Saturday, December 24, 2016


homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Saturday, December 24, 2016 (4:00 p.m.)
Readings: Isaiah 9:2-7; Godly Play Christmas pageant

My wife, my daughter and I have a very old cat named Henry. Well, his full name is actually Henry Kramer Hosler the Ninth, Secret Agent Cat, but I’m not going to explain all those names right now. Suffice it to say that Henry is fifteen years old, and he’s a real piece of work.

Henry has been overweight most of his life, and now he has arthritis. His vet has switched him from dry food to super-expensive canned food, which we now feed him twice a day instead of only once, and to which we add flax oil to ease his aching joints. Because we’ve added morning feedings on top of evening feedings, Henry now shows up at our bedside every morning precisely an hour and a half before we intend to feed him, like a cute, furry, malfunctioning alarm clock. “Mrow! Mrow! Mrow! Mrow!” I hit the snooze button—or, rather, I pet the snooze button very gently. And we put up with all this because we love him.

Yes, Henry really sits like this while he eats.
What hindquarters?

Another side effect of Henry’s weight and age is that he has begun to lose feeling in his hindquarters, so he doesn’t always know where they are or what they are doing. Henry has been a reliable litter box user for most of his life, but more and more over the last several years he has begun to think outside the box. He’s making a real mess of our basement, but we clean it up dutifully because we love him. Oh yes, and Henry is frequently underfoot, and because he’s less spry than he used to be, sometimes we step on his paws right in the middle of trying to feed him. And then the apologies flow.

Have you ever had really demanding needs? Have you ever annoyed someone? Have you ever gotten in the way, or spoken too loudly, or interrupted at the most irritating moment and been shouted at unfairly? It happens among us humans like it happens with Henry. Maybe you also know what it’s like for another person to forgive you, or to apologize to you, and for warm feelings to return between you. Hopefully you even know what it’s like for someone to do the loving thing for your sake even when you don’t deserve it, and even when the warm feelings are far, far away.

Henry is a pest, but I sure do love him. And I’m reminded of that during those precious times when I lie down on the couch for a nap, and Henry jumps up and cuddles next to me. If I call him from the couch, he knows it’s nap time and he comes and joins me—a few minutes after I call, of course, just so it’s clear that it was his idea and not mine. Henry fits right under the crook of my arm. And waking up next to a purring or sleeping Henry is what heaven means to me. Sometimes I even sing to him.

Why on earth would I ever want my time with this little embodied creature to end? Henry’s high needs and quirky behaviors are so totally worth it.

God came to be with us, embodied and physical. God needed a diaper change and a warm breast full of milk. God had height, and weight, and smell, and a smile, and those things all kept changing. God tasted and touched. God laughed, and God sang. God gave up the unlimited nature of being God and emptied himself into human form, because it wasn’t enough to have created us. God had to know what it is like to be us. Because of Jesus, I know that God understands how I feel in all my own embodiment.

It’s not our good qualities that help people love us. It’s our limitations. It’s the things we do imperfectly or downright badly that make some people say, “I sure do love you.” Don’t believe me? Ask your parents. Just ask me, because Henry’s sins make me treasure his little life all the more. I know it’s not going to last all that much longer—maybe just a couple more years, maybe less. His time, like ours, is limited. And so our naps on the couch together are precious.

Henry is dependent on us. We are all dependent, too, and not just when we are children. All our lives, we are dependent on the love of God that holds our souls in life. We are dependent on God’s redemption to put our needs and our quirks and our sins into the larger perspective of that unending love.

You know, God isn’t just a nice idea, or a moral compass, or someone to talk to when it’s convenient or to cry out to when we’re desperate. And God isn’t out there somewhere in a galaxy far, far away. God is so close and so real that it’s easy not to notice that God is here. God is the one who cradles us and the one who challenges us to grow. God is the one who sings softly to us, lullabies about peace and justice and all things being made right. If you’ve ever felt that longing for a better world or that longing for union with God, that feeling that there’s something much bigger than yourself that you want to be a part of forever and ever, that’s because God has been singing these lullabies to you.

God is singing lullabies to you right now, whether you’re listening or not. God sings both inside and outside the church, though in church we try specifically to help each other to listen. God sings to us in joy and in pain. God sings when we’re at our best and when we feel like a total mess. God is always singing love.

God loves you on days when you feel loved and cherished and on days when you live in fear that they’ll learn the truth about you. God knows you far more deeply than you know yourself and never stops loving you, no matter what.

