Being human in Nineveh

A sermon for the third Sunday after the Epiphany in January, 2021. The readings include the conversion of Nineveh by a reluctant Jonah, and Jesus’ call to his first disciples to come “fish for people.”


Nineveh was a byword, and the story of Jonah may be read as a parable. God’s relentless wrestling with the wickedness of the world, God’s pursuit of mercy run riot through the story.

Nineveh was a byword. Nineveh was Sodom and Gomorrah for foreigners. Nineveh was old Vegas, Gotham, and Deadwood rolled into one. Nothing good could ever be said to come out of Nineveh. Nineveh was like Chile under Pinochet, South Africa under apartheid. Robert Alter, in his new commentary to the Hebrew Bible, remarks that sending Jonah to Nineveh was “rather like sending a Jewish speaker to deliver moral exhortation to the Germans in Berlin in 1936.”[i] No wonder Jonah didn’t want to go there.

The thing about bywords is that they are short cuts. They only take you so far. They paint with a broad brush (to mix the metaphors).

But focus in on Nineveh, and you find the people. The shopkeeper who gives away his produce at the end of the day to the orphans in the alley. The mother who would do anything for her children. From the king’s palace to the shanties on the edge of the town, you find devotion and regret hidden under the weeds of wickedness. You find humanity, if you look closely enough.

Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh. He knew, he had heard the stories. But walking the city step by step, passing person by person in the streets, he soon learned to see the wood for the trees. He preached, as God had commanded him, the coming destruction of the city. And the miracle of it all was that the people listened, and they changed their ways. Faced with the consequences of their wicked ways, they turned to look for something better.

Is it possible that these people, evil by reputation and wicked by renown, were gnashing their teeth because they were hungry for the good news of God, the mercy of grace, the reconciliation of repentance?

Jonah should have been used to miracles, after the belly of the whale and all of that. Still, he was taken by surprise. Fear, rumour, judgement were hard habits to break.

It was not inevitable that the people or their king should repent. If they had not, there is no reason to suspect that God would not have pursued their obedience as emphatically as God stormed Jonah from the ship and into the great fish and onto the beach. There are consequences for running from the will of God, for running a corrupt country, for turning one’s back on the fate of one’s fellow humans, for failing to call out wickedness. For not following through on the commandment and promise to love every neighbour as ourselves.

If Nineveh had not repented, who knows how the story would have ended.

But Nineveh did repent, and the reason that this byword for sin and evil changed its ways, and its fine robes for sackcloth and ashes, is because a prophet, reluctant, inadequate, and very fishy, walked among them. Because he came to see them not as political cartoons, memes, or caricatures, he found himself acting as a human toward them.

Just so, when Jesus became incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, sharing our life, our stories, our humanity, he brought us to our knees with the knowledge of the mercy of God.

There is something truly salvific in being human to another person.

Repentance is key. If Nineveh had not repented of its evil – if it had continued in the ways of greed, oppression, violence, and sin – then the story might have had another ending. But if Jonah had not walked among them, fearful, inadequate, and doing penance for his own attempts to evade God’s good graces, they might never have known that the mercy of God awaits those who are ready to repent and recognize it.

What if we had the chance to fish for a miracle? What if we had the good news that could change the ending of a story?

What if we, fearful, fishy, feeling somewhat inadequate, out of our own repentance, in fact had the power to change the world around us, simply by being human to one another, telling the truth with love and trembling, wherever we connect, online or in the grocery store or in our prayers?

I like Jonah. He has all of the flaws you need in a hero. He saved Nineveh, once he finally grasped for himself the persistent, insistent, and inescapable mercy of God. I love that he is a bit fishy, and that God send him anyway to scold the city with love.

And Nineveh repents, and is saved by the very human intervention of God, just as we have been.


[i] Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (Norton, 2019), Vol. 2, “The Prophets”, p. 1289, commentary on Jonah 1:2

Featured image: Maarten van Heemskerck (1498–1574), Jonah Under His Gourd. Date: 1561. Royal Collection, UK, via wikimedia commons

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Prostitutes and Pharisees: enough of contempt

A sermon for the second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 17th 2021


In the genealogy of Jesus according to Matthew (Matthew 1:1-17), five women are mentioned, four of them by their names. Apart from Mary, his mother, there is Ruth, who was the grandmother of Jesse, the father of King David. The story of her “courtship” with Boaz makes for interesting reading (Ruth 2-4), but the writer makes no more of it than necessary.

