a new hymn for the 2019 Confirmands of the Madison Christian Community
a new hymn for the 2019 Confirmands of the Madison Christian Community
sermon on Exodus33:18-34:8, Mark9:2-10, Psalm48 (and John Muir)
The mountains are calling and I must go…
We could think with mountains just of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or the Mount of Olives. Or of Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay, the first to scale Mount Everest. Or Pachamama, the indigenous Peruvian mountain goddess who gets combined with the Virgin Mary. But for the voice of mountains, let’s hear from Wisconsin-raised John Muir, who led the call for protecting several of our earliest National Parks and camped with Teddy Roosevelt and founded the Sierra Club. John Muir’s words will guide our reflection today, in concert or dialogue with Scripture and our faith.
“The mountains are calling and [we] must go” is a good phrase from him to get us started. It may fit with God beckoning Moses up the mountain, and the retreat of Jesus and the disciples, to get away from pressures of labors for solitude and re-creation. Plus, that’s the vista where you can see visions. We are in this for a mountain-top experience!
You may know the feeling I had as a 6th grader flying over the Rockies, seeing a snow-covered range for the first time and yearning to go explore more. Or the sense of driving into Colorado or Montana and just waiting for the craggy peaks to appear in the distance. Or the return to flat land when clouds on the horizon make you look twice expecting that soul-filling grandeur.
Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. Cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail.
Expanding on enjoyment, as stress and cares depart, this is often our reaction to mountains, of getting away on vacation. Muir also said, though, that “in God’s wildness lies the hope of the world.” This sense not only compels us to get out and explore, to find rejuvenation away from too-controlling and human civilization, but also propels us to preservation, that we need to be caring for these things. Hope for us, and for them.
Again, Muir could declare that few are deaf to the preaching of pine trees, that “Their sermons on the mountains go to our hearts.” Those sermons, Muir said, are about not clear-cutting forests, so their preached message includes self-preservation, but also means conserving these wild places because they are good for us, too, like in this quote:
Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountains are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.
Still, this highlights a distinction. Though I’d reject the strict Christianity of Muir’s father and am eager for us to hear his voice for our view of the mountains, it isn’t totally the same focus as what we say here in church. When he says the trees on slopes have sermons and the mountains convey “good tidings and Nature’s peace,” we have to ask if that’s the same tidings of good news proclaimed in a sermon or is different than the peace of Christ we share here. When Muir said Beauty is synonymous with God, we’d say love is more representative in embodying God.
Again, I share Muir’s message to try to bring some the feel of the mountains into this very tame and calm and orderly setting. But I remain unconvinced that you can get the same good news and hope by being outdoors on a Sunday morning. Moses couldn’t take the full terrifying view, but with his back turned had to trust proclamation, that our God intends to be known as a God of steadfast love and kindness, whose promise abides to the thousandth generation. It’s a perpetual question of where you look—or listen—for God. I believe you need to be here for a clearer word from God spoken in your language and into your own being that you can’t discern from a mountain message. The “fountain of life” isn’t simply what naturally exists around you, but at its heart the fountain of life is God in Jesus, and we should listen to his proclamation. We can extrapolate from Jesus to nature, but not so clearly the other way.
Still, from John Muir’s natural perspective and these Season of Creation weeks, we celebrate beauty with clarity that everything made is good, a unity of the whole. Here’s Muir on our place amid a much grander family than we usually recognize, and which Muir himself says he had overlooked:
[I had] never before noticed so fine a union of rock and cloud in form and color and substance, drawing earth and sky together as one; and we shout, exulting in wild enthusiasm as if all the divine show were our own. More and more, in a place like this, we feel ourselves part of wild Nature, kin to everything.
Those words of a divine show—a Godly spectacle!—were from Muir’s first year in the Sierra Nevada mountains, about a sunset on this very day 149 years ago: September 2, 1869. Because we so often separate ourselves and see creation as other, here’s another passage on the same theme of family:
Yosemite Park is a place in which one gains the advantages of both solitude and society. Nowhere will you find more company of a soothing peace-be-still kind. Your animal fellow beings, so seldom regarded in civilization, and every rock-brow and mountain, stream, and lake, and every plant soon come to be regarded as brothers [and sisters]; one even learns to like the storms and clouds and tireless winds.
It’s interesting he’s able to see not just animals but also plants and waters and the rocks themselves as siblings. That can help us hear relationships when Jesus says that if we’re silent about these things, instead (as we sang last week) “every stone shall cry” out.
Muir also directly offers words from Jesus here—of “peace, be still,” from Jesus calming a storm. Yet that may show a distinction, since Muir favors the tempest and delights in the destruction. He sees death as no enemy. He learns to like the storms. He climbed to the top of a 100-foot pine whipping in a fierce windstorm so he could feel as the tree did and hear the music of the needles in the wind.
That, versus how we may be intrigued by extreme weather events, but only to a degree. At Holden Village, I liked snowshoeing up a snowfield alone, but was intimidated and ready to turn back from the crash of avalanche noise and the footprints of a mountain lion. I admit I enjoyed biking through the downpour after the Worship Team meeting Tuesday, but was also ready to change into dry clothes at home. You may wince at every forecast and dread it and look for escape rather than delight. That may seem a place for faith: that we seek in God shelter from the storm. Or, better, remember that God’s abiding and enduring love is so much more than terrors, as terrifying as they may be.
