Sunday, December 27, 2015

First Sunday after Christmas

1 Samuel 2
18 But Samuel was ministering before the Lord—a boy wearing a linen ephod. 19 Each year his mother made him a little robe and took it to him when she went up with her husband to offer the annual sacrifice. 20 Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, saying, “May the Lord give you children by this woman to take the place of the one she prayed for and gave to[c] the Lord.” Then they would go home.
26 And the boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favor with the Lord and with people.

So many highlights for Christmas Eve: the singing, the candles, the voices—young and old—reading the story of the birth of our Lord, the fellowship, and of course, the mouse.

Our little friend rushed in during the anthem, the door being left open a crack. The mouse paused for just a moment—the anthem was lovely—and then retreated under the radiator. I couldn’t see, but I have to assume that the mouse continued to enjoy the song—before carrying on to whatever Christmas festivities the church mice had planned.

Think of it was one of those glass-half-empty or glass-half-full questions. It seems we have a mouse problem—so many that some have started attending worship—unless you recall that the manger scene included sheep, maybe a donkey, and obviously mice. You can’t say “O come let us adore him” and leave the door open a crack. St. Paul does describe Jesus as the “firstborn over all creation,” (Col 1) and I’m sure that includes mice.

So why are we so taken with small things, cute things, baby things? Somehow it starts in childhood: being small, we are attracted to small things. The baby wants to have a baby, wants to see kittens and puppies and all manner of baby animals, and even mice, since they’re small.

And then things get weird. There is an entire subset of cuteness that involves dressing small things in some sort of costume: a dog dressed as Santa or a toddler in a tuxedo. And the marketers understand this and exploit the children, since superhero costumes and princess dresses come in every possible size. But no one makes an ephod.

I shouldn’t say ‘no one makes an ephod’ because I’m sure there is some Christian outfitter that makes and sells a version of Samuel’s costume for your next chancel drama based on the major prophets. But no one truly makes an ephod since we have no idea what an ephod looks like. Scholars are sharply divided—yes, this is what Old Testament scholars talk about—and have achieved no consensus on the appearance of the ephod.

I spent a little bit time reading the scholarly debate, and the ephod was probably some kind of apron, or long vest, and made of linen. It was something the high priest wore, and occasionally the king, and later on it seems to become a vestment for priests in the temple. This is why little Samuel is wearing one in our reading, along with a little robe, making this one of the most adorable passages in scripture. How did we get to this place, where everything is so cute it hurts?

It begins—as these things often do—with a man and his two wives. 1 Samuel wastes no time in describing the problem:

[Elkanah] had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.

And human nature being what it is, Peninnah took every opportunity to remind Hannah that she had no children, as if she needed to be reminded. But the prize for the most boneheaded thing to say to a woman who wants children but has no children goes to husband Elkanah, who says: ‘you have me—don’t I mean more to you that ten children?’ This is where sleeping on the couch begins.

The first scene in the temple opens in prayer. Hannah prays to the Lord for a son, but there is a twist. If the prayer is granted, Hannah will literally give the child to God, turning her desire into a self-less act. The High Priest Eli sees her in fervent prayer—and like the day of Pentecost—assumes she is drunk. She defends herself in the strongest terms, and Eli is taken aback. He blesses her and sends her on her way.

Back home it seems that even the most bone-headed men can be forgiven, since the story continues (in the KJV) with a wink and a bit of Bible code: “and Elkanah knew Hannah his wife; and the Lord remembered her.” She names the boy Samuel (a name which sounds like ‘heard by God’) and after weaning him, keeps her promise.

The end of the first chapter describes the moment that she drops the wee lad off at the temple, reminding old Eli that she was the woman in fervent prayer, but we get no description of his reaction. Instead, we get Hannah’s Song, which I will share in part:

“My heart rejoices in the Lord;
in the Lord my horn[a] is lifted high.
My mouth boasts over my enemies,
for I delight in your deliverance.

“There is no one holy like the Lord;
there is no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.

“Do not keep talking so proudly
or let your mouth speak such arrogance,
for the Lord is a God who knows,
and by him deeds are weighed.

That’s the part directed at Peninnah. And then describes the rest of God’s mission:

“The Lord brings death and makes alive;
he brings down to the grave and raises up.
The Lord sends poverty and wealth;
he humbles and he exalts.
He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes
and has them inherit a throne of honor.

If any of this sounds familiar, you have discovered the link to Christmas. After Mary comes to understand the blessing she has received, she sings what we call the Magnificat, saying, in part:

He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.

So what is the connection between extraordinary birth and these reversals? On one level it’s about unexpected news and the sense that this is a reversal of fortune in the most literal way. On another level, this is about the birth of two children that will transform Israel, and God’s desire for renewal.

For Samuel, his tenure as prophet of Israel will see the beginning of kings, very squarely in the category of “be careful what you wish for.” 1 Samuel 8 is the key chapter here, where Samuel describes in remarkable detail the shortcomings of human government, and the danger in wanting a strong leader.

