Benediction Online

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Becoming Light-bearers

John 1:1-18 

Today we will have 26 more seconds of light than yesterday and tomorrow we will have thirty seconds more than today. The year has turned and almost imperceptibly the days are getting longer. It can’t happen soon enough for me: I love long summer evenings. Amazingly enough, light is so important to us and to our basic functioning that if we are severely light deprived for any length of time the neurons in our brains actually begin to die.[1] So perhaps it’s not surprising that Jesus is called the light of the world. The Gospel of John says, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
But later Jesus told his followers “You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14). The light which came into the world through Jesus is also the light which is in us. We prayed together the collect for today, “Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives.”
“Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives.” That’s what I want to talk about today. How do we become the light of the world? How does that light shining in the darkness become the light shining out of us into the darkness of a troubled world?
The first thing I notice is that John’s Gospel says, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” So light starts as life and that is where we must start. You all know that if I switch on a light but pull the cord out of the wall it will go off. You also know that it’s not magic, but inside the wall is a set of wires which transmit an electrical current. They get that from the wires coming into the building which get it from the transformer on the top of the pole by the road and it gets it from a cable which connects to an electrical substation and so on through the grid until we find the source which may be Diablo Canyon or may be the California Valley Solar Ranch in California Valley or somewhere quite different.
It’s the same way with spiritual light. We are not the source. We are the light fixtures and the bulbs. We get to radiate light but it isn’t ours and it never will be. In order to be the light of the world you have to be plugged into the life which is Christ. We don’t have long-life batteries so it’s not enough to plug in once in a while – you need to be plugged in to the source in order to shine and then we can let the life and light flow through us.
This is one of the most basic mistakes we make. We forget that light and power are always flowing and in order for them to flow through us we have to get out of the way. We have to become clear channels for the life of Christ expressed as light to flow through us as a blessing to our world. If we are full of ourselves there is no room for us to be filled up by Christ. Being full of ourselves can take many forms: it can be pride and selfishness, it can be worry and anxiety, it can be resentment and anger, it can be egotism and an unhealthy narcissism.
So step 1 is to get plugged in and stay plugged in. For most of us being plugged in is going to feel rather intermittent at times and that’s one of the reasons we need faith community – we can help each other to stay connected to the source. We may feel most connected when we’re alone looking at the sunset, but that feeling is fed and renewed by the spiritual rituals and practices we share together. Praising God, participating in the eucharist, prayer, Bible study, spiritual reading, and singing hymns and spiritual songs are the most time honored ways to plug in.
Once you’re plugged in Step 2 is to keep it flowing. “Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives.” To keep it flowing we have to get our little egos out of the way. We need to ask God to gracefully clear away all the blocks that prevent our light from shining brightly. And if we are serious about it, God will do just that. But it takes work from us too. We will start to notice places that we are out of integrity with ourselves. Little things like cursing at other drivers may start to feel not quite right. We may find that we have to go back and forgive our mothers, or our kindergarten teacher or the person who abused us. We may have to change some habits. Becoming a clear channel of God’s light is the process of sanctification or becoming holy and it is a process of cleansing and growing.
Step 3 is to give our light to others in service. This may not mean volunteering at the Abundance Shop or helping with Senior Nutrition. It may be simple things such as always smiling at people we pass or calling the checker at Vons by his or her name, or praying for each person we pass or each person we meet.  It may be praying daily for a few people we know are in special need, or for those we identify as enemies. It is an inner attitude as much as an external activity. In fact I hesitate to make service Step 3, because it is really an extension of Step 2 – keep the juice flowing.
Electricity has to flow. If it stops it doesn’t work. It’s exactly the same with spiritual light. It has to keep flowing and every time we stop the flow we block the light. Every time we block the light we stop the flow. Having an attitude of service is vital to keep the channel clear.
As is humility. This is not about us. This is about the light, God’s light, coming into the world. We are the way the light gets externalized but we are not the light. As we connect more and more deeply with God’s unconditional love we get plugged in to the abundant life but it’s not something we get to keep for ourselves, it has to flow out to the world around us, and the channel gets stronger and clearer as we get our personalities out of the way. The miraculous thing is that as we clean up our acts and the light flows more powerfully so we are more fulfilled. So in an odd way it is about us. It’s about us because it is what we were made to do.
We are made to be the lights of the world. And there’s a sort of contagious activity – the more you shine, the more other people around you will shine, and those who are longing for the light will be drawn to you and will start to find that they too can plug in to the source so that it grows organically. There are people all over the world who are light-bearers and we can imagine seeing the world from a long distance how all those points of light will shine together forming a shining mass of light all around the planet. The brighter that light shines the more miracles we will see, the more civil wars prevented, the more cooperation developing, even between hardened enemies. That can’t help but happen because, “What has come into being in the Word was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
I want to be part of that light and I hope that you will join me. Let’s pray together one more time the collect for today:
Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