There’s another edge of faith, too, that’s not about escape, but about engagement. Here’s a bit toward that:
Here is the eternal flux of Nature manifested. Ice changing to water, lakes to meadows, and mountains to plains. And while we thus contemplate Nature’s methods of landscape creation, and, reading the records she has carved on the rocks, reconstruct, however imperfectly, the landscapes of the past, we also learn that as these we now behold have succeeded those of the pre-glacial age, so they in turn are withering and vanishing to be succeeded by others yet unborn.
This describes John Muir’s discovery that glaciers and not volcanoes formed the scenery of Yosemite. He was reading the clues left long before, that they slowly carved away the mountains. I pair that with words from Jesus, that faith can say to a mountain “be thrown into the sea.” We tend to picture that as meaning you could say a little prayer and move mountains. I’m favorably inclined to Muir’s geo-logic that sees the stretch of God’s work over eons, that mountains are indeed being carried into the sea, and the new mountains arise through the still-little understood process of plate tectonics, that these moving mountains are, after all, a vision of our faith, from 470-million-year-old Appalachians to eruptions in Hawaii, God still creating.
People ought to saunter in the mountains – not hike! Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently.
Our task today has been to see these journeys not just as sightseeing or diversionary little outings, but reverently, as holy pilgrimages to encounter the mountains, and to encounter God. Finally, we return to the extended rest of our opening:
The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, incessantly.
With John Muir, then, on this Labor Day weekend, we remember that this isn’t escape. It’s not vacation. It’s not a peace just from pause. It’s a peace through engagement, from work, being aware of our place amid connections. Whether with Jesus we go back down from the mountain or with John Muir we work incessantly above, our vocations remain. God calls us to work. As we say at the MCC, this is the practice of living faithfully and lovingly with God, neighbor, and creation. That’s God’s work and labor, too. So one more good one, to let Mr. Muir have the last word:
Standing here, with facts so fresh and telling and held up so vividly before us, every seeing observer must readily apprehend the earth-sculpturing, landscape-making action. And here, too, one learns that the world, though made, is yet being made; that this is still the morning of creation; that mountains long conceived are now being born.
Quotes are from John Muir: Nature Writings (Cronon, ed.) and https://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/favorite_quotations.aspx
a sermon on the ELCA Social Statement*, and Ephesians 2:13-19, Matthew 5:9,38-45; Psalm 85
It seems like the impetuses or causes to look at this Social Statement keep multiplying around us.
Just before I left for Guatemala, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton issued a letter quoting this nearly-quarter century old yet still-relevant statement, in part saying:
Citizens need to give careful attention to how we in the United States perceive our national interest…Sin’s power often makes itself felt in arrogant and self-righteous views of national identity, and in narrow, short-term, and absolute views of national interest…
In a time…when an idolatrous allegiance to one’s own community endangers our oneness, we must voice with clarity the powerful vision…to engage differences, not to ignore or fear them. The hope for earthly peace challenges people to strengthen their own particular communities in ways that promote respect and appreciation for people in other communities, for all share a common humanity.
Bishop Eaton was using the social statement in reference against the Supreme Court decision to uphold President Trump’s ban on travel from certain Muslim-majority countries. This is an example of how church interacts with our nation.
That news was overshadowing news of another vital issue, as a couple weeks ago we were finding outrage about how children were being treated at our nation’s border. The social statement applies to that, as well, calling our society and us ourselves to better behavior in loving our neighbors.
That news, in turn, surprised me as we came out from seclusion of the Boundary Waters since we’d gone in on the eve of the summit with North Korea and expected to come out hearing all about it. But even deliberations on nuclear disarmament seem to be forgotten. And that news, again!, obscured the ignoring diplomacy in order to reignite dispute with Iran. Such impetuses, begging our attention to look at this social statement continue to explode so rapidly around us.
Still, I selected this among the set we would look at this summer before those particular headlines, and for much more fundamental reasons.
First, Peace is exactly formative of who and what we are when we gather here. In the traditional and ancient liturgy, we begin with it in repetition: In peace, in Peace! let us pray to the Lord. Kyrie, eleison. It comes up over and over through the liturgy, to the final words that dismiss us into the world and commission us to bear out what we have practiced while together: go in peace. Go in peace.
Perhaps most noticeably and extensively, it is at the heart of the service, the crux of our gathering when we share the peace of Christ with each other. I should talk about it more, because it is such a key moment of what we do here. It’s so much more than a brief howdy. It recognizes that it’s not how well we’re doing in relationship with each other, but that we’re related in Christ, who reconciles us. It is especially important for me with those with whom I’ve had difficulty. If that makes you concerned for if I come to offer you peace, know that I figure we need it most deeply yet again with our closest neighbors, like family members.
But sharing peace also is the moment to see that familiarity is not what binds us. Nobody is a stranger or outsider, since it is Christ’s peace that brings us together. We need to keep practicing that and living into it, week after week.
Having that feeling from worship—so intimate and so expansive and so hugely different from what the world feeds us in hatreds and differences—makes this practice true for me. That sense goes back to my deepest and earliest connection to Christianity. I don’t say connection to God, since that’s inseparable and was established before I was born and was confirmed in my baptism at 3½ months old. But in middle school, I came to see the peacemaking as unique and valuable, that the earliest Christians refused to take up the sword of empire, and yet were the ones who remained in danger to offer nursing care. This nonviolence is far braver than the cheap bravado of threats. So I was a Boy Scout leading the pledge of allegiance over the loudspeaker in my school, but with a dedication to citizenship apart from the patronizing patriotism of militarization.
