29 December 2013

All Our Hopes and Fears

Isaiah 63: 7-9 & Luke 2: 21-40

First Sunday after Christmas/ 29th December 2013
This isn't a meditation or sermon, but an account of what took place in worship on December 29th.  And it’s an invitation: an invitation to reflect back upon 2013 and look forward toward 2014, an invitation to reflect upon things we hope for and fear and worry about and in order to offer them up to the Lord.

The title for this invitation is taken from the first stanza of the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem”:

            O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
            Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
            Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light;
            the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

During worship we sang the familiar carol to a different tune, FOREST GREEN.   There are two tunes associated with this carol.  In the United States, we generally sing it to the tune ST. LOUIS, written by Lewis Redner (1831-1908).  In the United Kingdom, the carol is sung to FOREST GREEN.  FOREST GREEN was written by the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). Actually Vaughan Williams arranged this tune after first hearing it sung by a farm laborer in Forest Green, near Ockley in Surrey.   He paired the text of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” with the tune for The English Hymnal of 1906, which Vaughan Williams edited.

It’s sometime useful to sing familiar words to a different tune. A different tune allows us to focus on the words, to hear a phrase or notice an image in a new way, to listen for the theological vision cast by the carol.

Phillips Brooks, who was a highly accomplished scholar and Episcopalian priest, wrote the text.  Born in 1835, Brooks was a graduate of Harvard College, attended Episcopal Theological Seminary in Alexandria, VA, and was ordained in 1859.   He was the rector of the Church of the Advent in Philadelphia, Holy Trinity, Philadelphia, and Trinity Church, Boston.  Brooks gave the prestigious Beecher Lectures on preaching at Yale in 1877, which are still studied and read today.  He turned down several offers to be a professor and bishop.  Finally, he was elected Bishop of Massachusetts in 1891.  He died eighteen months later in 1893.

In the summer of 1865, Brooks took a leave of absence for one year and travelled to the Holy Land.  On Christmas Eve, 1865, he rode on horseback from the heights of Jerusalem down to Bethlehem, which is about six miles away.  On the way he stopped in Shepherds’ Field and made his way to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built on the traditional site of Jesus’ birth.  He worshipped in the church and had something of a religious experience.  

Interior, Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
Several years later, in 1868, Brooks drew upon his experience and wrote the text in order to have a new Christmas hymn for his Sunday School to sing. 

Brooks asked his organist at Holy Trinity, Lewis Redner, to compose a tune.  After several weeks struggling to come up with one, Redner awoke on Christmas Day 1868 “with the melody ringing in his ears, fully formed and harmonized.”  It was “sung for the first time at a service two days later.”[1]

This was the phrase that spoke to me this season:  “…all our hopes and fears are met in thee tonight.”  All our hopes and fears are met in him, the child born in Bethlehem.  He’s the one who knows our hopes and fears, the one who bears us through our hopes and fears. 

At this point in the service I invited the congregation to reflect back upon 2013 and look toward 2014. I asked: What are your hopes and fears looking into 2014?  In each bulletin there was a yellow Post-It note in the shape of star.  I invited folks to write down what they’re thankful for and what they’re hopeful for, fearful about, anxious about going into 2014, in order to lift it up to the Lord. 

A ritual of response then followed.  While Doug Heist softly played ST. LOUIS on the organ, I invited the congregation to offer up their hopes and fears by placing the star anywhere in the sanctuary: on a window pane, on the walls of the sanctuary, on a hymnal, the baptismal font, the pulpit, the Communion table, the cross, the piano, the organ, the crèche—wherever was most meaningful.

And then, gradually, many got up out of the pews and moved through the sanctuary, placing their stars in a meaningful place, offering up their hopes and fear to the Lord. 

We finished the ritual by singing again the fourth verse, this time to ST. LOUIS:
            O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
            Cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today.
            We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
            O come to us; abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!

It was a very moving experience.

Looking back upon 2013, what are you most thankful to God for? 

Looking into the New Year, what hope and/or fear or anxiety do you wish to offer up to the Lord?  

As we enter into 2014, may we know the promise and peace of Emmanuel—God is with us!  Amen.