What did the angels sing?

I don’t think I’ve missed a single Christmas in church. I missed Easter when I was eight years old and had chicken pox, but even in my young adult years when I thought there was no place for me in church, I went to a service every Christmas. So I know the readings and the carols pretty well.  So I know that the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” But not tonight. The translation we use these days for the Gospel we just heard has them singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” “Peace among those whom he favors.” What kind of a blessing is that?

Does it mean that if you had a big fight with your spouse on the way here and you’re feeling far from peaceful that you’re NOT one of those God favors; or that people living in Juba, the capital of South Sudan where civil war is threatening to break out, are clearly not God’s favorites? That the way to know if God likes you is to see how peace-filled your life is?

I don’t think so. We’re not here to celebrate the Prince of Peace who brings peace to those he particularly likes. We’re here to celebrate Emmanuel – God with us – God with all of us, no exceptions.

So did the angelic choir mess up, sing the wrong notes, get the words wrong?

I took a look at the original Greek and found that this phrase is not easy to translate directly into English. As you know, that sometimes happens with languages, words don’t map exactly one to another. Like when you say “I’m sorry” in Spanish: lo siento doesn’t translate directly as the English “I’m sorry” – it’s more literally “I feel it.”

In the same way the angel’s chorus doesn’t make good English, “Glory in highest and on earth peace to humans with whom he is well pleased.” It’s a little difficult to tell whether the Greek means “peace to those few humans who God likes” or “peace to humans who are all favored by God.”

I think we have to decide how to read it by considering what else we know about the character of God. Is God more likely to have a few favorites or more likely to favor humans as a species?   I’m going for humans as a species because there is abundant evidence in the scriptures that God loves all beings and has given humanity a special role to play in the salvation history of the cosmos. To be sure there is also some exclusionary language but the broad sweep of the Gospel message us that God loves all of us, every one. So, we can translate it, “Peace on earth to humans whom God is just crazy about.”

We’ve been hearing this for years. Perhaps you haven’t heard it every Christmas of your life as I have. But you’ve heard it enough times. You know what the angels sing; “Peace on earth goodwill to man.”

Yet the funny thing is, that most of us go on behaving as though it applies to someone else. Most of us go on living as if God is mad at us. As if the people whom God favors are someplace else, or are better than us in some way.

And let’s face it, there are Christians who behave like that’s the truth, like God only likes a limited selection of people, specifically the ones who think like them. And they think that if we understand how mad God is at the rest of us that we’ll choose to be like them too.  But that’s not what the Gospel says. God breaks through the God-human barrier. God incarnates in baby-flesh and the first thing She says to us is “Peace.” “Peace, to all of you earth-beings whom I love to pieces.”

What a difference it might make in our lives if we really believed that - if we really believed that God loves each one of us absolutely and completely, and longs for us to be friends with God and with each other. How differently might we treat one another if we truly saw each other as God’s beloved. How differently would we respond to our inner voices of anger, contempt, and self-criticism if we knew that God loves us more than we love or have ever loved anyone or anything.