I was in 6th grade during the first Gulf War. Even though the social statement says we Lutherans support discernment about just wars, that war seemed wrong to me then. Later, I was on my internship when we protested by the thousands, then watched on TV Baghdad flashing horribly with shock and awe. It has continued ceaselessly for 15 years now. That’s a war longer than the whole time I’d been alive when I was coming to believe war is wrong.
This has remained at the core of my faith and was deepened in my understanding of the identity of Jesus. A friend and I started a seminary group called INViTE—Integrating Non-Violence into Theological Education. I wrote in my final seminary paper about how much more effective and cheaper (and, of course, faithful) it would be to take the ridiculous amounts we put into planes and missiles and nuclear devices—a project we name “national security” even though it is a spiral of escalating violence making us less safe—and invested instead in schools and hospitals and benefits for our foes, since what quicker way would there be to make enemies into friends?
To the ready claims that that’s naïve, the counter question is when sanctions and bombs and invasions actually achieve a truly positive result. And I would ask how in the world we could have faith in those destructive practices and still claim faith in the God of love we know in Jesus. We can’t fight terror without it becoming part of us. We can’t well make war while trusting in a God of peace. We can’t have ultimate loyalty to a flag and to God.
Even this morning, without weapons in our hands or camouflage on our backs, we are complicit. We’re complicit in sending others to do that work, often our young people who come home injured in body and mind. We’re complicit in funding with our taxes. We’re complicit in succumbing to idolatrous ideology. We’re captive to sin and cannot free ourselves, cannot liberate ourselves, are not independent.
We need the God of love and forgiveness, I realized throughout our time in Guatemala. I was proud that some of the MCC’s faithful observance of Independence Day was in a Spanish-speaking country whose poverty is in no small part because genocide came with our European ancestors, and violence supported our U.S. fruit corporations a century ago, and whose government was overthrown by our alleged “intelligence” agencies, with dictators and generals trained at our military schools for abuses of a 36-year civil war, ending only in 1996**. I need to cling to the loving, forgiving God of peace in Jesus because I was in Guatemala to help build a house for a poor family, but my country is—and so I am—complicit and responsible for them being poor to begin with.
I know that’s not a very pretty face on this. We often think of peace and quiet, serenity, peace with calm beauty, peace as a personal internal state. But like those early Christians, we realize this is a challenge requiring God’s promise and possibility for our dedication, our fortitude, our faith.
In Guatemala, I was reading words of Archbishop Oscar Romero from nearby El Salvador, assassinated by U.S.-backed soldiers while saying the Words of Institution in worship. One passage said, “Peace is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is not the silent result of violent oppression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all. Peace is dynamism.”*** In that spirit of inclusive energetic generosity, when Jesus instructs us not to resist evil violently, not to retaliate with the same vengeful destruction, he instead invites us into courageous nonviolent resistance that is powerfully creative in love.
If you’ve struggled with or wondered about Jesus’ words about being bullied, the background likely would help that a Roman soldier could force you to carry his pack one mile, but your first step into a second mile put him at risk for breaking the rules and so reversed who was in charge, taking the initiative away from the oppressor. Your cloak, an outer garment (Luke 6:29), might be a poor person’s last collateral, and if the rich demanded to sue for that debt, Jesus suggests leaving your tunic—essentially your underwear—as well and marching out of court buck naked in protest, shaming them in your nudity. Again, turning the other cheek is the opposite of submitting as a victim of violence. You could only be hit with the right hand (since the left was the toilet hand and could not be used for any sort of interaction). A backhand slap to the right cheek showed dominance, keeping an inferior in a lower place. But by turning a left cheek, you could only be struck by a fist, a denial of being humiliated and insisting on being treated as equals, which defiantly changed either the social structure or else the desire for the powerful to risk losing their upper hand. ****
We recognize similar creative courageous challenges confronting the rule of empire with bodies taking up a cross throughout history. This spirit of dignity and life and even humor in the face of what would take it all away is godly practice. Such is the reconciliation to break down dividing walls of hostility between humanity. Such is a “world about to turn.” Such is the desire to share grace and love abundantly, refusing to call others enemies or aliens, but to share the victory. Such is the peacemaking action of the children of God. Such is the enlivening of the kingdom of God. To me, this is Jesus, and I hope you’ll be part of it.
*** The Violence of Love, p27
**** Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Walter Wink, ch.2
In peace, in peace let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy. For the wellbeing of the church of God, we pray that in these gatherings and enlivened by the liturgy of your church, you would give us faith and courage to be your children, by your Holy Spirit to mold and equip us to live as peacemakers, to practice sharing together what you would have us become and being a sanctuary in time of desperation.
We realize that battlefields cannot be fruitful farm fields, that our killing corrupts not only humanity but causes destruction for your creation. Make us your creative agents who bring about life for all.
For the peace of the whole world, we pray for the good for Afghanistan and Iran, for Iraq and Syria, for Palestine and Israel, for the Koreas, for China, Guatemala and Mexico, for all refugees who flee from a bad life and hope for better, and most especially for our nation and for us as citizens here, that we can break down dividing walls and strive on behalf of all our neighbors and seek creative solutions to sustain wellbeing.
For our personal peace, for our relationships that require reconciliation, for the threats to our own dignity or the ways we are complicit in dehumanizing others, for all that would threaten us, including fear and irrational striving for security, for the peace of our souls—body, spirit, mind.
For peace at the last, not only that we would be able to go in peace from this weekly worship, but that you sustain us in the peace the world cannot give so we trust we are in your eternal embrace through this life and far beyond it.
sermon on Luke12:49-56; Hebrews11:29-12:2
I’ve been practically giddy all week about this Bible reading.
