Your Greatest Gift is You

Preaching on the Feast of the Holy Name of Our Lord at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Kalamazoo, MI.

Click here to read Luke 2:15-21

Your greatest gift to the world is you.

Do you hear me in that?

Your greatest gift to the world, the Church, or your family is you.

This is an important truth that we are in grave danger of losing in the world. We live in a world that measures the “worth” of human beings in terms of the money they earn, the possessions they own, the positions they hold, or the degrees on their wall.

In a negative sense, this world judges people based on categories like race, ethnicity, nationality, gender identity, and sexual orientation. We dismiss the ideas of our fellow human beings because they come from someone of a different political party or religious tradition. We project all our self-hatred and insecurity onto people who live with a disability, mental health diagnosis, or criminal record.

When we meet new people at cocktail parties, our first question is usually something like: “So, what do you do?” I would be far more interested to ask, “So, who are you, really? What makes you tick? What thrills/hurts you? What brings you enough hope to get out of bed in the morning?” (And that’s probably the reason why I don’t get invited to many cocktail parties…)

Truth is always inconvenient. Someone has said, “The truth will make you free, but not before it’s done with you.” As broken people living in a broken world, we are not predisposed to face the honest truth about who we really are. We are afraid that we are nobody, or that we are so ugly, stupid, and boring that no one could possibly love us, if they were to see us as we really are. So, we hide. We try to cover ourselves with the paltry fig leaves of our accomplishments and failures, thinking that we have successfully tricked the world into believing that this nobody is somebody, but secretly fearing that the truth about our inner nothingness might one day be found out.

Brothers and sisters, I come to you this morning with good news that these deep fears of ours are entirely unfounded. Beneath the tattered rags of the false identities we have constructed for ourselves is not an ugly emptiness, but the glory of the Divine Image that has been revealed and redeemed for us by our Lord Jesus Christ.

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Name of our Lord. Today’s gospel recalls the eighth day after the Nativity, when the infant Messiah was brought to be initiated into the community of God’s chosen people through the rite of circumcision. Today is the day when the name of Jesus was first spoken out loud to the world.

There is tremendous power in a name. Names tell us something about who we are. Doctors put a lot of energy into diagnosis: accurately naming an illness in order to treat the patient. Parents know that if you raise a child, calling names like “bad, stupid, ugly, and worthless”, that child will grow up believing those things about him/herself and acting accordingly. In the Bible, names are of the utmost importance: the patriarch Jacob is given the new name Yisrael, meaning “he wrestles with God” after struggling all night for a blessing from an angel. Avraham, the exalted ancestor of Jews. Christians, and Muslims, is so-named because he is “the father of many nations.” Jesus names his disciple Petros because he is the “rock” upon which the Church will be built.

In today’s gospel, our Lord is given the name Jesus, Yeshua in Hebrew, which means “salvation, deliverance, or liberation” because he is destined to free God’s people from slavery to sin. The name of Jesus was not an arbitrary label attached to this person after-the-fact, but was first whispered into the Blessed Virgin Mary’s heart at the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel. At that time, the angel said of Jesus:

“He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:32-33 NRSV)

The Holy Name of our Lord is a statement about who Jesus is. Behind and beyond the rough exterior of an uneducated, working-class carpenter, born in the parking lot of a Motel 6, in a backwater town of an occupied country, deeper than all of that: we can see with the eyes of faith the Son of God, the Savior of the world.

As millennia have gone by, the Church has continued to ponder the full meaning of Jesus’ identity. Bishops and theologians have met repeatedly in great Councils, endlessly tossing the question back and forth while the answer eludes them. After two thousand years, all the Church can really say is that the mystery of Jesus’ identity is a question that can never be answered. He is fully human and fully divine in a way that transcends human understanding. Anytime people have stood up and claimed to have the final solution to this problem, the Church has been quick to tell them they are wrong. Christian orthodoxy is not a matter of holding tightly to unquestionable answers; Christian orthodoxy is a matter of standing in reverent awe before unanswerable questions.

Even after all these years, the unanswerable question of Jesus’ identity continues to haunt and bless the Church on earth. We can never claim to fully understand it, but we can give testimony to our experience of it. And we express this experience in poetry, story, ritual, and song: that in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, eternity has become embodied in time, heaven has taken up residence on earth, and divinity and humanity are now one.

Jesus reveals the mystery of his identity to us by entering into full solidarity with the human condition. In today’s gospel, Jesus enters into solidarity with the people of Israel through the rite of circumcision, which Jews today call a bris. The closest equivalent to this rite of initiation in the Christian tradition is the sacrament of baptism, which Jesus would also receive later in life, at the hands of his cousin John.

In baptism, we Christians receive our identity. That is, we learn who we really are in Christ. The water is an outward and visible sign of the washing away of the false identities we construct for ourselves. In the Church, we are no longer presidents or panhandlers, no longer grad students or gangstas, no longer trust-fund babies or crack babies, no longer doctors or drag queens. In baptism, all of these constructed identities are washed away: “We renounce them.”

In baptism, we are stripped of our fig leaves and stand naked before our Creator.

And this, brothers and sisters, is the Good News: that underneath the stained and tattered rags of ego is not the ugly nothingness we feared. In the moment of baptism, we stand beside the font, dripping and shivering like a toddler fresh out of the bathtub, and hear the voice from heaven saying to us what it said to Jesus at his baptism: “You are my Son (Daughter), the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22)

Brothers and sisters, this is the truth about who we really are. This is the truth that God reveals to us by taking on our humanity and dwelling among us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I dare you today to allow this truth to soak into the marrow of your bones. Allow it to transform you from the inside out. Allow it to turn upside-down the way you look at the world.

In baptism, Jesus liberates us from all our false, constructed identities. If you wash away everything you have, every one of your accomplishments and failures, everything you’ve ever done, everything that’s ever been said about you, what would be left? Only a mysterious voice from heaven saying, “You are my Child, the Beloved.”

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Jesus gives us eyes to see it. Jesus gives us the ability to see ourselves and our world through the eyes of God. This is how St. Paul is able to say, in his second letter to the Church in Corinth:

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh; even though we once knew Christ according to the flesh, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:16-17)

This is why we make the promise, in our Baptismal Covenant, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” and “respect the dignity of every human being”. We promise this because Christ is in all persons and every human being has an eternal dignity that deserves to be respected. You reflect the image and likeness of God in a way that is utterly unique, that has never been seen before in all of history, and never will be again. Without you, and without each and every person around you today, some small part of God would remain unknown forever.

