Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Word Became Flesh

Thanks to Bishop Doyle for his thoughts and words....

"The Word became flesh and lived among us."  
            St. Augustine said that we are Easter people, and that "Alleluia is our song." I believe that we are also Christmas people, and as our altar hanging says, “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” or "Glory to God in the Highest" is also our song. Who am I to amend a statement by the man who laid the foundation of theology in the Middle Ages and forever since?
            Why do I say that we are Christmas people? Well, though the celebration of Easter preceded the celebration of Christmas by centuries, and despite the fact that American Puritans considered it a pagan festival and outlawed it, and in spite of the obvious secularization of this holy day, I suspect that most devout Christians find our hearts strangely warmed by the thought of the babe in the manger, and its message is a very unique one.
            Every religion has had to deal with questions of the relationship between God and creation: Who we are in relation to the Creator? And then there is the big question of what happens after we die. For some religions, it is an escape from the bonds of the flesh, for some it is the Resurrection of the body. Plato thought that disembodied souls lived on. The Christian celebration of Easter says something very specific. And, in my experience and study of other religious traditions, I have never found any other that believed in the Incarnation quite the way Christians do.
            The closest might be the Hindus: their god, Vishnu is believed to have appeared on earth many times, including his incarnations as Prince Rama, and Krishna, of whom you may have heard. But these incarnations, what the Hindus call “avatars” never quite get their feet dusty, they never really leave their divine glory behind. They are never as human as you and me.
            This is one of the places where Christianity goes beyond other traditions:  God is not simply manifest in the natural world, nor simply in the human heart, but, in the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians, we read, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” And, from the Gospel of John we hear these words: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” It is this that makes Christianity so different. It is also something, ironically, that many of us forget when we view Jesus as "just a step above" "real" humans. Our Creeds remind us that Jesus was fully human, as well as fully divine.
            There is really only one thing that we as Christians can never say in prayer. It is: "But God, you don't understand." Because Jesus became a human, God always understands. He’s been here and experienced it. And that, I suspect, is the motivation behind the Lucan story of the stable, the manger, and shepherds: this child was not born as a prince, or as the son of a CEO. Not in a palace, not even in the maternity ward at a good hospital, but in a barn, sleeping in a feeding trough, visited by dirty, smelly common laborers.
            It is that initial coming to live with us, one of us, that we celebrate at this time of year. If not for the Incarnation, the Paschal Mystery could not have taken place: it is the essential condition for Good Friday and Easter Sunday. But it is more. Many of the Church Fathers considered the Incarnation to be the beginning of the defeat of Sin and Death. St. Ignatius said in the 2nd century, "Christ became what we are so we could become what he is." And St. Athanasius in the 4th century made the statement, "God became human so humans could become god." This sounds sacrilegious, but he is only echoing 2 Peter, where it says "we are made partakers in the divine nature." And it is echoed in the Roman Catholic liturgy, when the priest puts the water in the wine, he says, "By the mingling of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of him who humbled himself to share in our humanity."
            But perhaps there is even more to it than that. Some theologians have believed that even had there been no sin, the Incarnation would have taken place, anyway: that God created precisely because God wanted to share in the lives of his creatures as a creature. Karl Rahner, the 20th century Christian scholar, said that when God wishes to express Godself, there must be a structure, a "grammar" if you will, for that expression, the Word, and that the grammar of God's self-communication is humanity. In other words, we don't need to figure out how to get the Word (Christ) "to fit" into a human nature, since human nature was created precisely to hold the Word. Like a shoe is made for a foot, not a hand, and the foot slips easily into the shoe, so does the Word precisely fit into human flesh.
            What does all this mean for us? I believe that the Incarnation is an indication that the Word has been becoming flesh since God said, "Let there be light." It means that for Christians, matter matters. Matter is the beginning of God's self-expression into the world. It means that human beings are truly created according to the Imago Dei, the image of God, and that includes our bodies. The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth said that if we truly understood what it meant for God to become human, we could never again harm another human being. We are, all of us, "mini-incarnations." If the Word had been becoming flesh, the Word is now continuing to become flesh. Or did you not remember that when you were baptized, you were baptized into union with Christ?
            And, as expressions of Christ, individually and corporately (as this church), our place in this world is to be Christ to the world. To take that mental image of our “Christ-ness” and carry it with us, remain in awareness of it, wherever we go. Yes, it’s a constant job to remember, and to act from that place in our daily dealings with others. And it’s very easy to forget.
            I start and end most days in prayer; I wear crosses most all the time, and put up pictures and quotations around our house – not to show off that I’m a Christian, but to remind myself of whom and whose I am – of what I am to strive for. It helps me to pay attention to what is most important in life. Perhaps something similar could help you to daily recall your individual, personal mission in life: which is to share God’s love.
            It’s been quite a while since I mentioned the Millennium Development Goals. Remember those 8 goals put forth by the United Nations back in 1990? We have only 3 more years to meet those goals. Yes, 2015 is the target date. Just to remind you of this effort, here is the list of worldwide goals: To reduce extreme poverty and hunger by half, to provide primary education for all children, to promote gender equality in education and opportunity, to reduce by 2/3s the deaths of children under age 5, to reduce by 3/4s the numbers of mothers who die in childbirth, to halt the spread of HIV/AIDs, to ensure environmental sustainability throughout the world, and to develop policies among nations to further economic progress for all. Perhaps you will be led to become involved in certain portions of this work, or at least add their mission to your daily prayers. And on a corporate, church level, perhaps we should consider becoming more active in helping those less fortunate right here in Pflugerville. We have been doing well with our donations to the Storehouse, but the last few weeks we’ve fallen off. Next week, and every week, let’s make sure that the Storehouse box is overflowing with food (especially peanut butter) for those who don’t have enough to eat. Perhaps this next year we could do more, actually volunteering at the Storehouse, as well as donating food and money.
            For you see, human life, matter itself, is even more than it appears to be, because God has come to Earth as one of us. And Jesus has given to each of us the greatest gift of all, the gift of being a child of God. We have union with Christ through our baptism, and are heirs to the kingdom of God.
            And that seems to me, to be more than enough reason to sing "Glory to God in the highest." Amen.

