Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Light in the Darkness (Reflections on the Epiphany of Our Lord)

On December 16, 2014 Taliban terrorists entered a school in Peshawar, Pakistan and massacred 133 school children whose only crime was that they were children of the soldiers of a regime with whom the terrorists disagreed. On December 14, 2012, two years ago but not to be forgotten by any of us, a madman with an assault rifle murdered 20 children and six of their teachers and administrators at a school in Newtown, Connecticut.

The deaths of these Holy Innocents leave us shaken, frightened, and questioning of the goodness of God. From the time of the Epiphany gospel (Matthew 2:1-18) to our own, the world has seen a sickening number assaults on innocent life, and nothing can strike us more deeply than the senseless deaths of children. And yet we must face the realities of this violent world if we are to hear the grace of the gospel.

In response to the bumper-sticker demand to “Keep Christ in Christmas,” Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber recently preached a stirring sermon on keeping Herod in Christmas. Pastor Bolz-Weber lamented the biblical inaccuracies of pretty Christmas cards depicting Magi on camels worshiping Christ in the stable along with adoring shepherds and angels. The reality of the gospel nativity story (or, more accurately stories as our Hallmark iconography actually combines both the accounts of Matthew and Luke) is far less pleasant. In a desire to feel all warm and fuzzy during the holiday season, we often forget the horrible tale related in Matthew 2:13-18, the tale of the jealous tyrant Herod and his attempt to eliminate the rival king Jesus by massacring all the male children of Bethlehem.

To be honest, the massacre described in Matthew may not have actually taken place as it is not recorded by any of the historians of the time. It has also been suggested that if the event actually did occur, the number of boys under age two in the tiny town of Bethlehem at that time was not significant enough to rate a mention. We do know, however, that Herod the Great was a ruthless despot who was not above murdering his wife and two of his own sons as well as committing other acts of brutality in order to secure his power over the people. As such, he stands in a long line of power-mad beasts stretching down past Hitler and Stalin to Bashar Al-Assad, Joseph Kony and others who think nothing of robbing innocents of their lives. Whether Herod committed the act attributed to him in the bible or not, we cannot deny that such acts have been and constantly are repeated on this violent and sinful planet.

But Matthew uses this story for specific reasons of his own. Jesus parallels Moses as a child in danger from the power structure of his day. Yet in spite of the power on the throne, the power of God rescues the boy child so he can rescue his people. Joseph the carpenter parallels Joseph the son of Jacob who journeys down into Egypt—an unwelcome journey, but one which will ultimately be for the salvation of the nation. The Jewish audience of Matthew's time would have understood these allusions, and would look to Jesus as the new Moses.

What was significant to the early Christians as well as to us in this story is that the birth of Jesus was a light to the Gentiles, to foreigners and people who are just not like us. The Magi described were probably ancient astrologers who believed that astronomical events accompanied the birth of great people. (The number three comes from the three types of gifts they bring, but the bible does not specify how many Magi there were. They became “kings” in later Christian history when churchmen attributed the reference in Psalm 72 to kings bringing tribute to the messiah to the Magi. Just thought you should know this!)

The early church depicted these non-Jews as a young man, a middle-aged man, and an elderly man in their iconography to represent that Jesus came for all the ages. They also present the Magi as a Middle-Easterner, a European, and a sub-Saharan African to proclaim that Jesus came for all races and nations. It must have been inspirational for these early Christian artists to proclaim that, despite official persecution from Jews and the Roman Empire, people on three continents were worshiping Jesus as their Lord and Savior within a generation of his crucifixion.

But Matthew's story has one more important symbolic element. The Magi are from the East, and they follow a star. That is, they are from the point where the light comes, where the sun rises, and they seek the LIGHT and find it in Jesus.

No matter how evil and frightening the darkness of this world is—in Matthew's day or our own—we still find the light in Christ. In Jesus we see unconditional love and acceptance. We see the beauty of sacrifice, of giving ourselves out of love for others. We see the cleansing and healing power of forgiveness. We see compassion. No matter how barbaric this world becomes, the light of Christ does not go out. For every act of outrage, there are acts of love and mercy, declaring that the darkness is ultimately doomed and will never prevail as long as we keep seeking the light. And when people seek the light, the world changes. Believe it.

