Sermons

Sermon: Friday, December 25, 2015: Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Day

Texts: Isaiah 52:7-10  +  Psalm 98  +  Hebrews 1:1-12  +  John 1:1-14

“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days God has spoken to us by …” (Heb. 1:1) a poem.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The word was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through the Word, without whom not one thing came into being. What has come into being” (John 1:1-3) is a poem.

Christmas Eve is for stories. Angels and shepherds, animals and infants, holy families and no vacancy inns. It is a night for storytellers and those who love to listen to them.

But Christmas Day is for poems. The attempt to say something true about a thing we’ve only seen in glimpses, to describe a reality that can’t be put under a microscope. Christmas Day is a singing revolution, the peaceful overthrow of a tedious regime by musicians and mystics and poets.

John says that creation was an act of artistry, that the Christ born in the barn was also the creative Word present since the dawn of time. Words make meaning out of raw sensory input, they craft a framework for understanding what is going on.

Oliver_ThirstOur modern day mystic, the poet Mary Oliver, brings us a gift this morning — a rumination on the incarnation:

The spirit / likes to dress up like this:

ten fingers, / ten toes, / shoulders, and all the rest

at night / in the black branches /

in the morning / in the blue branches / of the world.

It could float, of course,

but would rather / plumb rough matter.

Airy and shapeless thing,

it needs / the metaphor of the body,

lime and appetite, / the oceanic fluids;

it needs the body’s world,

instinct / and imagination / and the dark hug of time

sweetness and tangibility

to be understood, / to be more than pure light

that burns / where no one is —

so it enters us — / in the morning

shines from brute comfort / like a stitch of lightning;

and at night / lights up the deep and wondrous / drownings of the body

like a star.

“It could float, of course” she writes, “but would rather plumb rough matter.”

Isn’t that the heart of it? Our lives are filled with rough matter, the indignities of the body, the back that aches, the wheezing lungs, all the various plumbing always getting backed up.

Our lives themselves are rough matter. The traumatic childhoods. The messy marriages. The lonely times. The violence. The anger and the despair. The routines that wear us down like fine grain sandpaper.

We would love to find a way to float above it — and we do, for brief windows of time. We binge watch on Netflix. We pour another drink. We pull out our phones. We disconnect. We pull away. We retreat.

Even our faith can be a kind of attempt to float above it, to disengage from the messiness of the real world by focusing on some future reality and giving up on the present one. Who cares that this world is going to hell in a hand basket, whatever that’s supposed to mean, if the main event is yet to come?

Well, God does. The message of Christmas is that God, who we might imagine to be floating above it all, actually prefers the plumbing. Picks the pipes. Accepts the aches. Longs for the lungs. Wants to breathe into us and through us.

More than wants, Mary Oliver says, the Spirit needs us.  It needs the metaphor of the body. It needs the body’s world, the way our bodily experiences of hunger, exhaustion, pain, pleasure, passion, and delight give rise to instinct and imagination. Without bodies we would not know the real cost of war, or the rewards of love. Without bodies we would not experience the miracle of birth, or the possibilities of family. Without us, the spirit can only be an undifferentiated unity. With us, it can know the inexhaustibly diverse permutations of life.

Without us it is just light burning where no one is. With us it is the light of all people, shining unconquerably in the darkness.

So, Mary Oliver says, the spirit enters us in the morning, putting the spark of life into our frames, like a stitch of lightning, invigorating our bodies and electrifying our souls — inciting us to action, inviting us to work, to labor, to give birth to a new world, a reality that will dawn on us the way poem unfolds into meaning.

And when the day is done, and we have given our bodies over to rest, the deep and wondrous drownings of the body, the light will still shine in the darkness of our dreaming and hint at the way forward like a star in the night.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Thursday, December 25, 2014: Nativity of Our Lord — Christmas Day

Texts: Isaiah 52:7-10  +  Psalm 98  +  Hebrews 1:1-4  +  John 1:1-14

“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. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” (Gen. 1:1-5)

Those of you who have worshipped at St. Luke’s on Christmas morning may remember me sharing that I not-so-secretly prefer Christmas morning to Christmas Eve. There are plenty of reasons this is so, and I won’t inflict them all on you unless you ask, but the one I will share is that Christmas morning tells the story of God’s incarnation as a poem instead of a narrative. Christmas Eve is all about Joseph and Mary, angels and shepherds keeping watch in their fields by night. Christmas morning is,

“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 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.” (John 1:1-5)

For the last few years it’s been my habit to share a bit of poetry on Christmas morning, in honor of the gospel of John’s deep love of metaphor and imagery. This year what struck me again is how my inclination to use poetry to interpret scripture is learned from John’s own gospel. Unlike the three gospels that precede it, John’s gospel doesn’t begin with a narrative about the historical figure of Jesus, but instead begins with a poetic reimagining of the story of creation — the first five verses of John echoing the first five verses of Genesis.

