Benediction Online

Friday, December 25, 2015

Peace and Goodwill for All?

Earlier this week I went to buy a bottle of wine for a gift. I really don’t know much about wine so it’s always a bit of a challenge to guess from the outside what the wine in the bottle will taste like, especially if I want to buy something that costs more than my normal $5 budget. 

As I was wondering around looking at wine labels, a man came up to me. He knew who I was and he’s someone I’ve seen around town but I think it was our first conversation. He told me that he grew up in the Episcopal Church and shared his conviction that there is a benevolent being whom we might call God. 

But that’s were things get sticky for him. Religion is the problem. Or perhaps I should say religions, and their claims to exclusivity.

Jim – that’s not his real name – Jim was put off by the idea that you have to be a Christian to be ok with God. And he’s not the only one. This is a conversation I have quite often. Like most people, Jim is very uncomfortable about religions which claim to have the true path. He sees them as divisive and potentially dangerous.

It is a huge issue for us today. We see Muslims who have literalized jihad proselytizing with guns; we hear people calling for only genuine Christians to be allowed into the country which harkens back to the Spanish Inquisition; and most of us know at least one person who thinks we’re going to hell.
Yet tonight we celebrate the big bang of Christianity – the event which keeps on and on impacting our world – the birth of Jesus the Christ. However ambivalent we may be about the religious implications, there is something thrilling in the coming of God in the birth of a small child in a dirty stable in occupied Palestine…

And no one there was a Christian.

When the angels sang “Peace on earth, goodwill to all” they were not singing to Christians; those who heard them may have been Jewish but whether the shepherds were religiously observant Jews we will never know. The angels’ greeting was not exclusive to one group of people, it was to all humanity.

Or was it? 

You may have noticed in tonight’s Bible reading, the angels actually sing,
"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"

Which is a little problematic. Why only those whom he favors? And whom does he favor? All shepherds? All farmworkers? Or only Palestinian shepherds?

This is one of those places where the Bible gets a little fuzzy in translation. A more literal version of the Greek would be “Esteem in highest to God and on land peace in humans well-seeming.”[1] So who are the well-seeming humans?

It’s us. We are the humans that God finds delightful. There is no indication that the angelic choir is referring to only one bunch of humans but rather to ALL well-seeming, delightful humans – the ones that God loves – the ones whom God created and is pleased with. God chose to become human. Isn’t that astonishing? Would I choose to go and live as a poor person in Palestine today? No I wouldn’t.

Yet God did. And conditions back then were as bad, and probably a lot worse than they are now. And it wasn’t the birthplace of Jesus back then. It was just Bethlehem, a small town in a country occupied by the Romans. Yet the amazing, awesome and all-Compassionate God chose to be born there as a human. To become one of us in the same way that we are conceived and born; to be brought up by human parents in a fairly normal human family, and to experience what it is to live in a human body with all its joys and pains and limitations. The limitless God chose to be limited.

And because we are limited to being in one time and place, so God had to incarnate at one time and in one place. And here we are two thousand years later, still trying to work out the implications.
And we don’t always get them right. It is very human to want to belong to the best family, the best group, the best nation. We increase our security when we feel good about the people and ideals that we are engaged with. But when we feel that the ground is shifting uneasily beneath us, when we are afraid that the peace and civility that we are used to is being threatened by random acts of violence, then we want to circle the wagons even closer. We want to say that we’re right and that in order to be OK you have to be like us, the well-seeming ones. In order for us to be the well-seeming ones then others must be wrong and potentially bad.

But that isn’t the gospel. The gospel is that God became human and dwelled among us. The gospel is that Jesus the Christ died precisely because he opposed the restrictive and oppressive policies of the religious authorities. Jesus was not founding a religion – he was challenging the matrix of sin and violence which humans create even with the very best of intentions. He showed that there is another way; the way of peace and non-violence.

We saw an amazing example of people taking that other way this week. In Kenya, a bus with 100 passengers was on a journey into a dangerous area. It would usually have had a police escort, but the police car broke down so it went ahead without a guard. Al-Shabaab militants ambushed it. Brandishing guns, they ordered the Muslims to get out so that they could kill the Christians.
But they refused. The Muslim women gave Christian women their hijabs and helped others to hide. They told the militants, “If you want to kill us, then kill us. There are no Christians here." The militants killed one man who tried to escape but left the rest alone.