Which I know sounds odd since this won’t rank among anybody’s favorites. But I relish the chance to struggle with Scripture, to wrestle with it until it releases a blessing for us.
In contrast, a month ago we heard the Good Samaritan, which is both so familiar and also almost self-explanatory. Be nice to each other, including some new people—it seems to say—or accept help from unexpected sources. You almost inherently can understand that, and barely would need a preacher.
With this passage, however, you’re left with two choices. Either you can claim that the Bible and religion are filled with too much nastiness and try to ignore and reject the whole spiel, or else you can hear these hard words, face the confusing dilemma, and exclaim, “Aha! This is why we pay Pastor Nick the big bucks!” So now we’ll see if you’re getting your money’s worth.
That comes with the immediate disclaimer that I don’t have a definite answer or resolution for you, but do have several possibilities to try on.
First, we may hear these words from Jesus simply as descriptive: there are divisions on earth. We may even find that on occasion to be a good thing: night and day, the weekend, our atmosphere separating air from outer space.
Other times, we sense division not necessarily as beneficial, but still at least as reality. Across the globe, we don’t all speak the same language. We don’t have the same skills or interests. And while Jesus may be indicating the individual differences or denominational disparities or interfaith turmoil that religion has caused, of arguments and separations in our families on up, still, stepping back from emotion, we are at a point in history where we might be able to recognize that there are real reasons we wouldn’t all have the same understanding of God, that our unique circumstances and upbringings and lot in life play a role.
That’s a fundamental distinction already in Jesus’ words. He was part of the monotheistic Jewish faith, but where they’d said the only, the sole, the mono- connection with God was in the Temple, Jesus was relocating the divine, taking away the hierarchy that made some closer to God and pushed others out of the perimeter. Simply by proclaiming the undoing of a central authority and enacting radical welcome with unconditional grace, Jesus was causing division and disrupting the old system.
That may point us toward a next step of reflection. Beyond description, is this word from Jesus prescriptive? Does he seek to cause divisions?
I have to say, this is mainly what makes this passage uncomfortable for me. This version from Luke, where Jesus says he brings division, is a notch gentler than Matthew’s version, where he says he brings a sword. But still, when Jesus declares he has not come to bring peace on earth, that disappointment is the exact opposite of why I usually turn to Jesus and what I expect from him. Some of the first things that grabbed me about Christianity when I was in middle school were words like “blessed are the peacemakers,” “turn the other cheek,” and “love your enemies.” These shaped my passion for nonviolence and even pacifism, to be against war and militarism and the death penalty. But here, Jesus seems to reverse his core message of love and healing and life, and—indeed—peace!
But that very reversal is the cue that we need to struggle with these words. Certainly there are some who employ this sort of message to reinforce violence or oppression or division or use of force. But the fact that they have to turn repeatedly to this passage or to an apparently angry Jesus cleansing the Temple or a single line about swords at the Garden of Gethsemane says that these hard passages are the exception and not the rule of Jesus.
So I would argue—and will argue—that Jesus isn’t stoking fires of hatred and fanning the flames that make us burn against each other. This isn’t a sort of division that lets me see myself as good and other races or religions as bad, much less worth-less and able to be excluded or exterminated or deported. Those have been dangerous precedents in history and are dangerous in our midst today. Such divisions are accusingly satanic, not godly or from Jesus. That is not God’s mission or intention for our world, and it must be resisted.
But that very resistance begins to illuminate another side of these words from Jesus. It’s not general divisiveness he promotes, as if desiring any and all animosity. But there are specific faithful distinctions that we would foster, that Jesus would back, when he’s prompting change and upset against tranquil apathy at the status quo. Such “peace” he may well be against. Amid plenty of divisions, we should readily and boldly proclaim, “I’m not that sort of Christian. We are not that kind of people.” We want to declare proudly and vitally that we are anti-racist and anti-sexist and anti-bullying and anti-oppression and anti-poverty. We are anti-terrorism but simultaneously anti-anti-Muslim and anti-anti-immigrant (if you can handle important uses of a double-negative) and anti-anti-gay. We know these divisions and know where we must stand for justice. Sure, we can work to heal the splits and repair the breach with other people, and that may be among our more vital tasks in these days, but that doesn’t permit us to ignore the divides or to pretend that compromise plain and simple is always the right thing.
That’s hard enough when we’d prefer not to have to keep struggling amid society. We don’t want to feel like a voice in the wilderness, crying out. We don’t want every election to feel like a doomsday scenario or for every click of news to be filled with despair. But beyond those larger fears and frustrations, we also know this more intimately. We know divisions in families, conversations that cause consternation, the topics that somehow are off the table for discussion. We know those family fractures that are fueled by even kind and faithful views.
Such values may arise from stuff that seems like a big deal, like arguing faith’s perspectives on health care. Or that your beliefs mean you’re called to love Iranians and Russians, and—yes—even terrorists, and all those with whom you disagree. That’s not a fun conversation. Or it may be more personal, like around parenting styles or medical decisions or financial choices. Or it may seem smaller, like that you’d choose to be here today, that you intentionally give away some of your income, that you do the silly thing of saying a prayer in times of need. We may not be persecuted or our lives at risk for what we believe, but among your family and friends and coworkers—besides the broader culture—clinging to your beliefs is still apt to cause divisions. Jesus may have been envisioning that result simply because of what matters to you.
