Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas where heaven and earth meet

John 1:1-14

Last night at our Christmas Eve Mass we read in the Gospel according to Luke we heard about the Angels proclaiming the good news to the shepherds, and the holy family in the stable with the baby Jesus swaddled and lying in a manger.  It is a familiar and beautiful story, one that is reflected countless works of art and poetry and drama throughout the ages including the pageant performed yesterday by the children of this parish and our own crèche that you see before you.  But today we hear something a bit different.  Today’s Gospel is not so easily rendered into images, you won’t see it depicted in many paintings or acted out on stage, and when people do try to render this passage artistically, it invariably winds up in one of two places, the beginning of Genesis where God spoke and created life out of the chaos of nothingness or back in the manger with the swaddled baby and the shepherds.  This makes sense, in this opening passage of John these two distant parts of the bible come together.  The Word was there in the first chapter of Genesis, before creation.  “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”[1]  It was with the Word that God brought light to the darkness in the beginning.  God spoke his Word and light came into being.  God spoke his Word again and again and the sparks of life were lit in creation.  Of course the Word of God is spoken throughout scripture.  The force of God’s Word is at work throughout the Old Testament because as John said ‘the Word was God and the Word was with God’.  Whenever we read about God interacting with Israel, we are reading about the Word of God as well.  Whenever we read about Moses and the law and when we read about the prophets and martyrs we know that they have been inspired by God’s Word.  The problem is that the nature of God and our nature are so radically different, at least from our perspective, the perspective of the created.  We are stuck between our natural desire to want to know God and our desire to keep God at arms distance.  We want to enshrine God in a tabernacle, but we also want God there with us in the difficult moments.  We want God to butt out and we want God to take charge.  We paint God with all sorts of different ideas, ignoring what we don’t like, twisting God into what we deem a suitable image.  Humanity is indeed conflicted about God.  We see this again and again throughout scripture, we see Israel resist the call of prophets, we see corruption and self interest drag God’s chosen people away from God.  We see it throughout the history of the Christian Church as well. 
 “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” 
 It is true that God is not easily understood, God is so big, so far beyond our imagination that we think we cannot possibly know God, not really.  We are created, limited by our physical selves, We all have a beginning, and we certainly seem to have an end as well, at least for a while anyway.  We are stuck in time, possessing only a brief time to do anything at all, and because we are imperfect many of us tend to waste a lot of that time on petty, unimportant matters.   But God, God is eternal, God is infinite in every way, and yet after so many attempts to connect with us, his creation, God does something different.  God takes on humanity, closing that unfathomably large gap between us and our creator.  One theologian writes, “Christmas is not an event within history but is rather the invasion of time by eternity.”[2]  That is, when God brought humanity and divinity together in Jesus Christ, it was not just for that short span of 33 years during the life of Christ, the consequences of God entering history continues to resonate, continues to be felt in all of time, in all of history.  Jesus Christ is the pebble dropped into the lake of time, we shall see the ripples go out forever in all directions.
This is a lovely idea, but what does it mean for us?  What does it change?  We still act like we don’t understand.  We call Jesus Lord, but divorce our worship and Love of Jesus from what we know about his life.  We act like the incarnation was something God did despite himself, we return God to the tabernacle, calling on God only in times of Crisis, only as an outside agent acting on our lives.
We know, I hope we know, that Jesus is true God and true man, but so often we fail to see the truth of that staring us in the face: In his divinity Jesus shows us who God is, and in his Humanity Jesus shows us who we are meant to be, and they are the same.  This is the unfathomable revelation of the incarnation. 
God shows us in Jesus that his nature is to reach downward, to humble himself, when God “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,”[3] as Paul says in Philippians, it was not despite himself, but rather it was because of his very nature.  Such a nature is so different, so completely opposite of the order of this world, but it is the real order of things, it is God’s order.  We may want to put limits on God’s nature, say that he cannot in his divinity possibly be this way, but “it is not our right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ. Our duty is to see and understand it as being still greater than we had seen before.”[4] 
God does not forfeit his deity when he becomes a servant to humanity, God does not stop being the almighty eternal King of all creation when he becomes humanities brother in time.  Rather, the fact that God is both exalted and completely humble is a sign of his complete freedom.  God’s freedom of LOVE, is love that crosses all boundaries to bring truth and Grace to a world bound by sin.  Turning to God is an acceptance of that Love in our own lives, not just an acknowledgement of God’s love for each of us, but accepting that we too, made in God’s image, are made to LOVE in a radical and unexpected way.  The perfect image of God shown in Jesus Christ also the perfection of God’s image in us, and it is an image of LOVE given freely and completely.
This is the eternal Word of God made flesh.  It is indeed beyond any single image that can be painted, or song that can be sung.  It is beyond any single sermon that can be written, but is found whenever we clear a space in our lives, God’s Love comes rushing in. 
This is the nature of God revealed in Jesus, a meeting of something as simple as a child being born and placed in a manger, and yet as complicated as eternity itself.  And here we are, as witnesses of this miracle in the world but also bearers of God’s word as well as we accept and rejoice in the image of God in our own humanity. 
Merry Christmas.