The Interior Cabinet Secretary of Kenya, whose name I will not try to pronounce, said “We are all Kenyans, we are not separated by religion.”[2]

We are all well-seeming humans, we are not truly separated by false boundaries of religion or race. We are all beloved of God who chose to be born among us, Emmanuel - God with Us. The women on the bus in Kenya truly followed the teachings of Christ yet they do not identify as Christians. They understood that fear divides us and turns us against each other, but that love binds us together in solidarity against the very forces that Jesus came to expose as ultimately powerless.

In human terms their action was a huge risk and an example of great bravery. In the gospel’s way of seeing things it was an act of the reign of God. The parable of the Good Samaritan writ large. This is what Christmas is about. The reality that God loves us, every last well-seeming one of us. God loves us enough to become human. And “with a love like that,” as the Beatles sang many years ago, “you know you should be glad.”

That is why we rejoice this evening. Not because we know we’re going to heaven because we’re good Christians. Not because Jesus is the only way to God, but because of God’s great and unconditional love, demonstrated in the birth of the God-child.

Because God loves each one of us and finds us well-seeming. And God loves those Muslim women in Kenya and God loves the Al-Shabaab militants just as much.

And we rejoice because in Jesus the Prince of Peace we have been shown another way. The way of non-violent, peaceful resistance. The kind of resistance that was shown by Rosa Parks, the kind that was shown by the Muslim people in Kenya this week.

“Peace on earth, goodwill to humans in whom God delights” will remain the words to a Christmas carol unless we have the courage to make them come true. And we can do it, we can do it because we know that God loves us, and so nothing can prevail against us.

[1] Greek Interlinear,

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Mary's Song

The Virgin Mary by Jean Bourdichon, ca. 1500,

Today is the fourth and final Sunday of Advent, the season when we prepare for the coming of the Christ, both at Christmas and in the second coming. Over the past three Sundays we have heard from the prophets – those who are given God’s visions. But today prophecy comes home. Specifically it comes to the doorstep of the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah in an unnamed town of Judah. There, Elizabeth greets Mary. There, the yet unborn John greets the yet unborn Jesus.
This reading gives a wonderful picture of two important women – the mothers of the two prophets, John the Baptizer and Jesus the Christ