A blessed Epiphany season to you all and a Happy New Year!

PS-Listen or read Pastor Bolz-Weber's moving sermon by clicking here.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Peace On Earth, Good Will Towards Men

I first heard one of the many variations on this story in a Christmas Eve sermon sometime back in the 1970's. Since the event related took place exactly 100 years ago—and it is a true story and worth being repeated—I offer it again as a Christmas meditation.
Soldiers from both sides exchange cheerful conversation

By Christmas Eve of 1914 the First World War had been savaging Europe for over four months. What began as a great patriotic adventure quickly disintegrated into a horror movie. Marching riflemen and charging cavalry, the staples of 19th century warfare, were no match for 20th century automatic weapon fire. As winter descended upon the continent, nearly one million soldiers had been killed. The German army, driven from France into Belgium, dug in with a series of fortified trenches. The French and British did the same, and these entrenchments cut a scar into the face of Europe from Switzerland to the North Sea. Enemies faced each other from filthy ditches, some no more than sixty yards apart. Attempts by each army to go “over the top” resulted in massive casualties on both sides. Men fled the slaughter back into their own trenches—trenches filled with mud, vermin, and disease. The dead and wounded were left in “No Man's Land” where their corpses decayed and rotted within the sight of their comrades.

So brutal and tragic was this war that on December 7, 1914 Pope Benedict XV wrote an open letter to the heads of empires begging them to end the fighting or, at the very least, declare a cease-fire for Christmas. The pontiff's missive was publicly and soundly rejected. This was war, declared the leaders of the combating nations, and war does not take a holiday.

On the night of December 24th, near St. Yves in Belgium, the temperature had already dropped below freezing. British sentries peered eastward across “No Man's Land” and reported an unusual sight. Tiny, flickering lights began to glow from the German trenches. The lights grew brighter and brighter, and one British soldier described them as looking like the footlights on a stage. British officers, fearing that the lights were the preparation for a night assault, ordered their troops to stand ready. Yet no assault would come.

Across the frozen graveyard, a strange sound wafted towards them:

Stille Nacht! Heil'ge Nacht!

Alles schlaft; einsam wacht...”

The Germans, the enemy, the hated Bosche, the Hun, were singing to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus. The flickering lights were small bits of candles used to decorate tiny Christmas trees sent to the soldiers from well-meaning women back home who had wanted to cheer up the boys in the trenches.

In spite of the orders forbidding a Christmas truce, it is believed that a spontaneous cease-fire was observed over two-thirds of the Western Front that night. In some places, British forces sang back to their German counterparts.

As dawn rose at St. Yves, sentries reported to a young baronet, Lt. Edward Hulse, that German soldiers were advancing from their trench. Hulse observed a small band of Germans in filthy, mud-soaked uniforms, crossing “No Man's Land” with their arms raised. The men were unarmed. Knowing that shooting unarmed men constituted a war crime, Hulse ordered his troops to hold their fire but shouted to the Germans and ordered them to retreat. They kept coming all the same.

A young, haggered, German officer approached Hulse's position and saluted smartly. Hulse returned the salute and demanded to know what the Germans wanted. In a perfect and almost unaccented English, the young officer told Hulse that they had come to wish the British a Merry Christmas and to ask leave to bury their dead. The two young officers struck up a conversation, and Hulse learned that his counterpart had lived in England. The German asked Hulse to write to his girlfriend in Sussex who was protecting the German's most prized possession, his motorcycle. Hulse ordered the cease-fire and proceeded to inspect the British trenches and arrange for burial of his own dead.

He was soon met by an astounding sight: the trenches were empty of men. The troops had not deserted, rather, they were climbing into “No Man's Land” and greeting their German counterparts. In some areas, soldiers from both armies were singing Christmas carols. It is said that such unofficial celebrations between the two armies were occurring over the entire front, creating the greatest impromptu international Christmas party in history.

