John 1: 29-42
It’s confusing. In John’s Gospel there’s more than one John. There are three to be precise. In his opening chapter John the Evangelist focuses on John elsewhere known as the Baptist, as witness to the messiah. But there’s also a third John lurking in the background – John the Beloved Disciple of Jesus. Despite the Tradition, it’s clear that John the Evangelist is not John the Beloved Disciple. The Evangelist is writing in the 120’s, a period beyond the normal lifespan of the Beloved Disciple. So, John the Evangelist is someone who stands in the tradition of the Beloved Disciple, and as a young man probably knew him personally.
John’s gospel opens on the majestic panorama painted in the Prologue before plunging us into the opening moments in Jesus’ earthly ministry. The evangelist known as John fills this opening chapter and actually the whole of his gospel with word allusions and metaphors indicating the mysterious connections between Jesus and the fulfilment of Old Testament expectations of the Messiah.
We can tie ourselves up in knots trying to decipher just what these allusions and metaphors meant for the Evangelist John and his community. But so much of John remains mysterious.
For instance, John alone uses the metaphor of the Lamb of God. Taken in the context and period in which he is writing this is a peculiar metaphor for Jesus. The practice of Temple animal sacrifice is by this time but a distant memory. John’s metaphors are arresting and in chapter one we have two on display – Lamb of God and God the Son. Lamb of God as well as God the Son -new titles for Jesus deeply resonated in the imagination of the early Church and thus eventually found their way into the mainstream of orthodox Christology, i.e. the branch of theology that relates to the identity, and nature of Jesus.
Chapter one is a story set over three days. Day one the Jewish elders come to interrogate John (the Baptist) during which he identifies Jesus as the messiah because of what he has seen and can bear witness to. Day two, John’s out an about with two of his disciples – one of whom is Andrew the brother of Simon Peter. When Jesus walks by and John points him out as the Lamb of God, curiosity gets the better of Andrew and his unnamed companion, who follow Jesus asking him where he is staying? Jesus replies come and see. Andrew then recruits his brother Simon. In the section following this passage on the next day – day three Jesus journeys to Galilee where he encounters one Philip who then recruits his friend, Nathaniel (Bartholomew) and tells him he has seen the messiah.
John is showing his readers how discipleship happens and how it works. One person’s curiosity leads to discovery of Jesus. This discovery is then shared with a friend and they both begin to follow Jesus.
Jesus and his new disciples are now in position on day three for the first of John’s great signs – the wedding at Cana of Galilee which opens chapter two. John is not telling his readers about the call of the first disciples as much as he is showing them how discipleship works – you notice, you become curious, you ask, and then respond to the invitation to come and see, you then tell your friends what you’ve found and invite them into the same process.
John’s Gospel is a gospel for our own age precisely because John the Evangelist addresses a mixed community in tension; a community comprised from different constituencies.
- There are the former disciples of John the Baptist, hence the Evangelist’s emphasis on the initial role of John (the Baptist) in the first chapter.
- There is a strong contingent of Samaritans as evidenced by the story in chapter four where the Samaritan woman he encounters at the well is the first to recognize his true identity.
- There are gentile spiritual seekers. Later in 12:21 we read that some Greeks come and ask Philip: please sir, we want to see Jesus.
- There are Jews who have openly split with the synagogue
- There are Jews who still faithfully attend the synagogue but also secretly hang out with John’s ragbag of a Christian community on Sundays.
John’s task is to speak to the inner tensions in a community made-up of factions, each with their own slightly different history and take on Jesus; all seeking to hold together against the backdrop of an unremitting hostility from the Jewish authorities represented by the emergence of rabbinic Judaism.
Consequently, the internal tensions within the Johannine Community in the early decades of the 2nd-century are too great for there to be a commonly recognized authority. John’s community is a flat hierarchy community. It seems to have no recognized leaders apart from the guidance of the Evangelist in his gospel. For instance, John never mentions the teaching authority of the apostles as the community leaders so evident elsewhere in the New Testament. Everyone ins John is simply a disciple. All disciples are equal sitting under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit. There are no sacraments, no doctrine, only the willingness to be led by the Holy Spirit in the way of love.
The community of John the Evangelist comes to be known as the Beloved Community in which the golden rule is given by Jesus in chapter 13:35 when he tells the disciples to love one another, for by this the world will know them as his disciples.
Come and See, See what? Come and see a community characterized by the quality with which its member love one another. Now there’s a rare and seeming unworkable thing!
I believe that in the world of 2020, Episcopalian Christians with our tolerant and inclusive understanding of Christian community have something to offer our nation torn asunder by so many bitterly held divisions.
Our Presiding Bishop, The Most Rev. Michael Curry chanel’s the message of John the Evangelist; inviting us to the renewal that flows from reframing ourselves as the contemporary Jesus Movement, a modern-day Johannine community embarked on the Way of Love.
The Way of Love involves seven practices:
- Turn – pause, listen, and choose to follow Jesus.
- Learn – through reflecting on Scripture each day, esp. on Jesus life and teachings.
- Pray – dwell intentionally with God daily.
- Worship – gather in community weekly to thank, praise and dwell with God.
- Bless- share our faith unselfishly – one might suggest unselfconsciously- in order to give and serve.
- Go- cross boundaries, listen deeply and live like Jesus.
- Rest -receive the gift of God’s grace, peace and restoration.
The Way of Love is a very Johannine project flowing naturally out of our Anglican love for the Gospel of John. As a historic community, Anglicanism like John’s community has some experience of holding together internal tension within a spirit of right relationship rather than an emphasis on right belief under a strong and centralised hierarchical authority structure.
Our only obligation is to Come and See! Are we willing?
