisle to get the lighting ready, and gone into the sacristy to get my alb and stole ready. Actually, I didn't even realize I had stepped in something and tracked it all over church until a choir member spotted a big chunk of it on the tile right in front of the altar and little stains on the carpet outside the choir room. She pointed to it and said, "Oh, it looks like one of the poinsettias tipped over!" It took me one second of cleaning it up to realize it wasn't poinsettia soil.

Needless to say, I had to remove my shoes and put them outside. They really stank. And I spent a few minutes running around trying to clean up whatever brown stains I could. The sacristy smelled particularly bad. I called my wife and told her I needed another pair of shoes, and 5 minutes later my dad showed up bearing them in hand. I still had to figure out a way to explain the strange odor to the worshippers who would come. So that evening, at the start of the liturgy, I announced that my shoes were not placed outside with the hopes Saint Nick would leave gifts in them that evening but so they could dry out. After explaining what had happened (without being too graphic), I told them that I had not intentionally tried to recreate the atmosphere of the stable, but that if they did get a whiff of anything just to mark it up as a "mood thing."

As it turned out, the worship service went really well, and all the worship assistants performed their extra duties with confidence, including the girl who had never before been an acolyte. The turn-out was great, and, as far as I know, no one reported any funny smells.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

On the Incarnation of the Word

My wife gave birth a month ago to our daughter, Margaret Clare. She is our first child and the first grandchild on both sides of our family. Until she came along, I have not had the opportunity to hold very many babies, especially ones this little. Of course, presiding at baptisms has afforded me the opportunity to be near a few, but the moment is usually so fleeting and I tend to be concentrating on not dropping the baby, pouring water, and talking all at the same time that I don't get to drink in the moment properly.

But now that I've held my own for awhile and gotten comfortable with her squirminess and fussiness, I marvel at the incarnation in a way I never have before. It is ludicrous that God would do this! It is utterly preposterous that the Lord of heaven and earth would take this route! It's absolutely absurd. I have never had a problem imagining Jesus as a grown man, even a young one. Because I've walked those shoes myself, in some way I have always been able to envision Jesus being "just like me," or just like someone else who is in control, so to speak, of his or her actions and able to fend for him or herself and engage the world in a "mature" way. This is how Jesus is presented in 99 percent of the gospel stories, so it's easy to swallow somehow. Making the leap from man to God-man is not so great, comparatively-speaking.

Making the leap from baby to God-man is another story altogether! To think that God would risk himself in that birth and those first few months and years of utter helplessness! To think that God would deign to let us swaddle him in our cloths, to change his soiled diaper, to clean his spit-up from our collar! To think that God would get a little scared or cold or hungry and need to be comforted in our arms! Our arms?! Didn't he come to hold us in his?

I know it sounds cliche, but I view this holiday Christmas--I view the Incarnation--quite differently now that I have a child of my own that depends on me so. (I am learning that all the cliches about parenthood are wonderfully true, by the way). I truly understand for the first time what Martin Luther was preaching about in one of his nativity sermons:

"Are you afraid of God? He places before you a Babe with whom you may take refuge. You cannot fear him, for nothing is more appealing to man than a babe...To me there is no greater consolation given to mankind than this, that Christ became man, a child, a babe, playing at the lap and at the breasts of his most gracious mother."

Playing at the breasts of his most gracious mother? Clare does that and it drives Melinda (who is very gracious, too) crazy. God, what were you thinking?

Thank you for thinking it. And doing it.

Blessed Christmas.

Friday, December 08, 2006

On Jordan's Banks

The following reflection is my submission for the pastor's column in the upcoming edition of our local news rag, The Citizen. I always struggle with this task, which rotates to me every six weeks or so. In part, I don't know the audience very well (a preacher relies heavily on his/her "audience" to know what to say). I also never find this genre of reflection too helpful, myself. I like to exegete Scripture, but that's difficult to do in the Citizen's forum.

One of the most familiar messages of Advent—the four Sundays leading up to Christmas—is that strident voice of John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!” Quoting from the ancient prophet Isaiah in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah, this rugged figure issues a call that is part invitation, part warning: “Every valley shall be filled and every mountain will be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth!” Some of the gospel writers describe John as an eccentric man, dressed in camel fur and eating wild locusts. Often I picture him with a hardhat and an orange construction vest, motioning drivers past a big dig.