Advent 3 Response to Sandy Hook

With thanksgiving for the theologians at Working Preacher, and our Bishop Andy Doyle, for many of the thoughts and words in this sermon. Amen.  

       From the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Again and again, when the people of God are in trouble and distress, tears flow. So it was in the time of Rachel, the mother of the people of Israel, whose grave lies near to Bethlehem, Rachel weeping for all her children. It was in the last days of Jerusalem before it fell to the Babylonians, when the prophet Jeremiah looked down upon the tragedy and wept.” Then Bonhoeffer quotes from Jeremiah, ’A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.’”
  How are we to cope in the midst of tragedy? What are we as Christians called to do when horrible and senseless things assail us? Sandy Hook, Connecticut is a long way across the country from Pflugerville, yet our hearts break for people we don’t even know. There is little we can do to console the families of those 20 innocent, young children and their teachers. We cannot hold those mothers and fathers; we cannot cradle the grandparents, siblings and friends who are living in shock and horror right now. Yet, we can pray. And how frequently in these situations, we add, “That’s the least we can do.” From where I stand, it is one of the most important things we can do. So please, let us join with the country and the rest of the world in prayer:
Lord God: We pray to you for peace to be poured down upon Newtown and the Sandy Hook Elementary School community. As we weep with Rachel we pray for a healing balm to be given to all. For those who have died we pray that they may rest eternally with the saints in light. We pray for the first responders and for our Episcopal clergy who are there offering care and support. O God, hear our lamentation, our intercession, and our hope. Amen.
And now, I am going to preach the sermon I’d already written for today. It has a lot to say about children, so hug your kids, and let’s begin.
Are we there yet? I have no doubt that the children among us are questioning their parents frequently: How many more days is it until Christmas? We all know very well that feeling of excitement and longing that comes from the anticipation of some outstanding event in our lives. Be it a young person’s anticipation of going off to college, or an adult beginning a new career, there is a feeling deep inside that the coming event will change our lives forever.
How many of you here are parents? Perhaps you can dredge back into your memory and conjure up that feeling you had when you announced to the world that your first child was on the way. Oh, the excitement and thanks you gave when all the friends and family, and perhaps even strangers congratulated you on the impending birth! The anticipation and dreams you surely had for that child not yet born!
Now, there is something tricky about great gifts. The lessons we just heard do a marvelous job of pointing to this insight. The first two are all about rejoicing. The prophet Zephaniah sings to the people, "the King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst, you shall fear disaster no more." God is going to do great things for his people. All is well; God is at hand. "Rejoice" is also the first word we hear from Philippians. Again, we are assured that the Lord is at hand, and this is a cause for great joy.
That is part of what it means to prepare for a gift. That is almost always the very first thing you say when you discover someone is expecting a child; you say, "congratulations," -- rejoice, this is wonderful news. We have all heard or said that many times.
Rejoicing is also a big part of what it means to prepare for Christmas. The good news of Advent is that God is coming to God's people -- to you and to me. God's promises are being fulfilled. And we are to wait on that promise, to believe in it, to realize it, and open ourselves fully to it. That is great cause for celebration!
Then we hear the Gospel and the image shifts. God is no longer pictured as a victorious warrior exulting over his people, but as a wrathful judge. We are standing at the River Jordan, face to face with John the Baptist at his most intense.
John doesn't say to rejoice; John calls us to repentance: metanoia is the Greek word. It literally means returning, coming back to the way of life charted by the covenant between God and Israel. Paul told the Philippians not to be anxious about anything; John tells his hearers to flee from the wrath to come. "His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
Do you know what chaff is? It’s the paper-thin husk that surrounds a kernel of wheat, the edible part of a nut and also coffee beans. John is reminding us that we need to get rid of the chaff in our lives, and focus purely on the nourishing parts of our being. Everyone in the Gospel is asking, "What shall we do? What has to change if we are to survive the great and terrible events that lie ahead?" This is a very different message from "rejoice!"