And Jesus? Jesus is God’s gift to us, God’s very self in a form we can understand. God loves us so much that God came to be with us on our own terms—just for the span of a little life, a life like yours and mine, a life like Henry’s. Jesus’ life had a beginning and an end, just like our lives do. But because that life comes from God, there will be no end for us—only more and more love.

This Christmas, let God love you. Make time to receive God’s love. Set aside the frantic rushing around and the cultural expectations and the family dynamics and just be still for a while. Be still as a family, because most kids treasure silence too, if you are patient and make time for them to practice it. Teresa of Avila said that prayer is simply wasting time with someone who loves you. Waste some time during these twelve days of Christmas. How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given!

My own prayer to God this Christmas is simply this: “Hold me.” I am assured of God’s love, but I ask for it anyway, because I need to give voice to my longing. I commend this prayer to you as well, and the courage to believe that maybe it’s the only prayer you need right now: “Hold me.” Once we learn to receive God’s love, the way Mary and Joseph received Jesus, amazing things can begin to happen. God is singing lullabies to you, and God is cradling you in the crook of God’s arm as you sleep.

May God bless you and all those you love this Christmas season. And may Jesus the Messiah come to be with you, to hold you, and to nap with you on the couch. Amen.

Advent, Day 28: One of Us

"Be still, then, and know that I am God."

- Psalm 46:11a

Friday, December 23, 2016

Advent, Day 27: Better Days

Look on Zion, the city of our appointed festivals!
   Your eyes will see Jerusalem,
   a quiet habitation, an immovable tent,
whose stakes will never be pulled up,
   and none of whose ropes will be broken.
But there the Lord in majesty will be for us
   a place of broad rivers and streams,
where no galley with oars can go,
   nor stately ship can pass.
For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler,
   the Lord is our king; he will save us.

- Isaiah 33:20-22

The genius of prophetic scripture is that it points beyond itself. When the biblical prophets wrote about the restoration of Zion--that is, the city of Jerusalem--they were hearkening back to the glory days of the Kingdom of Israel, circa 1000 B.C.E., when David and Solomon ruled. When they told us that a descendant of David would sit upon the throne, they imagined the restoration of that kingly line.

Today we can understand that a literal restoration of the Davidic monarchy is not, in and of itself, likely to result in world peace. But in Isaiah's time, this was the best possible outcome the Jewish people could imagine for themselves: all the nations streaming into Jerusalem to worship the one true God who had formed a special relationship with them.

It was definitely a step beyond the old "my god can beat up your god" syndrome that ruled the Fertile Crescent in those days, because it was not intended to come at the expense of everyone else. God's covenant with Abraham was that his descendants would bless all the nations of the world--that through them would come salvation for everybody. It was a divinely inspired understanding of things to come.

But must that look like a literal earthly kingdom centered in Jerusalem, with people the world over bowing to an earthly king who speaks for the heavenly one? The Jewish leaders in Jesus' time thought so, and when he didn't fulfill their expectations of what an earthly ruler was supposed to do--that is, overthrow the Roman Empire--they colluded with the Romans to have him killed. When Messiahs don't live up to our expectations, we do tend to turn on them.

The very last book of the Bible, the Revelation to John, continues with this image of Jerusalem as the center of the world, not as an earthly city (which the Romans had since destroyed), but as a new Jerusalem coming down from heaven. The image was evolving; Christians were coming to understand that the ancient vision the prophets gave us was not going to be fulfilled in a way we might expect. Still, they were limited by the best possible vision they could understand in their context.

Since that time nearly 2000 years ago, there has been no shortage of images, in many cultures the world over, for what that perfect, happy ending might look like. The common thread has been our sad human tendency to limit that utopia to people who agree with us, or people who look like us, or people who act in ways that we find acceptable.

But it's not up to us, and it never has been. Built into these prophecies all along has been an understanding that this is God's project involving us, not our project involving God. In the same way that Jesus surprised us at every turn, we will continue to be surprised by the new thing that God is doing. "For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler, the Lord is our king; he will save us."

Where is God in all these old prophecies? God is certainly not planning a step-by-step execution of events literally predicted by Isaiah or John. Don't expect a literal antichrist, or a thousand-year reign of Satan on earth, or any of the other recent explanations for ancient writings we barely comprehend. Don't expect the Prince of Peace to show up brandishing an assault rifle in order to settle old grudges. Don't expect that you will be sucked up into the clouds, and that the people you most fear and despise are going to be tortured for all eternity by an infinitely loving God. Don't confuse the metaphor with the indescribable reality.

God is not in these sad, self-serving visions. Rather, God is right here, loving us, being patient with us, longing for us and praying through us with that deepest of longings. We talk about Christ's second coming, and that's not wrong. Yet all the while Christ is right here within us, loving us back into wholeness and reconciliation with each other.

