All posts for the month December, 2002

The Feast of the Holy Family at St Mark the Evangelist Church in Norman, OK

December 29, 2002

Genesis 15:1-6; 1:1-3 + Hebrews 11:8, 11-12, 17-19 + Luke 2:22-40

One look at the families in the Bible, and you discover there’s hope for us all. Dysfunction is not a social phenomenon of the late twentieth century. That age just gave it a clever name that markets a lot of self-help books. We would like to think that all was well with Abraham and Sarah. After all, they were favored by God, open to God’s plans, and more or less happy to co-operate. Abraham tried to kill his son, Isaac! God had to intervene. Then Isaac had his own problems with his two sons who fought among themselves and tricked each other out of their inheritance. But who could be surprised, their ancestors, Adam and Eve ended up with Cane and Able. They didn’t do so well either!

The families of Biblical History are not much different from the families of our time. Infidelity, abuse, lying, cheating, rebellious children, murder, lonely widows, abandonment, illness, and early death. It’s all there. It’s all in our history. It’s all a part of being God’s people. This annual feast on the Sunday after Christmas can become stressful observance for many especially those who grew up with the Nelson family and the Cleavers as weekly models in their homes as television entertainment. I don’t know about you, but my dad never wore a tie in the house. He wore it to work, but came off just before his shoes when he walked through the door. I never saw Ozzie Nelson lying on the couch drinking a beer! While my parents kept their disputes to themselves and I never saw how they worked out their disagreements, I was keenly aware of the silence and stares that were a part of that process.

The consequence of all that idealism leaves us stranded in these days of single parent families, blended families, extended families, and families of persons not genetically related to one another. For some it may stir up guilt, disappointment, or anger. This feast has nothing to do with that. It invites us to think again about family in a more radical way: to reconsider the relationships of our lives. Famulus in Latin means servant, which would suggest that the real meaning of “family” is that place where one serves another, where places the needs, interests, desires and delights of the other ahead of their own.

Family is the nesting ground of society where each of us learn to live with and love one another discovering who we are and what we are capable of becoming. It is that net-work of relationships that keeps our ego in check, and teaches us to look out for one another. It strikes me that one of the unexpected benefits to rethinking the idea of “family” brought about by the broken relationships of our generations is that we might think bigger than the unit that shares the same address. The whole vision of the “Human Family” is a healthy one. It might inspire diplomats and politicians to think more creatively about how to bring peace to this world, and it might motivate all of us to look out for one another more personally when some of the family are out of work, homeless, sick or hungry.

This feast is no sentimental opportunity to compare ourselves to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. It comes as a reminder that there is family larger than those who share the same name or the same genes. Family is not a matter of marital fidelity. It is a relationship of care and service. It is a bond of grace and love. This day speaks to us of God’s family, and invites us to consider our ancestors in faith.

That is the role of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in this feast. We are related to them: to Abraham and Sarah too; to David, Samuel, Esther, Ruth, and Jeremiah; to Simeon and Anna; Peter, Andrew, James, and John. They are our brothers. Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila, and Teresa of Calcutta; Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day are part of our family. They teach us to serve, how to be proud of ourselves, and they teach us the responsibility of love and service as a consequence of being born into the human family: the Holy Family that has God as Father and Mother of us all.

The Solemnity of Christmas at St Mark the Evangelist Church in Norman, OK

December 25, 2002

Most of what goes on in this Gospel story happens at night. So, there is good reason for us to gather here in the night, while it is dark. As the Gospel unfolds the story, night is best time to find Christ the Lord. The darkness is where he is to be found. The darkness is the best time to see. It would seem that our God prefers the night. While thinking of this and praying about it this week, I recalled what we are told happened when Christ died: how the day became as night, how the sun was darkened at the third hour. It would seem that our God is comfortable in the shadows and prefers the night.