[1]This quotation, along with the historical background about Brooks and the writing of the carol, may be found in Ian Bradley, ed. The Penguin Book of Carols (London:  Penguin Books, 1999), 224-225.

24 December 2013

When the Soul Felt Its Worth

Luke 2:1-18 
Christmas Eve 2013

The title for the meditation probably sounds familiar.  It’s a phrase found within the first stanza of the carol “O Holy Night.” 

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Til He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.[1]

I love the music written for Advent and Christmas and over the years I’ve amassed an extensive collection of recordings.  I love the familiar chestnuts, as well as the new compositions and recordings that emerge every year.  There’s something about what we celebrate this night that is so remarkably generative, yielding ever more imaginative renderings of the story.  “O Holy Night” is among the most-favored carols, although it’s probably over-heard, over-performed throughout the season.  Maybe you’re tired of hearing it or don’t really listen when you hear it being played.  I can remember playing it on the piano as a boy and lingering over each stanza, so rich in meaning and imagery. It’s a majestic, mystical piece. 

But it was in the middle of Advent this year as I was listening to yet another recording of this piece that something struck me in a new way: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining,/ Till he appeared’ and the soul felt its worth.”  When “the soul felt its worth”—that’s the phrase that caught me.  This phrase, indeed this carol, offers a message, an understanding of Christ’s nativity that we don’t find in many Christmas carols.

Ask your ordinary Christian or your ordinary non-Christian—now, I don’t know what an ordinary Christian is or non-Christian, for that matter—wonder with me, ask someone what Christmas is all about, most will probably answer: it’s the feast day that celebrates the birth of Jesus, the Son of God.  Then ask, why was he born or what was he born to do, and then the answers will start to vary widely.  Many will say that he was born to save us from our sin; he was born to suffer and die in our place, born to deal decisively with sin, to take on himself God’s judgment that we deserve.  Others will say he came to show us God’s way, God’s kingdom ethic for the world; he came to show us how to love and forgive.  What would you say?  It’s worth asking and re-asking throughout lives, particularly at Christmas and again at Easter.

My guess is—maybe I’m wrong (I hope I’m wrong)—that many would not reply with what we find in this first stanza of the carol, that Jesus’ birth demonstrates definitely for the world that the soul has founds its worth, that with his birth the soul felt, knew, acknowledged its worth, it’s value.  Maybe I’m wrong.  I hope I’m wrong.  But I know too many Christians and non-Christians, people who used to be Christians but are no longer, who never heard this message, never heard this gospel word, who never heard from a pulpit or in Sunday School or in their family experience about their inherent worth and value as children of God.

Now, don’t get me wrong[1] .  I’m enough of a Calvinist to affirm the destructive the power of sin.  I agree with John Calvin (1509-1564) that the heart is a factory of idols that can produce a staggering array of false gods, deities, ideologies, and sports teams and personalities that we worship as divine, divine birds no less.  I’m enough of a Presbyterian through and through to affirm that God’s grace makes the first move to save us because we can’t. We’re all (including me) too broken, too wounded, too fragile, too weak to procure God’s favor on our own. And like Calvin, I affirm that the human ego is not the center of the universe (although it often thinks it is, to the detriment of us all); God and God’s sovereignty stand at the center of everything.

Nevertheless, somehow we have forgotten another aspect of the gospel. God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that that world might be save through him (John 3:17).  And God sent the Son because we’re worth the journey, we’re worth the effort.  You and I matter, ultimately, in the eyes of God.  We are worth the risk, the hurt, the rejection, the suffering of the Son because the Son risked the hurt and rejection and suffering and even death in order for us to know that we are the object of God’s love, the apple of God’s eye.  When we sing Joy to the World it’s also important to realize that we are the joy of God’s world.  You and I matter.  We bear God’s image.  The birth of Jesus means that being born, being human, matters, it has value, with an inestimable worth.  Humanity matters. Your humanity, your existence, right now, matters to God.  Your uniqueness, all your faults and failings and peculiarities, all that makes you you matter and through you—through such a life—God’s glory is known.