What is the best possible vision you can understand for the perfect fulfillment and restoration of what God wants for us? Imagine. Play. Let the old images feed the new ones. We all want better days, but can we allow those days to come on God's terms instead of our own? Can we allow ourselves to be surprised and delighted--even if we are simultaneously unsettled--by the perfection God has in store for us?

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Advent, Day 26: Magnificat

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
   from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’ 

- Luke 1:46-55

What's all this about Mary being sweet and mild? Like the Song of Miriam (Exodus 15:1-21) and the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:1-31), the Magnificat is a song about God's victory over the people's enemies. Mary clearly understands herself to be a beneficiary of God's justice for the oppressed.

I've heard the Magnificat called a subversive lullaby. I love that idea. If you have ever been a victim of the proud, the powerful, or the wealthy, this lullaby is for you.

If you have a child or children, what did you sing to them as babies? I mentioned in an earlier post that I like to sing Simon & Garfunkel's "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream" to my daughter. The 1960s gave us a wealth of singable, subversive lullabies. I'm partial to songs by Malvina Reynolds, a '60s protest singer who also wrote many children's songs. Her best-loved classic is "Little Boxes."

I wonder what sorts of conversations Mary had with Jesus as he grew up. What did she instill in him that gave him strength and conviction for his ministry? When she looked into the eyes of her son and met the very essence of God, what did she have to offer him that he did not already have? I love that we have the Magnificat to stand in for all that we will never know of their relationship.

Surely there was something Mary had that Jesus did not. Her soul magnified the Lord: Mary made God appear bigger than God was before. Anyone who can do that is helping to reveal the Kingdom of God as it breaks into our deeply troubled world. Like any of us, Jesus could not have done his work effectively without other people to point to it and raise it up.

Here is an instrumental version of the Magnificat. We have the words in the Bible; here is a purely musical expression of it.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Advent, Day 25: Gabriel's Message

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’

Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’

The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’

Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her. 

- Luke 1:26-38

There's an awful lot that we'd like to know about this stuff. Yesterday I found myself in a long Facebook thread about Mary and Joseph and the virgin birth and Jesus' genealogy. And another priest friend jumped in to comment on just how literal we were all being.

Well, that's because we want to know! Was Mary really a virgin? If she wasn't, then were the gospel writers lying to us? Were they printing falsehoods, trying to pull one over on us? What about that "of the house of David" thing? If Jesus was conceived not by Joseph, but by the Holy Spirit, then was he not literally descended from David? And if that were the case, how could he be the Messiah? "How can this be?"

One thing I've come to depend on is that God will always shatter my expectations. I've also come to learn this (as a seminary professor put it): living in a "post-Enlightenment, post-Kant, post-Descartes world" has put severe limits on our imagination. When it comes to crucial matters like our eternal salvation, we don't know how to relax into the poetry.

Six years ago today I posted a whole bunch of artistic portrayals of the Annunciation. Spend some time with those.

I notice that in the story just prior to this one, Zechariah is also perplexed when an angel comes to him to announce the miraculous birth of John. Zechariah is struck dumb for answering questions. But when Mary asks questions, she is honored. What's up with that?

What is the significance of virginity? Certainly there's something in here that resonates with similar stories in Greek mythology that announce the birth of someone truly divine. There's something in here about God's ability to create ex nihilo.

And there's something also that smacks of patriarchy: overtones of the importance of women remaining "pure," but men not so much. In our own time we rightly reject this double standard. I balk at Christmas hymns that rhyme "mother mild" with "undefiled." Yuck!

There are so many rabbit holes we can go down, and those can be fun if you want to spend all your time in your head. Instead, try moving the conversation down into your heart and make it personal. Spend some time in contemplation of God's visitation to you. When you imagine God appearing to you, from what direction does God approach? Is it an angel sent as a messenger, or God's very self? (Often in the Bible the distinction is blurred.)

If God were to give birth to something through you, what might it be?

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Advent, Day 24: Sorrow

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’ 

- Revelation 21:1-4

Yesterday was a horrible day in the world. The Russian ambassador to Turkey was assassinated in Ankara. In Germany a truck plowed into a crowded market and killed twelve people and injured many others in what Angela Merkel is calling a terrorist attack. Vladimir Putin's response to all this was to urge continued support for Bashar Assad's murderous regime in Syria.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump, a habitual liar who continues to demonstrate no concern with anybody or anything that does not either stroke his ego or pad his secret financial portfolio, was officially elected to be the next president of the United States. He has selected a cabinet that is simultaneously the wealthiest and the least educated presidential cabinet in our nation's history. This is not a partisan smear, but a list of relevant facts; our national situation has moved way beyond partisan politics.