Here are the recordings from the Eulogies from Karl & Christia Langmuir, and Mary Worrell given at Jane’s requiem this morning at St Martin’s.
Below is the text of my tribute to Jane
Jane was our friend. With her death we have all lost a valued and esteemed friend and member in our community. The first woman to hold the position of Church Warden, a position she held on two separate occasions; together, Jane and her husband Paul over several decades contributed their prodigious talents and energies to the building-up and sustaining of this wonderful St Martin’s community. Jane and Paul were integral members of a core of individuals, couples, and families – at a time not so distant but now passed, when church community played a greater role in East Side family and community life.
After Paul’s death ten years ago now, Jane gradually withdrew from much of the hands-on involvement in parish life– though still keeping an important oversight brief for the architectural preservation of this historically significant church. Although no longer able to play a guiding role in our recent extensive restoration project, the work recently accomplished brought her great satisfaction and peace of mind.
After Paul’s death, Jane began to forge a different role for herself within the community. Rather than her activity, it was her mystical spirituality that now began to emerge more prominently. Always a woman whose opinions others valued, Jane came to be increasingly seen as a trusted source for spiritual insight, emotional support, and wise counsel.
Jane was my friend. I well remember the moment during my first interview with the discernment team – when standing in the pulpit at St Paul’s Church in Pawtucket where the discernment team had retreated to privately assess the caliber of the new interviewee for the position of rector; looking down over the small congregation our eyes met. I was struck by the quality of the gaze in which Jane held me. Between us, a mutual recognition flashed. Held in her gaze I came to realize that I was indeed the right candidate. In her gaze I came to know without question that St Martin’s was the door God was opening for me.
In that moment Jane and I became friends.
Friendship between pastor and parishioner is always a wonderful thing. Despite the church’s official warnings to the clergy that our parishioners cannot be our friends, many variations of friendship flourish between pastor and parishioner. Yet, always there is the recognition that the pastor must keep in check – or at the very least, be mindful of his or her own personal needs in order to hold open the interpersonal space in which the parishioner’s needs take priority.
Jane was my friend, but not in the ordinary sense that I might say that of so many of the folk in this wonderful St Martin’s community. Jane was my friend and for Al and myself, she quickly became our friend – because in a real sense she needed nothing from me or from us except the desire for a balanced reciprocity – the ordinary everyday coinage of human friendship.
With Jane, I found that rare freedom to air my fears and anxieties without concern for lessening her trust and confidence in me. She received the revealing of my fallibilities – often expressed through the pent-up feelings and frustrations that any priest experiences within the discipline of the pastoral role. I received from Jane her unjudging compassion and her wise counsel that often concluded in a sound piece of advice for me to get over myself. She didn’t say it quite like that, but Jane understood the creative use of pain and suffering, and she expected nothing less of me than she did of herself.
Beyond speaking of friendship, I have another task this morning. It is to speak about how within the tradition of Christian faith we might imagine life for Jane now. For life is what she still enjoys – except it’s from the other side of the veil that separates the parallel dimensions of God Space from Our Space.
The medieval images of heaven as a place up there among the clouds no longer works for our 21st-century minds. We need to exercise our imaginations in a different direction. For us, heaven is none other than the divine dimension –God Space -that sits alongside Our Space; the dimension of time, space, and matter. The energies of the divine dimension interpenetrate this dimension of Our Space.
Having been adopted by the ancient spirit of the Langmuir name, Jane was intuitively drawn to the landscapes and Celtic spirituality of Scotland’s Western Isles; the isle of Iona in particular, which Jane and Paul visited a number of times. After Paul’s death it was to the holy Isle of Iona that Jane returned a portion of his ashes. She was to visit Iona again – where she still found the needed spiritual sustenance and confirmation in this thin place.
Celtic spirituality recognizes the thin place in both geographic locations and also in spiritual -nonphysical states of experience. Within the thin place the energies of the divine co-mingle with the energies of time and space. In her everyday life, Jane often experienced this interpenetration – or interleafing of dimensional energies characteristic of the co-mingling of divine and temporal dimensions; the God Space’s entry within Our Space.
Jane has now made the return journey. The event of her biological death has freed her to enter into the fullness of the God Space. Yet, Christian faith does not view this event as the end for her. There is too much emphasis these days on the souls of the dead living for ever in the presence of God as if eternity in the God Space is our ultimate destination. Christian faith views entry into the God Space following biological death as simply an interim stage awaiting the final renewal of the whole of the physical creation – in a new heaven and a new earth.
Jane was our friend. She was a friend to so many of us here this morning. As her friends; as her children; as her sisters – none of us experienced Jane to be a saint. Like all of us, she was far from perfect. To come close with Jane was also to experience her own particular limitations and struggles.
Let us be mindful of two things. In the words of the Prayer Book Preface for the Dead, which we will hear in a moment, for Jane life is now changed but not ended. And, that our task now is to take the gifts she has bequeathed to us through her love and friendship and incorporate them into our lives – qualities and values that hopefully will re-prioritize our living. So that in the meantime, Jane will live on in us.
I conclude with words from the great mystic poet, John O’Donohue in his poem For Longing. The late John O’Donohue was not a Celt of the Western Isles, but nevertheless, the next best thing, a Celt of the Irish homeland.
I offer us these words as Jane’s final benediction and blessing to us until the day of our eventual reunion.
Blessed be the longing that brought you here
And quickens your soul with wonder.
May you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
That disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.
May you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease
To discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.
May the forms of your belonging—in love, creativity, and friendship—
Be equal to the grandeur and the call of your soul.
May the one you long for long for you.
May your dreams gradually reveal the destination of your desire.