It seems to me that this is integral to what we celebrate here this night.  And, to be honest, it breaks my heart when I encounter people who haven’t heard this part of the Christmas story, who have not heard in the message an affirmation of their inherent worth.  It’s remarkable to find this message in “O Holy Night,” given that the text, written by the wine merchant and poet, Placide Cappeau (1808-1877), was a professed anti-cleric and an atheist.  It was written in Roquemaure, France, at the end of 1843.  The organ in the parish church had been recently renovated and the parish priest asked Cappeau, a native of the town, to write a Christmas poem, “Cantique de Noël.”  That’s quite a poem coming from a professed atheist.  I’m not surprised, really, because that’s what this story does, that’s what Christ birth does in the world, that’s what happens when someone hears this message and feels it in the depths of one’s soul.  Something new comes into being: we discover who we are in God’s eyes, that we are people of extraordinary worth, whose lives, by grace, can be beautiful expressions of God’s glory.

The apostle Paul himself said that this is what we discovered through the birth, life, and ministry of Jesus Christ.  In Ephesians, Paul wrote, “For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before hand to be our way of way of life” (Eph. 2:10). “For we are what he has made us….”  The Greek here for “made,” “to make” is poema.  We are God’s poema…God’s poem, created in Christ Jesus for good works. That’s what his birth means and yields for us—the knowledge that we are God’s poems. 

God isn’t aloof, apart, separate from us.  God has come close, to share our breath, our hopes and dreams, to give us life, to awaken us and call us to life—why?—so that we come to know our inherent worth as children of God—why?—so that our lives can then be given for the world, for our neighbor in love.  For, like the child we celebrate this night, none of us were born for ourselves to do whatever we want to, to pursue of own pursuits; like this child, we were created to reveal the glory of God and reflect that glory, reflect that light with our lives, as souls, by God’s grace, who know their worth. When this happens others might come to know what we know and celebrate this night holy night. That’s the gift we continue to give to the world.  When we know this, we know something else: “For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” The world is never again the same.  Thanks be to God!

[1] “O Holy Night,” music by Adolphe Adam (1803-1856).  Original text by Placide Cappeau.  John Sullivan Dwight (1813-1893) revised the text for English in 1855.

22 December 2013

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Isaiah 7: 10-17 & Matthew 1: 18-25

Fourth Sunday of Advent/ 22nd December 2013

Three weeks ago we began the season of Advent with the words of the British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie describing the work of the poet.  Rushdie said, “A poet’s work is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from falling asleep.”  Throughout Advent we’ve been comparing the work of the poet with the work of the prophet, thus providing us new ears to hear the prophetic words of Isaiah.  This approach was inspired by the work of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann who encourages us to think of prophets as poets.  (It’s fitting that this morning on Krista Tippett’s program “On Being” I heard her interview with Brueggemann talking about the prophetic tradition as poetry.)

            A poet helps us to see what we often can’t see on our own.  A poet helps us to reframe the way we look at the world, ourselves, even God.  Through the use of metaphor and symbol, stretching the limits of language, demonstrating the power of language, a poet pushes us deeper into reality and helps us come awake.  Brueggemann says the prophet warns against “narcotization” in our culture, that is, every “narcotic” that tries to lull us to sleep. 

            We can very easily substitute poet with prophet in Rushdie’s definition, for a prophet names the unnamable, points at frauds, takes sides, starts arguments, shapes the world and stops it from falling asleep.  Not surprisingly, we’re reluctant to hear what the prophet has to say.  But we need to hear from the prophets, these poets who help us to see, these poets who help us to image the future that God is eager to bring.  These prophets offer warning, to be sure, but overall they offer hope, hope in the new thing that God is doing and will do—and that’s why we need to be awake.

            We find it here in Isaiah 7, probably written by the prophet himself.  With an extraordinary imaginative reach Isaiah envisions a promising future for Judah, even though he knows that the Assyrian Empire is almost at the gates of Jerusalem.  King Ahaz is in a panic, he’s unable to trust in Yahweh. It’s almost a comical scene painted here.  God speaks to Ahaz and says, “Ask a sign of me your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven” (Is. 7:11) In other words, God says: Ask away, Ahaz.  Ask big.  What kind of sign do you need to calm your nerves? Be bold.  But Ahaz replies, “I will not ask and I will not put the LORD to the test” (Is. 7:12).  Ahaz is a bit of a coward; his god is too small, he’s afraid to risk trusting in God’s faithfulness.  He will not risk being disappointed.  It’s as if Ahaz can’t quite trust God.  So, Isaiah steps in, and turns away from Ahaz and speaks to the people, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?” (Is. 7:13).  If you’re not going to ask for a sign, then God will provide the sign, a sign that demonstrates Yahweh’s faithfulness to the people. 