And if you think about it, that makes sense; too, that anxiety is part of our preparation and of our waiting. And it should be heard, and felt, at exactly the same moment we hear and feel the call to rejoice. For the Lord we await in Advent is a Lord who makes a difference, who changes things.
He is a Lord who offers both new life and new responsibilities, and who offers them simultaneously. If we truly receive the gift of the Christ child, we will change: the direction and the focus of our lives will shift. It just works that way.
Remember the second thing everyone (or at least everyone who has been a parent longer than 20 minutes) says when they learn that you are expecting a child? The first thing said is always, "Congratulations, we're happy for you." The second thing is always one form or another of, "Boy, are you in for it!" We are told often, and in a variety of ways, that things are going to change, that everything will be different.
"Rejoice/repent!" Those are the words that go with all great gifts. Something wonderful is going to happen; and if, after you receive that gift, you try to live the way you are living now, your life just won't work anymore. Life after such a gift is a sort of judgment on life before.
At this place of Advent, it is time to realize, to make real our place within the faith family of Abraham and seek not only to be reconciled with Jesus but also to be reconciled with the notion of right living which is plainly: to give to the poor, and to aid those who go without.
We Americans spent over 8 billion dollars on Halloween. We will spend some $504 billion to celebrate Christmas. Is it possible that the coming of God in the person of Christ might just cause us to pause and realize that "only" $10 billion would ensure clean water for every human being in the world, and $13 billion would keep everyone in the world from going hungry? Yet safety net agencies that do just this work have seen a 10% decrease in funding. Certainly these are numbers to make us pause in the face of Zacchaeus who gave away half of what he possessed to the poor. What if we lived out the charge of living for our neighbor? What if, in our repentance, our choosing to look at the world with new eyes, we saw and befriended those poor tortured souls such as Adam Lanza in Newtown, Erick Harris and Dylan Klebold in Columbine, whose hurts were so deep that they know of nothing to do but destroy others before destroying themselves? John the Baptist offers us not only a vision of a Christmastide incarnation but a transformed world reflecting the kingdom of God.
"Rejoice/repent!" This dual demand in the face of the coming of God is addressed to all of us: it is part of Advent. It is a perfect reflection of the ambiguity that permeates our vision and our experience. We await and try to prepare for the coming of a child, a child who changes everything. So Zephaniah is right: we are to rejoice, give thanks to God, and sing. And, John the Baptist is right: this wonderful gift will also come as judgment, and with a power all its own. If we take seriously the good news of Christmas, then our lives will be very different.
Think of what it would look like to live daily with the child from Bethlehem in our hearts. For both the joy he offers and the demands he makes cannot be truly ours if we remain exactly the people we are today. Think about what repentance, the redirection of our attention looks like. It is not something weird or mysterious. Repentance, generally, looks pretty much like our lives now, but with a difference.
When the crowd at the Jordan River felt this crunch of anticipation and judgment, their cry of "What then shall we do?" was met with responses designed to force them into practical decisions. "Look at who you are," John the Baptist said; "begin there." When it comes to giving, give from what you have. Don't wait until you have more, or until your offering can be of a higher quality. Start now, start with what is already there.
Practice justice where you work; build fairness and mercy into your present dealings, your current life. Don't wait until you have a job where justice is easier.
Don't wait to be somewhere else, to be doing something else, or to be someone else: begin with the road in front of you, walk that road, and so allow God to transform the life you live right now. John did not tell even the despised tax collectors or the hated and feared soldiers that they had to go somewhere else to begin. Just as being a son of Abraham was no exemption from the call to repent, so being a tax collector or a soldier was no barrier to repentance, to change. The business of repenting is much the same as rejoicing. It has to do with transforming the life we are already living.
Repent and rejoice -- in all things, with the real life we live in the real world.
Rejoice, for what is happening is wonderful.
Repent, because from now on, everything will be different. Amen.