May a secret Providence guide your thought and nurture your feeling.
May your mind inhabit life with the sureness with which your body inhabits the world.
May your heart never be haunted by ghost-structures of old damage.
May you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.
May you know the urgency with which God longs for you.
The image comes from a mural in Kessler Park’s United Methodist Church
So it seems the world is gripped by the latest royal drama. This time it centers on the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s desire to step back from the first rank of the Royal Family to carve out for themselves a more independent lifestyle and protective identity.
Identity is a tricky thing. Is identity a given or is it constructed? Prince Harry has finally said enough is enough of the blatant racial abuse of his wife by the British popular press, with the Daily Mail – like Fox News part of the Murdoch media empire not surprisingly, leading the charge in expressing scurrilous media persecution and bigotry.
The depth of the racism expressed against the Duchess is astonishing. The BBC fired Danny Baker one of its more populist Radio Five presenters for tweeting a picture of a chimpanzee after Meghan gave birth to Prince Archie. Even a member of the Royal Family, Princess Michael of Kent – the wife of Prince Michael, a cousin to the Queen, was forced to apologise for sporting a blackamoor brooch on her lapel as she attended a royal family event. Though educated largely in Australia, we might remember that Princess Michael is the daughter of minor German nobility with her father having been a principal aristocratic supporter of Hitler’s Nazi party. Princess Michael and her husband are no strangers to controversy.
Identity stories shape us. Prince Harry is not the first royal to struggle within the tension between the identity he was born into and the one he seeks to adopt for himself and his family.
I wish I was a natural storyteller. I firmly believe that as human beings it’s through stories that we create meaning from our experience in the world. A recurring theme for me is that story is all we have; that human beings construct personal and social meaning through the stories we tell ourselves and each other; that certain stories influence us, shaping our worldview, claiming our allegiance whether we know it or not.
Though not naturally gifted as a storyteller – an appreciation for the power of story lies at the heart of my theology. I think of myself as a narrative Christian. A narrative Christian is one who chiefly encounters God within the overarching Biblical Story – a story that is brought to life through participation in the life of the Christian Community.
Where do we draw our identity from; now a burning question for Harry and Meghan? Stories that privilege material progress, increased social inclusiveness, the building of a society based on principles of equality, justice, and the rule of law; these are among the central stories that lay principal claim on me and have shaped my sense of personal identity as someone who passionately believes that such stories identify those pillars of society that are non-negotiable. These story themes have transmitted to us across 4000-years of the human community’s struggle to stay in faithful relationship with the God who throughout the great biblical story of Jewish and Christian history unequivocally reveals such social stories as sacred.
In a matter of days, 19 to be exact, liturgical time has moved us through 30 years of Jesus’ life – from the stories of his birth to the story of his baptism.
The New Testament gives us four Jesus origin stories. Matthew and Luke begin with Jesus’ birth – and the birth of Jesus took place in this way. The third origin story comes from John, who paints an overarching scenario of cosmic proportions – harkening back to the first chapter of Genesis – in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. The Word was God and became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory as of the Father’s only son.Prologue to John’s gospel
Yet, there’s a fourth origin story most strongly echoed in the writings of the Apostle Paul. It’s this story that Mark begins his gospel with, and which Matthew repeats in the Gospel reading for this Sunday. With the story of Jesus’ baptism the Church concludes the Christmas cycle.
For centuries we thought that the beginning of Mark’s Gospel had been lost because he omits Jesus birth story – opening instead with the adult Jesus striding out of the wilderness to receive baptism from John in the Jordan.
Mark is the evangelist writing towards the end of Paul’s ministry. Paul preached a revolutionary connection between Jesus’ birth and our status as followers of Jesus. Paul is not concerned only with Jesus’ biography as Son of God. His more pressing concern is the make plain the connection binding Jesus Son of God with those who follow him.
Paul proclaims: But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.Galatians 4:4-5
Stories of identity through birth sit alongside a stories of identity by adoption. For most of us life is shaped not by the story we are born into, British Royalty aside for a moment -but by the story that we are adopted into; by the story that adopts us.
You and I do not aspire to the status of children of God through the accident of our birth. Neither is our claim to be children of God a product of some pre-existent cosmic status. We are adopted into becoming the children of God. This adoption is expressed through our baptism. At his baptism, God adopted Jesus as his son – this is my son on whom my favor rests. Likewise at our baptism, we too became adopted as those upon whom God’s favor rests.
Adoption takes us to the heart of what it means to have faith. Faith is not an accident of birth, but something deliberately chosen. For Christians, faith is the story of our adoption through baptism as children of a loving God.
Birth is an accident from which we can take neither credit nor bear blame. Adoption, now this is another matter. For adoption is always about a conscious choice, a deliberate decision made, a clear direction chosen.
If the central meaning of the birth of Jesus is that to be fully human is to become most like God, then the central meaning of his baptism is to take this truth one stage further. Our humanity not only accords us God-like potential. Our baptism is a choice taken to live in the conscious knowledge and self-awareness that to be fully human is to be most like God.
We are God’s daughters and God’s sons and upon us God’s favor rests. As it was for Jesus, the gift of identity through adoption was a costly one. The tricky question is – will we risk the cost of living into the promise of our adoption and allow ourselves to become the people God intends us to be?
I guess at a more mundane level, Harry and Meghan are about to find out what identity through adoption rather than birth or marriage might cost them.
Christmas 2 (Epiphany transf.) from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs
Matthew 2: 1-12 5 January 2020
We three kings of Orient are,
bearing gifts we traverse afar,
field and fountain, moor and mountain,
following yonder star.