The four gospels are quite different in their treatment of Jesus’ life prior to his ministry. Mark, the shortest and earliest basically ignores it. John, the latest and the most mystical, places Jesus immediately into the archetypal and mystical world with those booming words we will hear next Sunday, “In the beginning was the Word.” In contrast, Luke and Matthew provide us with stories of Jesus’ nativity. It is Luke who tells us about the shepherds and the angels, Matthew who supplies the three magi. Biblical scholars, Borg and Crossan, have suggested that the way each gospel writer introduces Jesus provides us with clues of their perspective on his life and teaching.
So we can look at the accounts Luke gives, and see in them the particular aspects of Jesus life that he will be emphasizing in his gospel. Luke reminds us again and again that Jesus was concerned about the common people, the poor, and the women.
So here in Luke’s gospel we have this beautiful cameo of these two women. We don’t know exactly how they were related but we do know that Elizabeth was “well along in years.” In contrast Mary was a young woman, probably still a teenager. Given the social disaster of a pregnancy before marriage, it was just as well that Mary left home for a while. I’m guessing that the neighbors wouldn’t buy the virgin birth story.
And who better for Mary to spend time with when she had to adjust to the amazing and improbable fact that she was pregnant, and that this was no ordinary child, than with an older woman who was herself experiencing her first pregnancy?
Their reunion is so joyful that Mary breaks into song. This is no happy dance ditty but a major statement of her faith. It reminds us of the prophet Miriam who sang and danced after the Hebrew people had crossed the Red Sea, and of Hannah who sang when she took her son Samuel to the temple to dedicate him to God (1 Samuel 2:10). Hannah, like Elizabeth, had been unable to have children and when God answered her prayer and Samuel was born and grew into a healthy child she composed a song which is very similar to some of the psalms, especially Psalm 113.
Mary’s song belongs in this great tradition of songs of praise. And she belongs in the great tradition of women of God, most of whom are silenced or unnamed in the Scriptures. But here it is the men who are silenced. Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, has literally been silenced. He was struck dumb by the announcement that she was pregnant.  Joseph is mentioned as the man to whom Mary was betrothed, but otherwise he doesn’t enter this account until the journey to Bethlehem.
This is a great reversal. Usually it is the men whose lives and conversations are recorded, but this is time for the women, just the women. The reversal echoes those in Mary’s song: “He has brought down rulers… but has lifted up the humble” and “He has filled the hungry… and sent the rich away empty.” This is the great reversal that Luke emphasizes. In the reign of God everything is topsy-turvy. In the reign of God women get to be heroes, the homeless get homes while the rich are evicted, the hungry are fed and the well-fed have empty plates.
The Palestine of Mary and Elizabeth was a very unequal society where the gap between rich and poor was enormous, much like it is in our society today. Even though unemployment is low, we are seeing a rise in homelessness in this county because there simply are not enough the homes to go around and those that are available to rent are far too expensive for the average working person to afford. I can’t imagine a great reversal happening here, where the wealthy are turned out of their big mansions and the poor get to move in. But I can imagine the people of God saying “enough is enough” and forcing local and national government to take the housing crisis seriously. I can imagine the people of God demanding higher density housing in San Luis Obispo County so that individual families don’t have several acres to enjoy while their neighbors sleep in their cars. I can imagine us making housing the big election issue for the county supervisors next fall.
The great social reversal will only be truly achieved when the people of God take seriously their prophetic call to work for social justice. That is our job until the final day when all will be revealed and all our questions answered and in the reign of Christ all will be fair and peaceful. Until then, we have much to do.
But Mary’s song is much more than a social critique. It is a song of praise to God, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Mary has moved beyond a practice of gratitude to a direct connection with God in which she addresses the divine intimately and with joy. This is not a simple thank you God for blessing me, this is a prayer of highest praise.
Someone once said to me, “I don’t understand why we need to praise God. Surely he doesn’t constantly need a pat on the back and to be told he’s doing a good job.”
That’s not the kind of praise we are talking about. When we love someone deeply then sometimes we look at them and our hearts are filled with joy and connection and love and we say “I love you” or “You’re amazing” or “You’re so cute” or whatever it is that expresses however minutely, that tremendous sense of warmth, affection and gratitude. That is the kind of praise that we talk about with God. Yes we praise God for the manifestations we see of divine love. Mary says, “for the Mighty One has done great things for me” but that’s not really why she’s praising God. She’s praising God because her heart is full.
It was a good day in that hill town in Judah as the two women celebrated their pregnancies. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, the image of a barren woman being able to conceive is a powerful representation of God’s love and God’s faithfulness. That which was sorrow-filled has been made joyous. Elizabeth has conceived. And amazingly, the young unwed woman has also conceived. God the Creator has brought something out of nothing.
There was much reason to praise God.
We too have days like that. Days when there is much to praise God for. But we also have the other days. The days when life’s problems seem overwhelming. The days when everything seems dull and our hearts are heavy.
But God has not changed. God is still the same. There are just as many reasons to praise God on dark days as on bright days. Perhaps even more. And the primary reason to praise God is that we were created to do just that. We were created to be in that close intimate relationship with the divine which makes our hearts open with joyous love and wonder in God’s presence.
This is when our discipline of joy comes in. This is when Paul’s encouragement to “Rejoice at all times” comes into play. We fake it till we make it. We sing the hymns of praise until we look up and our hearts open and suddenly the connection is made once again. We can praise even through our tears. But we will not be able to praise in the dark times if we have not learned to praise during the good times.
I would suggest that in addition to a practice of daily noting the things for which you are grateful and thanking God for them, that you learn a verse or two of a hymn that really speaks to your heart, and make a practice of singing it every morning. We were give voices to praise God and even if you can’t hold a tune, your praise is as valid and important to God as the sweetest chorister.
Let us each make a daily practice of praising and glorifying God with Mary: “”My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Did Luke hit his Head?

A couple of weeks ago I hit my head rather hard. In order to establish how hard it really was, I was asked several times to name the President. In this morning’s gospel, Luke starts by telling us who is President, and lists the key players in both the political and the religious hierarchy of the time. The Emperor was Tiberius, the Roman Governor was Pontius Pilate, and the Jewish rulers were Herod, Philip and Lysanias. The high priests were Annas and Caiaphas.  

These are familiar names.