It’s already a relief that Jesus recognizes and names the brokenness we’re bound to face. It’s good news that my family isn’t the only one God knows with some dysfunction. But beyond just naming the reality, we do need more. Clearly, this involves difficult decisions to weigh and really requires endurance and patience to persist. So we need support. We need this community. We need the great cloud of witnesses, those saints throughout history that our Hebrews reading held up for us. We need examples of those who have willingly or unwillingly suffered and were mocked and continued through blood and sweat and tears, and conquered somehow in death, even as the loss appeared to be overwhelmingly futile. It’s a stunning Bible passage, making us ask if it’s worth it, even while motivating us to carry on. We’re caught up in something we can’t quite explain and may not always like, yet know we must proceed.
And that brings us to a final part of the reflection. We should always remember that Jesus is up to something particular. With him, it is not just a description of everyday life, but a new way of seeing and interacting with the world, a new order, for new life. He begins by saying he’s bringing fire to earth and wished it were already kindled, and his stress while awaiting his baptism. These are lines about his death. He isn’t kindling a fire to start fights among others or to give us permission to take up the sword against those we don’t like. He’s inviting that division against himself, recognizing that he’s the one who’s going to get burned, the one who will be plunged into death. This makes the Bible passage about him.
But that also makes it about you, doesn’t it? See, you’ve been baptized into Christ as well. Your baptism joins you to the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of new life, but also joins you to his passion and death. Amid the communion of saints, you are brought into this Jesus way, this Jesus vision, this Jesus practice for encountering the world, and striving both against it and yet simultaneously on its behalf.
That means the fire is spreading. Jesus kindled it against himself, but also in you. It’s remarkable that the one other place these words for division and fire happen together is on Pentecost (Acts 2:3), when divided tongues of flame appeared on the followers of Jesus, filling them with diverse gifts and sending them across the world. Among those believers, this word for division also became a word for sharing—that they divided among themselves the cup of the new testament in Jesus’ blood at the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:17) and divided their possessions to distribute as any had need (Acts 2:45).
In this community of Jesus, then, we no longer recognize the world’s old, rotten divisions of haves and have-nots, of rich versus poor, of insiders and outsiders, winners and losers, successful or failure, the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful, the worthy and the unworthy. In this community of Jesus, those divisions are cast out because finally, this is where we anticipate reconciliation will have the last word, since neither death, nor life, nor things present, nor things to come will be able to divide us or separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Hymn: God of Tempest, God of Whirlwind (ELW #400)
Sometimes good news is overwhelming, where it seems so outstandingly good and surprising that the meaning or rest of reality is obscured. Sometimes we see the beauty without pausing to notice the warts and imperfections.
This day, we might be able to recall the kind of begging for a Christmas gift that I’ve heard from nieces and nephews, pleading “can I PLEEEEEASE have a puppy? I promise to take care of it?” The yearning and excitement obscures or overpowers the reality of the hard work and diligence to come.
Or imagine having your name pulled out in a drawing for a new Corvette. The thrill of winning probably overshadows the question, “How in the world am I going to pay for the taxes on this thing? And do I even really want a new Corvette?”
One more example that may be more relatable for some of you: think about learning that a baby is on the way. Some say that’s the most exciting, best news in life, but probably also means the realization will dawn that having a baby will change everything.
That all is to face the dawning realizations of this Christmas morning. Some of you were part of worship services last evening, those moments of ephemeral beauty, the sublime candlelight, the sweet tunes of a silent night. It seems easy to get swept up in the emotion of all of that; I even know people who aren’t really Christian who nevertheless love to be part of Christmas Eve worship services.
Yet, as we’re here today, some of the reality gets to sink in a little more. We don’t just enjoy what was or get bowled over by the emotion of it. If last night was a time of ecstasy—a word literally meaning that we’re in another state, standing outside of ourselves and removed from our normal existence—here in the light of day, things return more to the status quo, meaning the place where we usually stand, our regular state. Rather than the warm glow of fires, Christmas morning is the daylight exposure as we begin to ask ourselves, “what in the world does this mean?”
Did you notice that nice end to the Gospel reading? Amid the excitement of the beautiful story, amid the nativity scene and the manger and swaddling clothes, with the heavenly host singing their glorias and proclaiming peace, with shepherds marching into town to pay tribute and celebrate a birth, to extend well-wishes and good news, that by the time all of that is wrapping up, we almost bypass the summary that Mary “treasured these words and pondered them in her heart.”
Christmas morning, as we gather here, is a time for holding dearly onto these words and beginning to ponder them, to sort through it in our hearts.
That’s also what our other lessons were mulling through. They weren’t straight tellings of the Christmas story. They weren’t poetic glosses or artful characterizations with naïve romanticism. No, they were more realistic. There’s a frequent image for our faith, that it’s about holding the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. That’s what the pondering of these readings try to do, too. They take the ecstatic beauty of the Christmas story and hold it in comparison with our regular humdrum reality, stuck in stasis, with the distinct lack of good news in our lives and across our world and ask “what gives? What does this mean?”
The Martin Luther reading (see below for these) seems so delightful for its honesty. If somebody told you that your savior was snoozing out in the barn, you’d have to be a bit daft to go out for a look, almost like the old spiel of “gullible is written on the ceiling—made you look.” The shepherds might be excused somewhat, since they were made to look under the direction of angelic guidance. Yet still, probably there was no halo, no glowing aura of light. In spite of the carol claims of “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” probably he was actually on occasion bawling his head off, just like any other baby you’ve met. So what would make you suspect he wasn’t just any other baby you’d met? If you had to convince yourself to believe the news, you’d be out of luck. There’s plenty about God and God-with-us that’s straight up incredibly unbelievable, which is worth admitting honestly rather than claiming it was just so heart-warmingly irresistible. The only way it works is because the power of the Holy Spirit is creating faith and trust in you. That’s a valuable thought in the piece from Luther.