The most ancient woman named in Jesus’ line of ancestors is Tamar (Genesis 38). Now Tamar was married to the son of Judah, son of Jacob; but he died. Following the tradition of levirate marriage, she was married to her husband’s brother, but he, too, died. Fearing that this was becoming a pattern, Judah withheld his younger son from Tamar, and left her to live as a widow. But Tamar tricked Judah. He met her on the road and thought that she was a prostitute, and hired her. He promised to pay her a goat, and she made him leave her his signet ring for surety. But when he sent back to claim it, the alleged “prostitute” was nowhere to be found.

A couple of months later, the townspeople complained to Judah that his daughter-in-law was pregnant. “She has been playing the whore,” they accused (forgive my language; it’s biblical). And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” That is when Tamar presented him with the signet, cord, and staff that he had left in her possession, when he used her in such a way that he did not even recognize her. Tamar gave birth to twins, Perez and Zerah. When Zerah reached his hand from the birth canal, the midwife tied it with a crimson cord; but Perez pushed his way past and became the firstborn. Perez, the son of Judah’s dereliction of duty and Tamar’s deception, was the ancestor of King David, eventually of Jesus himself.

A few generations later, after Egypt and the Exodus, the crimson cord and other themes resurface in the story of Rahab (Joshua 2). Rahab, who would become Boaz’s mother, therefore Ruth’s mother-in-law, in her younger days was the prostitute who protected and abetted Joshua and his spies in capturing Jericho. They told her to hang a crimson cord in her window so that they would be able to find and rescue her during the fall of Jericho that she had helped to bring about, and she lived forever afterward with the Israelites, becoming the great-great-grandmother of David, in the line of the accession of Jesus.

All of which is to say that when Jesus tells the priests and elders of the people that the tax collectors and the prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God ahead of them (Matthew 21:32), he has some family stories to inform him. When that old Pharisee Paul goes off on one about prostitutes in his letter to the church of Corinth, remember Tamar. Remember Rahab.

The exploitation of another human being for sex or power or any other form of selfish greed is heinous. We know that we have an ongoing problem with human trafficking, and it is the sin and the gluttony and the inhumanity of those who victimize others for profit that is the evil in that realm, not the bodies of the women, men, or young people who are enslaved by the wickedness of others.

The sin which Paul calls out in his letter to the Corinthians, which quivers with his personal distaste, is the sin of the one who pursues his own gratification without consideration to right relationship, mutual respect and love, faithfulness, continence, and grace. The prostitute does not defile the purchaser; he defiles himself.

Any time that we use another human being for our own gratification, without due respect to the full image of God, the full image of Christ within them, we commit the kind of blasphemy to which Paul refers. When we exploit one another for economic gain, or put someone down to bolster our own ego; when we use another to vent our frustration, of any kind, to vent our anger, to be our scapegoat or our escape; when we label the other with our own sin and blame; when we treat any other person as less than as gloriously full of the image of the divine as we are, then we are subject to the kind of judgement we normally reserve for those we consider sinners.

Perhaps that is why the mob was so quick to drop its stones when Jesus invited the one without sin to throw the first one at the woman allegedly caught in fornication, and why the elders, those who had lived the longest and learned the most, and sinned the most, the descendants of Judah were the first to drift away. And perhaps Jesus was thinking of his great-great-great-grandmother when he looked at the woman and, finding them to be alone together, said, “Where are they? Has no one condemned you? … Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and do not sin any more.” (John 8:1-11)

It is easy to condemn the other. It is easy to separate ourselves into “us” and “them”. It gets even easier when we use labels and group people together: black and white, right and left, sinners and saints, gay, straight, cis- or transgender, prostitutes and Pharisees.

But Jesus looked at Nathaneal and saw him for who he truly was, with no deceit. And Jesus looked at the woman, caught in sin and violently scorned by the crowd, and saw her as a woman, fully human, and made in the image of the divine. He saw their common ancestry, their shared humanity, and the mercy of God that filled the divide between them.

Almost everyone’s story is more complicated in its roots and its backwoods than it first appears. We are not as adept as Jesus at seeing through to the core at first glance. But we are his spiritual descendants, and his ancestors are our ancestors. We can practice, removing labels and resisting prejudice, remembering where we have come from, the skeletons in our closets, the memories behind the mirror, resisting the temptation to use or abuse others to feel better about ourselves, and wondering instead how we can be of service, to help and to heal the world, following in the way of Jesus, in whom the image of the God was made perfectly, fully, and compassionately human.