[1] Genesis 1:1-2
[2] Hans Urs Von Balthasar
[3] Philippians 2:7
[4] Karl Barth

Sunday, August 24, 2014

This Sunday Sermon: Who do you say that I am?

Did you ever notice that the disciples spend a lot of time not understanding what Jesus is saying to them?  We never get to hear the first thirteen verses of Matthew chapter 16, not on Sunday morning anyway, but they deal with a situation in which Jesus becomes frustrated with his disciples because they fail to understand what he is talking about, and in the passage following to today’s Gospel (the passage we will hear next week) the disciples will fail to fully understand Jesus, yet again.

But the question that Jesus asks his disciples at the beginning of today’s Gospel lesson: “Who do people say that the son of man is?” is such a simple question that I imagine the disciples were relieved to hear it.  It is something they knew they could answer.
To give Jesus the answers he wanted, all they needed to do was repeat what they had been hearing around them. “Some say you are John the Baptist,”  “others Elijah,” “or Jeremiah”  “or one of the other prophets."  Easy peasy.

But then Jesus asks them another question “who do YOU say that I am?”
This question is not so easy to answer.  Jesus wants to know what the disciples actually think and the only one brave enough to step forward and give his opinion is Simon Peter.  Peter is not known for thinking before he speaks or acts, in the Gospels he shows himself time and time again to be the one who acts out of the passions he has at the moment, even if he ends up being wrong he does not censor himself.  And in this moment Peter’s impulsiveness works in his favor.  While the other disciples held back, pondering Jesus’ question, Peter blurts out “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  

Jesus seems rather pleased with Peter’s answer, saying to him “Blessed are you Simon Peter,” but then he says something a bit strange, “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”  

Out of his impulsiveness and passion Peter is given the right answer, not by anything he saw Jesus do, but by God.  The faith inside of Peter allowed him to express something that could not otherwise be expressed.  And while Peter will almost immediately misunderstand what it means for Jesus to be “the Son of the living God,” his faith will allow him to hold onto that knowledge in the midst of his misunderstanding.

 But the question still remains, “who do you say that I am?”  is a question that we all should really answer.

Who DO we say that Jesus is?  If someone came up to you on the street and asked you “what do you believe, who is Jesus?”  What would you say?  

You of course have several options, you could give the same answer as Peter, or you could repeat the Nicene Creed.  While we do believe that Jesus was the Messiah, would we be able to explain why that’s important?  What about the Nicene Creed?  We say it every Sunday because we believe it, and it does spell out the very basics of our beliefs, but does it truly express how Jesus fits into our lives?  

Who do we say that Jesus is?  Not just in this place with our words and our music, but who do we say that Jesus is with our lives?

When we say that Jesus is the Son of God, what does that actually mean for us?  When we proclaim Jesus as our savior, what are we actually saying?  Being able to answer these questions is not merely important because someone might start quizzing us on the street, it is important because if we can’t articulate who Jesus is, then how are we supposed to know who WE are as his disciples?

If we believe that Jesus is the Word of God, the revelation of God in the world, than what does that mean for us as people who profess to follow him?

Paul struggles with this question in his letter to the Romans.  In today’s passage he tells the Christians in Rome “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”  We gather here on Sunday mornings to worship together, to be renewed in our faith and to offer back to God all that we have, but our worship of God does not end as we walk out those doors today.  Paul encourages his readers to look at their lives in a whole new light.  As Christians, everything we say and do becomes our spiritual worship of God.  What we believe is not just expressed in words, but our whole lives are our statement of faith.  So who do we say Jesus is with our lives?  This is a question we each need to ask ourselves every day.  Like Peter we may not fully understand what we profess with faith.  God, the nature of God in the incarnation, is far too big for us to ever fully understand.  If there is no mystery in our beliefs it means our beliefs are too small, too easy.  

This can be so frustrating.  We live in an age of humanity where mysteries are not really tolerated, and in most cases I think that is right.  But faith is about transformation, not understanding.  We cannot expect to be able to fit Christ’s call to love and peace into this world.

Paul contrasts being conformed to the world with being transformed by our faith.  Choosing the latter means not being able to choose the former, we are not really supposed to fit into this world. 