But you and I….We like the light and prefer the day. We like the light so we can see in the mirror. We like the lights on so we can be seen. We like the lights on so we can shop, so we can drive, so we can know what’s going on and see what lies ahead. We just feel safer in the day or at least with the lights on. But God still prefers the night. Somehow in God’s plan, it takes short days and long nights for seeds to sprout. Lovers seem to prefer the night with its moon and stars. It’s in the night that we hold hands and reach for another.

Less confident of ourselves, in the night we welcome a companion, a love, a presence. And so it is with our God who comes in the night. The darker the night, the more joyful the dawn. It doesn’t seem too odd that the first to hear the news, the first to make their way are the ones awake in the night, the ones at watch while others sleep, the ones outside while the others take comfort and safety inside.

It’s almost as though you have to be outside, in the dark, to hear this news. Even the ones from the East have to stay up – wait for the night – to see a star. The night and its darkness in which we find this God-made-man, this God, Immanuel, is of course not exactly the night of time. It is the night of our darkness in sin, the night of our darkness in fear, the night of our darkness in loneliness, the night of our darkness in loss and helplessness. As those who survive addictions know, it is not until you hit bottom and have nothing left that you have a future and any hope. Until we get out of the light, we will never find our way to Bethlehem. Until we put out the lights of all the “would be” god’s of pleasure and success, pride and power, we will never find the way to Bethlehem.

We have to get into the darkness. We have to remember that we don’t know the way. We have to reach out for another – grasp a hand in the darkness. We have to trust that it is better not to go alone. The shadows of our lives with the good and the bad, the stuff we would rather hide from the glare of day and the gaze of others, and the past with its sin looks all the same in the dark, and that’s where God waits for us.

The prophet insists that only a people who have walked in the darkness can ever really see. This Bethlehem scene told in the night becomes a story of lovers who meet in the darkness where the eye only sees what one loves and what one hopes for in the deepest part of the heart. Blemishes, imperfections, scars of the past; make no difference in the dark. Like parents waiting and watching for the return of a child who is late in the night, our God waits and watches for us to come home in the night. And so we assemble here in the night just as we shall do in the spring before Easter. It is the best time for those who live by hope for the dawn of life itself. Hope stirs here. The word is out that the Bridegroom has come, as always, in the night.

Be watchful, my friends. Take courage. The darkest of days and night will not swallow us up. There is someone in the darkness, in the shadows. That is the news we share and the truth that gives us Joy. The dawn is coming, the promise of glory is announced. Only one light is needed and it comes from the Creator of all light. Go to Bethlehem – there is no power there, there is no wealth, there is no success nor fame.

Your companions will be suspicious night folk – shepherds. Go while it is dark or when you feel it is night.

This Gospel suggests that if we do, we shall see as if it were the day and call it “Glory.”

The 4th Sunday of Advent at St Mark the Evangelist Church in Norman, OK

December 22, 2002

2 Samuel 7: 1-5, 8-12, 14-16 + Romans 16: 25-27 + Luke 1:26-38

The prophet and the evangelist combine on Advent’s last Sunday to lead us at last to Christmas. Nathan, the prophet mediates a conversation between God and David through which we may consider the mysterious divine purpose that has been operative since David was taken as shepherd boy to be commander of God’s people. It will climax in keeping Israel safe from its enemies and in the establishment of a lasting house for the line of David. All is now well for Israel. The enemies have been defeated – Goliath has fallen. The building of Jerusalem unites the divided kingdoms. A splendid palace has been built, and now David would build a splendid Temple. A sophisticated urban life has settled over these people. They are comfortable, secure, and very self-satisfied. Everything is under their control, and now the last wild, uncontrolled part of their life remains, and they turn their attention to God wanting to establish God’s dwelling place.

In effect, they want to domesticate God. But God says, “NO” to that. The covenant will not be placed in a particular space, but rooted in a person: David, and his posterity. It is not the prerogative of humankind to contain the presence of God in any temple, ark, or tabernacle. As the Gospel makes clear if the Prophet does not, it is God’s choice to be present through Incarnation in human flesh.