            “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Is. 7:14).  That’s the good news.  Now here comes the not-so-good news.  “He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.  For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted” (Is. 7:14). The reference to the birth of the child offers temporary assurance for Judah (about two years). In the end Ahaz cannot trust in Yahweh. Ahaz panics because he rules God’s people but forgets the promise; he rules minus the “God is with us” part of the sign.  Will Judah will be invaded and taken off into captivity, like the Northern Kingdom?[1]  Isaiah warns, “The LORD will bring on you and your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria” (Is. 7:17).  Tidings of great joy? I don’t think so.  That day is coming, Isaiah warns.[2]  But within the “bad news” there is still gospel to be heard here, there’s still good news, a promise.  A child will be born who shall be named Immanuel, meaning, “God is with us.”  Whatever comes, this assurance remains:  God is with us.  No matter what the world will throw at you, this fact remains:  God is with us. That’s Israel’s promise.

            Now fast-forward almost 700 years.  We hear echoes of this text in Matthew’s gospel.  These well-known references to a woman and a child with a special name, Immanuel, “God is with us,” fill our pageants, carols, anthems, and oratorios. 

            Now, I don’t want to mess too much with tradition here, but it’s important to lift up something here.  In the long history of the Church it’s often assumed that when Isaiah refers to this woman who will bear a child that he’s talking about Mary; and that when Isaiah gives us the name of this child, that he’s foretelling the birth of Jesus.  We read it that way because that’s how Matthew describes it.  But that’s probably not the way Isaiah meant it. Matthew actually gets the original reference, in Isaiah, wrong. And by noting this we quickly come up against the “tradition,” facing a major problem with translation, as well as an enormously complex theological quandary.  And this is when Christmas pageant directors begin to panic and start to get nervous because we’re starting to veer off-script!

            Listen to the Isaiah text again, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”  The Hebrew there makes no reference to the woman’s status as a virgin.  Why?  Because it’s not important.  Neither is her name important, apparently; she’s anonymous.  The Hebrew is “young woman” (‘almâ), meaning a woman of marriageable age, meaning very young woman, a teenager.  What we need to remember is that centuries after Isaiah, after Alexander the Great’s (356-323) conquest of Jerusalem in 332 BC, which then led to the Hellenization of Jewish culture, the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek; this version of the Hebrew text was known as the Septuagint.  The Hebrew word ‘almâ, young woman, was translated in the Septuagint as parthenos, the Greek word for virgin.  The Greek Septuagint served as the basis for the much later Latin translation called the Vulgate (in the late 4th century AD).  Now, from reading Matthew it’s obvious that he’s quoting from the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures, because he quotes the prophet as saying, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.”  Even the spelling of Emmanuel, with an “E” in Matthew, reflects a Greek influence.  In time, the Church subsequently developed a very complex theology around the virginity of Mary as necessary for the birth of God’s Son. It made it’s way into the creeds and today the virgin birth remains one of the pillars of Christian orthodoxy and at the center of our Christmas pageants and carols.  Now, I’m not saying Matthew got the virgin birth wrong. Maybe the Church got it wrong. (Did I just say that the Church got it wrong? Okay, maybe I am saying that—or maybe got some of it wrong or placed too much emphasis on this part of the story.)

            Isaiah’s point is this: pay attention to the child’s name. That’s what matters.

            Matthew’s birth narrative leads us to the same conclusion:  pay attention to the child’s name.  That’s what matters.

            For the gospel is there in the meaning of his name, a name that tells us who this child is.  But, more significant still, this child’s name, tells us something about God: God is with us.  That’s the point!

