Saturday, December 26, 2009

On the Feast of Stephen

Be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing:
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.
--"Good King Wenceslas"

Merry Christmas and happy new year from Loud Time!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

We Are Carrying Love: Advent Reflections, Part 4

Here ends my advent reflections, serialized out a sermon I gave last week. Merry Christmas, everybody.

Gabriel goes on to make Mary a promise—really a series of promises that aren’t so much for her as they are for the world.

•Her son, to be called Jesus, will be great.
•Jesus will be called “Son of the Most High”—invested with the power we sing about from Sunday to Sunday.
•God will give Jesus the throne of David—the shoot from the stump that Isaiah tells us will bear fruit.
•Jesus will reign over God’s people forever; his kingdom will have no end.

Gabriel finishes his pitch with a reminder: Nothing is impossible with God. He cites Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, as evidence. So Mary is being given what Luke wishes for Theophilus and, really, all of us: the certainty of our faith.

This love that Mary is being given to carry will be a burden, no doubt, but unlike those other burdens—burdens of anxiety and shame, bitterness and pettiness, nastiness and busyness—the burden of love eventually results in the birth of love. And the birth of love, as we celebrate it at Christmas, eventually results in our deliverance, as we celebrate at Easter. And this kind of messianic love is self-propagating; Jesus didn’t merely come to earth to merely die for our sins; he came to recalibrate us not as people carrying grudges and secrets but as people who are carrying love—for ourselves, for our neighbors, for our world.

I have a friend who has given his life to carrying the love of God to all corners of the world. His organization sets up little communities in red light districts in Bangkok and outcast settlements in Mumbai and trash heaps in Latin America, and there they make new friends and explore ways of making life better. The love of God is being birthed in those places.

I have another friend who carries love back and forth to and from Haiti. In a country—a puddle-jump from Miami—where the average citizen lives on $2 a day, he’s teaching kids to read and building better schools so that those kids will be grow up with dignity and opportunity. He’s handing out some 30,000 Creole-language Bibles a year so that as folks learn to read they’re reading about this burden of God’s love that ultimately delivers.

I have another friend who decided that gay people and Christian people were talking at and past each other when they should be talking to, and listening to, the Jesus who was promised in this passage we’re reading today and who delivered on his promises in the passages we’ll read on Good Friday.

There’s no denying that these guys—all three of them—are carrying burdens. Some of them endure harsh critique for the way they’re carrying this love we’ve been given. Some of them live much less prosperous lives than they could because they’ve taken up their particular burden. All of them have a lot to juggle to make room for this burdensome love. But if you ask them why they do it—why they don’t just drop the whole thing and make their lives easier—they’ll tell you that it’s because a long time ago a modest little woman from a town of no repute was given the gift of a burdensome love. And that burdensome love gestated and grew and was born and made his way through life. And then he carried a burdensome cross to the outskirts of town, and then carried a world’s worth of shame and secrets and grudges and self-absorption to a place where it could no longer ruin us. And then he rose again to carry us through difficult days and years and centuries and millennia until ultimately he delivers us safely to a place of no tears and no shame. They do it because God is love, and carrying love, no matter how burdensome, is a gift.

All this stuff really happened, and it happened for God’s purposes, which emanate from his character, which is love. The Gospel as Luke here presents it is love throughout. Mary is given the privilege of carrying love, but in a sense so is Theophilus, and in a sense so are we.

We carry this conviction with us: that God knows what he’s doing.

We carry this confidence with us: that nothing is impossible with God.

We carry this assurance with us: that the faith we celebrate each Sunday played out in real time among real people some two thousand years ago.

We carry this promise with us: that the work God is doing among us and in us is not only for us but for the world through us.

We carry this certainty with us: that God is love, and that we are bearers of that love.

We carry this burden with us: that this love we carry is real and concrete and powerful and changes things when we give ourselves over to it.

This is the witness of Mary and the glory of Christmas. Every day, by the grace of God, we are carrying love. Imagine what we could do with it?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

We Are Carrying Love: Advent Reflections, Part 3

This is the third of four excerpts from an Advent sermon I'm giving. Come back next week for the punchline.

It’s hard to carry love, quite honestly—and if we’re more honest, we’ll recognize that it’s much easier to carry any number of other things. Sometimes it’s much easier to carry a grudge than it is to carry love, right? When someone’s wronged us, that grudge feels a lot lighter, a lot less burdensome, even a lot less painful than love. And so for a time that too often becomes a long time we put down a little love to make room for a little grudge.

Sometimes it’s easier to carry secrets, right? We do something we know we’ll get in trouble for, something we know the truth would hurt someone we love while also embarrassing us or making life more difficult for us, and so we make a little space in our hearts for a secret, and to do so we have to put down a little love.

Sometimes our secrets aren’t about the wrongs we have done, though; sometimes they’re about the wrongs done to us. We suddenly find ourselves loaded up with shame or bitterness or hurt, and we can’t imagine how to get rid of it. So if it’s permanent, we’ve got to make room for it, right? So we put down a little love and keep carrying our secret shame.

But more often than these big things are the little things that we don’t even notice we have, but as we make our way through our days love continues to be crowded out of our hearts by more pressing concerns: we’re being actively encouraged—particularly during Christmas but really all year round—to spend more, eat more, buy more, work more, hurry more, worry more, here a more, there a more . . .

We live in a time where love has been made particularly hard, and unattractive to carry. Love doesn’t seem like a gift, it seems like a burdensome luxury that we can no longer afford to indulge.