God comes to us and says “Peace”. More than two thousand years ago in earth time, and we still haven’t got the message. We still make anxiety and fear, criticism and division, fighting and war. We still “kill people who are killing people to show that killing people is wrong.” We still cause suffering among both humans and animals in order to have inexpensive gourmet food. Anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness in this country, effecting almost 1 in 5 people.[1] More than 30,000 Americans die each year as a result of gun violence alone.

God comes to us and says, “Peace.” The love of God is like a great safety net which will never leave us or desert us. With that safety net under us we no longer need to be afraid. We no longer need to worry. It doesn’t mean that everything will be hunky-dory. That’s just not the way of this world. There will be times of pain and suffering. Times of confusion and times when everything falls apart. But underneath there is always God’s voice saying “Peace.”

The shepherds were not the only ones in Bethlehem that night. Yet it seems that they were the only ones who were still enough to hear the angels singing. God’s voice is often a quiet one because God never forces himself on us. We have to listen under the noise and the fear of our world to hear that gentle loving voice saying “Peace - peace to you whom I love to pieces.” And when we take the time to listen for it, when we take the time to allow that peace and love to transform our own lives, then it becomes a gift which we too share with our world. Then we can take the risk to say no to escalating conflict with our neighbors, our friends and our family and we can send love and peace through prayer to the situations and places where peace is fragile.

For God’s peace is never fragile. It is the strongest thing there is.
Remember the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to humans whom God is just crazy about!"

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Virgin Birth? Really?

Isaiah 7:10-16

People often feel a need to tell me why they don’t come to church. The most frequent excuse is that they just can’t manage Sunday mornings. The second most frequent is that they don’t believe in the virgin birth. Personally I have no more difficulty believing in the virgin birth than in believing that Jesus walked on water but for some reason it is a stumbling block to many people who live around here.

The gospel of Mark, the earliest of the four, doesn’t even mention Jesus’ birth – that’s not important to Mark who jumps straight into Jesus’ ministry. Luke and Matthew, which were both written later, give us extensive birth narratives designed to demonstrate that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. There are many prophecies in the Old Testament that they were keen should be seen to be applied to Jesus. That’s why Luke has Joseph and Mary trudging to Bethlehem for an imagined census – because Jesus is clearly from Nazareth but the Messiah must be in the line of David and from Bethlehem.

In this morning’s reading from Matthew, a prophecy which may have been intended just for King Ahaz who reigned in the 8th century BCE is used to show that Jesus must be the Messiah because he was born of a virgin. We heard it in the first reading. The Hebrew uses a word which can mean virgin but also just means young woman. Another, more specific, word for virgin was not used. Young woman makes more sense in the context of Ahaz who is being told that the two countries he is currently afraid of will soon no longer exist. So we could paraphrase the prophecy as “That young pregnant woman will have a son and before he’s old enough to know the difference between right and wrong he’ll be eating the rich milk of grazing cows.”

Some scholars think that the writer of Matthew made a mistake based on a poor translation. When the Hebrew scriptures were first translated into Greek, “young woman” was rendered as parthenos - “the virgin”. So when Matthew was scanning the scriptures looking for prophecies that Jesus fulfilled, he stumbled on this one and incorporated it into his story. However, this idea has been dispute for nineteen centuries. In the second century Irenaeus argued that the Greek translators knew exactly what they were doing when they chose to use the word parthenos -  the technical term for virgin, rather than choosing a more general word.

After nineteen centuries this isn’t an argument that will be resolved anytime soon. So you can decide for yourself – a true prophecy about a miraculous virgin birth or a misunderstanding based on a poor translation.

Translations aside, there were good reasons for declaring Jesus’ birth to be a miracle. The early church was operating within the Roman Empire where every important leader was declared to have had some kind of miraculous birth. According to the historian Suetonius, the birth of Caesar Augustus was divine. His mother Atia fell asleep in the Temple of Apollo and Apollo impregnated her - making Augustus a divine son of God. So, Caesar Augustus was called the Son of God, Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace, Savior of the world. Sound familiar?[1]

In this cultural climate, the early church may have felt that Jesus needed to be elevated from just a Palestinian peasant who happened to be God to a clearly august person who happened to be a peasant. According to Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan, if Jesus was going to compete with Caesar, he was going to need an "upgrade" - and virgin birth was the most convenient route. So the church developed stories about his birth and tied them in to ancient texts which were immortalized in the stories of Luke and Matthew, and as a result we celebrate the ox and the ass and the drummer boy – all myths that we have more recently attached to Jesus’ birth.

