Sunday, December 24, 2017


Fra Angelico holy family painted in a cell at San Marco, Florence

If you go down to the beach around midnight - one of those edge-of-the-world beaches like Hatteras or St. George Island, where there’s no gaudily lit-up strip or high rise hotels calling attention to themselves with spotlights - if you go down to the beach around midnight you can see heaven. Technically, what you see is the Milky Way, but as far as I’m concerned it is what actual heaven looks like. Heaven in the heavens, the sparkling glowing home of God and all the angels, luminous matter silently rotating among hundreds of billions of stars - a galaxy, our galaxy, 100,000 light years in diameter.

One year when my boys were small, we rented a house on such a beach during the time of the mid-summer Perseid meteor shower. After they went to bed after a long day of jumping in waves and digging in sand and collecting shells, I went outside to sit on the plastic porch chair, head thrown back and face upturned, trying not to blink, to watch for shooting stars. It was after midnight. One would occasionally zoom up and flash overhead as if traveling in the cosmic fast lane past all the other stars into heaven itself. But my favorite ones were the ones that seemed to be speeding down, toward the horizon, like an angel coming to make a heavenly announcement on earth. 

It was like Christmas in July and I gasped in awe at the celestial show that somehow I felt a part of as I sat in the deep dark and deep silence, because it wasn’t just up there, it was all around me, a silence punctuated only by the rhythmic lapping of a gentle surf, the very heartbeat of God. That which enveloped me was the same silence and dark and heartbeat permeating the whole universe. It was an otherworldly experience where there was nothing between me and the entire cosmos.

After midnight everything outside the city is so quiet that the stillness almost shimmers. It’s easy to imagine that the heavens are serenely just floating around in silence up there, the same for ever and ever. But there’s something in the makeup of our galaxy that causes it to create more new stars from celestial dust (the same as the dust that made us) all the time. Creation may be an almost magical phenomenon, but it’s not soundless. The birth of a star creates a cosmic melody. But it takes a particular kind of listening to hear it - our human ears cannot pick up the galactic sounds because they are so very deep.

And so with the birth of a savior. It takes a particular kind of listening to perceive him at busy noisy Christmas. On our Christmas cards and in our pageants the baby is surrounded by both the heartbeats and breath of sheep and cows and donkeys and oxen - the sounds of earthly life - but the heavenly sounds, the gloria excelsis, the angels’ song our souls yearn to experience, must be heard with something other than our ears.

In other words, the world around us is noisy but salvation itself arrives in shimmering silence, slipping into our hearts with only the sigh that love makes, a sigh too deep for words.

Tonight, Christmas truly comes, the thinnest time and thinnest place of all, when heaven really comes to earth, when there is nothing between us and God. Christmas is not way up there, but it is right here, among us, all around us. The heavenly is bound up with the earthly, the divine with the human, the cosmic with the particular. And the one who is born the king of the universe and the savior of the world is also the Lord of our particular hearts where we have indeed made a manger for his birth.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Birthday Special

Every year on December 22 I post this video in honor of Jesus of course, but also to commemorate the birth of our youngest child, son Jeffrey, who is 23 today. He and I came home from the hospital on Christmas Eve, and we always try to pay attention to his birthday even while all this other stuff is happening. He says it's hard to compete with Jesus when it comes to birthdays.

So here is the story of a baby, told by the children of St. Paul's Aukland (New Zealand).

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Recognizing Love, a sermon for Advent III

The year I was born, the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson released her first Christmas Album. The title track is the poignant 1930’s carol, Sweet Little Jesus Boy. 

“Sweet Little Jesus boy,” it goes, “they made you be born in a manger. Sweet little holy child, we didn’t know who you were. Didn’t know you’d come to save us Lord, to take our sins away. Our eyes were blind, we could not see - we didn’t know who you were.

It goes on, “The world treats you mean, Lord, treats me mean too. But that’s how things are down here. We don’t know who you are.”

“Look how we treated you. Please forgive us Lord, we didn’t know it was you.”

I think of this song when I heard the words of John: “Among you stands one whom you do not know.” John came to testify to the light that all might believe through him. John the Baptizer always points away from himself and to Jesus.

And the prophet Isaiah described the savior as the one who has been sent by God to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to build up and repair, to give justice, to lift up the lowly. Jesus quoted Isaiah when he first spoke in the Temple as he began his own ministry, and then said, “The Scripture is fulfilled." In other words, I have come to bring good news. I have come to heal, to comfort, to restore. It’s me. And the response was, “Oh, come on. Who does he think he is? This is Joseph’s son.” And they tried to throw him off a cliff.