Because both armies had received Christmas care packages from home, a lively gift exchange began. British tobacco was exchanged for German sausage. German schnapps were given for British tinned beef. The men also exchanged souvenirs such as buttons, belt buckles, and helmets. It is said that a soldier from a Scottish regiment miraculously produced a soccer ball, and a lively football game ensued. Some reports claim that improvised matches using a large beef tin or a bundle of discarded clothing in place of a ball were played up and down the front (The Germans are said to have won all of these games).

Of course, the grizzly duty of retrieving and burying the dead was also carried out. In some parts of the front the men agreed that, as all who had died were soldiers, they should be buried together in one mass, military grave as brothers side-by-side. The burials concluded with readings from scripture, the most popular being the Twenty-Third Psalm.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies...”

Many of the soldiers who participated in the Christmas truce of 1914 wrote home about the event, claiming they would never forget the brief moment of peace on earth and goodwill towards men they had experienced in the midst of the insanity of war. Some had even secreted cameras into the trenches, and photographs of the truce would later appear in newspapers on both sides of the conflict.

News of this brief moment of fraternity infuriated the high commands of both empires. Orders were given that troops should be regularly rotated along the front so no chance of familiarity with the enemy could be established. Fraternization at any level was declared a court-martial offense. Newspapers and letters home were censored, and a ferocious campaign of propaganda ensued with the goal of dehumanizing and demonizing the enemy. Finally, with the introduction of aerial bombardment and the insidious use of poison gas, the powers succeeded in fanning the flames of hatred. The war would stretch on for another four years and, in spite of a few attempts at “live and let live,” there would never be another break in the fighting similar to that of Christmas 1914.

By Christmas of 1915, Edward Hulse would be dead, along with another million soldiers. The trenches near St. Yves would not have moved a single inch.

The legacy of that one day of forgiveness and peace has never been entirely forgotten, however. British and German soccer teams are scheduled to play a re-match on Christmas Day 2014. Monuments to the truce have been erected all along the line of the former Western Front. The monument at St. Yves is topped by a simple white cross—the symbol of the little baby whose birth was celebrated that night, who came to bring peace and forgiveness to the earth.

That little baby—a homeless child, born in a barn to an unwed teenaged girl—whose birth the angels announced to dirty, desperate men who were just trying to get by. Men just like the ones who would climb out of the filthy ditches nineteen centuries later. Men just like the rest of us trapped on this violent planet who still dream of hope and love and peace.

There will be no truce this Christmas. The warriors of ISIS and Al Queda will not suddenly love Americans or even their fellow Muslims. The citizens of Ferguson, Missouri will still be suspicious of their police department, and there will still be crime in the streets of Philadelphia. But perhaps we, people of faith, can make a truce with the anger, the prejudice, and the bitterness within our own hearts long enough to let God love us as God has intended to do. Let ourselves be loved as through the eyes of that infant in the manger. The baby doesn't care what you've done or who you think you are. He asks only that you hold onto him and receive the peace he has to give. The world will never change unless we change. It's Christmas. Be still. Embrace the peace and forgiveness Christ has to offer.

And you, beneath life's crushing load, whose forms are bending low,

who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow:

look now, for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing;

oh, rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.”

PS-The Centennial re-match score was UK-4, Germany-1. OG 12/31/14

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

"Do Not Be Afraid" (Reflections on Advent 4, Year B)

Annunciation - Buyenlarge / Contributor/Archive Photos/Getty Images

A long-time, venerable member of my parish asked to see me privately in my office one Sunday after mass to discuss some church business. After she'd informed me of the matter she said she had to mention another issue which had been on her heart.

“Claire is pregnant,” she said.

This intelligence rattled my guts like a sudden attack of appendicitis. Not Claire, I thought. Not the fourteen-year-old I'd just confirmed who was such a good student and had so much potential..! My heart crashed like a led balloon.