In fact, the cry of John the Baptist echoes in my head every time I go shopping at the new Mt. Nebo Pointe in Ohio Township. Over the past three years, I watched developers with amazement as their bulldozers made that mountain low (and perhaps fill a valley or two) in order to place buildings on top of it. What was once an ordinary, forested and uninhabited hill is now a wide shopping complex with parking spaces to spare. At the top, the large Target logo beckons shoppers to come and spend to their hearts’ content. I confess the red-and-white bullseye has lured me more than once, but as I wind my way up that long road to the summit, I can’t help but think about the monumental effort it must have taken to prepare. Making room for just about any new construction in western Pennsylvania requires a good deal of mountain-carving.

The destruction of a nice piece of forested real estate notwithstanding, that transformed hill at Mt. Nebo Pointe, with its relatively straight roads to the summit, serves as a visual suggestion of the type of repentance and reflection that John expects of us as we wait for the Lord to arrive. In a season that usually focuses on being ready in terms of decorating, shopping and baking, John the Baptist reminds us that, in fact, all of that could get accomplished and we still might not be prepared for the Lord to transform our lives. Preparation for Jesus involves some internal mountain-carving. It entails re-prioritizing, re-adjusting, re-organizing the matters of the soul. John calls it repenting. When the crowd of passers-by ask John what this means, he replies with a practical example, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 3:11). Can’t you see the bulldozers working? Not only are wealth and possession re-distributed a little more evenly, but eyes are opened to take seriously the need for compassion. Oh, but how often we like the mountains to stay the way they are!

The good news is that, as John declares, the Lord will come. His kingdom will bring forgiveness and hope. It will come even to the tax-collectors and the sinners. Heeding the invitation-warning of John, we certainly trust that the Christ still visits us, often under the guise of a stranger in need or in the unexpected invitation to serve and the command to forgive. In light of this, we would do well to change our direction, change our outlook, and level down the habits and attitudes which, not unlike mountains, have obstructed our view of true life in Christ, the reality of that great love. It would be helpful to clear the terrain of our hearts, covered with the underbrush of apathy and conceit, so that his journey to us will be quick and its outcome fruitful.

Yes, we may fault you for being a little eccentric and pushy, Baptizer John, for getting in our way as we try to drive on past to wherever we’re going, but we need to hear your voice again and again: “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!”

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Make us channels of peace

I'm not an expert on the life of Francis of Assisi, but I do know he had one of the most dramatic and thoroughgoing experiences with the call of Jesus of all time. Sued by his father and brought into court with the hopes he'd change his ways and retrieve the property he'd already given away, Francis stripped himself of his father's clothes before the judge, renounced worldly possessions, and commenced on a path that brought forth a rule of living followed by thousands and eventual canonization. Francis traveled widely, preaching to all and serving the needs of the poor. He was reported to be one of the most humble and forgiving men of his time. He is often depicted with birds and animals and was fond of celebrating the beauty of God's creation.

One of the hymns that is attributed to him, "All Creatures of Our God and King," Lutheran Book of Worship #527, makes this point poetically evident. Like a cosmic symphony, each verse allows different choruses from God's creation to sing the praises of the Trinity, animate and inanimate alike:

"O rushing wind and breezes soft,
O clouds that ride the winds aloft:
O praise him! Alleluia!
O rising morn, in praise, rejoice,
O lights of evening, find a voice.
O praise him! O praise him! Alleluia..."

The most profound verse is the one where the humans finally chime in. As Francis writes it, the way in which humans join in the praise of God with creation is through forgiveness.

"O ev'ryone of tender heart,
forgiving others, take your part,
O praise him! Alleluia!"

This is no ordinary spiritual pantheism going on here. Humans, who alone in creation bear the guilt and mark of sin, must truly praise their Creator by showing forth the manner of reconciliation. The human creature therefore reflects the news of God's love by forgiving others and being of "tender heart." The verse ends, poignantly, with other human voices joining in praise of God. Which voices? Ones "who pain and sorrow bear." That is, the ones who know and understand the news of the resurrection are the ones who then can truly join in the paeans of eternity. In Francis' hymn, the only human singing is done by those who forgive and those who have felt the pain of sorrow and know to cast their burdens on God. No intelligent or famous voices. No powerful voices. No distinctively athletic or even "gifted" voices that can warble and hit the high notes. Forgiving voices and humble voices and hurting voices. This probably tells us as much about Francis' theology and his way of life as anything else.

"Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest...for my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

I think of the awful shooting this week in the Amish Country of eastern Pennsylvania. The perpetrator was carrying heavy burdens of grudges and self-hatred that eventually led to awful violence and bloodshed. If these crimes had happened many other places, they might have been greeted with a similar response. But the Amish grandfather of two of the slain girls is taking up the lighter burden of reconciliation: "Help us forgive others as they trespass against us. We must not think evil of this man [who did the killing]," he is reported to have said. His heart is surely breaking in the aftermath of these horrific events, but thankfully he is hearing that the yoke Christ offers is easier than the strangling yoke of seeking revenge. What a great example of the humans' part in Francis' hymn. May we all be so courageous to sing it with him.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

I'm back

After a bit of web-surfing tonight while I was putting together my sermon for tomorrow, I've decided that I need to be more diligent again about writing on this blog. The amount of good, intelligent writing that some people do on their blogs out there is astounding. I'm ashamed at my lack of entries. How do they have the time? I suppose they are just more intellectually active than I am. In defense of myself, I have been writing regularly (at least once a week) in a journal for over 3 years.

Tomorrow I'm addressing the topic of prophecy and ministry as it comes up in the story of Eldad and Medad in Numbers 11. I remember preaching this text on the Day of Pentecost on internship. It is an appropriate text to use for Pentecost because of the way the pericope ends: Moses says, "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!" Moses, in a statement of irony, serves as the perfect segue to the Good News of Pentecost. The Spirit has been placed on all of God's people! In baptism, we are anointed.

That, I think, is one of the central points to keep in mind in ministry. The holy ministry of announcing God's kingdom in word and deed belongs to the whole people of God, not just the ordained. Just as the prophecies of Eldad and Medad were not squashed by the "chosen" leaders, we should be careful as called church leaders not to run roughshod over other people's unexpected attempts at ministry. So often we are handed the reigns and told it's our wagon to drive. The temptation is to make it all about us. It is dangerous and improper, as my theology professor said, to build a congregation on the pastor's personality. I would add that it is also dangerous to build a congregation on a pastor's ideas for ministry.

What is important to notice is whether any particular of ministry is, in fact, building up and fostering the kingdom of God. If the ministry is spreading the word about Christ to people on the outside; if the ministry is seeking to include the "other;" if the ministry is of a reconciling nature, then it is prophetic. If, on the other hand, it serves to divide or frustrate the community's overall witness and focus the community in on itself, then it is probably not prophecy and is not the work of the Spirit. The thoughts and opinions of the community and its leaders must be continually brought to bear on these issues. As with so many things in Christianity, it is on ongoing process that fully takes into consideration our innate ability to "get things wrong" (sin) and Christ's innate habit of loving us back on track (grace).

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

4th-century faith

Today in my sermon preparation I ran across this treasure of a hymn written by Gregory of Nazianzus. It is so ancient, yet it still sounds as if it could have been written in this century. It even has some "I-me, my-me" characteristics like the hymns popular today. It fascinates me that words written by such a different person from me in such a different time could write something that still resonates with my faith today. How's that for the work of the Holy Spirit!

"O Word of Truth! in devious paths
my wayward feet have trod;
I have not kept the day serene
I gave at morn to God.

And now 'tis night, and night within;
O God, the light hath fled!
I have not kept the vow I made
when morn its glories shed.

For clouds of gloom from nether world
obscured my upward way;
O Christ the Light, thy light bestow
and turn my night to day!"

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Holy Trinity

The Holy Trinity is a true sayitanotherway topic, and this Sunday's festival gives us a perfect chance to talk about the Triune God again and again and again. For just about as long as the Christian faith has been around, people have been trying to articulate the Trinity--its nature, its personhood, its activity, its relationships. The challenge has been to say essentially the same thing a different way.

Each year I try to fight my hesitation and get revved up for this Sunday's challenge. I read up on how the Fathers described the Trinity; I pull out old seminary textbooks; I get scared that the old ghost of modalism will come haunting. How will I express the ineffable to the people in the pews if I can't do it for myself?