A colleague of mine told me of a job interview in which he was asked by a seasoned old rector, “You’re not on some kind of journey are you?
I have to say that this is one of the saddest things I’ve heard in my vocational life; an utter dismissal of one of the most vital aspects of a life of faith. How can a life of faith be lived without some sort of trajectory? The spiritual journey moves forward, backward, and may even occasionally stall for a time—but wherever it goes it forms us, if we choose, as children of God, and offers us, through our questioning, struggle, and moments of epiphany, an opportunity for humility, self-awareness, and a heightened sense of perspective, all of which are vital in a time when many people’s perspective is blocked by anxiety and fear of wars and rumors of wars. Now more than ever the spiritual journey is not an optional side excursion in a life of faith; it is the soul of the trip.
The Eastern sages from afar can teach us something about journeying. Later tradition tells us that they were kings, and that there were only three of them, but Matthew tells us what we need to know; that an undetermined number of outsiders read signs in the stars and followed them westward to a foreign land where their inquiries about a new Jewish king sounded alarm bells in the halls of power. These outsiders followed the star first to Jerusalem where they asked directions of Herod, who consulted his own wise ones, the chief priests and scribes. Note that when they read the signs in scripture: “`And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'” –the scribes and chief priests did not feel prompted to accompany their Eastern counterparts and seek the promised one in Bethlehem. I hadn’t noticed that before–they stayed put. Why? Because part of their job was to keep the peace in the Jewish community in order to keep the Roman occupiers at bay. This alleged Messiah was a threat to King Herod’s authority. And when King Herod wasn’t happy, nobody was happy. So the Temple authorities remained in Jerusalem and kept the peace, while Herod plotted murder. And the magi journeyed onward, unaware of the danger that followed in their wake.
There are those who say that a journey is more important than its destination, and that’s true in a lot of cases, but not all the time. Sometimes the journey is formed by the destination. Or, in the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, “Not all who wander are lost.” For all we may enjoy the picturesque image of the Wise Men on their camels trudging through the desert, we must never forget that the Epiphany story is not about the kings; it’s about what they seek: the Christ Child. The star they follow has revealed the birth of this Messiah, this promised one, and the Magi will not rest until the God-shaped space inside of them is filled.
“When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”
Matthew says that they brought three symbolic gifts: gold for a king, frankincense for a God, and myrrh presaging death. But there was a fourth gift, given before all the others.
“…they knelt down and paid him homage.”
This is a specific term; the Greek word “proskyneo” means that they prostrated themselves, lying face down upon the ground in front of the child Jesus. This gesture was their first and most important gift. For all of the symbolism of the gold, frankincense and myrrh, the gesture of offering them was physically a political act; something offered by kings to a king as in a diplomatic mission. But the act of complete humility and obeisance shown through prostration—paying homage—was a gift, not of tangible objects, but of their devotion, their very selves. These outsiders from the East, prompted by Creation itself, had wandered for months in unfamiliar and dangerous territory—wandering, but not lost— focused on offering their lives to a Jewish Messiah. When the star rested at last, it revealed the Christ as Savior to all of God’s people throughout the world, eliminating the boundaries between insiders and outsiders—a theme that would mark the life and ministry of the One to whom the Magi now offered their lives.
This first Epiphany was not the end of the journey. Where spiritual journeys are concerned there is no such thing. The God-shaped space, once filled, becomes dynamic—a source of invitation, challenge and vocation; an inner stirring that reveals a new way of envisioning the world, leading to a shift in priorities, even a dramatic change in one’s life.. And so the wise ones went home by another way—a new journey in new territory, to a home that might not look the same to them, because they were not the same.
What are we to make of this as we enter a new year—a year that for many doesn’t so much beckon as loom with uncertainty and anxiety? We can’t avoid remembering that Matthew’s story of the Magi ended with the warning in a dream of Herod’s evil intentions toward Jesus, prompting them to avoid Jerusalem on their way home. Thwarted by the Magi’s dream, Herod sent his soldiers to kill all toddler boys throughout the region—an unspeakable event that the Church now commemorates three days after Christmas as the Holy Innocents. The proximity of these two diametrically opposed remembrances—Christmas and Holy Innocents– reminds us that the world into which the Christ Child was born did not immediately become a painless paradise. It remained as broken and wounded as our world is today. So it is crucial that we must also remember that this is exactly why the prophet Isaiah named the child born in Bethlehem Emmanuel—God with us. Journeying with us. When fear and anxiety grip our hearts, we must remember that in this Epiphany we celebrate the star’s illumination of the promised Messiah who said, “Do not be afraid”; whose own journey reveals that Herod does not get the last word; that cruelty and injustice and war and terror and Twitter do not get the last word. It is the Christ who reveals on this Epiphany that love, life and hope will have the final say.
“You’re not on some kind of journey, are you?”
Well, I hope so. Unlike the wise ones, we no longer follow the Star. Now we seek to follow Jesus; called to live our lives as if lit from within by the star that finally rested over Bethlehem. It is my prayer for each of us, and for this St. Martin’s community, that by God’s grace we will find what we seek and that the journey itself will form us as dreamers and co-builders of God’s Dream for all of Creation.
Glorious now behold him arise,
king and God and sacrifice;
heaven sings alleluia;
alleluia the earth replies.
Featured Image is the Great Rose Window of Trinity Cathedral, Phoenix, by Vada Roseberry
Sermon from The Rev. Mark R Sutherland for the Solemn Mass of the Nativity 2019
Each one of us creates or constructs individual stories to explain our experience of the world. Together as cultures, faith traditions, communities, and nations, we construct our collective stories- stories that tell us about our origins, who we presently are, and why we are here. Both as individuals and as communities our stories mold and shape our perceptions of self and the world. Our stories once brought to life, make claims upon us.