The struggle to domesticate God, to control God, to confine God, and even to exclude God continues to this day. But God is no more interested in tabernacles and temples now than then, no more likely to abandon human life which is God-made for a dwelling man-made now than then. But the struggle goes on. We build our churches, tabernacles, and temples, like this one, and run the risk of thinking we’ve got God cornered. This is a place is for us to assemble renewing God’s vision and plan for creation, to proclaim a presence of God that has no limits, to affirm that all human life is the divine dwelling place, now, not later. We catch here the wild spirit of God that will not be contained cannot be denied, and will never be excluded. But the struggle goes on.

We would put God in a temple and deny the presence of God in an unwanted, or unplanned pregnancy in order to preserve our comfortable secure life-style or our career plans. We would take control over life and death and terminate that life. We would put God in a temple and deny the presence of God in those who through our very imperfect “justice system” now sit on death row awaiting termination of life. We would put God in a temple while planning for war, hardening our hearts to the death of women and children as collateral damage not remembering that human life is the chosen dwelling place of God. We would put God in a temple while we reduce human life to misery and hunger, and deny health care to the poor and unemployed. But yet we build this temple so that we might think about these things, and hear the prophet and the Gospel inviting us to think again about where God lives. The temple in which we sit today is a place of conversion and revelation, not a place to contain God at the cost of God’s chosen dwelling place.

It is good then to be here. It is good to hear these difficult and challenging words of Prophet and Evangelist hours before Christmas so that our celebration of this feast may not be preempted by commercials, consumers, and the economy, nor lost in convenient sentimentality. God’s presence in the world is what this feast is all about: no longer the presence of a baby lying in a manger, but rather a presence in what that baby symbolizes: every homeless, unwelcomed, and foreign human being. This presence gives human history its fundamental orientation. This is a presence that reorients us toward God.

It is the Presence we celebrate. It is the Presence that gives cause for Joy. It is the Presence that takes away our fear. It is the Presence that grounds our morality in respect of our selves as temples of the living God, and respect for every human life. The message of Luke’s angel, Gabriel is spoken in this church today. The Holy Spirit has come upon us. Out of our barrenness, our weakness, our sinfulness, and the chaos of this world, God creates again. The model disciple rises up from the readings of this day, Mary.

In contrast to David, she knew where God lives, and she summons us as well to ponder in our hearts the meaning and purpose of this presence and this mystery, and to acknowledge and affirm the dwelling place of God.

The 3rd Sunday of Advent at St Mark the Evangelist Church in Norman, OK

December 15, 2002

Isaiah 61: 1-2, 10-11 + 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24 + John 1: 6-8, 19-28

Our last Sunday with Isaiah provides a powerful and familiar text known and used by Jesus in his own synagogue. The condition of Israel when Isaiah writes these lyrical / poetical words provides no apparent reason for Joy. They come back from Babylon with nothing but memories. What was not torn down was left neglected. What the Romans did not destroy, neglect, wind, sun, and rain ruined. Cultivated fields were overgrown. Flocks not taken away had run wild. There were times when life looked better in slavery and some looked back with mixed emotions. In the midst of that Isaiah rises up with his song. He sings of Joy and stirs their hopes with memories that tell of God’s presence. The heart of this prophetic spirituality is Joy, and his message to us rings out with the same challenge and hope as it did to those first re-builders. His message of joy is timeless and still speaks to any who rebuild their lives. After the death of a loved one, or the death of a relationship following divorce; it’s time to rebuild. After the loss of a job and all the dreams that the job may have sustained, or some terrible mistake ruins hopes and shatters plans; it’s time to rebuild.

It is Joy that makes that possible. Easily confused by a culture that would dope itself on possessions and pleasure, Joy is not the same as happiness – that fleeting, momentary response to pleasure and delight. Happiness comes from happenings that are positive and pleasant. Happiness never lasts. It vanishes in the face of trouble and trial. This is not the gift of the prophet.