            Stanley Hauerwas, one of the leading theologians of our age, a Methodist who teaches at Duke Divinity School, says, “Too often those who worry about whether we are required to believe in the virgin birth do so assuming they are being asked to believe something for which there is no evidence.  But Matthew is telling the story of the God who refuses to abandon us—and even becomes one of us that we might be redeemed.  Virgin births are not surprising given that this is the God who has created us without us, …who will not save us without us.  What the Father does through the Spirit to conceive Mary’s child is not something different than what God does through creation.  God does not need to intervene in creation, because God has never been absent from creation.  Creation is not ‘back there,’ [in Genesis], but is God’s ongoing love of all he has willed and continues to will to exist.”[3] Hauerwas is spot-on when he then makes this claim: “What should startle us, what should stun is, is not that Mary is a virgin but that God refuses to abandon us.[4]  

            God refuses to abandon us. Whether God sends us off into exile in Babylon, the good news is that God does not abandon us; or, when we send ourselves to “Babylon” in self-imposed exile from God, the good news is that God does not abandon us. God is with us.  And cannot but be present.

            The central claim of Advent and Christmas is this: God is with us.  God wants to be with us.  This has always been the case, long before Jesus came along.  But with his birth there’s no avoiding the truth, there’s no running from this claim, there’s no missing this memo.  God wants to be with you and me.  In the face of Jesus we see God’s gracious intent, which was there all along, an awareness that took humanity several hundred years to fathom before Jesus arrived—and in 2,000 years we’ve yet to fully fathom the message of Christ’s nativity: that God wants to be near us.  In love, God wants to come down and come in, right into flesh, right into our hearts, down deep into our psyches, into the darkest reaches of our souls, to live there with us and for us.  In love, God wants to enter into our sin, enter into our pain and our grief.  In love, God wants to dwell fully in our anxieties and our fears, wants to carry our burdens and the weight of our sorrow.  In love, God wants to take up residence in us, with us, so that we might share in God’s glory, God’s grace, God’s joy. 

            The contemporary poet Maya Angelou said it beautifully, “Love knows no barrier.  It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination, full of hope.”

            Arrives…in us – not just some of us, but in humanity.  Not just a portion of humanity, but all of it.  Whether we think we deserve it or not, God is with us.  For Love knows no barrier.  It jumps hurdles and leaps fences and penetrates the defensive walls of our egos in order to arrive at its destination, full of hope.  This is the message that needs to penetrate the walls of our hearts.  For there are far too many people within the church and beyond its walls who can’t quite accept the fact that the birth we celebrate is for them, for us, that it’s really our birth too.  There are so many people who think they are beyond hope, that they can’t escape their past.  They might find it easier to accept others, but they can’t accept themselves, people who can’t extend the same mercy to themselves that they extend to their pets.  If that’s you, sometimes or all the time, perhaps this Christmas will be the year you receive the gift designed for you long before you were born: that you might believe—more than believe, know, feel, through and through, that right now, God is with you. 

            Or maybe there’s someone you know, someone in your family, someone you’re going to see this week who needs to know this, really know it. Perhaps God is calling you to be God’s prophet, to be God’s poet, to help him, help her see what he or she can’t see: that he or she is worthy of God’s love, that God is with her, with him. 

            In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we find these words: “For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before hand to be our way of way of life” (Ephesians 2:10).  “For we are what he has made us….”  The Greek here for “made,” “to make” is poema (poivhma).  For we are God’s poema…poem, created in Christ Jesus for good works. That’s what his birth means and yields for us—the knowledge that we are God’s poems.  We all need help remembering this, really knowing this.  Perhaps you know someone who needs to know it too.

     God doesn’t want to be aloof, apart, separate.  God wants to come close, to share our breath, our hopes and dreams, to give us life, to awaken us and call us to life—why?—so that our lives can properly be given for the world, for our neighbor.  For, like the child we celebrate this season, none of us were born for ourselves, to do whatever we want to, to pursue of own pursuits; like this child, we were created to reveal the glory of God and reflect that glory, reflect that light with our lives. We were created to be poems, poems, poems that transfigure the way we see ourselves, the world, and God, and then as poets help others to see themselves, the world, and even God in a new light, with new eyes. That’s the gift we continue to give to the world

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 70-72.
[2] Brueggemann, 71-72.
[3] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew.(Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 34.

[4]Hauerwas, 34. Emphasis mine.