Luke is writing an orderly account of the foundations of the Christian faith, to ground the faith of Theophilus in concrete history, and so to assure him of the reasonableness of his faith. Why, then, does he so quickly proceed to such crazy stories? Luke moves immediately into the birth not of Jesus but of John the Baptist, a story that is marked throughout by marvel and miracle: an old woman, well past childbearing years, becomes pregnant in an answer to a lifelong prayer. An old man, elected for a time to be the voice of the people to God, is struck mute for his lack of faith. He won’t speak again until the birth of his son, at which time his voice is restored and he sings of “the tender mercy of our God.”

Luke moves quickly from this story to six months later, where we find Mary living in Nazareth, pledged to marry Joseph. Jesus’ own disciple Philip will one day openly mock Mary’s village: “Nazareth?!? Can anything good come out of there?!?” But here we are, in this town of no reputation, with a young virgin, the story tells us, about to marry into the line of King David—a once-great line that apparently has little remaining political clout.

But this detail tells Theophilus something: the messiah was promised through David’s line—Isaiah 11 promises the people of God that “a shoot will come out of the stump of Jesse” (Jesse the father of David; the stump a royal line that has since been diminished); “from his roots a branch will bear fruit.” By Mary marrying into David’s line, a prophecy was being fulfilled. God, it appears, knows what he’s doing.

“Greetings,” the angel Gabriel tells Mary.” He calls her “highly favored” and then tells her “The Lord is with you.” This troubles Mary, and perhaps it would trouble us as well, because if the Lord is with us, things necessarily change. If God is with us, as Paul tells us, “who can be against us?” And yet Mary was a subject of empire, a woman in a strongly patriarchal culture, a child (probably around thirteen) about to marry someone who was likely much older. When you have a lot going against you, you figure out a way to live within those constraints. People adapt to their circumstances, even if those circumstances are, or ought to be, untenable.

There are people today living in garbage dumps all over the world. There are children today growing up as sexual slaves. There are women who can’t show their face in public or they’ll be shunned, beaten or worse. There are people who endure petty acts of passive racism on a daily basis. There are people—maybe people we know—who suffer abuse or neglect at home or carry the burden of abuse or neglect in their history.

It’s people who carry these various burdens, who out of necessity adapt to entirely unacceptable circumstances, who have the most right to ask “Where is God?” And here the angel Gabriel presents Mary, who could very well speak on these people’s behalf, with an audacious claim: “The Lord is with you.” He doesn’t suggest that this is a change in Mary’s status: it’s not “The Lord is about to be with you” or “The Lord is now with you.” Gabriel is communicating reality to Mary, a reality that necessarily changes things.

What would happen if we greeted one another this way? Not “whazzzupp?!?” or “Howdy partner” or whatever, but “The Lord is with you”? We would be saying it not as a nicety but as a declaration of faith. God, who created us, isn’t aloof to our suffering, he isn’t ignorant or dismissive of our circumstances. God is Emmanuel—God is God with us. And in the moment we acknowledge that, we open ourselves to changes that God has in mind for us.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

We Are Carrying Love: Advent Reflections, Part 2

The second of four excerpts from my Advent sermon. Pray for the people who have to endure the whole thing in one sitting.

The Orthodox Church refers to Mary, mother of Jesus, as Theotokos, "God-bearer," which is a pretty handy, efficient way of characterizing Mary’s unique ministry. She was, as the story tells us, impregnated with God. Jesus gestated in her womb, where his heart started beating and his spinal cord took shape and his limbs started flexing their fledgling muscles. Somewhere along the way, undoubtedly, Jesus kicked Mary, and she felt it not as an affront or a judgment—imagine being kicked by God?!?—but as good news: this child inside her was alive and kicking, and because of a conversation she had months previous she knew that this was God inside her, eager to get out and face the world he created, eager to be not only the Lord of Hosts but also Emmanuel, God with us.

Let’s take up the story from Luke 1.
Since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

We begin not with Mary but with Luke himself, who in this preamble indicates why he’s writing what he’s writing. What follows is an “orderly account,” thoroughly investigated, as a means of grounding the beliefs of Theophilus. His name means “Lover of God,” which may be a given name or may be a pseudonym Luke takes up for this book and takes up again in his second historical volume, the book of Acts. But the point is that what follows is orderly, carefully investigated, and intended to anchor the beliefs of the Christian church in a concrete history. These things, Luke is telling Theophilus and really all of us, really happened.

I heard a pastor once suggest that every time we see a manger scene we remind ourselves, “That really happened.” I thought that was cool, and so now every time I see one, that’s what I do. And if I happen to forget, a friend of mine at work reminds me. This is part of our ministry to one another, part of why Luke took it upon himself to help Theophilus to be certain of his faith. We are carrying love, and the love we carry is meant for one another.

So when you’re struggling to believe either the truth of what we celebrate every Sunday or struggling to trust that you’ll be able to make your mortgage next month, or struggling to see a future with your spouse or struggling to imagine a meaningful life without a spouse—keep in mind that there is someone near you who is carrying love for you. And not even only their own love for you; there are people near you who are carrying the love of God in trust for you. It’s right and proper for us to draw deeply from this love when we need it, just as it’s right and proper for us, as God-bearers of a kind, to be prepared to dispense this kind of love when we find a need for it: through acts of kindness, through words of encouragement, through any number of ways.

Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

What follows is an excerpt from the Winter 2021 edition of Middling, my quarterly newsletter on music, books, work, and getting older. I'...