Joy awakens in the heart with the presence of God. The Joyful are those who recognize and perceive that presence and “enjoy” the companionship it provides. Those earliest re-builders faced the challenge and the disaster sustained by Joy as the prophet by his own presence and through the power of his words and images helped them remember all that God had done for them. The believer who holds to the promise that God is present in all things, tragedy and sin included, remains joy and hope filled in the face of any disaster.

God never promised to make or keep us happy. God simply promised to stay with us always. This companionship, this presence is exactly what the Incarnation of God is all about – immediate presence. It is why the Birth of Christ, the beginning of God’s presence among us, is announced as it is time after time: “I bring you tidings of Great Joy.” says the angel to shepherds and to Zechariah. It is why John the Baptist leapt for joy in the womb of Elizabeth. It is why Mary is so exultant, it is why angels and Magi rejoice. They have a spiritual gift bound up with the person of Jesus who is the presence of God. God has come to comfort his people, and all are joined to God in a bond that is unbreakable: unbreakable by sin, by tragedy, by disappointment, by violence, even by death!

Those who believe in what we will celebrate in ten days are the joyful, and they have “tidings” to share. While happiness may evaporate, Joy penetrates, permeates and persists despite everything that can go wrong. That is our song this day. That is our prophetic message. We wrap ourselves in the presence of God who, through, with, and in Jesus Christ is present among us, now and forever.

The 2nd Sunday of Advent at St Mark the Evangelist Church in Norman, OK

December 8, 2002

Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11 + 2 Peter 3:8-14 + Mark 1: 1-8

Our guide Isaiah takes us to Babylon today. The glory of David’s Kingdom and its mighty capital with palace and temple are no more. The once proud and mighty Israel broken into two Kingdoms first by its own internal conflicts over religious right and privilege both are finally reduced to dim memories as the able bodied are marched away from home as slaves of the victors. There in Babylon, some scholars suggest, many were forced to work on the building of a Persian road through the desert east of the Jordan. This one whose words still have the power to inspire great music, lift the discouraged, and restore broken dreams speaks in this place today.

The one who speaks is not off in some distant place of security and comfort. He has worked the long day shoulder to shoulder with those whose struggle he shares. They are building a road in the desert with their bare hands. Rocks, sand, and boulders move when they push. Hills flatten only when they dig. The gift he shares with them is a way of seeing what they do as a way of preparing for God. The Babylonians were building a “Sacred Way” for the procession of their god “Marduk”. Isaiah’s suggestion is that Israel could find its present condition to be a way of preparing for God rather than leading them away from God. Some might consider the road to be for them; their way out. Others could look at this road as God’s route to them.

I suppose the first option assumes that they know where they are going. Knowing the direction, they think they know which way to build. The second option fits a bit more into truth of the matter. These people are lost. If they knew how to get out of the mess they were in, they wouldn’t be there. A long time ago, in Boy Scout Survival wilderness training, I learned that if lost, the best thing to do was to stay put and wait to be found. If not, the one lost would be in greater danger from injury and exhaustion, likely wandering in circles. It seems like sound advise that has some scriptural parallels. It seems to fit this season when we listen to the wisdom of our guide. We are not going to get ourselves out of this life, out of the slavery we find ourselves in because we have chased after other gods, or out of the lonely isolation of our polarized church and society by insisting we are right and others are wrong.

The words of Advent remind us firmly that we are not preparing to welcome “the baby Jesus” but rather the One who comes with Justice and whose power is for the oppressed. We may not use the Word of God to validate our way of life. We run a terrible risk here of hearing the Word of God as victors and achievers. The Word has nothing to say to them. Until we find in ourselves our sin, the things that enslave us, our helplessness, our alienation from one another, and how far we have come from Justice; this season has no meaning, and the Word has no power. The power of Isaiah’s words came from his identity with his own. The good news is not so much a message as it is a people whose glorious redemption manifests the divine. The glad tidings of this season are more than “Merry Christmas.”