The first reading we heard was from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor and resistor during World War II who was imprisoned and eventually executed by the Nazis. That circumstance of his biography, and even his words we heard, may need the light of day in order to approach. There’s plenty about being confined in jail, about legal systems or injustices, about atrocities of murder and war and death that we would want to keep at arm’s length from Christmas cheer. We think we’d prefer to look on the so-called bright side, rather than admit anything dismal to interrupt.
Even if we’d disagree that a prisoner would better understand the true meaning of Christmas than the rest of us, still Bonhoeffer almost certainly has a point for us. He is right on spot, insisting on the importance of the glad tidings, of God sharing our lot and binding us all together. This isn’t a festival at the heart of our faith just because we like it or find it quaint or have favorable traditions. Jesus is not born just as a companion to accompany all that is so comfortable and joyful already for us. He is born precisely because our lives need comfort and joy. It is only in him that we can truly trust light, only this good news that brings us away from the dark side. The glad tidings, over and against all else, mark the significance of this day, of this birth, of a savior who has come to you.
That, finally, is exactly what Maya Angelou portrays in her poem—that the thunders and floods of disaster ebb into the background, as Christmas enables us not only to see the worst moments but all of life differently, in a new light. She realizes this is still dawning on us, that this peace-filled whisper that is louder than bombs still is coming in promise in and among us, that we continue repeating it, sometimes even to reassure ourselves, to become the change.
It can feel impossible for our world of anger and fighting and fears. Except that it isn’t. “Peace, My Brother.”
It must be too good to be true. Except that it isn’t. “Peace, My Sister.”
More than our unworthy lives could possibly expect. Except that it isn’t. “Peace, My Soul.”
Martin Luther’s Christmas Book
This is a great miracle that the shepherds should have believed this message. They might easily have thought to themselves, “Are we shepherds worthy that the whole host of heaven should be marshaled for us and all the kings of the earth and the dwellers in Jerusalem be passed by?” I know I would have appealed to common sense and I would have said: “Who am I compared to God and angels and kings? It is an apparition.” But the Holy Spirit, who preached through the angels, caused the shepherds to believe. They were so strong in the faith that they were worthy to be spoken to by angels and to hear every angel in heaven singing a cantata just for them. This is a pure wonder that enters not into the human heart. Our God begins with angels and ends with shepherds. Why does God do such preposterous things? God puts a Babe in a crib. Our common sense revolts and says, “Could not God have saved the world some other way?” I would not have sent an angel. I would simply have called the devil and said, “Let my people go.” The Christian faith is foolishness. It says that God can do anything and yet makes God so weak that either God’s Son had no power or wisdom or else the whole story is made up. Surely the God who in the beginning said: “Let there be light,” could have said to the devil, “Give me back my people.” God does not even send an angel to take the devil by the nose. God sends, as it were, an earthworm lying in weakness, helpless, without his mother, and suffers him to be nailed to a cross. Yet in his weakness and infirmity he crunches the devil’s back and alters the whole world…
God is amazing. The Babe is in a manger, not worthy of a cradle or a diaper, and yet he is called Savior and Lord. The angels sing about him, and the shepherds hear and come and honor him as he lies with an ox and an ass. If I had come to Bethlehem and seen it, I would have said: “This does not make sense. Can this be the Messiah? This is sheer nonsense.” I would not have let myself be found inside the stable.
Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison
Viewed from a Christian perspective, Christmas from a prison cell can, of course, hardly be viewed as particularly problematic. Most likely many of those here in prison will celebrate a more meaningful and authentic Christmas than in places where all that survives of the celebration is the feast in name only. That misery, sorrow, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God than according to human judgment;, that God turns toward the very places from which humans turn away; that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn—a prisoner grasps this better than others. For the prisoner the Christmas story is glad tidings in a very real sense. And to the extent that he believes it, a prisoner knows he has been placed in Christian community and is a part in the communion of saints, a fellowship transcending the bounds of time and space and reducing the months of confinement here in prison walls to insignificance.
On Christmas I shall be thinking of you all very much, and I want you to believe that I too shall have a few hours of real joy and that I am not allowing my troubles to get the better of me….When one thinks of the horrors that have overcome so many recently, then one becomes aware anew of how much we still have to be grateful for. Presumably it will be a very quiet Christmas everywhere, and the children will think back on it later for many years to come. But perhaps precisely this will reveal to some for the first time, the true meaning of Christmas. May God protect us all.
with great gratitude and love,
Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem, Maya Angelou
Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes
And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.
Flood waters await us in our avenues.
Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
Over unprotected villages.
The sky slips low and grey and threatening.
We question ourselves.
What have we done to so affront nature?
We worry God.
Are you there? Are you there really?
Does the covenant you made with us still hold?
Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.
It is the Glad Season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
As we make our way to higher ground.
Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.
In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.
It is loud now. It is louder.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.
We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.
We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.
Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
Implore you, to stay a while with us.
So we may learn by your shimmering light
How to look beyond complexion and see community.
It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.
On this platform of peace, we can create a language
To translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.
At this Holy Instant, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ
Into the great religions of the world.
We jubilate the precious advent of trust.
We shout with glorious tongues at the coming of hope.
All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices
To celebrate the promise of Peace.
We, Angels and Mortal’s, Believers and Non-Believers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at our world and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at each other, then into ourselves
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation.
Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul.
sermon on Ephesians2:11-22; Mark6:30-34;53-56
We’ll clean up the mess later, but let’s get ugly straightaway.
To get your brains going and emotions riled up we can start with adversaries, like Brewers vs. Cardinals, or Packers and Bears, or World Cup soccer against Japan, or Muhammad Ali taking down Joe Frazier. Big time opponents.
Or maybe instead of sports, you’re more of a historian, and your “us vs. them” is about jihadists or terrorists or nukes or goes back to Soviets or Nazis or the news illustrating that the South versus North still smolders from the Civil War and is just one of the sorts of violence and unrest we’re forced to face these days.
You may feel your blood pressure beginning to rise, but obviously it gets worse. Our Gospel reading says Jesus had compassion for the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd. That’s biblical imagery, set against last week’s reading. We’d heard King Herod was selfish, abusive, egotistical, elitist, power-hungry. In our own partisan environment, you may have that same feeling of being a sheep without a shepherd, whether your aspersions are cast toward Governor Walker or President Obama. You may feel unrepresented and ignored, as if the guy is totally the opposite of you.
But it still gets worse than that, because your archnemesis isn’t the fan for another team. Your worst enemy isn’t the soldier at the other end of our country’s gunsights. The most threatening to your existence in day-to-day life aren’t rampagers or authoritarian tyrants. More likely, it’s somebody in your family you argue with, somebody down the hallway at work whose failings feel irredeemable, somebody across your property line who frustrates you, somebody in your own household who can make your blood boil and knows exactly how to push buttons. Or your own darn ol’ self, as we’ll say more about.
Now that I’ve aggravated your ulcers and made your brain fret, now that you’re aware of this hostility and the animosity that you harbor or that can even overwhelm your better intentions, now that you’ve got an image in your head, now hear again the words from Ephesians: “Christ Jesus has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us.” He creates unity and peace, building you together as the household of God.
Let that sink in for a minute, and see whether you feel relieved or ticked off. See, this isn’t saying that Jesus thinks you should work on forgiveness, or that God’s will would be for you to reconcile with opponents, or some larger theological justification that in the cosmic sense your fights are awfully petty and small. No. This is already over and done with. Those biggest disagreements and deepest held angers and most terrible resentments, this says those are already gone. Christ has broken them down. He has already reconciled you. His forgiveness is already active. It’s not something waiting for you. It’s not dependent on you. It’s not even up to you. Your fight is over by his proclamation. How do you like them apples?
I suspect not all that well. Little enough that you may try to explain it away or offer a counter-argument, or simply dismiss it and claim that God’s work in Jesus isn’t that big or that helpful or that important. And I’d want to agree with you. I don’t like it, either. I’d just as soon keep God as a security blanket or personal bank account to draw on when needed. We’re not in the market for God to upset our whole worldview like this, making us share and even become something we wouldn’t choose.
Really, God should’ve known better. When we’re most wanting to dig in our heels, how can God just declare that the enmity is over and the brokenness restored, ex post facto? What about our stubborn resentments and all the ramifications? South Africa needed the Truth and Reconciliation commission to overcome the wrongs of apartheid. So what is this proclamation of Jesus supposed to mean for Palestinians and Israelis? We throw law breakers in prison. How would it work if sufferers were suddenly confronted with those trying to cling stubbornly to positions of oppressive power? Indeed, for one perspective of mine, I couldn’t hardly admit that all is square between the fossil fuel corporations and extincting polar bears, not to mention that I’m not justified in my occasions of grouchiness at Acacia.
Yet our faith proclaims that Jesus is resolving all of this! Just imagine what that means that the terrible dividing lines are eroding!
Clearly this is exactly where Jesus has his work cut out for him. We’ve been built, our brains are trained, in these divisions, to make it the world split into this binary structure. We’ve done the exercise of how dominant this dualistic thinking is. I say black you say (white). Insiders vs. (outsiders). Male (female). Rich (poor). Happy (sad). Good (bad). So what Jesus is doing is re-forming you, renewing your mind, changing this entire structure of your brain, reconstructing your whole worldview.
In the Ephesians reading, this is about Jews versus non-Jews. You may feel that’s the small potatoes of an ancient religious dispute. But for our identity of dividing, this is the essential one, because one side had been given and held claim to God’s blessing. Yet the remarkable revelation is that being these ultimate insiders wasn’t an exclusive right. The wall or dividing line that kept out the outsiders was torn down. Your disagreements and divisions must indeed pale in this word that nobody is outside the realm and reach of God.
This is acted out, as well, in the Gospel reading, in Jesus’ compassion. For those people left out, neglected by King Herod as insignificant and punished by the Roman occupation and denied by all the systems, for them Jesus has compassion. In their need, in their longing, in their poverty, in their sickness. He brings them in to God’s household, to the family table.
And for you, you will not be excluded from God’s blessing, from Jesus’ compassion. There is no wrong that does not find forgiveness in him, no brokenness he will not restore. This is why, for small grievances or burning regrets, every week God is eager again to welcome you here with the announcement of forgiveness and you’re fed with the very stuff in this meal and nourished by it. This is also why death—that tries to cut you off from each other, from community—is the last enemy to be overcome, the last brokenness to be healed.
So is this just the rhythm of life, to need dose after dose of gracious forgiveness, week in and week out, until you die and God at last raises you to new life? Well…would that be such a bad thing?