Hannah sings of God’s intention: that the oppression that the era of kings will bring—and the very nature of human community—will need the prophetic voice, will need to hear that God seeks to lift the poor from the dust, and will place the most humble with the princes of this world.

And for Jesus, his tenure as prophet, teacher, and Son of the Most High will see the same message about the limitations of human government, and make a case for the Kingdom of God.

Mary’s song, like Hannah’s song before it, will describe the same vision of a world turned upside down: where the poor and the meek are blessed, where the proud are humbled, and where God brings only mercy to those who approach God with awe.

And this will be just the beginning of his reversals. Jesus, inspired by all the prophets, in love with scripture, will draw out more reversals and show us God’s way: where forgiveness overcomes the natural urge for revenge, where enemies are loved and cheeks are turned aside. And in the greatest reversal of all, Caesar will be set aside, and the people will say “Jesus is Lord” instead.

Today we give thanks for Hannah and Mary, who sang a new song to God, the God who continues to do marvelous things in our sight. Amen.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve, 7 pm

Luke 2
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

What the point of having a Bible study if you can’t uncover a few heretics along the way?

It all began with our most recent study, focused on hymns: the history of hymns, the theology of hymns, and even some spontaneous hymnwriting. Turns out Central’s got talent, but before we made this discovery, I wanted to lay a trap—in the nicest possible way.

So we began with a verse of Wesley’s classic “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”:

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity

Then I did a hands up. Is this a favourite? Anyone? A few hands went up. “Aha! Heretics!” It was as simple as that. I carefully explained that this verse has all the hallmarks of Docetism, the heretical belief that God simply appeared on earth in a Jesus-suit. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.” You see, study can be fun and exciting.

Then, of course, one of the clever participants reminded me that “Godhead” is the same as the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. No heresy then, nothing to see here—only a minister being hoisted on his own petard.

So we resolved that God took flesh and dwelt among us, arriving in the most vulnerable form, mirroring our own experience, fully human and fully divine. God entered the world among the humble—not in a palace, not even an inn, but out back, in a manger, surrounded by shepherds and their flocks.

It seems to be a recurring theme in the Bible: God overlooking the powerful and the connected in favour of the vulnerable. Think of Moses in basket, floating on the Nile, the fate of Israel at the whim of the current and some woven reeds. Or think of David, last among the sons of Jesse, so inconsequential that he isn’t even presented before Samuel as he seeks Saul’s successor. The future king is tending the flocks, ever a symbol of humility.

And, of course, Jesus. Born in poverty in about the least important part of the Roman Empire, a place of frequent wars and dislocation. And they weren’t even fighting over the place itself—just armies running into each other on their way to somewhere else.

Much has been made of the story of the flight into Eqypt, the Holy Family on the run from the evil Herod. And some have drawn a parallel to refugees in the modern sense, forced to leave home and seek refuge until such time that trouble has ceased.

It feels strange and awe-inspiring to know that the young woman and her son that we will sponsor are under the same moon tonight, half-a-world away in a camp, waiting for their own flight to safety. It feels like such a blessing to be able to help, to be a safe place in a world of trouble. We pray for them tonight.

And I think it’s fair to assume that the help will go in two directions. They will help us fulfill our mission to love and serve others, and they will help us remember that we live in a place untouched by war for 200 years, and prosperous by nearly every measure. May we be transformed by the experience.

This idea of being helped while we help seems to have more to say to the season, beginning with the very reason we gather tonight. We frame the season as God’s great gift to us, “unto us a son is given” found in both scripture and song:

How silently, how silently
the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessed gift of heaven.

And while that is completely true, it is not the complete story. For the complete story, we need to go back to the beginning. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, seeing it was good. Creatures follow creation, and soon we appear, becoming both the trial and triumph God intended. Our freewill makes us a bit of a mystery to God, and only serves to underline the solitude God feels, literally alone in the universe, a sort of divine refugee.

And what happens next is the first of many great reversals. God enters our world in Jesus, to experience the fullness of what it means to be human—but also to overcome the solitude that only God can know. We receive God’s greatest gift in Christ Jesus and we are a gift to God—allowing God to experience the warmth of a mother’s embrace, the adoration of all around, and the commotion that only childbirth brings. Even on that first night of nights, God overcame solitude to become God-with-us, Emmanuel. What God imparts to human hearts is returned in wonder and praise. And the blessing is mutual, now and always. Amen.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Second Sunday of Advent

Luke 3
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
5 Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”[a]

Don’t judge me for what I eat. Locusts are not the locusts you think, not the kind that fly and torment Egyptians. Locusts are from the locust tree, they have pods, and when you cook them in honey, it’s like something from the Food Network.

Don’t judge me for what I wear. If camel’s hair appeared on some runway in Milan, you’d all be wearing camel’s hair next year. That mink coat in the back of your closet, how is that any different from my camel’s hair by Oscar de la Renta?

