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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A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent: Joseph’s story (Matthew 1:18-25)

If I were Joseph’s sister, or cousin, or mother, how might I advise him? By now everyone and his wife (sorry, Joseph) knows about Mary’s condition. There is murmuring and even muttering. All eyes are on Joseph’s house, waiting for him to confirm their outrage and complete their judgement.

At dinner, Joseph was quiet. His parents pressed him for an answer, “What will you do about her?” He needed time to think, he said. “What’s to think about?” they asked. “What do you think she thought about?” they asked. Joseph’s eyes did not reflect their anger and righteous indignation. He simply looked sad.

That night he dreamed. At breakfast, he appeared straighter, stronger, more resolute than his family had seen him these past days and weeks. They looked up to him in a nervous thrill of expectation. Judgement is always exciting, especially when applied to somebody else.

“The child,” Joseph announced, “is the fruit of the Holy Spirit. It is the Son of God. He will be named Saviour. And I will raise him to know his Father. The Lord has spoken.”

There were a few theories around the village.

One, the simplest, was that Joseph had slept with Mary, his betrothed, and she had become pregnant. These things happen. But out of embarrassment, Mary had denied the deed, and Joseph was left to smooth over her story. No one would have thought anything of it, had she not denied, out of some squeamishness, that the child was his. They laughed at Joseph’s clumsy attempts to cover up for Mary’s innocent lie.

Those less inclined to be generous questioned why, in that case, the young couple would ever have raised doubts about the baby’s origins. Perhaps there was something more to the story, someone more to the story, those neighbors suggested, and they turned away from Mary and Joseph’s families in the marketplace, and they watched the young men watching Mary, and wondered. They laughed at Joseph’s gullibility, raising a cuckoo in his own nest.

Then there was the explanation that Joseph himself offered. Few believed him. Dreams of angelic announcements were a little medieval, they agreed over the water well. It had been several centuries since Isaiah’s prophecy of a woman bearing the child of God to live as Emmanuel, and nothing had come of it yet. Who did these young people think they were anyway? They laughed at the idea that God could still surprise them.

If I were Joseph’s sister, or mother, or cousin I might counsel him that it was not too late to put Mary aside. She had gone, after the quick wedding ceremony, to her own cousin’s house in the country, Elizabeth’s home in the hills. Perhaps it would be better if she stayed there. But Joseph insisted on welcoming her home, even into our home. He insisted on believing that the promises of God through the prophets still stood, that angels still spoke through dreams, and that love would always find a way into a weary and cynical world.

And what do we believe?

There are a couple of possibilities for why and how Joseph was so ready to accept the word of God that came to him in a dream. One is that he was so in tune with the will of God, so ready in prayer and in spirit to receive the revelation of God that it came as no surprise to him when God answered his misgivings with a word of challenge and of reassurance: never give up on the way of love.

The other is that Joseph was so besotted with Mary, so in love that he would believe anything that would allow him to keep her by his side, that would let him continue loving her, come what may.

I suppose the question for us is, how ready are we to receive the challenging and reassuring word of God? And where do we invest and spend our love?

If God asked us to accept something quite unreasonable to the outside world – like self-sacrifice, like selflessness, like the possibility that all of the answers to our troubles might not be found at the bottom of a ballot box, or the middle of a bottle, or at the top of a pecking order – would we believe it?

If God asked us to go ahead and accept the unacceptable – the person whom society had written off, laughed at, scorned – if God told us instead that this person carries the image of God, and bears the love of God, would we believe it?

And if we were to believe it, would we be brave enough to suffer the scorn of our neighbours to stand up for God’s beloved? Would we be foolish enough to go against our own self-interest for the good of someone else, just because the Holy Spirit said so in a dream?

What are we willing to give up, to let go for the love of God?

On the night before Jesus died, his closest friend denied three times that he even knew the man. In the nights before Jesus was born, Joseph dreamed. Would we be ready to stake our reputation on the acknowledgement that yes, Jesus is the Son of God; that yes, the way of the Cross, the way of self-giving, selfless, vengeance-denying love is the way to life, liberty, and the pursuit of heaven; that yes, Jesus, born of Mary, is God Incarnate, Emmanuel, God with us?