Let me close with a prayer penned by one of those who strove to follow in Jesus’ way of love, Martin Luther King, Jr:

O thou Eternal God, out of whose absolute power and infinite intelligence the whole universe has come into being. We humbly confess that we have not loved thee with our hearts, souls and minds and we have not loved our neighbors as Christ loved us. We have all too often lived by our own selfish impulses rather than by the life of sacrificial love as revealed by Christ. We often give in order to receive, we love our friends and hate our enemies, we go the first mile but dare not travel the second, we forgive but dare not forget. And so as we look within ourselves we are confronted with the appalling fact that the history of our lives is the history of an eternal revolt against thee. But thou, O God, have mercy upon us. Forgive us for what we could have been but failed to be. Give us the intelligence to know thy will. Give us the courage to do thy will. Give us the devotion to love thy will. In the name and spirit of Jesus we pray. Amen.

Martin Luther King, Jr.
https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/prayers

Featured image: Jacopo Tintoretto (1519-11594), The Meeting of Tamar and Judah (detail), via wikimedia commons

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Resisting evil

A sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany in January 2021, days after insurrectionists briefly ousted the US Congress from its chambers


On the Feast of the Epiphany, the day on which we celebrate God’s revelation of the Incarnation of Christ to the nations of the world, images from our nation’s capital were cast about the globe of insurrectionists wrapped in flags, some with the name of the president and symbols of civil war, and some which bore with them the holy name of Jesus.

On the day of the Epiphany, when God’s love shone out from the cradle of the Christ-child, born to be one with us, to seek and to serve us in mercy, in humility, and in the miracle of forgiveness, we mourned the deliberate divisiveness that fuels violence among us, the lies that lead to conspiracy against the truth, the violation of our democratic ideals, the ironic vainglory of some who hold themselves to be supreme while wrapping themselves in the name of Jesus. We mourn the several deaths that resulted directly from the rhetoric and actions of that day.

Those flags that bore the name of Jesus might have been the robes of Herod, who pretended to the Magi that he wished also to worship the Son of the almighty God, when in fact he worshipped no one but himself. Erecting a gallows while wrapped in the name of the one who hung from a tree for us and for our salvation is perhaps the deepest and most devastating irony.

Jesus, meanwhile, was in the manger: God incarnate, born into the humblest body to show us the way of God’s love. Love is creative, not destructive.

The Greek disciples whom Paul found at Ephesus had never heard of the Holy Spirit. They had not been raised on the same Jewish scriptures as Jesus and Paul, full of the prophetic voice of God. They didn’t know any better. We do not have their excuse. We have seen the revelation of God in Christ spread about the world. We have known the anointing of the Holy Spirit. We know that the counterpart of our baptism of repentance is the provocation of the Holy Spirit to follow in the footsteps of that Jesus: to do justice as he did, love mercy as he loved, resist evil, as he resisted, walk humbly as he walked with God. We have made our covenant in baptism, to renounce evil, to proclaim the Gospel of Christ in word and in deed, to uphold the dignity of those made in the image of God.

Where does that leave us after Wednesday’s deep indignities?

We cannot claim ignorance, and we dare not pretend that this, resisting this violence against the body of our nation and the name of our Lord, the one for whom we call ourselves Christians, is not our business, nor that repentance is not required of all of us.

We cannot make an idol of our political institutions, recognizing that no political system can be said truly to represent the reign of God. Still, democracy coexists so kindly with Christianity because at its best, which, like the kingdom of God, we have not yet fully realized, it promotes the submission of selfish and power-greedy, divisive and unequal ideologies to the cooperation of the body, and sacrifice for the sake of the dignity and welfare of the whole community.

Neither can we allow ourselves to adopt the same tactics of vainglory, or vengeance, or violence of spirit. Jealousy, anger, factions, quarrels, and dissensions are directly opposed to the work of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:19-21), according to the same Paul who baptized the disciples at Ephesus.

The Holy Spirit, who brooded over the waters at the beginning of creation, the dark face of God, which fell upon Jesus in the form of a dove at his baptism, is the same Spirit that we received at our baptism. And the fruits of the Spirit, Paul teaches us, are love, joy, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is, he says, no law against such things. (Galatians 5:22-23)

Consider what we saw invading the seat of our government on Wednesday, and whether the flag of Jesus was used to promote peace or to signal jealousy; to cover the image of God with glory or to defile it with White supremacy; whether the name of Jesus was used to spread love or to shout anger; whether it was displayed with self-control, or with wild dissension.