The demands of daily life distract us from an awareness of being shaped by the stories we tell. Gaining a little perspective on our stories allow the swirling snowstorm of ideas and feelings -as in a swirling snow globe to settle. Gaining perspective allows us to perceive our lives to reveal the hidden dissonances between the life actually lived and the stories we continue to tell ourselves about that life.
The Christian story is a drama in two acts. In Advent I’ve been thinking about this with a particular interest. I have found myself -at this relatively advanced stage of my spiritual journey returning with a renewed appreciation for the second act in the Christian faith drama.
By advanced, I don’t mean wise or sophisticated and certainly not proficient – all meanings that often attach to the description of something as advanced. No, what I mean it this. At the age of 64 -going on 65, I’ve been at this faith thing for a little while now. For most of this time I’ve paid scant attention to the second act of the Christian drama – beyond the inattentive repetition of liturgical formulas referring to the Parousia or the second coming of the Lord.
I mention the second act of the drama on the night when we are meant to be completely given over to the celebration of act one, because most of us have forgotten there is a second act – without which – our understanding of the first act remains partial and thus unconvincing because an incomplete story is easily dismissed.
It’s Luke who tells the best story of the birth of Jesus. It’s Francis of Assisi who populates Luke’s story of the birth of the savior with the visual props of the traditional nativity play. We now can’t think of Christmas Eve without the mental images of a ruined stable lean to, bestrewed with straw, with grazing sheep, lowing cattle, incredulous shepherd yokels, and an angel or two singing glory to God in the highest and peace among all people on earth.
As with viewing an old master depiction of the nativity, we have to keep our eyes exclusively focused on this foreground scene in order to avoid having to notice the darkness in the background. Glory to God in heaven is all well and good but the reign of peace on earth is far from having been realized. That’s why keeping the second act of the Christian drama in view is so important. With the birth of Jesus, the story has begun but it’s ending is not yet insight, so don’t be so quick to dismiss it as not true to life. As Sonny Kapoor, proprietor of the Most Exotic and Best Marigold Hotel proclaims it will be OK in the end and if things are not OK it’s because it’s not yet the end.
The Christmas hymn “It came upon the midnight clear”, witnesses that the glorious song of old may well have come upon a midnight clear but the world continues to suffer long. It laments that beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong. As we begin the third decade of the third millennium, waring human kind continues to hear not the angelic tidings of peace on earth and good will among human kind – the song the angels bring.
And so, the nativity of the babe Jesus with all its medieval farmyard trappings has become consigned by most Westerners to the realm of those once upon a time, quaint fairy stories we love to enchant our children with, and which, we adults may still love but can no longer take very seriously as a description of reality.
However, stories are all we have and that as human beings we create meaning from the stories we construct. Contrary to popular perception, meaning is not something lying around waiting to be discovered. It’s only through the construction of stories, that we bring meaning and purpose to life.
The enchanted magical realism of the Matthew and Luke stories of Jesus’ birth among angels, shepherds, and wise men may no longer speak to us as it once did in previous generations. Yet, buried in these stories lie the tension between safety versus risk that if we listen carefully speak powerfully of our own struggles and anxieties between invulnerability or vulnerability, belonging and rejection, courage and fear.
What stories capable of changing lives might we construct together as we listen carefully in the spaces in between Luke’s descriptions?
The question is not is Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth a true depiction of events, but how are our lives enriched through allowing the priorities of this story to shape our sense of ourselves and the world around us? I believe in the power of the story of the birth of Jesus to change our lives. I believe in this story, not because I mistake it for a literal description of true events, but because to not believe in it impoverishes and limits me. My life is all the richer, my ability to weather the vicissitudes of fate strengthened, because I believe that the Creator has entered into the very structures of the creation to experience it as we do. The universe has a purpose and it is not only that God is actively engaged in bringing that purpose to its fulfilment. That we have a role in furthering this process also through what our Jewish neighbors refer to as Tikkun olam – works of social responsibility that further the divine in breaking of social justice as a sign of the repair of a broken world.
Larger stories reframe our own self-limiting life story. Faith-based stories challenge our awareness of pernicious cultural stories that lay claim on us, competing for our primary allegiance. Good stories break the power of the illusion that we have no choice – as if there are no other stories to draw from or no other ways to reframe the stories we have. Luke’s story is our story also and this -maybe is worthy of our closer consideration?
Our Christian story is a drama in two acts. In the birth of Jesus God has inaugurated messianic age in which we live. Keeping act two in mind orients us to the work of the messianic age, i.e. the remaking of a broken world despite the frustrating fact that the in breaking of justice and peace is still in the process of moving towards its final completion.
I love to paraphrase my hero poets. I’ve drawn a lot from T.S Eliot this past Advent so it’s not T.S Eliot this time, but a more contemporary voice of our age, the late John O’Donoghue:
May the stories we choose to live by – enlivening us to the invisible geography that invites us to new frontiers, breaking the dead shell of yesterdays, risking being disturbed and changed, giving us courage to live the lives we long to love, and to postpone no longer the life we came here to live and waste our hearts on fear no more.Morning Offering
Christmas Eve Sermon from The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs for the First Celebration of the Nativity with Pageant 2019
“Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
What would have happened if it had been three wise women instead of three wise men who visited Jesus? They would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts.
It’s an oldie but a goodie as memes go, but it relies on two erroneous assumptions; first, that the birth of the Messiah was an ordinary occurrence, which it was not. As we’ve heard tonight the Gospels of Luke and Mark tell of an event foretold by prophets and marked by the cosmos—a wandering star, songs of angels, wise ones from far beyond the borders of a tiny Palestinian town. Anything but ordinary, and therefore worthy of extraordinary, if less than practical, attention.