And if we are prepared to say it, are we prepared to live it? Joseph did not only say that he believed Mary: he dedicated the rest of his life to living like it. He married her. He loved her. He loved Jesus. He was no longer afraid of what the neighbours might say, that he had gone soft. He understood that love is more powerful than any law, any jealousy, any weapon or word, because he saw God in a dream, and he knew that it was real.

If I had been Joseph’s mother, or sister, or cousin, in that moment I am afraid that I would have failed him. But Jesus would have been born anyway, and perhaps I would have come to see, in time, what I had been afraid to understand: that the love of God will not be constrained by our imaginations, nor by our self-righteousness.

All I can pray today is that God will guide my heart to know the foolishness of love, the scandal of the Incarnation, the ridiculous victory of the Cross, the miracle of Emmanuel, God with us. To quote a countryman of mine, “You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.”*

John Lennon, Imagine (Apple Records, 1971)

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Be patient

A sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent, 2019, at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio

“Be patient, beloved.” It’s a wonderful message for this time of year, although I don’t think James meant it just for Advent and Christmas.

He repeats it four times, one way or another, in the space of seven sentences: “Be patient, beloved.”

You can hear in his words the echo of the mother of a small child, over-excited and eager for Christmas morning. You can hear the mantra of the patient awaiting surgery, or recovery, of the spouse pacing the waiting room. You can hear the prayer of the person pursuing justice. You can hear the silent plea of the person hurrying to get things done in twice the time that it takes to make everyone behind them in line impatient, unaware of their invisible struggle. You can hear the silent smile of a lover who hides a secret gift with which to surprise their spouse:

“Be patient, beloved.”

You can hear the words of Jesus to the disciples of John, worried and anxious that the Son of Man is not coming quickly enough, on sufficient clouds of glory, with enough might and majesty to wreak havoc on the earth. John sends from prison messengers to ask, “How long, O Lord, how long?” And Jesus answers, in so many words, “Be patient, beloved.”

In the meantime good things are happening, because Jesus is among us, God made Incarnate, taking on our image, Emmanuel, and the kingdom of heaven has drawn near. The eyes of the blind have been cleared, and the ears of the deaf unstopped. The legs of the stumbling have been set free, and the poor have received good news. Even the dead have a new lease on life. 

Do not be offended at what I have not yet done for you, says Jesus, but open your eyes to the grace and mercy of God that already surrounds you.

Be patient, beloved.

And do not be offended at what I do not do, says Jesus.

John is still waiting for the powerful to be overthrown. Isaiah is waiting for the haunt of jackals to become an oasis, and for life to become straightforward. James is waiting for the Second Coming of Christ, as a farmer waits for his crops to come to harvest.

We tried planting a garden a couple of times at home. Each time, we waited as spring turned to summer and the sun and the rain took turns playing with our hopeful expectations. This year’s garden didn’t do well, although the cat enjoyed the mint crop. The first garden grew better, but just as the food was coming ready, someone, something else came in and ate it.

The hungry will be filled with good things, sings Mary in the Magnificat, but the rich will be sent away empty.

We are rich in many things, my family and I. Perhaps it was the turn of some other beloved creature of God to receive the bounty of daily bread, the blessing of Providence, the fruit of creation.

Do not be offended at what I do for others, says Jesus. Be patient, beloved.

When our children were small and there were too many things to do with the two hands that I have, one of the children, wise and observant, noticed that often their requests were met with the same, repeated phrase. I realized this one day when they asked me, “for a drink, please, now and not in a minute.”

Be patient, beloved.

But why, we wonder, does God make us wait a minute? Why does Jesus keep John in suspense? Why is James still waiting, patiently, for the coming of the final judgement and the day of revelation? Why are we still waiting for the day when no one, not even a fool, will go astray; because we know we’re not there yet?

It is not because God is distracted with too many things, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8, ESV).

It is not because God does not have enough hands to do it all, for, “All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the Lord” (Isaiah 66:2, ESV)

So why do we need to remain patient, beloved? 

Well, there are many good answers, but in this season, I can think of one. 

In ten days’ time, we will celebrate once more that anniversary that calls for two thousand candles, for several billion voices to sing with the angels, “Glory to God! For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, unto us a Saviour is delivered into this earthly life, with all of its hope, and its promise, and its demanding patience, and its merciful mortality, and its hints of the heaven to follow.”