Early theologians grappling with the question of what Jesus was all about,  found the virgin birth very important, because if Jesus was conceived through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit then he was truly God and human – both/and. This became extremely important in the debates of the first few centuries as the church sought to understand how Jesus’ life, death and resurrection brought salvation. If we throw out the virgin birth then we are left with a serious question, how did God get into Jesus? Was he the Son of God when he was born, and if so how? or did God adopt him later – perhaps at his baptism? Or maybe he wasn’t God, anymore than you and I are God.

These were not just academic arguments but issues of life and death because Christianity was the first religion to be based on faith rather than ritual. If we define faith as the ideas we believe then it’s really important that we get it right. If Jesus is not God as well as human than how can he have a unique mediating role between God and human? The idea of God incarnating, becoming flesh, in Jesus is foundational to our understanding. If God didn’t get into Jesus at the time of conception, when did he? When did God incarnate?

Thus for the early church it became very important to believe that, as both Matthew and Luke testify, Jesus was born of a virgin. Which is why we have it in our creeds. They were written to resolve the major issues of the day, and one of those was whether Jesus was both fully God and fully human. The virgin birth takes care of that.

Does it really matter? Is it important for us today to believe that Mary was a virgin? I don’t think so. It doesn’t make any difference to the presence of God in our lives. It doesn’t make any difference to our co-creating the reign of God through the power of the Holy Spirit. So if you have been crossing your fingers behind your back every time we say the Nicene Creed and mention the virgin birth, you can relax.

But I do think it’s important that we study scripture and grapple with these questions. Because it is as we use our God given minds to question and to debate, then the Holy Spirit fills and inspires them. To decide that you don’t believe in the virgin birth or in any other theological idea without exploring what it means and why Christians have thought it important is just the same as accepting everything on blind faith. We are formed into mature Christians as we allow the Holy Spirit to transform our minds as well as our hearts.

Before I close, I want to raise a very important question. What does it do for us if we imagine Mary to have been a sweet gentle naïve virgin who just allowed God to have his way with her, and always said yes?

I think it does us a serious disservice. We have very few models of women in holy scriptures and most of them are only quickly mentioned. If the one archetype of femininity that we have is portrayed as a submissive rose petal, then it allows us to perpetuate the idea that women should be submissive to men and submissive to their lot in life and submissive to crap, because it is obviously God’s will.

There is another way of looking at virginity as metaphor. We can see the virgin as one who is complete in herself, who retains her own authority and does not give her power or herself away unless and until she chooses. This virgin is an equal with the men in her life and fights for the things that she and her loved ones need to survive and flourish.

So, let us replace those mental images of a timid virgin wrapped in blue and smiling sweetly with the picture of a feisty young woman who had the guts to argue with an angel, who agreed to be the mother of God with all the grief that that would surely bring and who was deeply loved by her fiancé, Joseph; so deeply loved that he risked social disgrace and, trusting in a dream, went ahead and married her. Mary was no shrinking violet but a powerful young woman and a force to be reckoned with.

Was she physically a virgin? Was Jesus God? Did God incarnate?

Luke says later, “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Let us follow her example and ponder in our hearts the true meaning of Jesus’ birth even in these last few busy days before Christmas.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Remembering Mandela

Isaiah 11:1-10

Bill Clinton said. “Today the world has lost one of its most important leaders and one of its finest human beings. History will remember Nelson Mandela as a champion for human dignity and freedom, for peace and reconciliation.” The Dalai Lama added,  “The best tribute we can pay to him is to do whatever we can to contribute to honoring the oneness of humanity and working for peace and reconciliation as he did.”

Peace and reconciliation. The things that Mandela will be remembered for. But as a young man he believed that armed resistance was necessary, he was imprisoned for attempting to sabotage the country’s power grid and, following the lead of the South African government, the United States put him on the known terrorist list. He remained there until 2008, just five years ago.