Then I wonder if I should focus more on using this festival to exalt and praise and give thanks to the Holy Trinity rather than trying to explain it. Will that do for proclamation? In fact, all our sermons should be based in teaching the Trinity, rather than just one a year. If we're doing our job as preachers, this doesn't have to be the one Sunday when we pull out the theological jargon and trinitarian doctrine. If we've properly addressed God in God's Three-ness and described God thus all along, this Sunday can serve more as the festival it is...a time to glory in God's holiness, to give ourselves back to God's own self-giving-ness.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

"Fell on Sleep"

I found myself making an unexpected and fun investigation today while I was trying to find out exactly when the liturgical reformer Luther Reed was serving this congregation back in the late 1800s. To figure this out, I had to open our church safe and consult our old parish registries. I opened the one begun in 1907, the year our parish moved out of the North Side of Pittsburgh and into its current location in Bellevue. I thought I could find my answer there, but I didn't.

However, I got distracted by all the beautifully scripted writing in the dusty old tome. The records had been kept impeccably by someone with an ink fountain pen, the kind you have a hard time finding nowadays. I scanned the names of the members at that time. I followed the entries across the page to find out the year they joined or were confirmed and then, a little further across under another column, when they were removed from the registry. Then, next to that, it had been recorded exactly "how" they were removed. A few of these boxes were left blank for some people, but for others it contained the reason: "lapse of membership" had been neatly written by several; a few others said, "killed in action inFrance" (indicating a casualty of WWI), and still others said, "letter." Beside those which said, "letter," another church name had been written, which I assumed was the church to which that person had transferred their membership in that year.

The most puzzling entry in the "how removed" column was something that, to the best I could tell, said "fell on sleep." At first I thought it read "fell on stoop," but then I noticed that dozens of people had this same entry, and they all clearly said "fell on sleep" (I also ruled out that 50 or more people couldn't have possibly all died from falling on a stoop. Too coincidental). I couldn't figure out what it meant. It would make the most sense if that meant those people were removed because they died, but I'd never heard that euphemism for death before. I called a colleague pastor who is generally pretty knowledgeable about these things, but as it turns out he'd also never heard of "fell on sleep" before. I hung up and called the Synod office, thinking they'd surely know. They didn't, either. Then, minutes later, the first colleague called me back with the answer. It turns out that "Fell on sleep" occurs in Acts 13:36 in the King James Version: "For David, after he hadserved his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep, and was laid unto his fathers..." All my colleague had to do to solve this mystery was Google the words "fell on sleep," and voila! he had it.

Although I now know what "fell on sleep" means, I still don't have an answer for another mystery: why was the record-keeper of my parish registry in 1907 so taken with the phrase? "Fell on sleep" is certainly another way to say "removed due to death," but it's not altogether that intuitive.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Psalm 118

A man in our congregation suffered a stroke two months ago. As far as we know, it has rendered his physical condition very poor, and at this point we should probably not expect him to regain any semblance of his former active life. I've been visiting him about twice a week since it happened, and I've seen his health ebb and flow like a tide against the pneumonia that threatens to form in his lungs. That's pretty much what's keeping him down, and nowadays the mere sight of me by his bedside can send him into severe coughing fits. Formerly, this man had been a great singer. The sight of him hooked to an oxygen tank now is heartbreaking. Yet, miraculously, his distinct dignity and affability shine through it all.

I have noticed that his eyes fill with water when I mention words like "prayer" and "psalms." Otherwise, his expressions are hard to read. His eyebrows move up and down a little bit, but he is unable to form words or sounds anymore. The effects of the stroke and the trach tube have prevented that. But the tears at least tell me something. He grips my hand tightly and knows to shut his eyes before I start saying "Dear Lord..." As he is now, he is unable to go many places—not even the bathroom—on his own, but he can still go to the Lord in prayer. He still knows it is better to "rely on the LORD than to put any trust in flesh." Even his own.

As I stare over him, struggling to understand his condition, I try to remind myself that God has been here before. This territory may be forsaken, but, because of Christ, it's also primarily not forsaken. I find it harder to remember the latter, and then to know what to do with it. Can I give a pat answer (even a theologically pat one would be nice) about what's happening to him? Can I search my limited pool of life experience for some rule of thumb about how we can faithfully respond to someone in such pain and torment? What can we say about such things other than offer our hope for a better night’s rest and another shot at things tomorrow? What can we do but sigh?