And that is why I tell you today, brothers and sisters, that your greatest gift to the world is you.

Christmas Victor

Click here to read the biblical text.

As we gather here this morning to celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation in Word and Sacrament, we are also nearing the end of 2016. And there are many among who say, “Good riddance!”

It is only too easy for those of us who follow current events to hang our heads in despair at the state of things in the world. We hear of “wars and rumors of wars” at home and abroad. Our hearts break at the plight of refugees crossing our borders, break again as members of the powerful elite use these families as scapegoats for their politics of fear, and then break yet again as an act of terrorism in Berlin seems to lend momentary credibility to the argument that compassion is foolish.

Looking at the world on this Christmas morning, it appears that the cosmic forces of darkness and chaos are winning. We few who gather in church to tell stories, sing songs, and break bread appear to be the most pitiful of fools. Given the facts at hand, it is only understandable if we find ourselves asking the questions: Are just “whistling in the dark” after all? Are we really alone in a universe that came about as a random accident? Is the faith we proclaim nothing more than a charming tale we tell ourselves in order to sleep easier at night?

The modern world would answer “Yes” to all of the above. It would add: “It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there; you’ve got to look out for number one; money talks; might makes right.” The world says that the only truth is facts, and the facts say that we are on our own. I say the world is lying.

The Church tells a very different story in today’s gospel. We say:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

What we mean by this is that the world belongs to God, who made it.

Christians believe in one God as Trinity: Three persons in relationship (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). For us, God is a relationship. Based on this, we understand the universe to be a network of relationships (galaxies, solar systems, ecosystems, nations, and families) existing within the larger relationship of the Trinity, as a baby grows in her mother’s womb.

But here’s the thing about relationships between persons: they have to be freely chosen. And we humans chose to break relationship with God our creator.

John’s gospel says it like this:

“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”

Once we had broken relationship with God, our relationships with each other began to deteriorate as well. In seeking to become masters of the universe, we became slaves in bondage to each other, to corrupt systems, our own desires, and the powers of darkness and chaos beyond our control.

The good news is that our Creator was not content to leave us in this sad state of affairs. Even though we had broken relationship with God, God never broke relationship with us. God came to live among us in the person of Jesus Christ. John says:

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

As the only-begotten Son of God the Father, Jesus is the fullest expression of the divine image in a human face. Living among us, Jesus loved us: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, forgiving sinners, welcoming strangers, and raising the dead.

But we sinful humans could not stand to look at such holiness. Through the powers of religion and politics, we betrayed, denied, mocked, rejected, tortured, and killed the Son of God by crucifixion: anything just to shut him up and make him go away.

But God wasn’t having any of that nonsense. Like the tired mother of a toddler throwing a temper-tantrum, God rejected our rejection, raising Jesus from the dead and proving, once and for all, that God’s love is stronger than the power of death itself.

“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Through the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the door has been opened for us to freely re-enter a harmonious relationship with the Triune God and each other. John says it like this:

“to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the exclamation point at the end of a sentence that began with the incarnation. Christmas marks the beginning of a revolution that will never end until the entire universe is restored to right relationship with God.

The Church, far from an institution of civil religion that upholds the societal status quo, is an underground movement that preaches the Gospel of Jesus Christ as an alternative orthodoxy to the lies of this world system.

We are unashamed to speak the truth that the emperor wears no clothes. We are unafraid to expose the dark powers:

  • of tyranny, oppression, injustice, stigma, exploitation, violence;
  • of racism, sexism, ableism, classism;
  • of xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia;
  • and every other -phobia and –ism that plagues the human heart.

We are not afraid to name these lies and exorcise these demons from our midst.

The Church of Jesus Christ is a revolutionary movement:

  • The Bible is our manifesto, the Sacraments are our weapons of peace, and the Cross is our only flag.
  • Our only aim is the final reconciliation of the entire universe with the justice and mercy of God.
  • The resurrection is our decisive victory, and the incarnation is our beachhead.

For this reason, let the dark powers of this broken world tremble with fear when they hear us utter the words, “Merry Christmas!”

The Reason for the Season

Merry Christmas!

I still say Merry Christmas to you because the celebration of Christmas in the Christian Church (unlike the rest of society) lasts for an entire season, and not just a day. The last vestige of this tradition in our cultural consciousness is the song The Twelve Days of Christmas. That’s how long the liturgical season of Christmas lasts.

Note: In case anyone’s wondering, today is the tenth day of Christmas, wherein the anonymous “true love” gives “ten lords a-leaping,” according to the song.

The Christmas holiday seems to come and go so quickly in its secular, materialistic celebration. Celebrating it as a season (as indeed it was meant to be) is one way that Christians can make the joy last and (hopefully) let the spiritual significance of Christmas sink a little deeper into our souls.

Last Sunday, Rev. Bill Dodge spoke about making Christmas last, not by savoring the nostalgia, but by looking forward to take hold of the promises that God has laid up for us in Christ. Today, I would like to pick up on the heels of where my mentor left off and talk about the reason why Christmas happened in the first place. My hope is that if we can answer this question adequately, we might be in a better position to understand the meaning of Christmas and keep it in our hearts all year long.

Why was Jesus born?

There are several theories that propose an answer to this question. First, there are those who think the meaning of Jesus’ life was his message. “He came as a great teacher,” they say, “to show us how to love thy neighbor as thyself and do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Now, there is certainly a degree of truth in this idea. Jesus was, after all, a great teacher. However, he is hardly the first great teacher to walk the earth. Others have come from all corners of creation to enlighten the world with their wisdom. As a teacher, Jesus is one among many. Furthermore, scholars of comparative religion will tell you that many of the truths he taught were also devised by others. The Golden Rule, for example, is so-named because of how often it appears in the various philosophical and religious traditions of the world. There is nothing unique about Jesus if we relegate the significance of his life to his words alone.

There are others who claim that the meaning of Jesus’ life can be found in his death on the cross. “He came to die,” they say, “His blood paid the price for the sins of the world, so that those who believe in him can go to heaven when they die.” This theory is the one most commonly associated with traditional Christian teaching. However, I find it just as incomplete as the theory that Jesus was nothing more than a great teacher. If we believe the only reason Jesus was born was so that he could die on the cross, then we can conveniently ignore everything that came before and after that event: not only his teaching, healing, confronting, and forgiving, but also his resurrection, ascension, and eventual return. If he only came to die, then we can conveniently dispense with reading the remainder of the Bible and rest assured that our sins are forgiven and our eternal destiny secure.