It's easy to lose hope in times like these. It just feels so overwhelming.

Remember that not one of us lives in the future. Our fears of things that have not yet happened are no cause for despair. The only moment we have is right now, and our mission is to do the loving thing. What is the loving response to the moment that lies in your hands?

The real benefit of our fears is to steel us for this loving action. Courage is a virtue gained through practice. What is the courageous response to the events of the world?

We cannot control the direction of the world or even, ultimately, of our own lives. These are times to place the future in God's hands and to ask for the gifts of love and courage that will be required of us.

Do you dream of a time when all shall be well? Hold onto that vision. It is not naive; it is what God wants for us. I don't know on which side of the grave it will occur, or what it will look like. Surely not one of us knows. But the promise is that it will come. It will come. And it will be far better than we can possibly imagine.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Advent, Day 23: Love's Divine

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
   and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
   the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
   the spirit of counsel and might,
   the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord

- Isaiah 11:1-3a

You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

- John 5:39-40

There were those who wouldn't accept Jesus' messianic credentials unless he was descended from David, as Isaiah had foretold many centuries before. For the gospel writers, there was a way to handle those people: give them what they want. Jesse was the father of David, the greatest of Israel's kings. According to the gospels, Joseph was descended from David. Kind of funny, though: if Mary was a virgin and conceived Jesus through the Holy Spirit, Joseph was Jesus' stepfather.

Go, stepdads! You have a high calling from a truly honorable forerunner.

People use the Bible in all sorts of interesting ways, trying to predict the future, trying to get one step ahead of God, trying to justify what they are already doing, seeking reassurance that they are not too far off track. I'm sure I do it my fair share, too.

Here's a funny conundrum, then: If Jesus was born of a virgin, then he wasn't genetically descended from David. If he was genetically descended from David, then he wasn't born of a virgin. Puzzle that one out for a while. Are the gospel writers giving us a clever poke in the eye, or is God making fun of our urge to trust in the Bible more than we trust in God?

So Jesus was grafted onto David's line, but only for the sake of appearances. There was no genetic need for the Messiah to have this pedigree, because God is not bound by the Bible.

It's a creative and generous solution, isn't it? Let the scripture-searchers have what they want. If they need Jesus to be descended from David, and if they're not going to think about it too deeply, so be it. Luke is less cagey about it than Matthew. He writes: "Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli" (3:23).

As was thought!

The Bible does not grant eternal life; it only points to it. It is there to open up the conversation, but don't let the path become the destination.

It is not our genealogy that gives us our true name. No matter who you are, or the circumstances of your birth, or the behavior of your parents and grandparents, the source of your worthiness is the divine Love that created you and loves you more deeply than you can possibly imagine. Trust in that love.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Advent, Day 22: Light and Day

I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
   I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
   a light to the nations,
   to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
   from the prison those who sit in darkness.

- Isaiah 42:6-7

And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

- John 3:19-21

Let there be light. That's how it all began: light bringing order out of chaos. Light may be the first and deepest metaphor for God's power and intentions. Without the light, we cannot see and cannot move confidently. We should want the light.

God created darkness, too. Darkness is also important. Darkness can mean the warmth and comfort of the womb or the restfulness of nighttime. But so often darkness makes us think of chaos and disorder, and of sinister forces accomplishing those things which they do not want us to see. We have "dark money" and the "dark Web." We have the "Dark Side of the Force."

In the Northern Hemisphere--and I live north of the 45th parallel, so I know of what I speak--we're getting a little tired of the darkness right about now. Where I live, the sun is now setting before 4:30 p.m., and it's colder than we're used to. We want the light to return.

God comes to shed light. God sends the Messiah to open the eyes of the blind, and you can take that metaphor in all sorts of directions. Those who sit in darkness are in prison, and it's time to tear down the prison walls.

I can't tell you whether you're sitting in darkness; you may or may not know that all too well yourself. I can reflect on the times I myself have sat in darkness. Quite often I wasn't aware of the darkness until the light began streaming in through a hole in the crumbling walls of my prison.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Advent, Day 21: When the River Meets the Sea

On that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on the one who struck them, but will lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God. For though your people Israel were like the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return. Destruction is decreed, overflowing with righteousness. For the Lord God of hosts will make a full end, as decreed, in all the earth.