You may also recognize that God continues this work in you. Even now you are being raised to new life. Your old self—the selfish, conniving, hateful one—is being put to death, strangled and having its existence cut out from under it, as that foundation of trying to compare and contrast yourself against others is eroded as worthless and pointless. Instead, we gather and practice a new way of being. As we share peace with each other, we try out what Jesus has already accomplished in ending the hostility, proclaiming peace to us who are near and have always been here and peace to those who have never felt incorporated into receiving blessing before. We share peace with those we love and with those who are estranged from us, who have angered or hurt us, who are far from our love. Even in handshakes and hugs and greetings, we find ourselves living together into the reality that Christ has already established.
Some days you may even understand what it means to be Christ’s ambassadors with this message of reconciliation (2Corinthians5:16-20).
As it says later in Ephesians, “You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by your lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourself with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:22-24).
We can also compare that new creation with former delusions another way: stop thinking you’re able to go it alone, self-contained, individually-responsible, in competition, a lone wolf. You are a sheep, tended amid this flock, not so much by your pastor, but by the Good Shepherd. And with him, you may know your place is always secure.
Hymn: The Church’s One Foundation (ELW #654)
That Boy-Child of Mary (ELW #293, 1, 2, & 4)
We’re going to end our carol stories for the year with perhaps the most beloved and familiar carol. With my mostly-German background, that one feels like part of me, the way some of you Norvegian-types respond to Jeg er sa glad. Among our collection, there’s also Polish (Infant Holy, Infant Lowly), plenty of English, as we’ve heard, including some specifically Wesleyan for the Methodist contingent, Danish (Your Little Ones, Dear Lord are We), French (Angels We Have Heard on High), truly American (Away in a Manger) and truly, actually real American (‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime). We could go on in claiming our indigenous favorites.
But now we’re going to one that won’t strike probably any of us in that way of matching our own heritage. That Boy-Child of Mary is one of only three we haven’t sung in these midweek services, and that’s probably because it’s not very familiar or intimate or dear to us. So far.
This one comes to us (with a technicality) separate from European heritage. Now, that doesn’t exclude it automatically from being dear. Go Tell it on the Mountain is often a favorite, even though most of us aren’t of African American background. Last week we ended by singing #297, Jesus, What a Wonderful Child, which is getting to be a fun favorite here. And #280 is a Chinese one I really like, but try not to make you sing too much.
That Boy-Child of Mary comes from Malawi, a country in southeastern Africa, surrounded by Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Tanzania, which I’m letting you know just because they’re fun names to say. Similarly, I could tell you it’s not so near to Namibia, Botswana, Swaziland, Cote d’Ivoire, Togo, or farmer Tony in the city of Brazzaville, Congo.
Tom Colvin, who wrote this and also #708 Jesu, Jesu Fill Us with Your Love, was a missionary from Scotland. You can determine for yourself whether that technicality infects its African heritage with more of a global flair. He and his wife lived in Africa for 20 years, mostly in Malawi, and continued to return often in work for the World Council of Churches. His ministry especially focused on community development and refugee resettlement, but he also had a special concern that African Christians be able to use their own musical heritage, so that’s why he used a traditional tune for this carol.
In the words, the focus on giving the name is important for that culture, where a name given to a child expresses hopes or aspirations for what she or he would become. Eight days after a child is born (just like we’ll hear for Jesus in the Bible reading), it’s a big ceremony, with a fancy meal. Family members submit possible names and the father announces them and their meaning. At the end, the name is revealed, and everyone gets to hold the baby. So this is a baby-naming song for Jesus, and our gathering is also a chance to hold him and hope in him. Let’s sing.
Silent Night, Holy Night (ELW #281, German & stanza 1)
Something a little different. This will officially be the 3rd time we’ve done Silent Night during these midweek services. But it is the 1st time that I’ve shown you a video instead of blathering on and…well mostly instead of that.
I’m still going to say a few words after. To start, just a bit of introduction. We’re going to watch a new three minute commercial, which portrays a historical event (or, since they’re Brits in the video, “an historical” event) that actually happened 100 years ago, during the first Christmas during World War I, and it’s an important part of this carol’s history. Listen for Silent Night near the start, both in German and English. You’ll also hear Hymn #774 put to good use.
I’ve said each week that what makes carols and hymns worthwhile is that they become part of our own stories. Well, if this hadn’t happened there’s even a chance we wouldn’t be singing Silent Night. Those German soldiers helped introduce it to English speakers, and also to spread the popularity of Christmas trees. Imagine Christmas without this carol and with no Christmas trees.
Now, I don’t really like that this amazing piece of history is getting used for marketing, for consumerism, for trying to get you to buy stuff. Imagine Christmas without ads and manipulation and commodification.
And, while you’re imagining, imagine Christmas with no war. I know this sounds John Lennon-y, of “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” and all, but that’s actually part of this carol’s history. That truce that had 100,000 enemy soldiers celebrating Christmas together was almost contagious in its spread. And once you’ve played soccer with someone and traded hats and looked at photos of their loved ones and sung Silent Night, you’re less likely to shoot them the next day. It’s called fraternizing, literally meaning “becoming brothers.” So it almost meant the end of that battle, and maybe of war. Instead, commanding officers issued orders to squash it, and quickly, to get the men to be enemies again. The manipulation isn’t just from stores trying to profit, but from whatever it is that drives nations to violence.
And yet, here is this carol, that almost ended war, that brought opponents together, all because of baby Jesus. This is what he does: makes us all sisters and brothers. And sometimes we really get it. Sleep in heavenly peace, indeed! For a sense of it, let’s sing, letting our voices mingle in German and English.