So then, why was Jesus born? Why was it that Jesus, the Word of God Incarnate, “became flesh and made his home among us,” as it says in this morning’s gospel?

St. Paul gives us a better answer in this morning’s epistle:

“God revealed his hidden design to us, which is according to his goodwill and the plan that he intended to accomplish through his Son. This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth.”

Jesus Christ, in the mystery of his Incarnation, “bring[s] all things together in [himself], the things in heaven along with the things on earth.”

This is a central theme of the Christian faith. If we miss it, we are dangerously close to missing the whole point of Christianity itself. Jesus, the Divine Word, crossed the divide between heaven and earth so that he might also bridge the gap between God and humanity. And precisely because he has done this, he also bridges the many other gaps that divide us on earth: the gap between races, genders, social classes, political parties, nations, and even the various denominations and religious traditions. This is why Paul is able to say, in another place, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

When people begin to realize our oneness in Christ, all of those petty distinctions lose their meaning. In place of those divisions, we come to see the truth, as Paul did, that:

“Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many. We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink. Certainly the body isn’t one part but many… If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it. You are the body of Christ and parts of each other.”

It is not too much of stretch to say that this healing of divisions in Christ applies even to the breached relationship between human beings and the earth. We read in Colossians that “[Christ] existed before all things, and all things are held together in [Christ].” Therefore, Paul has no problem saying to us in today’s epistle that God’s plan is “to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth.” This promise includes all human beings, as well as all things animal, vegetable, and mineral. God’s plan even includes planets, stars, and galaxies. When St. John tells us in his gospel that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life,” the word he uses for world is cosmos; so it’s not just the world of people that Christ came to save, but the entire universe.

Paul calls this work “the ministry of reconciliation” in his second letter to the Corinthians. It begins with God reconciling the cosmos to himself in Christ and continues as God then invites each and every one of us to participate in the reconciliation of broken relationships through Christ. This, by the way, is why we are rightly able to call ourselves catholic Christians, as we say in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. The word catholic means one, and we are indeed one in Christ: having been brought together and reconciled to God, each other, and the cosmos. We form part and parcel of the one Body of Christ, the holy catholic Church.

This ministry of reconciliation matters now more than ever in the world. Human technology has advanced to the point where we have now sent spacecraft to the edge of our solar system. Humans have stood on the moon and snapped photographs of the entire earth at once. Telephones have made it possible to communicate instantaneously with people on the other side of the planet. The internet gives our brains instantaneous access to massive amounts of information.

But what have we done with all this knowledge and power? We have used it, not to unite, but divide ourselves even further. We use our rockets to launch missiles at our enemies’ cities. We use our computers to anonymously abuse each other in comment threads. We access only those bits of information that confirm our previously-held opinions and demonize our opponents in the worst-possible light. We use our telephones to stay connected to the latest headlines, but we are utterly disconnected from the person standing next to us in line or even lying next to us in bed. We are lost.

But we are not without hope, for the purpose of Christmas still holds true, two thousand years after it was first revealed to us. St. Paul said it best: “This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth.”

This is what God intends for us, and God will not rest until this ministry of reconciliation is accomplished in us. The reconciliation of broken relationships is the mission of the Church catholic. How do we participate in this mission? In two ways: by receiving the gift of reconciliation from God and by sharing that grace with our neighbors.

First of all, we receive reconciliation from God through the ministry of Word and Sacrament. We listen for the Word of God in the Scriptures, as they are read and preached. We are washed clean and grafted into Christ in baptism. When we celebrate the Eucharist together, we ask the Holy Spirit to bless us and the elements of bread and wine, so that our physical eating and drinking might be a spiritual Communion in the Body and Blood of Christ. And then, as we receive the Body of Christ, we become the Body of Christ: we are made one with God and one with each other in Christ.

Once we have received God’s grace in Word and Sacrament, we are sent back out to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world. Our job is to do today what Jesus did when he was on earth: heal the sick, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, forgive our enemies, open blind eyes, and bring new life to those who are dead inside.

Just as Jesus Christ bridged the gap between heaven and earth in his Incarnation, so we his Church are also called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue his work in the world by bridging the infinitely smaller gaps between us and our neighbors. This is the work to which North Church has given itself over the years. Ever since four teenagers snuck off into the woods with stolen hymnals, the members of this congregation have been continually drawn toward the least, the last, the lost, and the loneliest people in our society. We had our beginnings in a time when this country was divided and at war with itself, and ever since then, we have not ceased to reach across the gaps that divide “us” from “them.” In the middle of the last century, we reached out to our neighbors who are hungry and homeless through ministries of service and compassion. In a time of racial division (much like our current time), the pastors of this church took a dangerous and unpopular stand in favor of equality and desegregation. The Rev. Margaret Towner, the first woman to be ordained a pastor in the Presbyterian Church, has preached from this pulpit. We have stood up for the rights of the poor and the oppressed, we have spoken out against violence, and spoken up for expanded public transportation and equal marriage rights for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. For the last 27 years, we have especially dedicated ourselves to fighting the stigma that is heaped upon people who live with mental illness. Every Sunday at worship and every Thursday at the Togetherness Group, Christian hands and hearts reach out across that divide and the demonic spell of isolation is broken, even if only for a moment. This is the work of the Church, the work of Christmas, and it is our work.

St. Paul says, “This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth.” Brothers and sisters, that is why Christmas happened; that is the reason for the season. So may we, the people of the Church, keep our hand to that plow and Christmas in our hearts all year and every year from now until the end of the age.

A Long Time Ago in a Galilee Far, Far Away?

Tonight we gather again to hear the Christmas story: the story of angels and shepherds; the story of Mary and Joseph; the story of Jesus who was born in manger. It is one of the most beloved stories in all of human history. It is a beautiful story.

But it feels sometimes feels removed from real life. We hear about the angels singing, “Glory to God” and “Peace on Earth” but this Earth often seems to be quite devoid of peace. We enjoy the warm glow of the Nativity Scene and the Hanukkah Menorah in a city park, but that stands in stark contrast to the biting chill of the wind on our faces. Our world feels very different from the world we imagine when we hear the Christmas story. It seems sometimes like tonight is the one night a year when we take a break from harsh reality and pretend to believe in magical things like angels and Saviors. We tell and retell this imaginary story from “a long time ago in a Galilee far, far away.” We cross our fingers and hope against hope that our telling of this story will somehow spark the imagination of our hearts and carry us through to next Christmas, when we will come to church and hear the story once again.