- Isaiah 10:20-23

"The survivors ... will no more lean on the one who struck them." To lean on the one who struck you is to stick with your abuser. Wow -- this sentence is loaded.

I just finished reading a book called Jesus Land, a memoir by a woman who spent time in the 1980s in an abusive Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic. I'm not sure I recommend it unless you just want to have your eyes opened to ongoing abuse (the school is apparently still there). The story is violent and bleak, and naturally, in the end, the author cuts Christianity completely out of her life. You could say that she has been saved from the kind of religion that meant leaning on the one who struck her.

It's hard to hold this up against all these prophetic passages in which God is portrayed as using violent means to punish a disobedient people. This is the fuel that, so easily misused, feeds abusive churches and abusive "faith-based" schools. So many people find that religion has been their abuser. And then, thank God, they find a way out.

I wholeheartedly support those who leave their abuser, even when their abuser is the church. And I believe that the hand of God is in their rescue. Other parts of the church will continue to do their best to witness to God's love and mercy, and they will refuse to pronounce God's judgment in the form of abuse. Yes, Christians seek to help with God's work in the world. But we are to do so very carefully, because we are notoriously bad at understanding the difference between justice and abuse.

Yet I also believe that all will be made clear one day ... in time, we'll understand. That's the real "end times" ... none of this nonsense about God sweeping the good people into the sky and torturing the bad. You'll find imagery like this scattered throughout the Bible in order to give hope of rescue to the abused; so often vengeance is the only way we humans can imagine justice occurring. But God's vengeance doesn't look like we want it to look. God wants all of us to accept the invitation to live in love, because truly there is no better way to live.

The musical pick for today is, admittedly, primarily about nostalgia. I've loved this song since I was a child: John Denver singing with Kermit the Frog's little nephew, Robin. And I still find it both comforting and profound: in time we'll understand, "when the river meets the sea."

Friday, December 16, 2016

Advent, Day 20: Wandering Star

These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm; for them the deepest darkness has been reserved. For they speak bombastic nonsense, and with licentious desires of the flesh they entice people who have just escaped from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for people are slaves to whatever masters them. 

- 2 Peter 2:17-19

[Jesus said,] "From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!"

- Matthew 11:12-15

File this one under "Put not your trust in earthly rulers."

The second letter of Peter is rarely quoted. It's a very late addition to the Bible, and it is bleak and unyielding. There's a parallel quote in the Letter of Jude: "They are waterless clouds carried along by the winds; autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the deepest darkness has been reserved for ever" (12b-13).

The primary concern here is with false teachers -- people who promise things to believers in bad faith. "People are slaves to whatever masters them." This is true of all of us. What masters you? The concern here is that those who teach falsehoods lead others astray.

Meanwhile, in the gospel reading, Jesus is speaking of John the Baptist, who is still alive and in prison at this point in the narrative. What does this mean, that "the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force"? I think it's meant to be ironic.  You may think that you can force your way into God's good graces, but if so, you're in for an unpleasant surprise.

People in positions of power get there by promising things to people. They make emotional appeals that are actually "bombastic nonsense," and then people hand them the keys to the kingdom. Beware of them. Waterless clouds, wild waves, wandering stars ...

Not all who seek power are evil. How do you distinguish those of good faith from those of bad? Those of good faith are willing to share their power. They don't have to be right all the time. They admit their mistakes and learn from them. They seek out new information in order to be of more help to others than they were before. They raise others up without needing to step on anyone in the process. Above all, they don't take delight in the pain of others.

When we find ourselves with leaders like this, we need to resist them. We need to work to protect those whom they victimize as they shore up their power. This responsibility belongs to all of us. While such leaders have always been present, they are now out in force. We can resist them by encouraging our elected leaders to use their own power to resist their plans. We can protest when such protest is focused and well executed. And we can refuse to collude when invited or tempted to do so.

We also need to remember that we owe no allegiance to the violent and cruel, and we do not depend on them for our hope. Like John, we ask Jesus, "Are you the one to come, or are we to wait for another?" And then we hear Jesus reply, "The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

A savior is one who lays down not only all his power but also his very life. He's coming. A different kind of wandering star announces the imminent arrival of a different kind of king ...

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Advent, Day 19: Chicago

But when [John the Baptist] saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 

‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ 

- Matthew 3:7-12

Wheat and chaff. Sheep and goats. Good and evil. Clean and dirty. High and low. Light and darkness.

Dualism. As we seek to make sense of our world, we indulge all too frequently in the notion that things are either one way or the other. Inclusion or exclusion ... now or never ... two-party system ... win or lose.

It's a stark rhetorical device, splitting the whole world into two categories. But is it true?