The symmetry is beautiful, from the repetition of the phrase “In the beginning” to the parallel themes of light and darkness and their separation. John’s gospel has gifted us with a prologue to the Jesus story to follow that makes extraordinary claims: that Jesus is the visible incarnation of the invisible God whose creative power brought into existence everything that is; that the teacher, whose words give meaning and order to our lives, is also the pre-existing Word who gives meaning and order to the cosmos.

This symbolic link between Jesus and Genesis has had a profound impact on Christian theology over the centuries. In the second century Irenaeus of Lyons, who was born in a part of what is now Turkey and who became the bishop of a part of what is now called France, explained the meaning and consequence of Jesus’ death and resurrection as such,

“[Christ] was in these last days, according to the time appointed by the Father, united to His own workmanship, inasmuch as He became a man liable to suffering … He commenced afresh the long line of human beings, and furnished us, in a brief, comprehensive manner, with salvation; so that what we had lost in Adam — namely, to be according to the image and likeness of God — that we might recover in Christ Jesus.” For Irenaeus, the divine Word becomes human flesh in order that our humanity might become divine; or, in his own words, “[he] became what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”

That is a noble sentiment, though so often difficult to imagine as being within the realm of possibility. Our lives are hard, some so much more than others, and if all we had to account for was our daily struggle it would still be difficult to understand our lives as divine. But there is more to account for. There is our hard-heartedness. There is our pettiness of spirit. There is our persistent sense of entitlement. There is our refusal to forgive. There is our hatred of those who challenge us. There is our greed that starves our neighbor. In short, there is our sin. How can we, who know ourselves too well, imagine our own lives as holy?

The point of the creation story, as I understand it, was for ancient Israel to assert that the world and everything in it are the product of a good and loving God, who called creation into being with an act of speech and not an act of war, as the creation myths of Israel’s neighbors suggested. By planting Jesus in the middle of that myth as the essence of that very world-making Word, John’s gospel reminds us that God is not at war with us. God’s heart is not like our heart. It is not petty or entitled, it is quick to forgive and filled with love. Hard as it may be to imagine that we are holy, that we are wrapped up in God’s divine life just as God is wrapped up in our human frailty, we can trust that it is true because it is God’s nature to make it true.

Which is another way to say that it is a gift to us, that it is pure grace, that we are being made new this Christmas along with the whole creation by the God who is always making all things new. Whatever stories you tell yourself about the kind of person you are, whatever immutable personal flaws or character defects you think define you, the poetry of Christmas morning says you are wrong. You are not all that you hide away in the dark. You are creations of the Word called into being by love. You shine with the light of God, which can never be extinguished in you or in this world.

Of all the gifts given and received this Christmas morning, let us give thanks for the gift of life and of the new life that is always being born in us by God’s grace, which will not be overcome.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, December 25, 2013: Nativity of Our Lord III — Christmas Day

Texts: Isaiah 52:7-10  +  Psalm 98  +  Hebrews 1:1-12  +  John 1:1-14

If you’ve worshipped here at St. Luke’s on Christmas morning any time in the last few years, then you might remember that 1.) I vastly prefer Christmas Day to Christmas Eve and 2.) I have a tendency to bring poems on Christmas morning.

Death by Chocolate

Death by Chocolate

Christmas Eve is lovely, don’t get me wrong, but it’s kind of like “Death by Chocolate” cake: Christmas carols and candlelight And angel choruses AND the baby Jesus. There’s so much heaped onto that one night, and then all the memories of every Christmas Eve ever. It’s a lot to live up to.

But Christmas morning brings all the catharsis of any good morning after.  By the clear light of day we can mull over the previous night’s events, try and put them in sequence, and see if we can make any sense out of them.

As for the poems, well, firstly I just love poetry and since this is a day for giving gifts, I’m inclined to share with you the gift of a good poem.  More to the point, however, the gospel reading appointed for Christmas Day each year comes from the first chapter of John, and is a kind of poem itself — a hymn to the Word that sounds as much like a poem as it does a creed:

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 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. (John 1:1-5)

Since we do get the same readings each Christmas morning though, it seems kind to bring you something new to reflect on each passing December.  In former years I’ve brought you Wendell Berry and John O’Donohue, two of my favorites.  This year I’ve brought you a little Billy Collins, poet laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003 and, this past summer, guest host of The Writer’s Almanac.  This poem is entitled, “Christmas Sparrow” (from his collection of poems, “Nine Horses”)

"Nine Horses: Poems" by Billy Collins (Random House, 2002)

“Nine Horses: Poems” by Billy Collins (Random House, 2002)

The first thing I heard this morning

was a rapid flapping sound, soft, insistent —

wings against glass as it turned out

downstairs when I saw the small bird

rioting in the frame of a high window,

trying to hurl itself through

the enigma of glass into the spacious light.