After Christmas, and Epiphany, in a minute or a month, we are rushing towards Jerusalem, the Cross, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Holy Spirit, then back again here to the Advent holding back, the patient season of pregnant waiting.

We reduce the whole of that infant’s life to a year, to a succession of seasons. But in the meantime, he takes his time to grow, to become fully and carefully, patiently the person he was born to be. He waits decades before he is baptized by John and begins his public ministry. He experiences hunger and hatred, hope and love, grief and the touch of a woman’s hair, wiping his feet. He is patient, beloved. He does not rush to his redeeming death, nor leap from the Cross but waits three days in the ground to return, labouring once more toward a new birth.

He takes the time to live well in this life; to do good where he can, and spread healing where he finds hurt, to love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly in the image of God. He takes the time to bear that image of God in which humanity was made: the image of creativity, grace, inspiration, of love.

Be patient, beloved.

It takes time for us to grow into that image that God has of us, as humans capable of faith and redemption, fit for mercy, hungry for righteousness and humbled by mortality. It takes time for us to beat our gun barrels into ploughshares, to learn war no more, to humble our proud imaginations to the vision that God has for God’s creation. We have time to repent and make amends for our personal sins, things done and let undone; time to atone for our communal sins of racism, sexism, antisemitsm, selfishness. 

We have time to enjoy this life that God has lent us: time to discover the beauty of love, time to encourage joy, time to live in hope.

In the meantime, beloved, be patient. Do not be offended at God’s slow and steadfast loving-kindness to lowly. Do not be offended by Christ’s indiscriminate healing and hope-giving, spread among the undeserving, the undesirable: God knows, we need it, too. Take the chance that we have been given actively and with awe to await with patience, with growing wonder, the birth of something new in the heart of the world.

Be patient, beloved. Christ is come among us, and Christ is coming.

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The imagination of eternity

A homily for the commemoration of St John of Damascus at Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland

I hope that I will never forget the first time I visited the Garden Tomb outside the city walls of Old Jerusalem. The vision of its emptiness was full of the memory of resurrection. A stone bed lay smooth and untroubled. At either end, a rise in the stone brought to mind the linen cloths, folded and rolled, and the angels at the head and the foot of the place where the body had been (John 20:12); images and echoes of the cherubim stationed beside the mercy seat, guarding the invisible and invincible presence of God, rendered in gold by human hands while the living God remained unrendered, but barely out of reach.

Deeper into the city stands the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is full of noise and colour, shadows and light, telling the story of Christ and his Passion in every language at once, through sight and the smell of incense, the press of pilgrim bodies, the smooth stone of anointing, the small cave of mystery.

The preacher of Ecclesiastes, poetically translated, observes that God “has set eternity in the hearts of [humanity];” (NIV) and otherwise that God “hath set the world in their heart;” (KJV) although no one may know it from beginning to end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

God has opened our hearts, and if our hearts then our minds and spirits, and if our minds then our imaginations, and if our imaginations then our senses to understand something, if not all of eternity; something, if not all of the creative love God has for us; something, if not all of the mystery of that love expressed through the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It is rendered in art, and hidden in the heart of the quiet, empty tomb.

John of Damascus, whom we remember this evening, argued fondly for the rendering of the image of Christ and his holy Mother in iconography and image, and thank God for that. My imagination and the shelves of my office at church and at home would be emptier had he not.

John’s major work, The Fount of Knowledge: An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, gives honour to the full and human Incarnation of Christ as a worthy and wonderful means of God’s self-revelation and redeeming love. He knew the value of mystery as well as anyone, despite his attempts to wrestle into a single book a systematic and sensible summary of all that his Fathers in the faith had understood and worked out and ironed out and stamped with their approval regarding the nature, the substance, the persons, the providence of God.

Honestly, a book that begins by defining five modes of philosophy and eight kinds of division and four aspects of the term “individual” is probably a little beyond my patience; but behind and beneath his erudition lies John’s absolute delight in the revelation of God through creation, through philosophy, through humanity, and especially the Incarnation.

