Light speaks

Preparing for Sunday, amongst other things I’m struck by God’s pun on light in Isaiah (It is too light a thing that you should be my servant…/I will give you as a light to the nations [Isaiah 49:6]), and I remembered this that came to me last October, watching the light bouncing off the lake, impossible to capture and tame into a frame, the first wild creature of God (Let there be light. [Genesis 1:3])


Light speaks

Light speaks, flashing warnings
off of white-capped waves,
slamming into STOP signs,
seeping, insidious, around closed doors.

Deer by night absorb bites
of car headlights, secreting them
beneath their hides, creating
cloaks of invisibility, but
“’Tis only the splendour
of light hideth thee!”*

A change of light
may indicate an exit.

Even in the dark room, light is not silent;
light whispers, flushed and fevered,
smouldering out of sight to
the point of conflagration.

 


*From the familiar hymn, “Immortal, invisible, God only wise,” words by Walter C. Smith (1867)

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Baptizing Christ, becoming Christlike

A sermon for the commemoration of the Baptism of Our Lord, with the baptism of a new and infant member of our parish family, and our rehearsal of the Baptismal Covenant*


In the service for marriage in the Book of Common Prayer, the prayer is included that “all … who have witnessed these vows may find their lives strengthened and their loyalties confirmed.” In the same way at ordinations, and most universally at baptisms, the assembled congregation is challenged and affirmed by the vows that they witness to remember their own promises, their own misgivings, to turn once more to God in trust, in penitence, in faith that we are adopted by the Holy Spirit as children of the living God, and confirmed by grace as heirs to the kingdom of heaven.

Kennedy’s parents and godparents make promises on her behalf today, since she is too young to make them for herself; and as we witness them we promise to do all in our power to support not only Kennedy, but those who stand with her as they attempt to live into those bold oaths. And we renew our own Baptismal Covenant, affirming our faith in the One who Created, Redeemed, and continues to Inspire us.

We promise, with God’s help, to remain faithful to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to continue to come together in the Communion of Word and Sacrament, to avail ourselves of the food for the journey with which Christ has provided us, our daily bread; to come together often, to become the Church that Christ called into being to bring good news to the world.

We promise, with God’s help, to resist evil. We know that temptations surround us on every side: temptations to carelessness and contempt, cynicism and snark, deals with the devil, and despair. All that would divide us from God and from one another, from the call to love God and our neighbour as ourselves – all that falls under the banner of sin. When it is deliberate, when it is destructive, when it is cruel, when it is demeaning to the image of God borne by each member of humanity; when it is done by someone else, we call it evil; but we are not immune to evil. We are not immune to the temptations to smear the image of God in the mirror of the person before us. Whenever we fall into sin, we promise with God’s help to seek God’s help to return to righteousness, to restore the vision of God within us, that we may love as Christ loved us.

And that is the good news of God in Christ: that God so loves the world that God gave us Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, to live among us, to die before us, to defeat the powers of evil and death and raise us to a new life, dripping with grace and with blessing. We promise, by word and example, with God’s help to shout it from the rooftops: God loves you, no exceptions. God will meet you where you are. God will raise you from the river, and set you on dry ground.

We promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbours as ourselves, with God’s help becoming selfless, becoming Christlike. There is a virtuous cycle in which the more we find Christ in one another, the more we reflect his love in our own lives. Coming before John, Jesus did not lord it over him. Even when John would demur, Jesus insisted on submitting to John’s ministrations, to joining in his mission of grace. The more we humble ourselves before our neighbours’ needs, the greater our Christlight becomes.

Finally, we promise, with God’s help, to strive for justice, to strive for peace, to respect the dignity of every human being. Peter told the new Christians, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” God shows no partiality between peoples and nations, between denominations and demographics, between one child and the next, but we do. We tend always to favour our own family, our own country, our own party, our own religion over another; it’s human nature. And it is right to be judicious in choosing which policies to support, which doctrines to promote, which actions to pursue, good or evil, so long as we do not, in doing so, find ourselves choosing between one person’s humanity and another.

We are more than a baseline of human nature. We are created in the image of God. We have died with Christ in baptism, and we have been raised to a new life. We have levelled up. We are called to go beyond the basics, to love even our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us.

So we promise, with God’s help, to do all that is good, and peaceable, and righteous, loving God with our whole being, and our neighbours as ourselves.