What if the truth is more complex? What if I have both wheat and chaff in me?

Jesus told his disciples a parable once about wheat and weeds. When we find weeds among the wheat, we want to pull them so they don't kill the wheat. "No," says Jesus. "Let them grow together. God will sort them out later."

We don't get to decide who lives or dies. When we do, we go against God's purposes. We allow the weeds to grow within us.

Some people live their lives boldly and with no regrets. They don't care who they hurt. Others spend their whole lives feeling sorry for themselves. Most of us, though, fall into both categories at one time or another.

Never ask the question, "Am I evil?" Of course you are. You are also infinitely good, and God loves you. You will not be discarded. You are not 100% chaff. However, the chaff in you will someday be burned up. It'll probably hurt a lot. And it will heal you.

Here's a song about regretting past sins and finding that God is redeeming us and giving us the strength to live on.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Advent, Day 18: The Sound of Silence

So the Lord cut off from Israel head and tail,
   palm branch and reed in one day—
elders and dignitaries are the head,
   and prophets who teach lies are the tail;
for those who led this people led them astray,
   and those who were led by them were left in confusion.
That is why the Lord did not have pity on their young people,
   or compassion on their orphans and widows;
for everyone was godless and an evildoer,
   and every mouth spoke folly.
For all this, his anger has not turned away;
   his hand is stretched out still.

- Isaiah 9:14-17

Does God bring suffering upon the innocent? We certainly don't want to believe this. In this passage from Isaiah, the prophet bends over backward to demonstrate that the innocent aren't actually suffering -- that, like all the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, nobody who is suffering is actually innocent.

I don't believe this for a second. I think Isaiah is stretching his theology way too far in order to justify what is happening.

Completely foreign to us nowadays is the notion that God smites entire populations with suffering. It just doesn't make any sense because we think in terms of persons, not peoples. Individualism has developed within our Western mindset to the point where we would scorn God for this kind of action. And I think this is a good theological development since the time of Isaiah.

Yet still we have no answers. Why are the people of Aleppo suffering today? What can we possibly do about it? I can't believe that God wants this. I can believe that God wants us to stop the suffering, and there are incredibly brave people trying to do so.

On the day that the last hospital in Aleppo was utterly destroyed, I heard an NPR interview with a member of Doctors Without Borders  He expressed the sheer hopelessness of the situation. The interviewer pointed out that the doctor's life was in danger every day ... but that was irrelevant. There was work to do.

This doctor was suffering alongside others out of love. The rest is silence.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Advent, Day 17: I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For

His authority shall grow continually,
   and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
   He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
   from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. 

- Isaiah 9:7

Advent is the time of "now, but not yet." We learn from the past. We inhabit the present. We look forward to the future. And in all three, we assert that Christ has come and is coming. The Messiah is always arriving in every single moment yet still has not arrived.

Another way we talk about this is with the language of "second coming." We say that Christ will return at the end of time to put all things right. Do we imagine Jesus making a sudden appearance and upsetting all the laws of physics to end this universe? That's a popular idea, but I wonder whether that would be in character for the Jesus I know. Another idea, which this passage seems to support, is that the Messiah will reign on earth and establish world peace. Yet that's not what Jesus was about in his first coming, so why would it be in his second?

Still, some Christians bend over backward to fit both ideas into a cohesive literal narrative, and then they argue among themselves about the order of events. I once lived in a town with a Baptist church in which the members got into an argument about which would come first, the "millennium" or the "rapture." The church split, with some of the members going down the street to form "Faith Baptist Church" ... implying, I suppose, that the people they split from didn't really have faith.

It sounds like doublespeak, doesn't it? It sounds like we ourselves don't know what we're talking about and that we need to make up our minds. It's frustrating to people when it appears that Christians can't get their story straight. But this is poetic language; it is meant to express what cannot be expressed. Often the only way to do that is by presenting two or more conflicting stories, holding them in tension, and enjoying the dissonance, not resolving it!

I don't feel that I need to understand this; I just need to experience the longing for it. I want peace. I want justice. I want union with the divine. And God has promised us that these things will be ... in what way, we can't possibly imagine. It's the longing for God that drives us, and that longing is bittersweet.

C.S. Lewis referred to such longing using the German word Sehnsucht, and it was one of his proofs for the existence of God. All the things we human beings long for have real, existing objects. We have hunger, and behold! there is food. We have thirst, and behold! there is water. We have a sex drive, and behold! there is sex. We have a deep longing for union with God, and ...