We are told over and over again in the Bible who the savior is, who the savior will be, but somehow the people around him don’t always seem to get it. And I think sometimes neither do we. We have trouble translating the things Jesus said then to the way things are now. We have trouble recognizing the current version of lepers and tax collectors, trouble imagining who they are today. I listen to the news and wonder - are the Rohinga today’s outcast? Which among the refugees are the lepers? Could the undocumented be the equivalent of tax collectors? Are children without health care today’s lowly? Which poor are the ones Jesus loves, which prisoner is the one he wants to set free? Who is doing the work of Jesus among these?

Sometimes I hear people saying how Jesus thinks or the way Jesus wants us to act or what Jesus thinks of this group of people or another here in our world and I wonder who it is they are talking about. I’m not sure I recognize their version of Jesus. Perhaps they feel the same way about mine. We hear what we want to hear, I guess; we long for a savior who will save us by being on our side and against those we perceive to be on another side.

So I wonder. Who are we really waiting for this year? And what kind of witness to the light is among us today that we do not recognize as pointing to Jesus, Jesus who spent quite a lot of time showing that he is among the least and the lost, that’s where he is to be found, not in a mansion, not among the well-to-do but among the sick and the imprisoned and the poor, and the ones who are treated badly by society.

And yet despite these directions, we might miss him. Because it’s just not that hard to be blind to the marginalized. It’s not that hard to think that people are poor because they don’t work hard enough, that they are sick because they did not make good choices, that they are imprisoned and rejected because they need to be punished for their ignorance or their desperation. We want people to deserve what they get and get what they deserve. That’s how things are down here.

But we have a chance again this Advent to mend our ways, to repent of our blindness, to try again to see who specifically it is among us who needs to be treated as if they were as holy and precious as God. Who exactly it is among us who testifies to God’s abundant love, who points in reverence and gratitude to the one who loves and lives among the least? We have the chance again to let God come to us in the way God must come to us, wrapped in holy vulnerability and humble humanity, in the person of a nobody born to nobody parents, not to be pitied but to be honored. We have a chance to repent of our having an image of God that Anne Lamott warns us is not God if he just happens to hate all the same people we do.

John calls us to repentance and also he inspires us to witness to God in the way that he does. To really see God somewhere specifically in the world doing justice and loving mercy and eating and drinking with the downtrodden and doing the work of restoration to dignity. And to point with reverence and awe to that as witnesses ourselves, the way John points to Jesus to say behold the Lamb of God, the light of the world. 

It’s up to us now to say this is our God, who is binding up these particular brokenhearted and building up this particular thing that specifically has been torn down, who is smashing through all the barriers we have put up to make sure that he finds each and every beloved child of God in whatever wilderness we are wandering. This is our call, to really see God as God is and not as we wish God would be, and to be witnesses ourselves, to point to and to name divine holiness wherever we see it.

With Mahalia Jackson I want to say, Forgive us Lord, for the way we treat each other, knowing that this is the way we are also treating you. With Isaiah I want to say let us repair and build up, let us lift up the lowly and let us love justice. And with John to say, Behold! Indeed! I do see the light.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Advent Wreath

We begin the season of Advent at the time of year when the dark gathers earliest, when the days are shortest, when the short-lived light seems to shine on a slant. It is no wonder that we use candlelight, so inviting, to mark the time. One candle this week, and two candles next week, and then three and then four, our light against the darkness as we wait for the light of the world to draw near.

I came back to church after a long hiatus on the first Sunday of Advent twenty-five years ago. Having been raised in a tradition that did not observe the season, I was entranced with the customs of Advent. Worried that I didn’t have a proper Advent wreath, I decided a homemade one was going to have to do, and I found four glass candleholders, only an inch or so high, and set them on a round glass canapĂ© tray and scoured the shelves at five stores trying to find three blue and one pink candle (only to be confounded by the discovery that some people use purple while others just use white). It looked pretty bare. But fortunately, I had a large patch of ivy taking over the back of our property and was able to bring in a big wad of it to make a green wreath. A green wreath full of dirt and bugs, but a quick spray in the sink fixed that up. Finally, I found a big white scented candle in a jar (so what if it was a summer scent), stuck it in the middle of the canapĂ© dish where the dip usually goes, and viola. My very first Advent wreath.

In the years since, I’ve mostly stuck to the homemade wreath. One year I bought some silk ivy which lasted until I caught it on fire. Another year I tried using some of my roses that were inexplicably still blooming in December. This was lovely for one week. For the next three weeks, it was back to the ivy, which is very hard to kill.

One year I bought a proper Advent ring, but I’ve never liked using it nearly as much as my homemade contraptions.

The point of it all, of course, is not to have “the right kind” of Advent wreath but to use it to mark sacred time with increasing brightness. It doesn’t matter what color the candles. It doesn’t matter if you say the right prayer when you light them. It doesn’t matter if you have a “proper” Advent wreath or one you rigged up out of Play-Doh and pretend flowers. The point of it all is to see the lovely light growing over the season, bringing us ever closer to meeting our Lord again in all his glory.

A blessed Advent to you again this year.


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