Don’t judge me for the company I keep: baristas, dog-walkers, bloggers, craft-brewers, freelancers, organic grocers, Genius Bar workers, and curious clergy. They find me, I don’t find them. I presume they ask Siri where I am.

Don’t judge me for my home. While ‘river’ might be overstating things, wait until it rains in Lebanon. Then my beloved Jordan is fast enough that needy people are white-water rafting to my place.

Don’t judge me for my birth. Somehow my famous cousin gets a entire shopping season dedicated to him. He got abiding shepherds, angel choruses, random livestock, gold, frankincense, myrrh, and his own private star! I got a poem, and I think some of it was lifted from Isaiah.

Don’t judge me for the message I share. In fact, the message is judging you! A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins! Everyone needs that—especially the people who think they don’t. Don’t you love the irony? I’m a good person (they say) and I have nothing to confess (they claim) and I try to do my best (until no one is looking) and I don’t know what led me here (the Maker of All, obviously).

Don’t judge me for ranting. How else can I get my message across? We tried flooding, smoting, snaking, pillar of salting, and that curious way Ananias and Sapphira died in the fifth chapter of Acts just because they withheld their weekly offering. Having exhausted every other option, we’re trying baptism. It’s our last, best hope.

Don’t judge me because we’re using baptism. My people have been doing it forever—we call it ritual washing. You head to the mikvah, you immerse yourself in the water, and you are made clean. People do it when they convert, and people do it when they need some ‘routine maintenance.’ If you see your neighbour at the mikvah, it’s impolite to ask them the nature of their routine maintenance. Consult Leviticus for a list of possible reasons.

Don’t judge me because my baptism and Jesus’s baptism don’t exactly line up. Remember that poem my father mostly wrote?

And you, my child, (that’s me) will be called
a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord
to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God.

I’m the opener, the warm-up band, the supporting act. I point the way to the Way and remind them—just before they meet him—that their sins will make it impossible to hear his message. I give them a little tough love—I admit it—but when I’m done they’re back on shore and finally ready to see God’s salvation.

Don’t judge me because Lang ended up with one of those readings that makes every lay reader break out into a cold sweat. “Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene.” Dear Luke wants to make sure you understand this story has a time and a place, filled with real-life rogues. A sample? Lysanias: treason and usurpation. Philip: vanity and incest. Herod Antipas: more usurpation, more incest and deicide (literally killing God, since he had ultimate responsibility for the crucifixion). These were bad people, and corruption at the top made the entire nation corrupt, and in deep need of renewal.

And this is the heart of John’s message. Sick people in a sick society being led by sick leaders who made God sick to death of what had become of God’s people. But then something happened: one-by-one, then in small groups, and finally en masse the people found their way to the river’s edge, to hear the message of ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ They dove in.

But just before we get to the happy-ending, we need to honour our friend John by remembering that his message of repentance has the same currency now as then. Let’s look at the territories listed by Luke, and check in the today’s rulers, to see how we have advanced from those rotten tetrarchs of antiquity.

Abilene, and areas to the north are intermittently controlled by ISIS, and therefore can be said to be suffering under the worst quasi-government in recent history, with well-known crimes including murder, genocide, and the reinstatement of slavery.

Areas once known as Iturea and Traconitis are largely controlled by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, suspected by the United Nations to have committed war crimes, crimes against humanity and the wholesale destruction of a country.

And we can’t forget Judea, divided between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, one led by a rightwing government that has done nothing to stem the construction of settlements and the other—even before achieving independence—is considered one of the most corrupt governments on the planet.

And John would say ‘don’t stop there, preacher, bring it home!’ 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women, nearly 30% of children in this city living in poverty and an entire sector of the economy dedicated to cooking the planet. Can you see why John the Baptist was never invited over for dinner? Can you see why John the Baptist Sunday is the most curious element of our month-long journey to Bethlehem?

Or is it curious at all? John’s marching orders come from Isaiah, restated by Luke right there in the middle of John’s story:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
5 Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’

This is not a cosmetic change, this is not renovation, but destruction and reconstruction—the gapping voids in meaning filled in and the mountains of excess made low. The crooked road of human failure forgiven, and the rough places in each of our lives made smooth through the birth of our Saviour.

In just a few short days, we will sing a beloved Christmas Carol, written by Isaac Watts, considered to be the father of English hymnody. It has all the phrases that we associate with the season: “repeat the sounding joy” and “let earth receive her king” and—of course—”Joy to the world! The Lord is come.” What you may not know is that Watts didn’t write it as a Christmas carol. Rather, he wrote it to welcome Christ’s return at the end of the age, when he will rule “the world with truth and grace,” and make the nations prove “the glories of his righteousness.”

So I think we can safely say it now belongs to Christmas, because we want it too, in the same way we want the destruction and reconstruction of the present age to be tied to the birth of Jesus. We want “all people to see God’s salvation” here and now, in this age, and understand the peace, joy, hope and love found in Christ Jesus. Amen.