The second and related assumption, or takeaway, is that Christmas is a time when things should go as planned. Lists made, itineraries checked, all in order and on schedule. No glitches. I ask you, when has that ever happened? We have a vision of perfection– Perfect gifts, perfect tree, perfect décor, perfect meals, perfect behavior of children and relatives—we set the bar high, perhaps because our vision is based on commercial culture, or the softened memories of Christmases past, or on the hope that we can create something we wish had been but have never been able to achieve.
But stuff always happens. The tree falls over, the kids fight, the gravy is lumpy, the Christmas cards don’t arrive on time to send them before New Year’s. And in addition to that, the ordinary challenges, crises and aggravations that can confront us any other time of the year just seem worse when they happen at Christmas. At a time when we think we should have things most under control is when things seem to go off the rails.
And that’s the point. The baby born in a stable because there was no room in the inn comes to tell us that we are not in control, as much as we would wish otherwise. A child heralded by stars and angels instead of midwives and housekeepers calls us to expect the unexpected—to make room for something hopeful, if not perfect. A Messiah in swaddling clothes invites us to see things as God sees them—in new and surprising ways.
Look at our pageant tonight. What can be better than a Gabriel with a built in silver halo to remind us that angels come in all guises? (And this one happens to be named Faith) Who better than a young person like Maya or Peyton to show us that no voice is too young (or height too short) to participate in telling the great Story of God’s relationship with Creation? And how wonderful to have a great group of grownups willing to engage playfully in intergenerational storytelling—encouraging us to see Mary and Joseph and the Magi in new ways.
Where Jesus is concerned we need to expect the unexpected, because perfect as we understand it is overrated. In the Bible the Greek word for perfect is the same as the word for whole or complete. Which flies in the face of the idea that Christmas, or our lives at any other time, should be meeting unrealistic standards that we set for ourselves. God calls us to wholeness, which includes the whole spectrum of what life throws at us. And God invites us to remember, as we contemplate the Holy Family surrounded by shepherds and angels that God is God, and we are not.
A God who desires our wholeness rather than our perfection is a God with skin on, who became flesh and walks the journey with us. A God who desires our wholeness rather than our perfection is a God whose cradle was a feeding trough, whose parents became refugees, and who grew up to dine with tax collectors, touch lepers, defend women from misogyny, heal the sick, stand up to the powerful, and confound everyone’s expectation of what a king should be—even to his death on a cross. A God who challenges us to wholeness asks us to hold ourselves and our expectations lightly—to greet our blessings with a spirit of generosity and gratitude, and to greet our challenges with courage and the willingness to be vulnerable to God’s grace and care.
God is God, and we are not. What we are, is beloved beyond measure by the God who became one with us on that first Christmas night. May that love enfold us, support us, challenge and encourage us this Christmas and in the days to come.
Featured image is Hope by Ferdinand Feys
A brief recap
And so, we come to the last Sunday in Advent. In this Advent’s preaching, Linda+ and I have taken pains to paint the fuller picture of expectation – of hope – of the tensions experienced in waiting and the easy confusion we make between the act of hoping and the object of our hope.
Hoping is a verb, or as my primary school English teacher Mrs. Doake used to say, a doing word. Hoping is an action we perform and while it has in its sights a particular outcome, T.S. Eliot warned us about conflating the action of hoping with the object hoped for.
It’s a paradox. Hoping always will connect in our minds to a desired outcome, that’s how our minds work. But it’s not the realization of the outcome that matters, it’s the action of open-ended hoping that then enables God to provide the outcome God intends. For the poverty of our imaginations, the risk adverse quality of so much of our hoping – Eliot’s to hope for the wrong thing – cannot begin to comprehend the height, the length, the breadth, the depth that is in the mind of God.
A member, over lunch this last week said to me: Gee: I was really depressed when I heard you tell us not to have hope. Hope is all I have. I was stunned. Because of course this was not what I intended to convey at all. So, to clarify. Hoping IS ALL WE HAVE. In other words, the courage to have hope, to face life every day with a hopeful attitude IS – ALL WE HAVE. Whether the object – the outcome of our hoping is realizable or not is in a way beside the point. We perform hope – and in the action of hoping, the attitude of being hopeful – the future is brought into the present where things begin to change. To paraphrase Alice Miller, a psychoanalyst and artist and another of my 20th-century heroes We [become] who we have been waiting for.
The birth of Jesus is act one in a two-act drama. In a few days we will bring all our focus to bear on this first act. While still in Advent however, we need to remind ourselves that the focus of our hope is really on the second act in the drama. The messiah has come, but this is not what we are waiting for. The birth of Jesus inaugurates the messianic age, but it does not bring it to completion. It is for the messiah’s return that we eagerly wait. The nature of his return will be to remake heaven and earth and put right all that which is presently wrong. This is the vision that shapes the action of hoping. We, in the meantime must work tirelessly for the righting of wrong as we prepare for the in-breaking of God’s justice.
And so, we come to the last Sunday in Advent when we hear the crucial beginning to Matthew’s narrative of the birth of Jesus. There are two birth narratives, one in Matthew, the other in Luke. The key difference between them lies not only in the details of how the event is described, but in the attitude and theological worldview of the two Evangelists – a difference that will surface again and again as each constructs his biography of Jesus.