Why else would he choose, to illustrate the property inherent in humanity, the image of laughter? “Thus,” he says, “every man can laugh and everything that can laugh is a man.” John did not choose his words lightly; he must mean particularly that Jesus laughed, and that his imagination of the Messiah goes deeper than his words can describe, into the realms of humour and delight.

While certain others of his day deplored the veneration of images and icons, citing the second commandment against the worship of graven images, John remembered that we ourselves are made in the image and likeness of God. “On what grounds, then,” he asked, “do we shew reverence to each other unless because we are made in God’s image?”

As we love and show reverence to one another, that love and reverence is remitted beyond the image to the prototype, to God, so that in loving one another, we also fulfill our duty of loving God.

And Christ has proved that point beyond doubt by his Incarnation, becoming flesh with us, laughing and weeping, bearing his own image among us, laying his body down before us, his Mother’s arms gentling him into the manger, the swaddling clothes, and the winding cloth: the world and eternity met in the heart of humanity, as Ecclesiastes, through various translations, foretold.

There is danger, nonetheless, in rendering Christ in wood and ink, oil and water, his features flattened, pressed under the weight of our expectations and experience, Mary’s milky flesh lightened and whitened, the divine darkness artificially brightened with gilt and gold. There is the danger that instead of conforming our imaginations to Christ’s likeness, we will attempt to fix him in ours. Even John, describing great mysteries, would have them explicated and enumerated just so.

Advent teaches us to keep our eyes open to the deepening shadows behind the frame, the absence between the angels, the emptiness that promises the fullness of eternity, the fullness of that which has yet to come to light. God has opened the heart of humanity to understand eternity – but not all of it, yet, from start to finish.

The quiet solitude of the Garden Tomb, set against the feast of Holy Sepulchre, brings to mind the holy absence of a beloved body at the holiday table, the image of a face fading from sight and memory, hope sitting heavy in the empty chair. There is comfort, when grief attends the holiday feast, in remembering the cherubim guarding the presence of God in the empty space between them, the pregnant life of resurrection rendered in the space, empty but for shadows, between the head and the foot of the Garden Tomb.

I am glad that John and his cohort prevailed in the argument over icons and images in worship. My heart would be colder and my eyes emptier without them.

And there is something to be said for remembering in this season which contemplates all that we cannot see the absence that promises that which is yet beyond our sight or understanding; that there is a life yet to come, in which all will be restored to the glory that God has created from the beginning, which will flood the heart and sense of humanity with the full measure of the enormity of the love of Christ, Incarnate, Crucified, Resurrected, Risen, and yet to come again.

The Fount of Knowledge: An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, by St. John Damscene, derived from a translation by Rev. G. N. Warwick of The Patristic Society, via, accessed 12/2/19-12/4/19

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Sneaky Jesus

A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, 2019, at the Church of the Epiphany in Euclid, Ohio. In the gospel, Jesus warns of the suddenness of the second coming of the Son of Man. In the news, London is recovering from a terrorist stabbing attack on London Bridge.

There’s a strange notion buried in the middle of this gospel and it has got me thinking. For most of the text, Matthew has Jesus warning his disciples that they do not know when the kingdom of God will be finally and fully revealed, with all of its glory and all of its judgement and all of its salvation. Keep awake, be ready, be open to the coming of the Day of the Lord.

And yet in this one little line, Jesus goes off script. If the owner of the house had known the hour of the invasion, he would have defended himself against it.

In one breath and more, Jesus is advising vigilance in order to receive the Son of Man at any moment.

The bridesmaids must keep their lamps lit, the stewards must keep the house ready to welcome the bridegroom, the master, the Messiah.

And yet in this one, quick breath, Jesus describes himself as a thief in the night, against whom the householder might do well to defend himself.

I do not think that this is an accident.

On the one hand, the message to the church and to the people of the church is simple: live as you would want Jesus to find you. Be prepared, be ready to receive your judge, confident that you are living out the gospel in word and in deed. Be confident in your salvation, and through that confidence have the courage to extend the mercy, the justice, the grace that Jesus has offered you throughout your own sphere of influence.

This collection of passages about the day and the hour and the coming of the Son of Man culminates in the familiar parable of the sheep and the goats, and the naked and the hungry, and those who did right by their neighbours, and those who failed to love them, and by so doing failed to love Jesus as themselves.