I guess my faithful Church Lady saw a little too much panic in my reaction and quickly told me, “You know I mean my niece Claire, don't you?”

Thank you, Jesus, I thought. I'd confused the member's pregnant teenaged niece, who lived at some distance, with my not pregnant recent student. All the same I promised to keep pregnant Claire in my prayers.

As I look at the appointed gospel lesson for Advent 4 Year B (Luke 1:26-38), I am struck by the words of the angel to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” When I thought Claire (my Claire) was pregnant, I was most definitely afraid. And what I was afraid of was her fear and how I, as her pastor, could compassionately and honestly minister to it. When I was in seminary, my pastoral care professor taught a lesson in ministering to un-wed teen moms, but I'm not real sure that I'm up to the task.

Okay. We all acknowledge that kids have sex. But here in blue-collar Northeast Philly, I still detect a certain sneer that someone's teen daughter would be dumb enough to get pregnant and cause a major disruption in the flow of family life. What's worse is that some of my Roman colleagues in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (or, as I like to call it, the Archdiocese That Time Forgot) still refuse to baptize a child born of unmarried parents—as if it's somehow the baby's doing that mom and dad didn't get hitched!

Face it, the announcement the angel Gabriel made to the Virgin Mary would not be particularly welcomed should it come to any of our kids. How would we go about reassuring a fourteen or fifteen year old American girl frightened by the shear messiness of pregnancy and childbirth, by the intrusion the event would cause in the normal pattern of growing up, and by the totally-freaking-HUGE responsibility of being a parent?

But God's word to Mary and to us in this gospel is, “Do not be afraid.”

In his essay on the Annunciation, Martin Luther wrote lovingly and tenderly of Mary. He cited St. Bernard of Clairvaux's contention that three miracles were taking place in this story: God was becoming human, a virgin was conceiving, and Mary was saying “yes” to all of this. Of the three, Luther believed that little Mary's assent is the greatest of these miracles. She must have been terribly frightened by the realization that she, barely more than a child herself, was being chosen by God for a most dangerous and difficult mission. She was an average girl of no importance in the eyes of the world, and the stigma of unwed pregnancy carried many more penalties in her time and culture than it does in ours. Yet she choked back her fear and agreed to be the one who carried Jesus for the sake of the world—just as each of us in our own modest way is called to do in spite of our natural trepidation.

How can we not love Mary? Her story is so much our own. Like us, she was born and lived in a time of violence and bitterness. Like us, she yearned for God's deliverance. Like us, she greeted the news that God loved and favored her and had a purpose for her with perplexity. And like us, she would know moments of helplessness and feel the anguish of loss for one she loved—even though she, in blind faith, was willing to utter the words, “Let it be.”

And this is faith. It is the willingness to face real fear in the belief that God will do a powerful thing through little, unimportant us. And through us,  this sinful world will be brought blessings the end of which we cannot imagine.

Christmas blessings to you, my friends. Go be bearers of Christ!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

John the Outlaw Part II (Reflections on Advent 3)

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah,
nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. (John 1:6-8, 19-28)

Saint John the Baptist
If there was ever any doubt about John the Baptist's status as an outlaw, this reading from John's gospel should set us all straight. Our man John was certainly operating outside of the system, and the surest indicator of this was the hoity-toity ruling class sending their little minions out to question his authority. I'm certain the temple bigwigs were concerned about this bug-eating, camel skin-wearing preacher who had the audacity to proclaim the forgiveness of sins and the amendment of life without ritual sacrifice or their official sanction.

But John also stands outside of the culture of today just as he stood outside all of those centuries ago. He confessed and did not deny that he was nothing special, only a voice repeating what God had been telling the world for centuries. He was not worthy to untie the sandals of the one whose coming he so longed for.