Back to his breathing, labored and painful: is it oxygen we need? Or is it the Spirit, God's breath, whom we should hope would fill our lungs, our lives? This noble man certainly has this. I think, however, of all kinds of people, healthy and in their prime, active and full of determination, who go about with so-called “quality of life,” yet whose life is empty of the Breath that could truly animate them. Their eyes probably would not tear up at words like "prayer" and "psalms."

Therefore, before I’m driven simply to sigh, I open the psalter and read to him at his tears’ request. My voice speaks verses that articulate faith much more profound than I could ever muster. And, feeling the grip of his hand, I trust without a doubt he is singing these Easter words with me:

"The right hand of the LORD has triumphed!
The right hand of the LORD is exalted!
The right hand of the LORD has triumphed!

I shall not die, but live,and declare the works of the LORD."

Thursday, April 06, 2006

circular reasoning?

Fortune cookie messages are fun. I never put any stock in them, but it's always interesting to hear what little nuggets of wisdom are crammed inside of mass-produced cookies.

The other day, however, I found one that was slightly puzzling...perhaps the first fortune cookie message I can agree with...or maybe the one that throws the whole industry out of whack.

It says, "Ask advice, but use your own common sense."

Doesn't that seem like self-fulfilling prophecy? Or a self-defeating contradiction? If I could truly trust my common sense, why would I need to consult a fortune cookie to tell me so (assuming fortune cookies are a form of advice)? Does this mean I no longer need even to entertain the possibility of trusting another fortune cookie message in the future? Have I just read my last fortune cookie message? If I'm the type of person who truly does need advice on regular occasions, do I trust a fortune cookie message that tells me I can actually trust my own common sense? What if my common sense tells me I need to ask advice?

Now I'm stuck, you see. Who thought this particular message was a good idea?

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Mark 3:7-12 - of parades and promise

The sheer numbers still astound me. The Pittsburgh Steelers had a victory parade in downtown yesterday and 250,000 people showed up. One quarter of a million people braved bitter cold temperatures, long waits, and ridiculously high parking fees in order to see a bunch of football heroes drive through the city. Perhaps more surprisingly, not one arrest was made. It was unarrested joy. The pictures show people standing so thick in the streets that the cars carrying the players look like boats navigating a sea of people. People in this town and throughout the so-called “Steeler Nation” have had their spirits so uplifted by this Super Bowl victory that they assemble in the hundreds of thousands from hundreds of miles away to celebrate. As I was talking with some lifelong Pittsburghers this week about this game, one of them said, “It’s about time we won that trophy! Twenty-six years we’ve had to wait for that!” as if the Vince Lombardi trophy belongs in this town and in no other. The mass of people gathered yesterday is ample evidence of the sense of relief this homecoming has brought to the city.

I can’t help but draw a comparison to the crowds who flock to see Jesus in the beginning of Mark’s gospel as he starts his ministry in Galilee. Literally, a plethora of people come from miles away—Tyre, Sidon, Jerusalem, Idumea, and from lands beyond the Jordan—in order to see him. And, in order not to be overcome and crushed by the crowds, like Hines Ward or Jerome Bettis, Jesus orders his disciples to have a boat ready so he may push out into the sea. Jesus does this, actually, at several points in the gospels, sometimes teaching to the masses from just off the shoreline. People sense relief that a wonderful miracle worker has arrived in the land—could he be the hero they have so long expected?—and they want to press upon him to touch his hand…touch his cloak…be healed…be made whole. While on some level it is good news that Jesus brings hope and healing through miracles and blessings to people, I think, in fact, the story of Jesus and the pushy plethora is actually another example of how we humans clamor and hunger for the instant fix. We have a tendency to flock to whatever might give us easy promise and quick relief. The prospect of actually waiting for deliverance makes us balk: “Can you believe we’ve had to wait 26 years for this?”