Luke’s story focuses on Mary, her feelings and reactions. Luke describes how God speaks directly to Mary through the Archangel Gabriel who announces to her an event about to happen. Gabriel declares: do not be afraid, Mary; for you will conceive a child through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The important point here is that in Luke, God has a high view of women. Gabriel comes and announces God’s intention to Mary for her to conceive in the form of an invitation. Nothing more happens until Mary accepts the invitation. Heaven and earth, in breath-taking silence wait – there’s that pesky waiting again. Heaven and earth wait with bated breath until Mary proclaims, I am the servant of the Lord, be to me, as God intends. Invitation accepted. God and Mary are partners in this enterprise.
In Matthew, the same event is quite differently described. Matthew tells us that Mary was found to be pregnant. So, the conception has already taken place and Mary seems not to have had any real choice in the matter. She has now been found out – being pregnant out of wedlock now places her in great danger from the self-righteous wrath of the patriarchy – the great men who decreed that a woman found to be in Mary’s predicament must be stoned to death at the door of her house with her Father throwing the first stone. It’s somewhat chilling to be reminded here of the Mosaic sanction for honor killing!
It’s Joseph, not Mary, who is for Matthew the key actor in this story. His is a story of primogeniture – the passing down of legitimacy through the male line. Matthew focuses on Joseph because Matthew’s concern is to refute appearances and to demonstrate Jesus’s legitimacy as a true descendant of David and therefore is the coming one long expected and predicted by the prophet Isaiah: a young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall call him Immanuel – God is with us.
Tradition presents Joseph as a kindly hero, a saintly and gentle man who wants to spare Mary from a fate worse than death. So, he intends to put Mary away quietly – as so many fathers of daughters found to be pregnant out of wedlock have done throughout history. Joseph is but a kindly version of the patriarchal fear of uncontrolled female sexuality; a fear it seems that we in 21st-century America we are still not emancipated from.
But for Mary there is no fate in store for her that could possibly be worse than death. No, the fate worse than death is the potential damage to Joseph’s reputation – to be disgraced and still be alive. Joseph intends to protect his reputation – that is until God intervenes.
God sends an unnamed angel, let’s call him Gabriel, for Gabriel was believed to be God’s messenger angel and Luke names him directly. Gabriel comes to Joseph in a dream and tells him Mary’s child is actually God’s child – so don’t be such a klutz, just marry her! Gabriel reminds Joseph that if he has any doubt – to go back and read the prophet Isaiah.
Tradition favors Joseph for making an honest woman of Mary. Making an honest woman is an interesting term, which like the term wedlock – locking down a piece of human property tantalizes to take me in a different direction. But to stick to my theme – a better perspective might be that Joseph redeems himself by marrying Mary. He offers himself as a willing participant in God’s plan for salvation and it’s for that faithfulness that we honor him.
But Matthew can’t quite let up on the patriarchal fixation of women as sexually dangerous. Thus, he has to tell us that Joseph preserves his moral purity by refraining from consummating the marriage until this ambiguous incident is brought to completion with the birth of the child.
Matthew’s narrative strikes current alarm bells in our society. The prophet Isaiah named the child Emmanu-el – God is with us. God is with us in the faces of poor women having been deprived of control over their reproductive rights by holy men, or in the faces of women as the victims of male sexual predation. God is with us in the faces of the children consigned to poverty and the myriad social disadvantages that afflict many single parent families.
Matthew’s narrative continues. After the birth, God warns Joseph to flee with his wife and child -narrowly escaping the wrath of the genocidal Herod, who in a desperate attempt to find Jesus decrees the slaughter of all two-year old boys in the region of Bethlehem. God is with us in the face of the child separated at the border from her desperate parents who driven by fear of violence and death – like Joseph and Mary are only seeking the relative safety of our Egypt. God is with us in the haunted faces of the women and children corralled in the world’s increasingly numerous ghettos: the Syrian province of Idib, Gaza, the Burmese-Bangladesh border, the detention camps ringing the Mediterranean Sea, Xinjiang’s Uighur detention camps – the examples roll on.
In these days of online retail, you probably don’t go to the mall for much of your Christmas preparations anymore. But were you to – you might hear the song Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas introduced by Judy Garland in 1944 when it was not yet clear how, or when, the War might end. I’m grateful to Richard Swanson for mentioning this song. The final verse concludes the song with:
Through the yearsHugh Martin Lyrics, Ralph Blane Music.
We all will be together,
If the Fates allow.
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
God is with us means that we have a God who is not simply with us but has promised to muddle through with us. Are we not coming to the end of quite a year for muddling through? God is with us and hope is all we have!
Cover picture by the Brazilian painter Miguel Sebastião
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hopeT. S. Eliot, East Coker
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; ….
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Advent’s themes revolve around the tension between two fundamentally competing expectations for the coming of the messiah. East Coker is the second poem in T.S. Eliot’s epic The Four Quartets in which he suggests waiting without hope, because invariably hope will be to hope in the wrong thing. It seems Eliot is getting at the distinction here between the action of hoping and the object of our hope.
On Advent Sunday I spoke about the anxieties surrounding hope. Hope’s risky. You might not get what you risk hoping for. What then? When our hope seems to lead to disappointment, is it because we have hoped for the wrong thing as T.S Eliot warns? How do we know whether our hope is for the right or wrong thing?
We all have expectations. Jesus’ fellow Jews had very strong expectations concerning the coming one, the messiah; the age-old, transgenerational hope of the Jewish people. In the 1st-century a small group of Jews came to understand that the coming one – long expected had finally arrived. That in Jesus the messianic age had finally dawned.
However, there was a hitch – how to explain the paradox of a dead messiah? Although there was a wide variety of views among 1st-century Jews as to the messiah’s actual mission, no Jew believed that the essential aspect of the messiah’s mission was to be ignominiously put to death by the foreign oppressors. And so, among the first followers of Jesus the transgenerational expectation became a drama in two acts. In Jesus, God had initiated the messianic age in a first act, yet not completed it until the second act of the messiah’s return. What had begun with the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah would be brought to an end with his return – at which point the transgenerational dream of all Jews would be fulfilled.