Consider how we signal our own discipleship, and how we wear the name of Jesus.

Consider our side of the covenant, made at baptism, to repent of the evil that invades us, to resist all evil that tempts us, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, serving the way, the truth, and the life; the life of God shining throughout creation.

Consider God’s part in our covenant, made at the beginnings of creation: God’s promise to make all things well, to be steadfast in mercy and forbearance, to bring all peoples, languages, and nations to know the love that God has for the world, and the justice of God’s kingdom.

Love is creative, not destructive.

Consider how we, brooding with the Holy Spirit, the dark face of God, over the troubled waters of our baptism, might create healing, promote peace, reflect Christ’s humility and love.

But first we must repent, and turn away, turn aside from evil.

On this day, on which we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, if we were together, we would rehearse our own baptismal covenant. We always begin it with the reaffirmation of our renunciation of wickedness and sin, and our affirmed commitment to follow Jesus.

Trusting in our God, who always keeps God’s covenant of faithfulness, let us do just that today:

Question Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? Answer I renounce them.

Question Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? Answer I renounce them.

Question Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? Answer I renounce them.

Question Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? Answer I do.

Question Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? Answer I do.

Question Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord? Answer I do.

Do you believe in God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?
Our service continued, answering with The Apostles’ Creed

Book of Common Prayer, Holy Baptism
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A prayer for the preacher when words fail

January 9, 2021

Beyond Jordan, the baptizer cried repentance,

preaching to snakes, devouring locusts,

razing the wilderness with his words,

confronting kings and drowning sins.

At his neck, the knowledge of his own humility,

the prickling of glory about to fall.

At his hands, the Word of God was buried

beneath the stream that flowed toward the Dead Sea.

Above its gurgle, John heard truth descending.

The man before him breathless still,

stunned into speech it was his cousin who spake,

Amen.

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The Cross

The Cross

January 6, 2021


Empty his cross

took on a life

fame and infamy

of its own

Withered by sun and swollen the wood rotted down

Romans rotating home took mementos of their tour

symbols of conquest caked with soil and blood

One framed repentance

and hung it on the wall

Women came to

clean up its remains

to sell or to burn

with their spices

Raised now in 

pious memory

mimicry or mockery

Relic of salvation

splintered

severally


On January 6, as insurgents erected a gallows outside the US Capitol building in DC, others struggled to raise a cross outside of the State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan

Still from a Twitter video by Christian Martinez, business reporter for LSJ News in Lansing, MI
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds AFP/Getty
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Epiphany: the Lord shall arise upon you

A sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, shared by Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, and the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio

This sermon was written and recorded before Christmas. This afternoon, White nationalists bent on overturning the result of the 2020 election stormed the Capitol building. At the time of posting, all is not well in our nation, and anxieties are high.

This is still true: That the Magi saw the light from the borders of tumult and strife, the rough and raw edges of empire. After they had found its source, … cradled in a manger and squalling with humanity; afterwards, they returned home by another way, having discovered in a dream the cruelty of human kings and the personal danger of confronting corruption with the light of God. But it is out of the darkness of God’s womb that light shines, and out of emptiness that God’s love filled the world. And no amount of destruction can counter the creative love of our God.

My friends, take care of one another, for great care will be needed to patch up the wounds of this country. Pray for peace. Pray for healing. Pray for the soul of our nation. Pray for one another. God, hear our prayer. Christ, have mercy upon us.


It began in darkness.

Before the creation of the world, everything that yet was nothing was empty and devoid of light There was as yet no heaven, no earth; but there was God. In the dark womb of God’s imagination, creation began.

First, God called out the light.

A few billion years later, give or take, a stargazer by night, his life swept up in awe of God’s resplendent creativity, noticed something bright, something unusually bright.

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.

Isaiah 60:1-2

The prophet wrote his oracle of light in the midst of exile and oppression. The Magi saw the light from the borders of tumult and strife, the rough and raw edges of empire. After they had found its source, not, as they once might have expected, in the heavens but cradled in a manger and squalling with humanity; afterwards, they returned home by another way, having discovered in a dream the cruelty of human kings and the personal danger of confronting corruption with the light of God.

Out of darkness the light shines. The Magi saw the light from the borders of tumult and strife, the rough and raw edges of empire. After they had found its source, not, as they once might have expected, in the heavens but cradled in a manger and squalling with humanity; afterwards, they returned home by another way, having discovered in a dream the cruelty of human kings and the personal danger of confronting corruption with the light of God.