As we follow Jesus’ ministry from this point, the crowds seem to fall away as he gets in greater trouble with the Jewish authorities. Jesus begins to talk about his crucifixion and teach about suffering. We find out that Jesus will not chiefly be a miracle healer, who has come to take away our aches and pains at the touch of his cloak, (although it is true that death and sin stand no chance against his purifying powers). Rather, Jesus has come to be a sufferer. The ransom he will pay for many will come about not through dazzling works of healing and demon exorcisms, but through his dying. It is difficult to say whether this is the type of Savior that the plethora will want, but we have a good indication of this from what happens at his crucifixion. He dies almost utterly alone, the bulk of the crowds having given up on him. In fact, the only person left to make a declaration of faith when it’s all said and done is a solitary Roman soldier. Not exactly a parade.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian who died in a Nazi concentration camp after speaking out against Hitler’s regime, was also an outspoken critic of the church in Germany in his time. He understood that standing up for Jesus—truly following his call and wanting to be a part of his power in the world—entailed a good deal of suffering. Following Christ was not a “quick fix” that would end all problems. It meant perseverance through the grace of God in the face of the world’s temptations. In one of his letters from the concentration camp prison, Bonhoeffer writes, “It is not the religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.” In other words, when we truly see Jesus for who he is and what he does, we realize he has come not only to dispel our darkness and show God’s power and mercy point-blank, but to dispel our darkness and show God’s mercy through his own suffering. It is the call of the Christian to realize that if we are a part of Christ, we can’t help but also be led into the suffering of the world, even into our own suffering. We know that Jesus is victorious over sin and death and therefore we need not fear such darkness or let it convince us into thinking our faith is simply a set of religious actions or duties. Pressing in on Jesus is more than reaching for blessings for ourselves. It is stepping into the suffering of the world and bearing Christ’s blessing there.

Ironically, we begin to understand this because of what the demons say about Jesus in the gospels. In Marks’ gospel especially, it is the unclean spirits, not the plethora of people who identify Jesus for who he is, the Son of God. But Jesus commands them repeatedly to be silent. Jesus knows his story is not over yet, his messiah-ship not been fully defined. Although the unclean spirits correctly attest Jesus as the Son of God, he still has not gone to the cross. Jesus has not fully lived his identity as God’s Son and our Savior until he has suffered. In other words, Jesus without the cross is not fully Jesus.

What does this say to us? For one, we always view Jesus and therefore, God, through the lens of the cross. Without that central event, nothing that Jesus does or says bears any lasting significance. He would be just another authoritative miracle worker. But our God redeems us through his self-giving death, and Jesus is more than just a specialist doctor that we go to when things start getting rough for us.

Secondly, it says that because we know that Jesus has conquered death already we may be freed to embrace our suffering and our fears and that we may expect new life when we do. Jesus bears with us in the long haul, not just on the sunny days of the parade. Sometimes that involves a little waiting, but it is a promise made good by his blood.

And thirdly, the gospel means that we have been given the power and gifts to meet the world wherever and whenever it is suffering—wherever people are waiting for peace and justice and mercy—for the sake of God. It means we must not rush to cling to false hopes and quick fixes but point others (as well as ourselves) to the crucified One—the only one—who gives life eternal.

This is joy. This is unbridled, unarrested joy.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Presentation of Our Lord