During his years in prison, Mandela the angry young man, matured into the elder statesman who led his country to the end of apartheid and a new South African constitution based on non-discrimination.

John the Baptizer appeared in the desert preaching a new standard of holiness. No longer was it enough to say that one was a cradle Episcopalian. Now, he said, you needed to show that you were walking your talk. It was time to show the fruits of repentance, because the kingdom of God was near. 

When Jesus started his ministry, he too preached that the kingdom of God was near. But whereas John seems to have imagined its coming as a time when the religious people of the day would meet their maker and be held to account, Jesus’ first declaration of the kingdom was liberty. He talked about preaching good news to the poor, about proclaiming release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, about setting at liberty those who are oppressed, and proclaiming the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19)

Later Jesus would talk about the kingdom as something inner, saying “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:20-21) The Greek there can also mean “within you.” Thus, “the kingdom of God is within you.”

So we have three possible images here: John’s day of wrath, Jesus’ freeing of captives and the older Jesus’ inner kingdom. Which is the reign of God?

The answer of course is “Yes”.

The reign of God is all those things.

As the reign grows within and among us so there will be many parts of our own lives that are not bearing fruit and need to be axed. There may be cherished stories about how we have been hurt, bundles of unexplored resentment or behaviors which served us well in the past but are no longer serving God. As we let go of these things which have held us back, we are more and more able to build the inner reign of unconditional love, forgiveness and serenity. And as we do that, our lives will less and less rotate around our own needs and confusions, giving us more energy to serve others and to work to make the outer world one where justice happens.

During his time in prison, Nelson Mandela changed. Perhaps John the Baptizer would also have changed had he lived long after he was imprisoned.  Perhaps the firebrand in the desert would have changed into a man preaching peace and reconciliation. Or maybe not. Because maybe we need to approach peace and reconciliation with the passion of the angry young man, with the passion of the wild prophet.

It’s easy for us to think that by being generally nice people and not bothering our neighbors, we are living the reign of God, but the reign of God is much more demanding. The reign of God calls us to radically change our inner attitudes and to work tirelessly for the world that Jesus proclaimed. The one where there is good news for the poor and liberty for the captive. A world where, instead of our prisons being filled to overflowing with mainly black people, they are empty because the causes of crime have been eliminated. A world where everyone has access to adequate health care. A world where no-one goes hungry and no-one dies of obesity.

The reading for Isaiah this morning gives us that wonderful image of the end of violence:
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

That is our vision. That is what we are working towards. A day when the knowledge of God brings peace, a day when there is no more violence and no more fear. A day when people work cooperatively together. And there are glimmers of hope. There is less war between countries than ever before. There are many people who are doing good things; there are many people who are reaching out to strangers.

One iconic image of Mandela is his wearing a green Springbok’s rugby shirt – the symbol of white South African machismo. He knew that if apartheid were to end in South Africa, rugby had to become a sport which was safe for people of all skin colors. He reached out to strangers, specifically in this case to the Springbok captain, and through doing that helped to make sure that the new South Africa would have room for all. He embodied peace and reconciliation. But it took many hundreds and thousands of people following his example to prevent civil war. People just like you and me - people working quietly and persistently for peace and reconciliation.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord; build the royal road, the road of peace. There is much to be done. The time is now. It is time to make peace in our own hearts with all the resentments and irritations and anger that disturb our serenity. It is time to reach out and try to make peace with those we have offended or hurt. It is time to work for peace in our world by working to eliminate the inequities and injustices which are the basis of conflict.

Mandela once said, “If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.” We might paraphrase that and say “If there are dreams about a beautiful reign of God, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord: the road of Goodness and Forgiveness.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

It'll be alright in the end

Did anyone hear the beginning of Prairie Home Companion yesterday? Garrison Keillor told a long story about how James Joyce and Marcel Proust, two of the great geniuses of twentieth century literature, met at a party. The other guests were very excited, hoping to hear great pearls of wisdom drop from their lips. It soon became apparent that they were not familiar with each others work, and Proust explained that he was too busy writing because he was afraid he would die soon. As he began to expound on the symptoms of his illness, Joyce became engaged and allowed as how he too had these symptoms and soon, to the disappointment of the crowd, the two men were deep in conversation about their aches and pains.