But here’s the thing: our world is not a different world from the one into which Christ was born. It is the same world. The shepherds who saw the angels were poor workers. They were despised and distrusted by respectable society. They knew the struggle of making a living, the pang of hunger, and the sting of rejection. Mary and Joseph were refugees, hustled around like cattle being counted and finally forced to flee for their lives from violence and tyranny in their homeland. Mary, his fiancée, was an unwed teenage mother. We hear that Jesus was born in a stable; have you ever smelled a stable?

The Christmas story is not something that happened “long ago” or “far away.” It is the story of how God comes to meet us: and the time when God comes to meet us is now; the place where God comes to meet us is this place, with all its problems, messes, and stinky smells.

I think the reason why we tend to get so romantic and nostalgic about our Christmas story each year is because we don’t like this world we’re living in. We want to change it. We want to believe that it can become better. We think, “Maybe if we just try harder, or close our eyes and pray harder, the wish will come true and the magic of Christmas will come alive forever!” But, obviously, that hasn’t happened yet. The world we are left with now is still the same weary world into which Jesus was born two thousand years ago.

Some might take that fact as a sign of cynicism or despair, but I don’t. I see it as a grand opportunity. If the world into which Christ was born is this world (so we say), and if Christ is alive forever (so we also say), and if Christ has promised, “I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age” (so we also also say), then the place and time where God comes to meet us is here and now. God lives within and around us in this world. If we don’t see God, it is not because God isn’t here, but because we, in the hardness of our hearts, are refusing to look.

We wish we could change this weary old world and make it into what it ought to be. But obviously, we can’t. This world is what it is and things are the way they are. We have no control over those circumstances. But that doesn’t mean that change is impossible.

First of all, the loving power that spoke the universe into existence now lives, breathes, loves, and works in each and every one of us. That truth alone is no small cause for hope. Secondly, the power of God is able to change us.

Tonight’s epistle reading tells us, “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people.” I love that. Let’s break it down: It begins with grace. The “unmerited favor” of God, the love God gives us in abundance whether we deserve it (or want it) or not. This work of transformation begins, not with our best efforts, but with God’s decision to love us beyond our own capacity for self-destruction.

And this grace, we are told in the reading, “educates us so that we can live sensible, ethical, and godly lives right now by rejecting ungodly lives and the desires of this world.” Grace is our teacher. God’s grace changes us from the inside out. Grace gives us the power to envision a life we never thought possible. We may not have the power to change the world, but we have the power to live changed lives, not by virtue of our own strength and wisdom, but because the love of God is able to change us as we live our lives in this world.

My hope, my prayer for all of us this Christmas, is that we would come to trust this silent and invisible power of God’s grace so much that we will live changed lives in the midst of this weary world. And I further hope that we, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, will “be the change we wish to see in this world.”

The time and place where God lives is not “a long time ago in a Galilee far, far away,” but here and now, in this place, at this time. God meets us here and now, in the messy, stinky problems of this world as we know it. God meets us in the little things, like refugee babies born in stables, and works in us through those little things to change the world into what it ought to be.

God Is With Us (in the little things)

Do you ever get scared?  I get scared sometimes.  I get scared of all kinds of things:

What if I get sick?  What if we run out of money?  What if I lose my job?  What if my marriage falls apart?  What if something happens to one of my kids?

What if this election doesn’t turn out the way I think it should?  What if the stock market crashes again?  What if essential relief and education programs get their funding cut by policy makers?

We live lives surrounded by fear.  The famous philosopher (and sometimes crankyperson) David Hume once went on a rant about all the things in this world that scare us.  First, he said, there are our natural enemies: those things that threaten our physical existence (i.e. predators, disasters, diseases).  Then there are our societal enemies: tyranny, oppression, injustice, inequality, violent rebellion.  Next you have our internal enemies: guilt, shame, fear.  Finally, as if all that weren’t enough, we have our own imaginary enemies that we make up ourselves: superstitions, taboos, mythical monsters.

Surrounded by so many enemies and things to be scared of on all sides, life hardly seems worth living, says Hume.  Why then do we go on?  Why don’t we just end it all?  Well, says Hume, because we’re scared of that too.  Death is the ultimate enemy to fear because no one knows for sure what lies on the other side of it.  And so, because we are ultimately afraid of death, Hume says, “We are terrified, not bribed, into the continuance of our existence.”

Now, this is a pretty dark portrayal of reality (David Hume was kind of famous for that), but I think he has a point in noticing that we live our lives surrounded by fear.  There’s always something to be worried about or afraid of.  This is the way it’s always been.

Way back in the 8th century BCE, there was a Jewish king named Ahaz who had a lot to be scared of.  His reign had been fraught with constant conflict.  Two of his enemies, the Ephraimites and the Arameans, had joined forces and were threatening to lay siege to the city of Jerusalem.  Ahaz was understandably scared out of his gourd.  The most sensible thing he could think of to do was to seek out support from a bigger, meaner bully down the block.  Back then, the biggest, meanest kid in town was the Assyrian Empire.

This, by the way, is the same rationale that leads some people, especially teenagers and young adults, to join gangs: they’re looking to garner a sense of safety when they feel like no one else cares about them.  But, as is so often the case with these kinds of things, there is a hefty price to pay and very little safety after all.  In King Ahaz’s case, he and his people would pay dearly for whatever protection they received from Assyria.  Having sacrificed freedom for security, they were no longer in charge of their own house.  The people of Judah paid tribute to the Assyrians and owed them allegiance, even to the point of worshiping Assyrian deities in the place of the Jewish God.  Because of fear, Ahaz lost sight of who he was and what he was supposed to stand for in the world. 

It didn’t have to be this way.  Isaiah the prophet, who was a pretty insightful dude, saw the bad end coming and tried to warn Ahaz.  He said, “These troubles are only temporary.  It’s not worth selling your soul in order to ensure your survival.  Have a little faith!”  He pointed to a pregnant woman and said, “You see this young woman?  By the time her baby grows up and is old enough to walk and talk, these conflicts will be nothing more than a distant memory.  Look at this woman and remember her.  Let her baby be a sign to you that God is with you, therefore you don’t need to be afraid.”

This was a powerful message.  And it’s one that has endured for thousands of years, even though its intended audience didn’t listen to a word of it.  Isaiah told Ahaz to look for God, not in grandiose displays of power or guarantees of success, but in the little things of this world.  The sign of God’s presence was that little baby, whose name would be Immanuel, which is Hebrew for “God is with us.”