I have a particular nativity scene that I set up at Christmas that my mother got for me in Peru one year. Each of the clay figurines of the nativity scene—Mary, Joseph, the infant Jesus on a hay-pile and two animals—are designed and painted to look like the Qero Indians who live high in the Andes Mountains there. So many nativity scenes put on display at Christmas-time try hard to make the figurines look like the real Bible characters. This one doesn’t. Its makers took the meaning of the incarnation so seriously that they turn the Holy Family into a Qero village scene. For example, Mary has braids and wears a small hat, just like most Qero women do. Baby Jesus is shown looking like a baby Qero Indian: he is tightly wrapped in a papoose, much like many native peoples conveniently bind up their babies to keep them warm and easy to transport. My favorite aspect of the nativity scene is actually the two animals: a llama and an ox, two animals that Qero Indians tend. Nativity stories in the gospels don’t specifically say animals were present at Jesus’ birth, but if there were, I highly doubt llamas were there. They are only found high in the Andes Mountains where the Qero Indians live. At first sight, this Peruvian nativity scene seems a little strange, but soon it becomes endearing. Instead of imagining what the Mary, Joseph, and Jesus looked like and might have worn as a first-century Jewish family and forming their figurines in that image, the Qero Indians astutely observe that if Jesus was, in fact, God made human, he could have looked something like them—human that they are.
The letter to the Hebrews tells us this about God’s action in Jesus Christ: “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death…[Christ] had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a faithful high priest in the service of God…” (2:14-15, 17). No matter what our nativity scenes at Christmas look like, the message of the incarnation is that the God who has created us—whether we are Pittsburghers or Qero Indians or first-century Jews—has become like us in order to save us from death and sin.
To be sure, the story of Israel and Jesus’ Jewish identity should not be forgotten: Jesus was indeed an Israelite born to a certain Mary 2000 years ago in Bethlehem and not in Peru. Nevertheless, the Qero Indian nativity scene reminds me of this powerful truth that always needs repeating: God has put on human flesh. Jesus is born for us and presented to us as one of us. Our God is not so distant and removed that he does not want to get physically involved in the often messy goings-on of this creation—like an offensive coordinator in a football game who stays way up in the booth calling shots on his Motorola radio system. God doesn’t even coach us from the sidelines. Rather, we know that God actually gets in the game with us. God loves us immensely—enough to become like us in each and every way and bear the bruises and scrapes and sufferings of human existence. He experiences childhood. He learns from his parents and follows Jewish law. He lives under a harsh government and experiences the loss of several friends. He knows betrayal, wedding bliss, and temptation. But although the life of Jesus Christ is filled with these very common and regularly painful human experiences, none of them is undertaken simply so that God may relate to humankind and as one former president would say, “feel our pain.” As the writer of Hebrews reminds us, Jesus becomes like us in every respect so that he may be a “faithful and merciful high priest to God and make atonement for our sins.” God undertakes the human experience through Christ—even to the point of death on the cross—so that we may then be free of death and sin and undertake God’s experience. That is our salvation. That is our redemption. God becomes human so that humans may become divine.
That is what the writer of Hebrews is saying to us, and why I so enjoy the message behind the Qero Indian nativity scene: no matter what pain and trial and torment we feel as humans on this earth, Christ has felt it, lived it, endured it—and been crushed by it, too. However, we also must remember that he has conquered it all and is risen from the dead. Jesus is presented to us so that we may ultimately be like him, even in his risen glory.
That is why it is indeed good and right—it is salutary for our human existence—for us to gather at the table of God’s priestly sacrifice and eat and drink of these common, earthy gifts as often as we can. Sharing the Eucharist every week is one gracious way in which we are presented again and again with the message of His Presentation: God has given us his very life. Gathering in the temple as Jesus’ true family and partaking of God’s Word in Scripture and the sacraments are akin to keeping a nativity scene out year-round. We are offered the very salvation that God has prepared in the presence of you and me and the Qero Indians and all peoples everywhere, a true light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to God’s people, Israel.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Epiphany of our Lord

On this festival of our Lord's Epiphany, I reflect on how Jesus is given as a light to the nations. In Matthew's gospel, distant easterners are drawn to his light and welcomed into the family of those who worship Jesus as Lord, yet their visit is met with anger and jealousy by Herod and the Jerusalem establishment. The quaint image of the wise men offering their gifts is quickly followed by Herod's killing rampage throughout Judea and the Holy Family's flight to Egypt.

It is so tempting to make our Christian faith a personal, individual affair, but the message of Epiphany reminds us that Jesus enters and brings peace and justice to the messiness of the world not just the messiness of our sinful little hearts. While some may argue that inner peace--internal conversion and relationship with God--is necessary before we can radiate that peace and love to the earth around us ("Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me," says the schmaltzy hymn), the message of Epiphany reminds us that the gospel can never stop there. Jesus upsets the world order, favors outcasts over insiders--yet does not neglect the insiders, either. In fact, we in the wealthy west might hear the Epiphany story as law: how have we become complacent in relying too much on our governments, our capitalistic societies, our elite systems of higher education, and structures of human rights to affect "change" in the world and bring peace to the warring nations.

Today I pray for the women and men who work in global missions, as well as those ordinary Christians who strive to bring their faith to bear beyond the boundaries of their own souls and families. In the spirit of Epiphany, may we all be primed to welcome the strangers in our midst to the peace of the Lord Jesus.