All this we promise for ourselves, and on Kennedy’s behalf. It is a lot to ask of a small child. But what does God promise in return?

God promises mercy:

a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice. (Isaiah 42:3)

God promises consistency and indefatigability:

he will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching. (Isaiah 42:4)

God promises impartiality, “healing all who [are] oppressed by the devil.” (Acts 10:38)

God promises liberty,

to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42:7)

God promises life:

Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it: (Isaiah 42:5)

God promises steadfast love, sending love into the world in dramatic and bodily form:

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)

All of these promises Kennedy inherits as she is baptized today. All of the promises we keep, all of the promises we break, all of the promises we mend are held in trust for us by the same grace that flows over her this morning.

With God’s help, we baptize her. With God’s help, we rise refreshed with her, remembering that God is with us, Emmanuel, come hell or high water, and that God has anointed us to bring that good news to the world.

Amen.


*The Baptismal Covenant

Celebrant Do you believe in God the Father?
People I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
Celebrant Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
People I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
Celebrant Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
People I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
Celebrant Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
People I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent  and return to the Lord?
People I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
People I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
People I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
People I will, with God’s help.

(Book of Common Prayer, 305-6)


Featured image: the house of Simon the Tanner, where Peter discovered the impartiality of God through a vision of various animals

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Epiphany 2020: First, do no harm

It is January 2020 at the Church of the Epiphany in Euclid, Ohio. We are worried by portents of war in the Middle East. At home, our faith communities wrestle with the demands of security measured against the commandments of our faith – not to kill, to love our neighbours, even our enemies. The Gospel reading is from Matthew. The Magi seek the infant Christ. Herod seeks him, too. The Holy Family is warned to flee to Egypt, and the Magi return home by another road.


I am struck by the order of events in Matthew’s story of exile and exodus, the salvation history running through Jesus’ backstory like a pulled thread.

If Joseph was already warned to run before Herod’s soldiers arrived, then why did the wise men need to return by a different road?

Think about it: Even if they had returned to Herod, and told him where the baby lay, Herod would have searched and come up empty. The child was already gone.

It is almost as though the angel of the Lord, appearing to them in a dream, was warning them not so much as to trick Herod, but in order to protect the innocence, the idealism of the Magi from the East.

It is as though the wise ones, having once discovered and worshipped Jesus, found themselves unable, unwilling to betray him, even if it would make no difference, even if the way home would be shorter, even if it might have been safer, more politic; even if stopping by Herod’s palace might have replenished their treasure chests of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, which they had emptied in an act of spontaneous worship and sacrifice at the feet of the little, holy family.

Either way, Jesus would have been safely away, bundled across the desert by night, by his frightened and faithful parents. 

(Did they travel alone? Were others forewarned, by dream or by rumour, by well-connected neighbour, to flee the coming wrath? Was there a caravan of families lined up across the Sinai, seeking shelter across the river? History does not tell us much; we are left to our faithful imaginations.)

If the Magi had reported back to Herod, might it have deterred his murderous rage? It seems not. He still would not know where the child and his parents had gone. He would still scorch the earth beneath Bethlehem rather than risk allowing God’s Son to grow and challenge his comfortable status quo.

Nevertheless, the wise ones went home by another road, poorer, wiser, and more purposeful than when a star led their way.

Blessed, Jesus said later, are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

It should be no surprise that the Magi were advised by the angel to act on principle, if that is what they were doing by washing their hands of Herod. We follow a Christ who is the ultimate principled actor, who refused to bend his ethics of love and self-sacrifice to save his own life; who healed the ear of his enemy; who would not dirty his tongue by debating with Pilate what, after all, is truth; who would not give false witness to acquit himself of uncommitted crimes.

Some years ago, I read (in Lest Innocent Blood be Shed, by Philip Hallie) about a village commune in southern France dedicated to nonviolence, diverted by their Christian faith toward the active and/but peaceful resistance of evil. During the Second World War, as you might expect of such people, they sheltered Jewish refugees and hid them from harm, refusing to betray them to the authorities. To choose such a good seems on the face of it simple, although we might quietly ask our hearts whether we would have the courage to risk our own lives and liberty, to open our own homes to a stranger. 