The message is clear: do unto others as you would like to be discovered doing at the day of revelation.

But it is also untenable. We cannot righteous our way to redemption. We will fall asleep, make mistakes. We have all sinned against God and against one another. Speaking for myself, with the best will in the world, I know that I will sin again.

I can’t help thinking of that man on London Bridge. You may have heard that one of the people who tackled the man with the knife had been in prison with him. You may have read that one of the have-a-go heroes who tackled the terrorist was, is, a convicted murderer. If the judgement had come at that moment, when he was doing good (and he did good that day); even if he devoted the rest of his life to heroic actions, would it restore the life that he had already stolen?

Our only hope is in mercy. Our help, our encouragement is in forgiveness. We cannot righteous our way to redemption.

And that’s where Jesus comes in.

No matter how hard we try to be ready for God and for judgement and for salvation, we have this tendency to fall back into fear, worried about what will happen if God catches us at the wrong moment.

We become so worried about the future of our salvation that we forget to notice that Jesus has already arrived, sneaking in through the back door, and is sitting at the kitchen table having already helped himself to a cup of tea.
While we are waiting for him, he is waiting for us.

In this odd little aside, the Son of Man is not a king, nor a bridegroom, but a burglar.

That’s a difficult image for some of us who have been the victims of criminal activity – but bear in mind that this is a metaphor, Jesus being sneaky and a little bit cheeky in describing to his disciples how the coming of the Christ might work.

I think that part of what Jesus is saying in this odd little aside is that we construct defences against him, against Christ, against grace. We make rules for who can receive salvation. We build walls around our hearts, fencing pieces off from God out of guilt, out of self-interest, out of shame, out of sin. In the beginning, when Adam and Eve discovered their nakedness, the story is told, they tried to hide from God and cover themselves from God’s sight.

But sneaky Jesus always finds a way around or through our defenses.

Whatever the deepest and most untold secret of your soul, Jesus has already seen it, broken it open, laid it out on the kitchen table next to that cup of tea he’s drinking. You might as well just turn it over to him. He will know what to do with it.

Whatever the most jagged scar on your psyche, Jesus has already touched it. You might as well turn it over to him. He knows how to help with the healing.

Whatever your sin, Jesus has already judged it. You might as well turn it over to him so that he will redeem it.

In the medieval church, Advent was known as the little Lent. Both are seasons of preparation for the coming of Christ, for the renewal of resurrection, for the hope of the kingdom of God. In each we are advised to make ourselves ready through study and prayer, self-examination and confession, repentance and revision, trusting in the goodness of Christ to come.

This being a Christian journey can be hard work. This call to love God, simple enough on the surface, demands sacrifice. It means loving our neighbours, all of them who also carry the image of God, as ourselves. It demands mercy and forgiveness and grace. It demands the letting go of grudges and judgements, prejudice and private, reserved bias. It demands that at any moment, we are ready to receive the judgement day, to be surprised by God doing exactly what Jesus has asked us to do: to make ready his table, his house, to keep his doors open to all.

And it demands that we have mercy on ourselves, when we fall asleep, when we fail to love as Christ loves us, keeping our hearts open to that love for us, and Christ’s forgiveness.

That’s why Jesus breaks in. It’s a paradox, but as we are bustling around the house making ready, he has snuck in through the service entrance and is working with us as one of the waiters in disguise, the Son of Man who came not to be served but to serve. As we are trimming our oil lamps and counting our reserves, he is the light of the world, unextinguished. As we are wondering how on earth we will get it all done, he has already set a table for us, lit a barbecue on the beach, divided the loaves and fishes,made a cup of tea and sat down at the kitchen table.

The Son of Man will come again in clouds and great glory; but he has also already arrived, slipping in through the very human entrance, through the womb. He is coming, and he is already with us.

And just as he came as a small, defenseless child, so we are defenseless against the tenderness and faithfulness of his just and forgiving, always surprising and deeply subversive love.

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Underwater Jesus

First published at the Episcopal Cafe

Today is a heavy travel day here in the US. For many, a trip home brings feelings of relief and deep joy. For others, the air is electric with anxiety and dangers. For some, there is no going home, only the wilderness wandering within sight but not touch of the Promised Land. For not a few, the opening of the holiday season begins a pilgrimage to the abyss of grief.