Then a noise in the throat of the cat

who was hunkered on the rug

told me how the bird had gotten inside,

carried in the cold night

through the flap of a basement door,

and later released from the soft grip of teeth.

On a chair, I trapped its pulsations

in a shirt and got it to the door,

so weightless it seemed

to have vanished in the nest of cloth.

But outside, when I uncapped my hands,

it burst into its element,

dipping over the dormant garden

in a spasm of wingbeats

then disappeared over a row of tall hemlocks.

For the rest of the day,

I could feel its wild thrumming

against my palms as I wondered about

the hours it must have spent

pent in the shadows of that room,

hidden in the spiky branches

of our decorated tree, breathing there

among the metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn,

its eyes open, like mine as I lie in bed tonight

picturing this rare, lucky sparrow

tucked into a holly bush now,

a light snow tumbling through the windless dark.

The poet, Billy Collins, gives us an image we all know that captures a sensation I suspect we’ve all felt — the panic of a bird, or a bat, or any wild thing trapped inside and trying to get free.

In his book, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, Parker Palmer compares the human soul to just such a creature.  He writes,

“Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places. I learned about these qualities during my bouts with depression. In that deadly darkness, the faculties I had always depended on collapsed. My intellect was useless; my emotions were dead; my will was impotent; my ego was shattered. But from time to time, deep in the thickets of my inner wilderness, I could sense the presence of something that knew how to stay alive even when the rest of me wanted to die. That something was my tough and tenacious soul.”

Perhaps you know something about the tenacity of a soul trapped, frantic, beating its wings uselessly against a glass pane, while on the other side of the window life goes by filled with free people who seem to have learned a secret you are still deciphering.

The bird senses the light and longs for it, and even more, the bird longs to be free and to soar unfettered toward the light, but instead it tosses its body against the glass time and time again, unable to comprehend all that stands between the fear of the present and the promise of the future.

The prophet Isaiah says, “how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘your God reigns.’” And that is true even when we cannot tell it is so.  John’s gospel shows us the other side of our encounter with freedom when he writes, “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.”

For too much of our Christian history we have read those verses as a condemnation of the children of Israel, as an indictment of the Jewish people, for not accepting Christ as the messiah, as the savior, when he came into the world. How foolish of us! As if any of us really has accepted the salvation God has offered in Christ Jesus. As if any of us has stopped beating our wings, or our heads, against the glass. As if any of us truly believes that God’s salvation comes to us as evidence of God’s goodness and not our own.

When I read, “he came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him,” I understand that passage to mean that in Christ, God came to a people so terrorized by the cruelty of the world, so occupied as nation, so frantic to be free that they could not perceive their liberation in the form in which it was presented.

Collins says, “on a chair, I trapped its pulsations in a shirt and got it to the door.” How brief and benign. Maybe you’ve been tasked with catching the wild animal that’s gotten trapped in your house, and you know how fiercely it will fight, how expertly it will flee, as you work to set it free.

Aren’t we like that? So determined to break through the glass, to get to the light on the other side, that we scarcely notice when the light has broken through to us.

After the bird has been set free, the poet’s protagonist reflects on the terror it must have felt, “For the rest of the day, I could feel its wild thrumming against my palms as I wondered about the hours it must have spent pent in the shadows of that room, hidden in the spiky branches of our decorated tree, breathing there among the metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn, its eyes open, like mine as I lie in bed tonight…”

These words, in particular, sound a word of grace for any of us who awoke this Christmas morning with something other than joy in their hearts.  We too, sometimes, can feel as though the trees, and the ornaments, and the entire season of Christmas casts a shadow so deep we get lost in it. The wild bird doesn’t want to make its home in the decorated holiday tree, it wants to escape the house and make its nest in the holly bush outside.

To you who still feel trapped this cold winter morning, who still struggle against the shadows cast by such tall traditions, I urge you to hold fast to the old poem’s words:

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

Break forth together into singing, you wild souls; for God has comforted God’s own people. God has set the caged bird free to burst into its element which is light, and life, and liberation.

Merry Christmas and Amen.

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