Over the centuries, despite paying theological lip service in the creeds- we believe he will come again to judge the living and the dead, and the Eucharistic proclamation –Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again, we, Western mainline, Christians have effectively abandoned any real expectation of the Lord’s return. We no longer live in expectation of Christ’s return – or at least not any time soon. Hence, Advent’s primary focus has come to be on the Incarnation – or act one – Jesus, the coming one. But if we no longer live in expectation of a second act with the Lord’s return –which is the overriding expectation in the New Testament, what, I wonder, have we put in its place?
The early Christian expectation of the Lord’s return as the fulfilment of God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth has been replaced for us by an expectation of joining him in the bliss of eternal life. We no longer expect the Lord to return to join us on this earth. Instead we expect to be transported out of it. Our expectation is that our biological death will usher us into a new and eternal life with God in heaven. The End. Mission accomplished!
When John the baptizer began his firebrand ministry of preaching a baptism of repentance, many flocked to him because he raised expectations of being the coming one. 1st-century Jews all looked forward with real urgency for the arrival of the coming one. Yet, there was not unsurprisingly, a divergence of expectation concerning the coming one’s exact mission.
Many cherished the age-old prophecies that spoke of the messiah’s arrival to inaugurate the glorious repair and restoration of the creation according to the expectation of the prophet Isaiah in our first reading on Advent III.
Viewed from our contemporary perspective there is a strong environmental element to this expectation: the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, and the desert rejoice and blossom – the burning sands will become a pool and the thirsty ground springs of water. This is nothing short of a powerful vision of the re-terraforming -a word much beloved in science fiction -of the earth.
There’s also a strong social justice component to messianic age expectation: the eyes of the blind being opened; the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame leaping like deer, and the tongue of the speechless singing for joy.
However, many Jews smarting under the nation’s humiliation at the hands of the Roman occupation, had a more tribal and political expectation of the coming one’s mission. The messiah would arrive at the head of a powerful Jewish rebellion that would drive out the Romans and restore the fortunes of Israel as a proud and independent nation – an exceptional nation under God.
Again, viewed from our context we can only note the long precedent among certain religious factions to hope for the wrong thing by domesticating the divine vision into a political agenda in support of an anxious tribalism.
We catch a wonderful glimpse of these two conflicting expectations for the messianic age in Matthew’s relating of the incident in 11:2-11. John the baptizer, now in prison, seems to be experiencing a growing doubt and uncertainty concerning Jesus. Languishing in prison and receiving the reports of Jesus activities from his own disciples, did John begin to question his belief in Jesus as the coming one? Could it have been that he had made a mistake?
John thus dispatches his disciples to question Jesus: are you the one or should we expect another? We can speculate about the roots for John’s doubt – as his own previous firebrand tendencies reveal, it’s likely he’s looking for a more muscular messiah. What seems clear for John is that Jesus is not fulfilling expectations!
As we have come to discover, Jesus like a wily politician never answers a direct question. Here, he avoids getting into the nitty gritty of competing messianic expectations – of making a reasoned justification in an attempt to allay John’s doubts. Instead, he simply sends John’s disciples on their way- instructing them to tell John what they see and hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the poor have good news brought to them.
In this exchange we see which side in the competing expectations about the messiah’s mission, Jesus takes. His, is not the expectation of a tribal nationalist messiah. In simply reminding John of the prophetic expectations for the messiah by quoting Isaiah, Jesus’ rebuke is clear.
The 1st-century’s competing messianic expectations encapsulated so clearly in the exchange between Jesus and John are alarmingly alive and kicking today among America’s Christians. White evangelicals -who incidentally expect the Lord’s return by 2050 – passionately embrace John’s desire for a Jesus with a different – more militantly tribal, racially pure, and nationalistic messiahship. Jesus refuses to embrace this kind of messianic mission. From the heady standpoint of a fusion between faith and politics among the 1st-century equivalent of the white evangelical right – the Sadducees, some Pharisees, and the entire Zealot movement -this is the point at which Jesus starts out on the road to ultimate failure.
This Advent we experience the clash between prophetic and nationalist expectations of the messiah’s rule. Has the messiah come in strength to restore traditional tribal and nationalist ambitions through force of political coercion at home and military power abroad? Or has the messiah, in vulnerability and humility come to announce the prophetic expectation of social justice and environmental protection that signal the kingdom’s inbreaking?
This Advent, do we – Christians of the so-called mainstream, which as a term is now something of a misnomer- continue to ignore the New Testament’s two act messianic expectation in favor of a single act version – to live with our eyes firmly fixed on the reward of heavenly bliss? Our answer to this question will determine which of two very different sets of consequences we choose to understand the work of being Christian in today’s world.
To return to my earlier question: how do we know whether our hope is for the right or wrong thing? Is our hope placed in the expectation of ultimately escaping our present material reality into heavenly bliss – and in the meantime, turn a blind eye to social injustice and environmental degradation because when the Lord returns he’s going to burn up the world with his heavenly wrath anyway? Or do we place our hope in an expectation of the redeeming of material reality as not only our future hope in God putting what is currently wrong to rights – but also the blueprint for understanding our present responsibilities in real time?
Huge consequences for how to live in the present flow from the expectations for which in Advent we wait in hope. Ah there’s that prickly waiting word again. How will we know whether our hope is for the right or the wrong thing? If it’s hope in the waiting that collapses our future hope into present reality, the real time fruits of our hope will become abundantly clear.