I am not travelling today, but yesterday I arrived home from a far-flung vacation. Travelling that way fills me with awe and inspiration – the breadth of God’s creative imagination and delight never ceases to amaze me.

On the last day of this most recent journey, we visited an island city where Spaniards celebrated the first Christian Eucharist in the area that was to become the republic of Mexico. One commemoration of the occasion was a plaque tucked outside a church on the corner of a busy marketplace. More surprising was the sunken Jesus, a statue deliberately submerged beside a coral reef just off a busy beach.

The history is of course fraught. So much of our shared and family life contains shipwrecks and subterrranean memories, hidden and uncovered histories.

But sinking statues of Jesus is, it turns out, a niche but profound tradition spread around the seabeds of the earth; a reminder that there is no place beyond the reach of God’s love and mercy. It provides the astonishment, at the end of one’s breath, of finding God waiting even in the depths.

In the Psalm for this evening’s prayer, the psalmist writes,

Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice (Psalm 130:1)

In the Apostles’ Creed, in the morning and in the evening we remember Christ who descended even to Hell.

I hope and pray that your Thanksgiving comings, goings, and stayings are joyful, peaceful, and blessed.

And in the lonely places, and when you find yourself underwater, I pray that you will find Jesus even so, waiting to embrace you and help you to resurface, as in the beginning, the Spirit of God brooded over the deep waters, calling forth a new creation.


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Race and guns: a call to the occasion “For Such a Time As This” with the Rev. Sharon Risher

I was honoured to offer this opening prayer and call at lunch with God Before Guns and the Rev. Sharon Risher at Forest Hill Presbyterian Church, Cleveland Heights, today.

What do guns have to do with any of this?

That was the question that came up after an institutional anti-racism training day. One of the hypothetical scenarios that we were given to discuss amongst ourselves included a passing reference to guns and our investment in them. At least one person wondered why such a divisive and distracting issue as guns and gun violence would be shoe-horned into a discussion of racism. What did one have to do with the other?

Well. Here we are.

The Reverend Sharon Risher knows all too well what one thing has to do with the other. Racism and gun violence were intimately and blatantly intertwined in Charleston and too many more places whose names are familiar for all the wrong reasons.

We have outsourced to gun violence the aspects of American life that most divide us. By means of fear-mongering and profit-hungering we have allowed guns to divide us to death, because guns are a most efficient means to ending an argument.

But we are here armed with our faith. Before her own family’s trauma overtook her and diverted her work even as far as Cleveland, Sharon Risher was a trauma chaplain, bringing the words of life into valley of the shadow of death. She aleady knew that call to the hard and counter-cultural work of faith: faith, any faith, demands that we wrestle with ridiculous notions such as mercy and forgiveness, because that is what God will do to us.

Preventing gun violence begins with disarming our own hearts and spirits of hate, of unrighteous anger, violence of vengeance, of pride, and the victory that belongs to God alone

Faith demands that we deal in hope: hope not only for the life to come but hope in this life, in this time, in this place. Now is the acceptable day of the Lord to do justice, love mercy, walk with humility and with God. Faith demands that we come together in hope and in love to begin the hard work of healing not only from the wounds of gun violence and grief, but to heal the open wounds that bleed gun violence; to proclaim and to preach a better way to love our neighbours than to arm ourselves against them.

Faith demands that we teach our children the way of love over the way of lock-down drills.

I am convinced that God is with us in this work. Just as nothing can divide us from the love of God – not heights, nor depths, nor angels, nor evil, nor life, nor death – so nothing will defeat the will of God to restore all creation, and all of God’s created beings, to the peace for which God created us.

And so, in that Spirit, let us pray:

Creator of all, we give you thanks for the time to come together in faith, in hope, and in love, to share our determination to live out the love you have shown us. We come to be nourished by your gifts of food, service, good company, hard experience, faithful prayer. We pray for our speaker, your daughter Sharon. Give us the grace of gratitude to all who have helped us come together today, all who have a hand in feeding and nurturing our bodies and souls; all who offer comfort; all who offer forgiveness. Give us courage to use these gifts not only for our own solace, but for the good and the safety and the healing of your people, made in your image, and to the glory of your Names. Amen.

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