One passage that stuck with me always describes the conscience of the pastor’s wife, Magda Trocmé. Often enough, it was easy to put off the questions of the authorities without prevarication: not asking a refugee’s real name meant that one could not repeat it. But duplicity was unavoidable, the creation of fake id cards and ration books, for example: Magda

“[found] her integrity diminished when she [thought] of those cards. … She still [felt] anguish for the children of Le Chambon who had to unlearn lying after the war, and who could, perhaps, never again be able to understand the importance of simply telling the truth.” (Hallie, 126)

It is not as though Magda would ever have put her purity above the lives of the refugees that were saved by a few white lies. Instead, she has stayed with me because her scruples remind me of our hope for a kingdom in which one may do good without injury to the commandments of God’s covenant, in which it is not necessary to manage the wrath of Herod either by evasion or complicity or conquest; because she was not able to avoid Herod. There was no other road open to her.

The pastors of Le Chambon, André Trocmé and Edouard Theis, were not impractical nor impotent. They saved lives by their faithfulness, and their adherence to the way of peace. They were not passive pacifists. They knew that neutrality capitulates to evil. But, they preached, 

“In attacking evil, we must cherish the preciousness of all human life. Our obligation to diminish the evil in the world must begin at home; we must not do evil, must not ourselves do harm. To be against evil is to be against the destruction of human life and against the passions that motivate that destruction.” (Hallie, 85)

The wise ones, having once found Jesus, the Saviour in a stable, the Messiah in a manger, God in his infancy, could not return to Herod’s court. They may not do harm to themselves, by betraying the love that they had found at his bedside. They may not do harm by consorting, even for a moment more, with the king of destruction, the murderer of innocents. They had to find another way home.

If we are people of the Epiphany, then we, too, are stargazers. We have been told, commissioned by angels and dreams, to find another road. We worship the Prince of Peace in a world at war. We would rather offer gifts of gold to helpless babies than bribes to politicians or kings. We find truth in the gospel of love rather than the mantra of success. We worship the God of the manger and the Christ of the Cross. We follow Christ through the empty tomb, knowing that the star can take us only so far.

We wonder, sometimes, what difference it makes. We struggle to find the straight path. We pray for God’s reign to come. 

In the meantime, the holy family is once again on the road, seeking safety, and we have room at the inn. Let us seek and serve Christ, not in the starlit heavens alone, but in the street, and on the corner, in peace and in love, and as a stranger, taking the long road home.


Philip P. Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There (Harper Collins, 1994)

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Star of Bethlehem

I scour the skies to find

The light shines in the darkness

a false star rising

and the darkness did not overcome it

haloed with fire power

When they saw that the star had stopped

(not everything that wears

(he sent and killed 

a halo is holy)

all the children)

the new star of Bethlehem pauses

they were overwhelmed

satellite silence falling

A voice was heard in Ramah

I scour the skies for a sign

weeping and loud lamentation

that will set the world

An angel of the Lord suddenly

or at least my heart

appeared in a dream

on fire

and the darkness did not overcome it

 


John 1:5, Matthew 2:10 (Matthew 2:16), Matthew 2:18, Matthew 2:19, John 1:5b

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Word and witness

Sermon for the Sunday after Christmas, 2019. In our prayers, we remembered the victims of antiSemitic attacks in New York and elsewhere this Hanukkah.


Isaac Asimov is not an author I usually turn to for biblical commentary. Like many of you, I know him more as a writer of science fiction, but I recently stumbled across a secondhand copy of Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, and he has some interesting ponderings to share about the star of Bethlehem, for example, and the Word of God, the opening character of John’s Gospel.

Asimov describes the term Logos, which we translate Word, as defining the creative principle and order of the universe. We use it today, he notes, to talk about the creative order of animals, in zoology or of the earth, in geology (or of God, in theology; although that is where we find the boundary to our own wisdom, since God is the Logos, the Word that we are seeking to define).

Asimov traces this interpretation to one Thales of Miletus, living before the biblical time of the Babylonian Exile. He describes how the term was developed and refined around the Greek-speaking world, and found its way into Jewish thought as Wisdom, the character of God portrayed in Proverbs and some of the Apocryphal writings.

In John, then, we find this creative order, this first principle of God’s relationship with the world made flesh, this Word of God, this God incorporated into the world that it has made and shaped, enfleshed and enmeshed with creation.