Monday, December 12, 2016

Advent, Day 16: Kyrie

I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him.
- Isaiah 8:17

Lately my prayer life has consisted of sitting in silence and inviting God to love me. That's it. No special words, no complicated requests, no tortured demands. I haven't been hanging my faith on God's willingness to prevent pain and suffering, or to make my path smooth, or to heal people I love.

I mean, I could lay out a long list. As a priest I hear so many stories of people's deep, deep pain. Other people's situations I just pick up hints about or rumors of. And then there are the many people I know who have simply unplugged from the church; maybe they expected something different from what they found there. Maybe they thought that being in a church would solve their problems, and then they were let down. Maybe people weren't any more morally correct there. Maybe they were just as impatient or intolerant as everyone else.

In addition to all this, there are the broken relationships in my life. There are people I've let down, and there are people who just didn't find me to be worth their time. There are people who I'm certain are obstinately in the wrong, and my certainty about this sure hasn't helped keep us in relationship.

Meanwhile, in the world all around us, there is pain. It seems like the BBC is constantly sending me notifications of a bombing or shooting somewhere in the world, not to mention natural disasters. And there is fear: fear that our constitutional democracy is slipping away, fear that my friends' human rights will not be respected, fear that those with all the money and power and influence are using it primarily for evil. Every day in the news I read that all of these fears are well founded.

I could get all worked up about this. I could get angry with God for not being like the authoritarian leader our country elected last month, swooping in and promising to fix the pain (whether sincerely or not). But I've learned a thing or two about God over the years. And if nothing else, I know that God is patient.

Is God hiding the divine face from us? That was Isaiah's perception. It's a common biblical idea -- God stepping aside and letting us stew in our own juices for a while. It's not a pleasant thought.

But if God created us and said "it is very good," and if God is merciful and loving and just and faithful, then what I need is a little of God's patience. Today especially, during the season of Advent, I need to wait. When I look at the world and find that I can do nothing about a given situation, I can pray, "Lord, have mercy ... kyrie eleison." And then I can simply invite God to love me and to love all of us.

This song is a bit of a cheesy throwback. It's hard now to relate just how exciting it was for me, at the age of 13, to hear that prayer, "kyrie eleison," on the radio every day.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Advent, Day 15: Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord

After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized— John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.

- John 3:22-24

We may hear from many prophets during the season of Advent, but they all lead to this one: John the Baptist, who heralds the arrival of the Messiah.

Baptism is a big deal. In the Episcopal Church we see it as the rite that makes a believer into a Christian. Tradition has dictated for a long, long time that this be done inside a church building with just a little splash of water. But as for me, I am enamored by the idea of using as much water as possible; if you're going to use a symbol, then really use the symbol!

Of course, it doesn't really matter how much water we use, just as long as the believer gets wet.

Water is death, and water is life. Water is chaos, and water symbolizes God bringing order to the chaos. Water is barrier, and water is freedom. Water quenches our thirst. Water is the human condition.

In my own congregation, we are at the beginning of our catechumenal process for the year, that ancient way of preparing believers to become Christians through the waters of baptism. This year we are welcoming a married couple into the fold. They have been assigned sponsors to walk alongside them in their weekly preparations.

In addition, seven people who are already baptized will prepare to renew the vows they made in their baptism years ago. They, too, have sponsors to guide them. Baptism is intended to be a one-time event, but the promises we make can be strengthened again and again, not only by our own efforts, but through the grace of God who is always saving us.

Enjoy today a very 1970s take on John the Baptist!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Advent, Day 14: A Stable Lamp Is Lighted

But the Lord of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. He will become a sanctuary, a stone one strikes against; for both houses of Israel he will become a rock one stumbles over—a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many among them shall stumble; they shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken. 

- Isaiah 8:13-15

Stones are solid. You can lean on them, or you can trip over them. These images of the strong rock and the stumbling block show up again and again in the Bible.

We hear that "the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone."

When Jesus processes into Jerusalem on a donkey and the chief priests urge him to keep his followers quiet, Jesus says, "If my followers were silent, even the stones would cry out."

Jesus chooses Peter on which to build his church because Peter is a solid rock ("petrus" = "rock"). But Peter also becomes his own stumbling block when he denies Jesus three times.

It's not Christmas yet, but here's a song that begins with Christmas and lays out the entire story of our salvation, using the recurring theme, "And every stone shall cry."

Friday, December 9, 2016

Advent, Day 13: Save Me

Finally, brothers and sisters, pray for us, so that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified everywhere, just as it is among you, and that we may be rescued from wicked and evil people; for not all have faith. But the Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one.