How counter-cultural, in our self-absorbed society, for someone to be so humble and so unconcerned about his own importance. I muse how John would react if he were in our world of “selfies,” Instagrams, and facebook—a world where we perpetually shout, “Here I am! Look at me!” The screenwriter Diablo Cody once commented that our social media obsession has placed us all everlastingly in high school where we constantly compete to see which of us is the coolest. Even our observation of the holy time of Advent has become an exercise in self-glorification. We decorate our homes with lights to celebrate the Light of the World, and find ourselves in competition with our neighbors. We send Christmas cards with pictures of our family, replacing greetings depicting the Holy Family. We teach our children to anticipate the coming of a portly gentleman who will reward their goodness rather than teaching them about the coming of a tiny baby who will love them in spite of their shortcomings.

This is what I love about Advent and the stories of John the Baptist—his message combines both alarm and comfort. If the Light is coming into the world—and if any of it shines on me—it's going to reveal how self-centered, insecure, petty, stubborn, and silly I really am. It's going to light up everything. But that's good news, because any of us are only as sick as our own secrets. When the Light comes, we'll have the glorious opportunity to confess our faults and start over again.

This John is a pretty gutsy guy. He flies in the face of the world's accepted authority, and claims the only authority which truly matters—the fact that he knows Jesus and who Jesus is meant to be for us.

Rejoice in the Light, my friends, and thanks for stopping by.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

John the Outlaw Part I (Reflections on Advent 2)

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”.' John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
(Mark 1:1-8)

John the Baptist painted by Leonardo DaVinci

I think Christians make great outlaws. And no character in scripture is as colorfully outside the mainstream as that hero of the Advent lectionary, John the Baptist. Just look at this guy: while the religious elite are gathering in the Holy City, ol' John is out in the wilderness, railing against corruption. When the high priests are dressed in fine robes, John is wearing camel skin. When they are eating the meat of the sacrifice, he's on a diet of bugs and honey. When they are calling for purity of sacrifice, John is calling for the purity of the individual heart.

How do we make that heart pure and clean? Start by confessing your sins and asking God's forgiveness.

I don't know about your individual feelings of sinfulness or guilt, but I've been thinking a lot lately about the need for corporate repentance within the Protestant Church in America. I've been reading this fascinating book called Power Surge by the Reverend Michael Foss, a Lutheran pastor in Minnesota, and I have to tell you I've been feeling pretty convicted by it. (You can find out about this book by clicking on its highlighted title.)

Pastor Foss, who serves a parish in a part of the country where you can't stand with your arms akimbo without poking a Lutheran, still thinks there's a problem with the way we do church. He's not talking about the sins of exclusivity, hypocrisy, homophobia, or subjugation of women (although we certainly have a lot to atone for in those departments!). He's calling us out like John the Baptist for making church membership a priority over Christian discipleship.

Foss maintains when churches focus on gaining and keeping members rather than leading those members to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ we pervert the gospel and dilute the power of the Holy Spirit. He suggests we tolerate bad behavior, wink at Biblical illiteracy, and burn out our pastors in an endlessly hopeless attempt to keep all the members happy.

Members, Foss says, feel privileged. Disciples, by contrast, feel a sense of mission. If the church were to focus on making disciples, we would be “making the path straight” for the Holy Spirit to do her work. Foss sights six marks of discipleship. Christians:

Pray daily,

Worship weekly,

Read the Bible,

Serve their congregations and the wider society,

Form spiritually nurturing relationships with other Christians, and

Give generously of our time, talents, and resources.

So the sin I'm confessing is this: Although I have devoted myself to preaching, teaching, and enriching the worship life of my congregation, I have been disgracefully negligent in expecting and requiring a level of discipleship from those entrusted to my spiritual care.

Please understand, I'm not suggesting some kind of spiritual litmus test by which to judge who really is or is not a true Christian. But I am hoping to turn a complacent church into a place where Christ is truly experienced, where the world is truly served, and where lives are truly changed. If that's to happen, we have to start by admitting we've been doing something wrong.

What better time than Advent, the time of preparation, to begin our repentance and renewal? In the weeks and months ahead I hope to make some serious changes to the status quo. I know some of them won't go over too well.

I'm starting to feel like an outlaw already.

A blessed Advent to you all, and thanks so much for reading.