Matthew and Luke flesh out this story, if you’ll forgive the pun, with their narratives of angels and birth, heaven and earth met in Bethlehem, in a manger, in a baby. John skips the pageant; he is more interested in what it all means now, after the angels have left and the skies have fallen silent, except for their storms.

In his Christmas message this year, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry noted that it is no accident that Jesus is born when all seems at its darkest. He wrote,

I don’t think it’s an accident that long ago, followers of Jesus began to commemorate his coming into the world when the world seemed to be at its darkest. …

Undoubtedly, these ancient Christians who began to celebrate the coming of God into the world, they knew very well that this Jesus, his teachings, his message, his spirit, his example, his life points us to the way of life itself, a way of life, where we take care of each other. A way of life, where we care for God’s world. A way of life, where we are in a loving relationship with our God, and with each other as children of the one God, who has created us all.

They also knew John’s Gospel and John’s Christmas story. Now there are no angels in John’s Christmas story. There are no wise men coming from afar. There’s no baby lying in a manger. There’s no angel choir singing Gloria in excelsis Deo in the highest of the heavens. There are no shepherds tending their flocks by night. Matthew and Luke tell those stories. In John, it is the poetry of new possibility, born of the reality of God when God breaks into the world.

It’s not an accident that long ago, followers of Jesus began to commemorate his birth, his coming into the world. When the world seemed darkest. When hope seemed to be dashed on the altar of reality. It is not an accident that we too, commemorate his coming, when things do not always look right in this world.

But there is a God. And there is Jesus. And even in the darkest night. That light once shined and will shine still.  His way of love is the way of life. It is the light of the world. And the light of that love shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not, cannot, and will not overcome it.

But for Matthew and Luke, too, it is when the sky is dark and the inns are full and the doors are locked and where walls are built and the bullets are waiting and Herod is king and Rome pretends to peace through oppression and repression that the life that is the light of the world is born, and the darkness cannot stop it.

And good news is announced to the poor out on the hillside, and the rich and the wise are humbled into worship and generosity, and only Herod, jealous for the little piece of proxy power that the empire allows him, fails to see the majesty of the moment.

And John bears witness. He has Word and witness ready at the beginning. And his whole gospel is written so that we might bear witness to the life and the light that has been borne into the world, so that we might become midwives of the kingdom of God, advocates for making room at the inn, defenders of the innocent children at risk of Herod’s jealous wrath.

This is what John sets before us: that it is only the creative order of the Word, of God, that makes sense of the world, that sheds light on the life of the world. It is in Jesus, in the humility of birth and Incarnation, even in the confusion of the Cross, in the victory of Resurrection, the transcendence of Ascension that we find light in the darkness. It is in the light of the Word that life makes sense, with all of its joy and all of its promise, even its pain; with forgiveness and with justice, in the Word it becomes a story we can live with.

On Christmas Day I shared this R.S. Thomas poem as we gathered in the Chapel:

Nativity

The moon is born
and a child is born,
lying among white clothes
as the moon among clouds.

They both shine, but
the light from the one
is abroad in the universe
as among broken glass.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)


Isaac Asimov, Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: Volume 2, The New Testament (Avon Books, 1969), 298-303

R.S. Thomas, “Nativity,” in R.S. Thomas Collected Poems 1945-1990 (J.M. Dent/Phoenix, 1993/2000), 508

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Bethlehem

In the ancient city, haunted by memories of feast and famine,
exile and exodus,
the earth itself makes room, Creation shifting and splitting
as angels sing Glory out of cold stars shining with old light.

Out of the holy darkness, a flood of warmth
resurrects Rachel’s cry,
the piercing wail of her sons of sorrow,
matching the bitterness of Mara with the searing sweetness of birth:

This, blood and mire its circumstance,
is the great and terrible day of the Lord.


Image: The slaughter of the innocents, by Duccio di Buoninsegna. Public Domain, via wikimedia commons

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Making room

Christmas Eve at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio


When we were young, my family would often spend Christmas in the homes of relatives. I remember being at my grandmother’s house in the north of England – a tiny council house, I have no idea how she fit us all in. More often I remember staying at an aunt and uncle’s large Edwardian home. It was much bigger than my grandmother’s house, but then so was their family. Eventually, my brother and I petitioned our parents to stay home for Christmas. We wanted our own space, our own tree, stockings outside our own bedroom doors. We were children, after all; but still, it shocks me to realize how little thought I gave to the accommodations our relatives made in their homes, their lives, their own Christmases in order to let us stay and celebrate with them.