- 2 Thessalonians 3:1-3

I was in the car with my daughter yesterday and a report came on NPR about Boko Haram and the Nigerian girls who were kidnapped several years ago. The gist of the report was that while this was the story that made the biggest headlines, atrocities committed by this group against women and girls run much deeper than that. We were almost home -- not quite -- and normally I would leave the radio on until we hit the driveway. But yesterday I turned it off. I didn't want my daughter to hear about it.

I didn't want to hear about it myself. Not that day.

A friend of mine shared a story on Facebook yesterday -- photojournalism of the atrocities currently occurring the Philippines in the name of a "war on drugs." I began to open it, and when I came to the requisite disclaimer about graphic images, I closed it down.

I chose willful ignorance yesterday because I didn't want to see those things.

Many years ago I met up in my former hometown with an old friend. He had become a Southern Baptist in college. As we sat in the village square, he mused, "There are so many people here who need saving."

This rubbed me the wrong way. So I replied, "Don't we all?"

From what do we need to be saved? "That we may be rescued from wicked and evil people," we read above. Yes. God help the Nigerians, and the Filipinos, and all those who are suffering violence around the world. God help the water protectors of Standing Rock. God help the union leader who is being threatened with violence because he dared call out our president-elect on a lie. God help the homeless whom local governments doesn't seem to understand have a right to exist in their community. God help those standing in line at the coffee shop who are verbally assaulted by men who see only targets to intimidate in order to assert their dominance.

That's not all we need saving from. God save us from lack of love.

God save us from thinking even for a moment that we cannot love, or that we cannot be loved. Because when we fall prey to this idea, we become those from whom others need to be rescued.

I believe that no matter how bad things are in the world, life is worth living wherever there are opportunities to love.

May God strengthen you and me for the work of love in the world.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Advent, Day 12: O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Be still before the Lord
and wait patiently for him.

Do not fret yourself over the one who prospers,
the one who succeeds in evil schemes.

Refrain from anger, leave rage alone;
do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.

For evildoers shall be cut off,
but those who wait upon the Lord shall possess the land.

In a little while the wicked shall be no more;
you shall search out their place, but they will not be there.

But the lowly shall possess the land;
they will delight in abundance of peace.

- Psalm 37:7-12

I've been calling my senators quite a bit over the past few weeks to suggest that perhaps it's not a good thing that a man who has bragged about enabling and empowering white supremacists is the president-elect's chief strategist. I've suggested that they organize with senators from both parties and refuse to confirm any of the next president's cabinet until he fires Steve Bannon from his staff. I don't see this as a partisan issue, but an issue of basic human decency.

This is work we can all be doing, and it's important work. But it's also Advent, and I have to remind myself every day that we can't all do everything.

Today I'm going to make time simply to sit quietly. I won't dwell on things I've done or haven't done. I'm going to "be still before the Lord and wait patiently."

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Advent, Day 11: Pray Your Gods

For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes to be glorified by his saints and to be marvelled at on that day among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.

- 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10

It's passages like these that cause many people to turn away from Christianity entirely. How can we square the notion of an eternally loving God with descriptions of "punishment of eternal destruction"? It just doesn't make sense.

On the other hand, we also bristle at the notion that everyone will be forgiven for all the evil they have done. Deep down, we really want those who have wronged us to suffer for it. Maybe not eternally ... well, except in a few cases ... we can think of a few people ...

Do you see the problem? We think we have the capability to judge who deserves what. We would rather decide on their fate than to allow God to do so. We also read today from John's gospel:

Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’ - John 7:10-11

In both cases, the underdog is protected from the persecutor. But Jesus doesn't punish the men who want to stone the woman to death. So which is it? Are we punished for our sins or not?

I think it's enough just to notice our tendency to want to punish. And this can even extend to ourselves. We might take the opportunity not to be punished, but in that event, will we desist from punishing ourselves? Will we accept the dignity God grants us, or will we always be wondering whether there's still a score to settle?

I'll go on the record and say that I don't believe God wants eternal punishment for anyone. It might have been comforting to the Thessalonians to hear that they would not suffer in vain, but I think it's a mistake to place the torments of hell anywhere near the center of our theology. Vengeance is not Good News.

Today, examine your understandings of justice, judgment, mercy, and forgiveness. When you look at the ways you have hurt others, how do you think God feels about them? How does God judge you? And if you trust that God loves you far more than any other human being you have ever known, what does that mean for you?

Here's a tune for today, a meditation on the gods we construct and worship--the gods that are not God. "I feel my body weakened by the years/ As people turn to gods of cruel design./ Is it that they fear the pain of death?/ Or could it be they fear the joy of life?"