Over seven hundred years after Isaiah first spoke these words, the early Christians would look back at them and say, “Hey, you know what?  Isaiah’s prophecy kind of reminds us of Jesus!  He wasn’t very powerful or successful by this world’s standards, but when we looked at him, we got that hunch that maybe “God is with us.”  Besides, Jesus taught us to look for God in the little things as well: in the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, in farmers sowing seeds and bakers baking bread. Jesus got us looking at all those little things in life that most people never pay attention to.  Because of him, we know that God is with us, just like Isaiah tried to tell Ahaz with that little boy Immanuel.”

I love that.  God is with us in the little things.  As we live our lives, surrounded and overwhelmed by fear, we often forget to pay attention to those little, everyday signs that God is with us.  Like Ahaz, we can sometimes be quick to lose sight of who we are and what’s really important, especially when we’re afraid.  It’s in those moments of overwhelming anxiety that we most need to take a step back, take a deep breath, and look… really look at ourselves, our lives, and our world.  We need to pay attention to those little things, the things we’re too busy for, the boring, ordinary things that happen every day, the things that don’t seem all that important: babies, bread, birds, flowers, seeds… because those places are the places where God meets us.

There may be no grandiose sign, no light from heaven, no singing angels.  There will be no guarantees of security or success.  Just the little things, little signs of Immanuel, that God is with us.  All we are promised from these encounters is a renewed perspective on who we are what life is all about.  The strength we find in these encounters is the strength to stand by our core values and central beliefs, come what may.  God is with us in the little things of this world to remind us that some things in life are more important than success or survival, therefore we don’t need to live in fear.  Fear is not the foundation of reality.  Deeper than fear, deeper still than the natural, societal, internal, and imaginary enemies who surround us on every side, at the very heart of reality, we have a friend who is always with us… a love that will not let us go.  My esteemed, late colleague, the Rev. Fred Rogers (host of the children’s TV show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood) said it best:

“I believe that at the center of the universe there dwells a loving spirit who longs for all that’s best in all of creation, a spirit who knows the great potential of each planet as well as each person, and little by little will love us into being more than we ever dreamed possible. That loving spirit would rather die than give up on any one of us.”

With a God like this on our side, what do we have to be afraid of?

Immanuel, God is with us, even (especially) in the little things.  This is the message that Isaiah tried to deliver to King Ahaz, although Ahaz wasn’t willing to hear it.  This is the message we are meant to take with us from the Christmas season.  The question for us is: are we willing to listen?

Immanuel, God is with us.  Do not be afraid.

O Come, All Ye Faithless

December 24, 2002

I was alone in a bar on Christmas Eve.  Freshly graduated from college, returned to my hometown, and in a state of spiritual free-fall as I came to realize that I was no longer a fundamentalist, but did not yet know whether there was another way to practice my faith (as it turns out, there is… thank God).  In that season of darkness and doubt, I could not honestly celebrate Christmas as one of the “faithful, joyful, and triumphant.”  I decided that I needed a Christmas carol for people like me… grubby shepherds, unsanitary stable-dwellers, and all who make their way home “by another way.”

I procured a piece of paper and a pen, then rewrote the old hymn in a more applicable light.  This would be a hymn I could sing with honesty.

I played it for friends over the years, who circulated the lyrics.  Eventually, I found out that a Methodist congregation in Johannesburg, South Africa had made it part of their regular Christmas Eve liturgy.  I offer it now to anyone who does not/cannot feel “faithful, joyful, and triumphant” on this Christmas day: sinners, doubters, drunks, junkies, queers, screw-ups, freaks, geeks, weirdos, skeptics, loonies, rejects, and failures… It is for those like us that Christ is born.

O Come, all ye faithless, beat-up, and defeated,
come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold him, born the friend of sinners:
O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

Sing, choirs of vagrants, sing in desperation;
sing, all ye denizens of streets below:
Glory to God!  Glory in the highest!
O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

Yea, Lord, we greet thee: born this dreary evening.
Jesus, to thee be all glory given.
Hope for the hopeless, now in flesh appearing.
O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

The Work of Christmas

When the song of angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the brothers,
to make music in the heart.

-Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman

The Glory Around You

Angels Appearing Before the Shepherds.  By Henry Ossawa Tanner (1910)
Angels Appearing Before the Shepherds. By Henry Ossawa Tanner (1910)

There are two ways of not seeing something.  One way is for the object in question to be so far away that our eyes can’t distinguish it from the surrounding environment.  This is what happens when we try to look for distant stars and galaxies with the naked eye.  We can squint as hard as we like but, without the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, we still won’t be able to see the millions of galaxies that surround us in every direction.  They’re just too far away.

The other way of not seeing something is for the object in question to be so close up that there’s no way for us to see all of it at once.  Such is the case with our own galaxy.  We are part of it.  It’s all around us.  If someone were to ask you where our galaxy is, you wouldn’t be wrong at all to say, “it’s right here” without pointing to anything in particular.

When it comes to thinking about invisible things like the reality of God, most modern philosophers have argued for the first option: God, if there is a God, is simply too distant from our everyday reality to be seen or experienced directly.  From one point of view, this was a most useful idea.  It helped modern thinkers to move beyond the old mythical and superstitious ideas about God as “the old man in the sky” inherited from their ancient and medieval ancestors.  This was a good thing.  It needed to happen, especially once science began to debunk so many of the old superstitions.  In place of “the old man in the sky,” modern people began to think of God as a kind of cosmic clockmaker: a rational mind which was responsible for the machine-like order we observe in creation.  The Creator, according to this way of thinking, designed the laws of nature, built the universe, set it in motion, and then sat back to run under its own steam.  Compared to ancient mythologies, this idea of God seems very plausible, rational, and consistent with the discoveries of science.

On the other hand, this way of thinking has also made God seem more remote and distant from the concerns of everyday life.  God, according to the modern mind, doesn’t exist in this universe.  Some would say that God doesn’t even care about us or creation.  “The clockmaker may have got everything started,” so they say, “but hasn’t been seen or heard from since.”  The clockmaker idea of God might be more rational and less superstitious than “the old man in the sky,” but it doesn’t inspire our hearts toward worship and devotion.  The clockmaker God is little more than a mental concept that can be either accepted or rejected without consequence.  It didn’t take long for modern philosophers to dismiss the clockmaker concept itself as irrelevant and unnecessary.  Like the distant galaxies, such a God was simply too far away to be seen or experienced by human beings.