This was not surprising, said Keillor because it is our complaints that really bring us together. And so he declared that this Thanksgiving we should also be thankful for the things we have to complain about.

I know that I often slip into complaining and talking about what’s not going right more than what is, but that’s old conditioning, it’s not the path of the gospel.

A couple of weeks ago, I heard a talk by Mike Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, who said that we cannot afford to be pessimistic and defeatist. There is too much to be done, and too much that is hopeful. Although the disaster of climate change seems unavoidable and the leaders of the world seem unable and unwilling to take decisive action, yet, he said, a great deal has been achieved and 100% clean energy is possible in the United States within a few decades.

We cannot allow ourselves the privilege of pessimism.

We cannot allow ourselves the privilege of pessimism. We cannot allow ourselves to connect primarily through our misery and complaining, however familiar and comfortable that is. Because pessimism is the opposite of preparation, and misery is the opposite of hope, and if there’s one word that sums up everything we believe it is hope.

The first reading this morning is one of tremendous hope. At a time of terrible political difficulty for the small kingdom of Judah, Isaiah opens a great and unlikely vision. There will come a time when all the nations, even the ones now threatening war, will come to Jerusalem to find God and to find peace. A time when God will arbitrate disputes and the peoples of the world “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

A great and wonderful vision which provided hope for a threatened people; a vision which still provides hope for us today. There will come a time when everything works out. That’s the hope of Christ Triumphant who we celebrated last Sunday – that in the end everything will get sorted out, there will be justice, there will be no more war. There will be no more suffering, there will be no more evil, the whole of creation will visibly be in alignment with the Christ.

As the ever-hopeful Sonny in the film the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel explains, “Everything will be alright in the end... if it's not all right then it's not yet the end.”

That is our hope. We don’t know exactly how, what and when it will be but “everything will be alright in the end.”

In the meantime, that doesn’t give us an excuse to sit back and do nothing. In fact, rather the opposite. The only thing we can be sure of is that the end whatever that is, is a little closer today than yesterday… the night is far gone, the day is near… and it is our calling to work for the coming of the light. We are called to be lightworkers, bringing the light of the Christ into the world. Even as the days grow shorter and there is more darkness, our calling is to increase the inner light by holding on to hope and living as if the reign of God really is here now today.

How will you live in the coming commonwealth where there is no more fighting, no more war, no more suffering? Can you imagine a world of peace and gentleness, a place of praise and thanksgiving? How would you do things differently if this were already the holy Jerusalem, the city of God?

That is how we are called to live today, as though our swords have already been beaten into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks. But this is not a Polyanna-ish picture of a fairytale land. This is the vision God has given us, and as co-creators with God we get to help bring that vision into a reality. Even while we live in the midst of difficulty and suffering. Even in the midst of this muddle we are called to live with the hope that this is not yet the end.

In the gospel reading Jesus reminds us that we have no idea how long we have. This is no time for procrastination; it’s time to work for the light, to work for the reign of God here and now, not in some future far-off realm. There will be, he says, two people shopping at Costco – one will be taken, the other left behind. He gives us no criteria for why one shopper will be “taken” and another left. We don’t know that the one “left behind” is less in a state of grace than the one taken. We don’t know if he’s talking about physical death or some kind of ascension. We don’t know.

There is so much we don’t know.

But we do know that resurrection happens. We do know that there will be a day when the inherent violence of humanity will be transformed into peaceful cooperation. We do know that Everything will be alright in the end... and if it's not all right then it's not yet the end.”

That is our hope. That is what keeps us going. That is what we have to offer the world. So let us set aside the works of darkness, let us replace complaining with quiet optimism. As we hang our Christmas lights let us resolve to be lights in the darkness; lights of hope in a pessimistic world.