They are familiar to us because they are part of the passion narratives – Pontius Pilate, Annas and Caiaphas are all involved in Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Which causes a little problem. If there were thirty three years between John’s ministry in the wilderness and Jesus’ crucifixion then how could these men have been in power at both times? Historical sources show that Pilate was prefect of Judea for just ten years.

Did Luke hit his head and get confused?

This seems to be one of the many places where our modern sense of historicity clashes with the ancient writers’ use of narrative elements to support the main point of the story they are telling. It’s not actually important to Luke who was in power at the time because that’s not what he is talking about. His listeners would know that Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip and Lysanias were a pretty bad lot. And that Annas and Caiaphas were not much better.

What he is describing is a general background of oppression. And it is against this background of political power being used to oppress the people, that John the Baptizer starts his ministry in the desert. The word has come to John, a man of little political power and one whose family, though honorable, is of little import in the big world of Judea and beyond. In John, the small, the unexpected, the apparently trivial comes to bring hope and to challenge the hierarchical political structure under which it is apparently pinned.

Luke places John’s message of hope firmly in the Jewish tradition and in the tradition of the prophets, quoting that stirring passage from Isaiah:
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"

This was originally written in the context of the exile. It was a picture of the people of God coming back through the wilderness into the Promised Land; an act of God for God’s people. This time they would not wander in the desert for forty years but their path would be made straight.  

Luke frames it differently. He uses it to describe John and his message that people should prepare the way for their God to return. Human action is necessary.

Hope comes as God and humans cooperate; as we prepare the way for God, God also prepares the way for us.

We too live in troubled times. We have experienced violence close to home in way that none of us have known before. We grieve for all those who have lost their lives in Beirut, Paris, Colorado Springs, and San Bernadino, to mention just a few. We pray for their families and loved ones and all who are injured, all whose lives have been changed beyond recognition.

At the same time, we are witnessing an historic meeting of the nations to address the biggest threat to humanity – global warming. But so far there seems to be little accord and no significant movement to resolve the questions that divide us.

We are in the wilderness. Our cherished peace seems to be disappearing. Our lifestyles if not our very lives are threatened. If we are unable to keep our greenhouse gas emissions under control we will see ocean levels rise, at first a few inches but with the possibility of several meters. That would put a lot of Los Osos under water.

Yet we are a people of hope. Not for us the wringing of hands and sighs of despair. Yes it is important to acknowledge that we don’t know and we are not in control, just as the first step of the Twelve Steps is to acknowledge that we are powerless and our lives have become unmanageable, but that we believe a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.

Isn’t that a wonderful statement of our hope?

We are powerless against terrorism and global warming, but in Christ we can be restored. In Christ will all things be made anew. This is the message of Advent. That Christ is coming.

Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"

There will be a time when all is restored to order. That is our hope and our belief. We celebrate it in our Eucharist, we hold it on our hearts.

But John the Baptizer was not just making a nice theological point, he was calling the people to repentance, to a change of life. Yes there will be a time when all will be restored and made new, a time when the lion shall lie down with the lamb, when all nations will live together in peace and harmony; when in the New Jerusalem there will be no more weeping. Yes we hope and wait expectantly for all these things, but it is up to us to begin to work with the Holy Spirit to begin to make them a reality here and now. It is up to us to change our lives.

We are called to cultivate peace in our own hearts; to learn to forgive and to bring healing to those people and situations which bug us. We are called to let go of resentments, prejudice and hatred. We are called to care for others and for our environment.

It often seems as though our efforts have little effect. Our elected representatives seem unable to govern. The small things we do to reduce our personal greenhouse emissions are just a small drop in a big bucket. Our own attempts at reconciliation and peaceable living are unlikely to directly effect a terrorist bent on causing destruction and fear.

The word of God came to John the Baptizer in the wilderness at a time when the political system and the religious system seemed invincible. John the Baptizer was just one man living on the edge of society with no political power. Yet he brought hope. The work he started blossomed and flourished as Jesus took over and then even though all hope was briefly dashed on Good Friday, it developed and grew, and here we are thousands of years later still effected by his ministry.

Our efforts may seem small and ineffectual, but let us never give up hope, let us never shut ourselves away in fear or frustration, because if the people of God lose their hope and refuse to act, who will?

Let us never forget that when we listen to the word of God coming to us even in our contemporary wilderness, and when we work in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, miracles happen and the world is transformed.

Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"