In recent years, scientists across the globe have named a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene—to describe the tipping point at which human activity, human creativity, human consumption and callous casting off have come to define our world, its climate, its health and safety. Humanity, we are now told, has filled the world with as much matter as life itself. That is, all the stuff that we have made now weighs as much as every living thing on earth put together. We have become so distracted by our own bling that we are in danger of burying ourselves beneath it.

darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.

A United Nations report argues that “we are the first people to live in an age defined by human choice, in which the dominant risk to our survival is ourselves.” Inequities across the world threaten some, while over-indulgence threatens others, and the changes to our climate, the mantle cloaking the shoulders of our environment, torn and stained and singed, are becoming ever more visible.

It is the challenge of a new era, a new epoch, but it has been a long time in the making.

When the Magi chose another route to their home, they did so because they recognized that “we … live in an age defined by human choice, in which the dominant risk to our survival is ourselves.” They saw the cruelty of kings and the greed of power, the dangers of opposing corruption and consumption, and they withdrew.

Perhaps the difference is that we are now past the point of withdrawing from the danger. Warned by the prophets, by the Word of God, by our dreams, and by the modern Magi, our scientists, we have recognized that the danger is within us.

“We … live in an age defined by human choice, in which the dominant risk to our survival is ourselves.” We make our choices of how to live, whether to increase the burden of our climate or relieve what we can; whether to protect the air from pollution and the airways of our neighbour from pandemic, or not; whether to humble ourselves before the image of God confronting us across the street, or to turn our faces away. Whether to seek illumination as wise inquirers, or, like Herod, self-satisfied yet precarious, only to pretend.

If we find ourselves in darkness for a season, we have no need to be afraid of it, for Christ is with us, for darkness is the womb of God. If we find ourselves uncertain of the way forward, the heavens clouded and the north star shrouded, we have seen a light that is not distant from us, not hidden in the heavens or shrouded by clouds of grief or of glory, but borne among us, wherever the love of God is remembered, and the child of God attended with mercy and justice and humility. We have a light that we can carry before us, to lighten the ways of the world for those whom God has given us to love.

If, in fact, we “live in an age defined by human choice” still, we live also in an age defined by the patient and persevering love of God, the timelessness and tirelessness of mercy, the endurance of the One who holds both light and darkness in one hand, and makes of them kings and wise men, fools and knaves, sinners and saints, and the Christ child, born to save us all.

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you. …
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice …
The sun shall no longer be your light by day,
nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night;
but the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory.
Your sun shall no more go down
or your moon withdraw itself;
for the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your days of mourning shall be ended.

Isaiah 60:1-2,5,19-20

Amen

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The Magi by Night

They travelled by night
they followed his star meaning
they had to wait for darkness to fall as a mantle
about their shoulders to know the way

to navigate mountainsides littered with bodies
of mountain goats sleeping mountain lions creeping
owls startled at this untimely interruption
of their prey-ful meditation;

they followed his star meaning maybe
that they stumbled on stepping stones
robes heavy with salt and clay
casting relics with their feet as they

followed his star waiting by day
for God’s preëternal presence
to show them the light

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Not there yet

A sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas and the first Sunday of 2021 at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid


The fact is that God was born into a world where danger still existed, where mayhem and murder were still the purview of kings, where exile and refuge and return were part of too many lives; where the promises of God to be with God’s people did not circumvent history, but redeemed it.

Joseph’s dreams drove him across the wilderness, dangerous then and haunted now. They persuaded him to leave the country he knew behind, because it was about to become unrecognizable, mangled by Herod’s rage. When God called him home, Joseph considered where to go. He was still afraid of the family that Herod left behind. The disposition of one tyrant did not undo his terrors. Joseph went north, out of the way. He did not return the same way.

Still, Joseph trusted that God would be with him, and his growing family, wherever and however they found their way home.

When Jeremiah reassured the people that they would return to Jerusalem, it was to a city whose Temple had been razed by invaders, whose altars were unrecognizable, whose homes were destroyed and who would have to start over as a people under occupation, to rebuild their devotions and their dwelling places. They would return with weeping, said the prophet, but with the consolations of God around their shoulders. Even though they would not return to what they had left behind, God would guide them into a new future, a new Temple, a new covenant.

We are in no such dire straits as we face a new year, filled with uncertainty and somewhat bewildered at what we have lost in the preceding months: the people we have missed, the final goodbyes unsaid, the Eucharists uncelebrated. The ground beneath our feet has shifted, and we know that we still face a long road home; but we are not as uprooted as Joseph and his holy family, nor exiled like Jeremiah and his nation. We have seen how the innocent still suffer from the violence of the proud and the angry; we still have much we need to work out about that.