In recent years, those of us who still feel drawn toward worship have come to realize that both the “old man in the sky” and the “clockmaker” ideas of God are wholly inadequate.  Neither one captures the essence of what we mean when we use the word “God.”  In contrast to the modern thinkers who say that God is too far away to be seen, we say that God is close: so close, in fact, as to be all around us… too close and too big to be fully seen and understood by any one person.  The Bible tells us that we “live, and move, and have our being” in God.  God is like our own Milky Way galaxy: if someone were to ask, “Where is God?” it makes perfect sense to say, “Right here!  All around us!  We exist in God!”

For me, this idea of God being all around us, too close to be fully seen, is expressed most beautifully in the story of Christmas.  That story begins in a fairly mundane way: with regular, working class people being pushed around by the powers that be.  This has been the story of humankind in every age of history.  In this case, the Roman emperor wanted an accurate count of the population in occupied territories for tax purposes, so people Mary and Joseph were shuffled around like cattle and treated like animals to the extent that they even ended up sleeping and giving birth in a stable like animals.  Likewise, we see shepherds working the night shift.  Two thousand years of nostalgia and Christmas pageants have romanticized the shepherding profession, but it was a despised and disgusting job in the first century.  No one liked shepherds, no one trusted them, and everyone saw them as little better than the animals they tended.  Yet, it was to this band of ragamuffins that the angels came.  No outsider or passer-by could have known that the pathetic, mundane scene playing itself out before them was one of the most significant and miraculous moments in all of human history.  Even the key players themselves were shocked and amazed as “the glory of the Lord shone around them” and the heavens themselves seemed to break out in song.

The God that Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds encountered that night was neither “the old man in the sky” nor “the clockmaker.”  Theirs was an incarnate deity who “took on flesh and dwelt among” them.  They experienced this God in “the glory” that “shone around them.”  Contrary to the conclusions of modern philosophers, their God was too close to be seen, not too far away.

God is here.  God is all around us.  I can’t point to one place, or time, or thing and say “this and this alone is God” because the God I believe in can’t be so easily contained or limited.  We “live, and move, and have our being” in God, whose glory can be seen, shining all around us, if only we have the eyes to see it.  Like so many mystics and sages before us, we can see the glory of God shining in the wonders of creation, in the discoveries of scientists, in the guidance of teachers, in the healing of medical professionals, in the courage of those who risk their lives for others, and in the compassion of those who help the suffering.

The glory of the Lord is shining around us tonight, no less than it did for those shepherds on the first Christmas Eve, if only we have eyes to see it.  The poet Girard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” and St. Augustine of Hippo reminded us that “God is closer to us than our own hearts.”

The task of the believer in all this is to take these momentary flashes of glory and learn to see them, not as random, isolated events, but as parts of a whole, individual threads in a great tapestry, woven through the ages.  That’s what Mary, the mother of Jesus, was doing that night when it says in the text that she “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”  She didn’t let her moment of glory just pass her by, she grabbed hold of it and kept it with her.

In the same way, if we want to become the kind of people who can see the glory of God shining around us, then we need to start paying attention.  We need to find those little moments of joy, wonder, peace, and compassion in a day and remember them.  Maybe for you it’s the silvery beauty of snow on tree branches or the golden light of an Adirondack sunset.  Maybe it’s as insignificant as someone generously giving you the right of way instead of cutting you off in traffic.  Wherever you see these little moments of glory, don’t let them escape before you give thanks for them.  If you find it helpful for you, try keeping a daily journal of thanksgiving where you keep a record of these little happenings.  Develop this into a habit and I think you might be surprised at how easy it eventually becomes for you to call these moments to mind.  If that journal idea isn’t exactly your style, don’t worry about it.  Find whatever works for you, but find something.  Don’t let this life pass you by without seeing the glory around you.  Like Mary did: treasure these things and ponder them in your heart.  As you do this, may the glory of the incarnate mystery of God in whom we “live, and move, and have our being,” shine around you and become ever more real to you.

Of Messes and Miracles

De Visitatie by Frans Francken (1618)
De Visitatie by Frans Francken (1618)

Have you ever felt the pressure to be perfect (or the pressure to appear to be perfect, even if you are not)?  This pressure comes down on us in many different forms.  For some, it might be related to performance at work or at school.  For others, it might be the pressure to have a perfect body.  It might also be the pressure to live up to a strict moral code or to be the perfect churchgoer.

For some strange reason, I think many of us have this vaguely-defined idea in our heads about what it means to “have it all” or “have it all together.”  We tend to think that if we want to be accepted, then we have to be acceptable according to some outside standard of beauty or performance.

I’d like to test this theory this morning as we examine the lives of two people whose lives were far from perfect.  The first is Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah the priest, and the other is Mary, who we all know as the mother of Jesus.

Elizabeth, we know, was a good-hearted person, but she had a problem: she was getting on in years and she couldn’t have children.  While this can be devastating for families in any place and time, it was doubly-painful for women in first century Judea.  The most pressing concern for people in that society was the welfare of their nation as a whole.  They thought of themselves as the chosen people.  The most important thing, then, was to keep the chosen people going.  Anything that interfered with that process was most troubling.  So, if a woman was unable to bear children, people would see it as a sign that God had rejected her as a mother of the Jewish nation.  It wouldn’t have mattered that Elizabeth and her husband were honest people with good reputations, most people would assume that they had committed some kind of unspeakable act that brought this dreadful curse upon their family.  The village rumor-mill would have concocted all kinds of tantalizing tales of speculation over what that act might have been.  According to Jewish law at that time, Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, would have been well within his rights to divorce her because of this.  Elizabeth, because of her inability to have children, was certainly an object of shame and ridicule in the time and place where she lived.

Elizabeth’s life and family were about as far as one could be from perfect in first century Judea.  Yet, even in her old age, after all hope had been lost, the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, and informed him that they could soon expect the arrival of a son, who would be named John.  What’s more is that this was not to be any ordinary baby, but a prophet who would prepare the people of Israel for massive change.

As painful as the stigma of childlessness must have been for Elizabeth, it put her in the perfect position to help her cousin Mary, whose period of shame was just beginning.

As her story opens, Mary seems like she has it all together.  Biblical scholars estimate that Mary was probably about 13 or 14 years old at the time.  This was the typical age for young girls to get engaged in that society.  They believed that women should start having children as soon as they were biologically able.  We read elsewhere in the New Testament that her fiancé, Joseph, was a kind and just working man who loved her very much.  Mary’s entire life was in front of her and things were looking pretty good.