This year, one of our grown children is bringing a new family member home – a cat, whom our cat is quite unsure about welcoming into his territory. That may be why I was thinking of those details and shifts and makeshifts that my grandmother and our cousins must have hidden in order to make us welcome.

It’s said that the inn from which Mary and Joseph were banished to the stable might have been the home of distant family members, full of out-of-town guests travelling in like our holy family for the census. It would not have been the most private place for the onset of Labour. Some say that that sending Mary to the stable was an act of hospitality, of kindness rather than exclusion.

You may have seen or read that the stable itself was an adapted cave below the main house, a cellar sheltering the typical smallholder’s animals and equipped with a manger to feed them. Maybe, after all, it was the safest, warmest place to accommodate such an inconvenient event as a visitor giving birth.

Whatever the details of the establishment, of the house, or the inn, we are told clearly that there was no room for Jesus to be born within, and that alternative arrangements needed to be offered, whether out of generosity or duty we do not know. But someone had to make room for this rapidly dilating and expanding family.

So Jesus is born into our world. He barely fits into a schematic that has no room for pregnant virgins, no harbour for miracles, no time for angels interrupting the satellite signals.

We do our best to make room for him, out of love of duty; to love his image in the face of the stranger, inconveniently and abruptly born among us. We try to make room for him as for the unexpected, and the precariously situated. We try to reassure ourselves that we have made room for him in our hearts, at least, even while more and more, it can feel as though the world has little room for commandments or covenants like loving one’s neighbour at least as much as oneself, or entertaining strangers as though they were angels come from afar, refugees from a foreign plane sent by God with good news.

Still, into this tight and griping world, Jesus is born, with the effortful but determined, sometimes complicated but unanswerable, slow but urgent pangs of labour, the contract between heaven and earth that will not be denied. God finds room, becoming small enough to be swaddled and laid in a manger, as the glory of the new covenant splits open the skies and lets the angels loose:

“Peace on earth,” they cry. Good will toward all people, whom God loves, whom God loves.

To enter our world, in love, God becomes meek enough, weak enough, vulnerable enough to slip into our image, small enough to be born among us, Emmanuel; and we try to make room.

John Donne, the old English poet, wrote

Immensitie cloistered in thy deare wombe …
Weake enough, now into our world to come;
But Oh, for thee, for him, hath th’Inne no roome?

But, hold on a minute. Hold the donkey now. God is come into our world? Who is making room for whom here?

God, who made the heavens and the earth; God who made humanity to fit into God’s image; God who is above all and under all and within and without all – God who made room for us, a garden earth to inhabit, God who made room for us in the Ark, and between the waters of the Red Sea, and within the mercy of God’s steadfast love – that God is the One who is with us, Emmanuel.

So who is making room for whom here?

While we think we might be making room for Jesus, Jesus makes room for us in the generosity of his Incarnation. By the sweeping gesture of his birth, he enfolds all of us, swaddles us in the grace of God. How, we wonder, can an infant, a newborn baby do all this? It is because he is Jesus, which means Saviour; he is Emmanuel, which means God has come among us.

Whether we finished our Advent meditations or our spiritual Christmas shopping, Christ is coming. Whether we have cleaned our houses or decorated our hearts, he is near. Whether we have brought in the food or set the table, he is with us, he is here

In our foolish imaginations, we consider that we are making room, making time, making space for Jesus in our lives, but the joke is on us, and Christmas tells it. The One who made time and space has made room for us in the covenant of grace, the contract of love that is sealed by the blood and water of birth, and witnessed by shepherds and angels. God has made room for us in the stable, and fed us from the manger. God is an ever gracious host, in whose dwelling place are many mansions, and God makes room for us all: Thanks be to God.


“La Corona: Nativitie”, in The Complete Poetry of John Donne, edited by John T. Shawcross (Anchor Books, 1967), 33

See also Maggi Dawn, Beginnings and Endings [and what happens in between] (The Bible Reading Fellowship, 2007), 116-7


Other Christmas messages: Blue Christmas, Solstice (a poem)

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