In recent months, we turned 2020 into a scapegoat, piled on our woes: a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, health worries, the inability of our election magically to make everyone finally agree; even murder hornets. But the year has turned, and has a new name, and we are still some way from the solid ground of familiarity, of home.

We are not without hope, any more than Joseph was, led by a dream through the desert, or Jeremiah, drawn from the well of depression and oppression to preach the peace of God to come, that passes understanding.

It’s going to take patience, to find our new beginnings this year. It’s going to take perseverance, to complete our journey through the wilderness. There may be detours that are indicated to keep us safe along the way, different ways of doing things or being in the world together. But we have, in God and with God, everything that we need for our journey.

We have, in the knowledge of the love of God, the awareness of the image of God in every person ensouled by the Spirit, to keep us from bitterness and hatred, and to protect us in the paths of righteousness, and of repentance, and of forgiveness.

We have in the example of Jesus, and of his devoted parents, the call to sacrifice that will keep us from encroaching on the safety of our neighbours with the selfishness of our desires; that will keep us patient, and apart, until it is safe to come together; that will remind us of the value of the lives of others.

We have, in the Wisdom of God that guided the Magi, the ingenuity of scientists and the compassion of caregivers who distribute the curiosity and love of humanity distilled into vaccines and packed into care plans.

However, and whenever, we find our way home, God is not only there waiting for us. God is with us in the journey. God is with us in the wilderness. God is with us in the grief and the weeping. God is with us in the consolation and the moments of levity. God is with us in the confusion and in the insight. Even the Christmas season draws itself out beyond our patience for it, all to remind us of the promises of Emmanuel: God is with us. Jesus, a saviour, is born.

As the apostle Paul might have written just for such a time as this,

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which God has called you, what are the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe.

Ephesians 1:15-19

Amen


The featured image is from The Flight into Egypt: A night piece, by Rembrandt van Rijn, which was donated to donated to Wikimedia Commons and the public domain as part of a project by the National Gallery of Art

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Halfway

This devotion for the sixth day of Christmas was first posted at the Episcopal Cafe: Speaking to the Soul


Halfway through packing for their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the Temple and its sacrifice, the covenant and its blood, Joseph is distracted by the keening of the child. He had never noticed before how like grief a baby’s cry could be – wailing for the womb, mourning the waters from which it was drawn out and adopted into the world. Half-turning, he would scoop up the infant and cradle him, soothe him from the pain to come; but his mother already has him in her arms, holding him to one breast, whispering secrets.

Halfway through the night, a shepherd shifts uneasily in sleep, dreaming of a terrifying light, a polyphony of voices, but it is only the sheep bleating. They, too, still watch the sky for the return of angels.

Halfway through their journey, the astronomers, looking for their own light, rail at the cloud cover and complain to their camels. They set up camp in the desert, closer than they think to the site of God’s deliverance.

Halfway through dinner, Herod belches and clutches his chest. Heartburn. For all the heat of its name, his blood runs cold each time he is reminded of his mortality. He is out of sorts, and he is afraid.

Halfway through a prayer, Anna pauses. She can hear Simeon greeting another young couple with his practised patter, putting them at ease with his restless eyes and excitement, as though every infant coming through these portals might be, at last, the Messiah. As she hears them murmuring by, gossiping under their breath about Simeon’s zealous optimism, for the first time in decades, Anna realizes that she is hungry.

Halfway through the prayer of confession, I stumble across the words, “We have not loved you with our whole heart.”

On the sixth day, halfway through Christmas, with the wholesomeness of God’s love lying in a manger and the heartlessness of Herod running riot in the streets; with God’s Incarnate One being prepared for his first wound, and his mother slowly healing, but her catching her heart in her mouth each time he sighs; on the sixth day, Joseph half-turns back, forgetting to pack up the bread he had picked up before the baby cried, his heart halfway to heaven and his spirit halfway to madness with the wonder of it all.


Featured image: detail from St Joseph with the Infant Jesus, Elisabetta Sirani (Bologna 1638-1665), c. 1662, photographed by Palmesco, used under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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The first breath

scented with humanity –

the particulates of life –

held for what seemed like

eternity, let loose at last

(his mother, astonished at

the audacity of her body, gasped)

with the force of a singular

creation, splitting the skies,

setting stars with its

raucous music

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