Than an angel named Gabriel showed up and informed Mary that she was about to have a baby, just like her cousin Elizabeth.  It’s ironic that the very news that took away the disgrace of Elizabeth would heap disgrace upon Mary.  While Mary herself knew that she had committed no indiscretion, she had a hard time convincing others of that fact.  Even Joseph didn’t believe her at first!  Not only could Joseph call off their wedding, but he could have her legally put to death as an adulteress for fooling around with another man.  As the weight of this news settled upon Mary’s shoulders, she packed up and made a hundred mile journey on foot as a lone, unwed, pregnant teenager to the only other person she knew would understand: Elizabeth.

Elizabeth knew what it was like to bear the disgrace of the community for no good reason.  Furthermore, Elizabeth also knew what it was like to be pregnant for the first time under unusual circumstances.  And so, sure enough, it was Elizabeth who was the first to greet Mary by speaking a blessing over her pregnancy.  Elizabeth was the first to realize that Mary’s baby was a miracle, not a mistake.  She said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  In Mary’s darkest hour, when the rest of the world was ready to reject and stone her, Elizabeth called her “blessed.”  This blessing must have had a profound effect on Mary.  In the text, she immediately breaks out into a song of praise, just as if this was some kind of Broadway musical.  In the song she sings, Mary says, “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed”.  The support and acceptance she received from one person was enough to transform her entire experience of pregnancy into one of blessing.

During the next three months that Mary stayed with Elizabeth, the two women became a support network for each other.  Each of them was God’s gift to the other in the midst of messiness and chaos.

We can see the miracle of Christmas working itself out in their lives, but it looks nothing like we would expect in polite society.  We learn from Elizabeth that miracles don’t just come to those whose lives are seemingly perfect or put together.  We learn from Mary that miracles don’t necessarily turn our lives into inspirational success stories.  The message here is that ordinary miracles happen in the midst of ordinary life, however painful, broken, imperfect, or messed up it may be.

Here in the nostalgia of the secular holiday season, it can be easy for us to get caught up in illusions of having the perfect family, the perfect gift, the perfect Christmas dinner, etc.  Too often, the Christmas story itself gets presented with all of the messy parts carefully removed.  For example, you walk by a beautifully crafted crèche sitting on a church lawn and see the newborn Christ lying in a manger, but do you ever think about what stables really smell like?  Not very good.  In fact, they stink just about as much as our own messy lives sometimes stink.

The world into which Christ was born was this world, the same one we live in now, only two thousand years ago.  As Eugene Peterson writes, God “took on flesh and moved into the neighborhood”.  Your neighborhood, just as it is.  As we draw to the close of this Advent season, we are not just preparing to celebrate an event that took place “once upon a time”; we are preparing to celebrate the good news that Christ meets us right here in the midst of our messy and imperfect lives.  And what’s more is that our messiness does not prevent something good, beautiful, and miraculous from being born in us and through us.

Mary and Elizabeth knew that.  They accepted it.  What’s more is that they accepted each other in the midst of their mutual messiness.  That, more than anything else, is what put them in the perfect position to witness the miracle of the first Christmas.  They were a safe place for each other, a community of acceptance.

When I dream about what it is that our church is meant to be and do in this community, I think about Mary and Elizabeth.  I dream about a safe place, a community of acceptance that is truly open to all and reaches out to the world in love.  I dream about a church of people who are so accepting of themselves and their own mess that they can’t help but be gracious toward the messiness of those others who come looking for a place to belong.

There is so little of that in the world today.  Every authority figure, from teachers to bosses to the police car in the rearview mirror, seems to be looking over our shoulders, just waiting for us to mess up at something.  So, we mind our P’s and Q’s, dot the T’s and cross the I’s, and make sure to keep an eye on the speedometer.  On a less official level, we also feel like we’re constantly being evaluated by our peers for what we wear, what we drive, how we look, and who we know.  That pressure is enough to drive us crazy.

Sadly, our churches are not immune to this judgmental tendency.  In fact, we’ve developed something of a reputation for it over the years.  Too many churches have turned the gospel of Christ into just another system for judging people based on dogma and morality.  Too many churches have become houses of exclusion rather than communities of acceptance.

But our Presbyterian heritage teaches us that we are saved by grace: the unconditional love and unmerited favor of God.  There is nothing we can do to earn our salvation or get ourselves on God’s good side.  Not a single one of us has any grounds for looking down on or passing judgment over anyone else, even if we disagree with their opinions or disapprove of their behavior.  We are all sinners, saved by grace, loved by God, and welcome in this church.

This faith in grace as unconditional and unmerited acceptance is the biggest gift I believe our church has to offer our local community.  Ours is a church of grace, a community of acceptance: “open to all and reaching out to the world in love,” as it says in our church mission statement.  We have many neighbors in this town who need to hear this good news.  Their hearts are yearning for a place to belong, a place where none are judged and all are welcome.  We can be that place.

What we need to do in order to help that dream come true are three things:

  1.  Accept ourselves as we are.  We are not perfect.  We never will be.  We are full of faults and fears.  We don’t always live up to the values we espouse.  We need to recognize and accept this messiness in our own lives.  We need to get comfortable in our own scarred and wrinkled skin, knowing that we are loved in spite of our many messes.
  2. Extend that grace to others.  When you are able to accept yourself as you are, it’s only natural that you gradually start to become more tolerant and accepting of other people.  Their successes no longer threaten you.  Their failures give you no pleasure.  Their opinions were once the yardstick by which you measured yourself, but once you’ve stopped measuring yourself, you don’t need the yardstick anymore.  You are free to see and accept them as they are, faults and fears included.
  3. Spread the good news.  Let folks know about us.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people from places all over this country say to me that they’re looking for a church like ours.  I refuse to believe that none of these people live in Boonville.  Souls here are hungry for acceptance and a gospel that really is “good news.”  Our job is to share that good news with them in word and deed.  Just as you’ve often heard me say before: “Preach the gospel always, use words when necessary.”

This Christmas, don’t worry about finding the perfect tree, the perfect gift, or the perfect ham.  Instead, focus on cultivating this kind of self-acceptance based on your faith in the immeasurable, unconditional love that holds us from birth to death and beyond.  This acceptance of self and others is ultimately what makes for a happy home, a growing church, and a merry Christmas.

The Dark Side of Joy

Image by SolLuna. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons

You can listen to a recording of this sermon by clicking here.