Every day we should be asking ourselves, does my life reflect the love of God shown to me in Jesus Christ?  Does my life reflect Christ’s compassion and forgiveness?  Does my life reflect Christ’s encouragement to be faithful and courageous?  Does my life reflect Christ’s sacrifice? Or do I shy away from God’s calling?  Does my life reflect a belief in a god who is engaged with the world, or a god who has conformed to the apathy of our society?  Choosing not to be “conformed to this world” but instead to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” is an every day sort of endeavor. 

We should not be discouraged with the difficulties we face, even the disciples struggled and faltered.  But it is important to always challenge ourselves in our Christian journey.  We are not expected to be perfect.  God has patience and knows how scary it can be to live by faith, and perhaps that is why we are the body of Christ in this world together.  Separately we are called to be disciples of Jesus, but together we are Christ’s body in the world.  We are here to give support and encouragement to each other; we are here to be each other’s strength when our own fails. 

Later in the Gospel according to Matthew Jesus says to his disciples “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”  It doesn’t take much to make the body of Christ present.  When we gather together to support each other in our faith we make Christ visible to all who see us.  In the Epistle Paul reminds us that we need each other, that together we are one body.  

And together our lives will answer Jesus’ question “who do you say that I am?” 

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Pentecost Sermon

It has officially been fifty days since we celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Day. For forty days after his resurrection Jesus stayed with his disciples and continued his teachings about the Kingdom of God. Then he ascended into heaven and he was gone just as he said he would be. But the story doesn’t end there because after the disciples return to Jerusalem they gathered together with other followers of Jesus. And the room suddenly filled with a violent wind and tongues like fire, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. The Advocate that Jesus had promised them was there giving them the power to continue Christ’s mission in the World. If this was a movie that would probably be a good place to end. The story of Jesus which began with his birth and reached its climax when he was killed and resurrected would conclude as he ascended into heaven. And all the loose ends are wrapped up nicely as his followers all go out into the world to spread the good news. The End. Role credits.

 Now of course we know that life is not a movie, and the end of one story is always the beginning of another story. As summer begins and we enter ordinary time, and it is hard not to feel like the important part of the Christian narrative is over. In many ways this is where the story of Christianity really begins. When Christ was among his disciples the focus was almost entirely on him, he was the leader, and the disciples were perfectly happy to follow him forever.

Do you remember what it was like learning to ride a bicycle for the first time? For most people this is something that happens at a pretty young age. Many people start with training wheels, but eventually the training wheels have to come off and that is when the real training begins. I remember being on my bike with my dad standing behind me holding the bike so that I wouldn’t fall over. The only reason I ever had the courage to start pedaling was because I knew he was back there holding my bike up. And then suddenly he wasn’t there anymore, he had let go and it was entirely up to me to ride or fall. I rode a bit and then I fell onto the neighbor’s front yard. And while I did not want my Dad to let go, he knew that if he didn’t make ride by myself I was never going to be able to do it alone. So I would ride and fall, and ride and fall, but eventually I was able to keep going without falling.

 When Jesus died on the cross the disciples were too scared to really do anything, and when he came back and spent time with them after the resurrection all they wanted to do was to continue being a disciple. All of their confidence came from having Christ at their side, any bravery they had came from knowing that Christ was there to help them. The disciples remind me of children who are first learning to ride a bike. They were never going to really learn as long as Jesus was there, they would never really be able to go out and put into action everything that Jesus had taught them because they would always defer to him. But even though Jesus was no longer there in the flesh it does not mean the disciples were left all alone. The Holy Spirit would be there, giving them the strength they would need to go out and bring Christ’s love to the world.

In the Gospel lesson today Jesus tells his disciples “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, `Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.” Well, in the presence of Christ the disciples drank their fill of living water, it was now their turn to be the rivers of living water for others. And it is our turn too. The Christian Church has had its ups and downs, we are still learning how to be followers of Christ. It is not an easy thing to learn, like anything worth doing, being a Christian takes a lifetime of practice. And since that first Pentecost when the Holy Spirit blew into the upper room and made that diverse group of Christians truly hear each other, and Peter declared “in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy,” followers of Christ have been practicing their faith all over the world.

Certainly the Church has fallen down, made mistakes, and gotten lost along its way. And as the Church we too will do the same thing. But what is important is that we get up again, brush ourselves off, recognize our mistakes and our wrong turns, and aim to do better. The celebration of Pentecost is not merely the celebration of the disciples being filled with the Holy Spirit, it is not just the beginning of THEIR journey as the body of Christ. It is a celebration of us as well, we are part of that same body, and like the disciples we too have been given the Holy Spirit. A living spring of water flows in this place, and in each of us. Today we are reminded that God wants each of us to be a part of his story, no matter where we are in our lives and what we do for a living we are called to be Christ’s body, we are called to be that spring of water for each other and for the world.

 I suppose the obvious question is: How do we do that? I think Saint Augustine of Hippo offers a simple answer: “Love, and do what you will: whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.”