The glad tidings of this season is a people who find hope, purpose, and a way to God in what they do. The glad tidings of this season can only be heard by those who know what it is to be lost by those who have been waiting for the Lord, and for those who long for Justice. There is no good news for those who think they have earned their place, their privilege and their rights. The mission of a prophetic people in Advent is to proclaim in word and deed that having been found by God, we are going home. It will best be done by gathering together, going back for, and looking around for any who have fallen or been left behind. These are the days when anything that separates or scatters us, when anything that lets us think we are different or better than another must go.

Nothing short of total transformation in the landscape of our lives will do. We build a road for Justice these days. On that road, Kindness and Truth shall meet. Justice and Peace shall kiss. Truth shall spring from the earth, while Justice will look down from heaven. This road will be best built by tenderness and compassion and faithfulness to the vision.

The 1st Sunday of Advent at St Mark the Evangelist Church in Norman, OK

December 1, 2002

Isaiah 63:16-17, 19; 64:2-7 + 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 + Mark 13:33-37

We have a remarkable guide through most of this season of Advent. Editors of the sacred texts call him “Isaiah”, but the book of the Bible using that name covers more than a single lifetime. “Isaiah” then is a collection of texts not a person. This anonymous writer of chapter 63 will lead us for Advent’s first three Sundays, and then we shall turn to the work called Samuel to prepare ourselves for the coming feast and celebration of God’s Holy Incarnation. Not knowing his name does not mean that we shall not come to know a lot about him. As we walk together through these weeks, we shall come to know a great deal about him, and in him, we shall find ourselves. He is no stranger to grief or trust. He knows sin first hand and he knows grace. He makes the somewhat startling suggestion that both are found in God, and with that suggestion, he leads us deeper into the mystery of our relationship with God.

With his lament about the human condition in sin, he challenges the suggestion that God will have nothing to do with sinful people, or that in sin, a sinner is far from God. God is not being blamed for human sin, but in the context of this lament, the mystery of divine providence and God’s sovereignty over every area of human life is recognized and celebrated. For this prophet, the sinful condition is like the exile in Babylon.

Although that exile was a consequence of Israel’s infidelity to the law and the covenant, their trust in God never wavered, and even though they were broken and exiled from all they found holy, they never doubted that God would come to them. They continued to experience God’s presence even in their sin. We cannot help but hear the faith of Israel in this Psalm/like lament.

Rooted in the memory of what good things God has done in the past, the prophet sings of trust in a future just as blessed and just as good. We cannot help but share in that confident hope, and be instructed, encouraged, and sustained by the promise proposed. Nothing we have done changes God’s love for us.

In fact, there is a way of looking at sin, as the prophet shows us, that allows us to see in it, God’s providence and presence right in the midst of it. The God this prophet professes and proclaims is a God who parents, redeems, heals and shapes like a potter molds clay. This God will never disappoint. A society that touts the importance of independence and praises the ambition of the self-made-man or woman is going to have trouble with this prophet’s image.

Nonetheless, Isaiah’s image of the potter and the clay is worth serious consideration. There is in us all an inclination to approach the potter with an idea of what we ought to be. We like our designs and specifications. Yet this season, led by Isaiah, invites us to yield to the potter, to wait upon God, to call upon God’s name, and to remember all that God has done in the past. That is what Israel did while it waited in Babylon, in exile, in sin. Israel remembered. “God is faithful.” says Paul to the Corinthians. “He will come”, insists Mark in the Gospel. What Mark offers is not a threat, but reassurance. No more than a parent would abandon a child, no more than any child could do anything to destroy the love of a parent, and the relationship we have with God expressed and revealed by this prophet becomes our own song this season.

The prophet has the courage to express his distress, his sin, and his expectation of God’s anger because he knows, believes, and trusts that God’s love cannot be denied. To do so would be to put God out of existence.

There is no hiding from God. There is no Babylon from which God is absent. There is no Babylon from which God will not call us. A prophetic people pick up the prophet’s vision and share the prophet’s hope.

God will come for us, and we are about to celebrate the beginning of our return home.