Last week, I told you that we would be looking at the life and message of St. John the Baptist today.  I assure you that I had planned a brilliant and eloquent sermon that would have surely expanded your minds and lifted your hearts to heaven.  However, last Friday’s news headlines of a school massacre in Connecticut led me to set aside that work-in-progress.

By the end of the day, I knew that I would not be able to read the words of this week’s Epistle Lesson with any integrity and not comment on them.  This brief passage comes to us from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  It’s short, so I’ll read it again here in its entirety for the sake of those who are listening to this sermon online or on the radio:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  (Philippians 4:4-7)

“Rejoice in the Lord always…”

“How in the world,” I thought to myself, “can I (or any minister) have the audacity to stand in a pulpit 48 hours after the mass murder of children (two weeks before Christmas, no less) and utter the word ‘Rejoice’?”  It almost seems vulgar.

Joy is a big theme for Paul in his little letter to the Christians at Philippi.  The book is only four chapters long.  Reading out loud, you could get through the entire letter in about fifteen minutes.  However, in those few minutes, you would hear the words “joy” and “rejoice” sixteen times altogether.  Philippians is sometimes referred to as “the Letter of Joy” because of this persistent theme.  Paul can’t seem to say enough about it.

The fact that Paul emphasizes the theme of joy so strongly becomes especially curious when you realize that Paul wrote this letter from a Roman prison, which would have looked and felt more like a medieval dungeon than a modern penitentiary.  So, joy seems like an odd topic for him to focus on at that particular time and place.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”

We Americans are used to associating joy with happiness, an emotional condition brought about by favorable circumstances, but real joy, in the sense that Paul means it, must be something else entirely.  I think joy has to be deeper and wider than mere happiness if it can survive in a Roman dungeon.

I think joy, in the sense that Paul meant it, is something that arises from our experience of harmony in the universe.  Joy can, and often does, bring a smile to your face.  You can feel it surging up inside when you get lost in a sunset or a clear night sky, when you hold your newborn child for the first time and your heart feels like it’s about to leap outside your chest, or when some piece of art or literature touches something deep within your soul.  In such moments, we experience joy.  We marvel at the wonderful and beautiful way in which the universe is put together.  Joy.

Joy is easy to recognize in such moments.  It really does feel like happiness.  We feel the touch of beauty and harmony in the universe and that touch makes us want to smile, laugh, jump, or even weep for joy.

However, there is another side to joy.  This side is not so easily recognized.  I believe the shock, sadness, and anger we have all been experiencing since Friday are also, in their essence, expressions of joy.  These unhappy feelings come from the same places in our hearts that gave rise to our experience of wonder.  Something within our hearts instinctively embraces harmony when it is present and yearns for it when it is absent.  Last Friday, the harmony of the universe was violently shattered and our hearts have been screaming inside ever since.  That scream is the scream of joy, the dark side of joy to be sure, but joy nevertheless.

I call this pain “the dark side of joy” because it would mean that our hearts were dead if we didn’t feel a stinging outrage at what happened.  If we anesthetize ourselves to joy’s dark side, we will also be numb to joy’s light side: the happiness and wonder at the world I mentioned before.  The truly cynical people in this world are not those who are mad at the world, but those who have ceased to care altogether.  They are the ones who heard the news on Friday, shrugged their shoulders apathetically, and went on with their lives as if nothing had happened.  Such people have been so wounded by life that, in order to protect themselves from experiencing more pain, they’ve had to close themselves off to all emotions whatsoever.  If you are angry about this, it means that you care.  So long as you are still able to feel the anger, you are still able to experience joy.

Joy then, in this sense, in the sense that Paul meant it, is an act of defiance.  “Rejoice in the Lord always,” is a call to action.  We, the angry joyful ones, declare ourselves to be in open rebellion against the powers of chaos, hatred, and violence.  In the spirit of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, we will resist you nonviolently.  In the Spirit of Jesus, we will kill you with kindness.  We walk in the shadows of joy’s dark side.  Victory is ours: for we know that, so long as there remains even a single soul that still feels outrage at the murder of children, then joy is still alive.  Therefore, even in our anger and pain, today we celebrate the Sunday of Joy.

We who worship in the Christian tradition have come to identify the harmony we observe in the universe with the hand of God.  We believe that all joy has its origin in the presence of infinite love at the heart of reality.  We further believe that the person Jesus of Nazareth is, for us, the paradigmatic embodiment of that selfsame love in a human life.

We, as Christians, seek to follow him by honoring harmony and embodying love in our lives in whatever way we are able.  The late Rev. Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister who was better known as the host of the children’s TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, once said:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

In order to help us be better “helpers,” as Mr. Rogers said, I would like to share with you some good advice I came across this week in an article in the Huffington Post by the Rev. Emily C. Heath, a pastor in the United Church of Christ.  The title of her article is:

 Dealing With Grief: Five Things NOT to Say and Five Things to Say In a Trauma Involving Children. 

Click here to read Rev. Emily’s article at Huffington Post.

I hope you will keep these suggestions in the back of your mind and find them helpful in this crisis and whenever you are called upon to care for someone who has lost a child under any circumstances.

As Christians, our first duty is to love like Jesus and thereby testify to the truth that love is the heart of reality.  As Christmas approaches, we prepare to celebrate the presence of love, not enthroned in some far-away heaven, but embodied in our midst.  This infinite love, the harmony we observe in the universe, is here: within us and among us.  The Light of the World, the little Christ Child, reigns from a feeding trough in a stable, from whence his little light is passed from candle to candle, soul to soul, person to person, in all the little ways that we are able to embody that same love in our own lives.

This morning, I’m calling for a temporary suspension of the liturgical calendar.  Christmas is coming early this year, because we need it more than ever.  I proclaim to you the good news that Christ is here: in you and in me.  His love, the wonderful harmony at the heart of the universe, is embodied in our acts of love and compassion.

This morning, on this Christmas before Christmas, I call out to you from the dark side of joy.  I call upon you to rise up and rejoice as an act of defiance and resistance against the carnage we witnessed on Friday.  Proclaim with me the truth, as it says in John’s gospel, that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  The very pain we feel this morning is the sure sign that joy is not dead, that Christ is alive, and that God is love.

So, sing with me now.  Sing, “Joy to the world!”  Proclaim with me, in this hymn of radical, revolutionary defiance: “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground,” for Christ “comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.”  Sing out loudly, confident in the knowledge that God loves you and there is nothing you can do about it.  Let us sing…