Sunday, December 24, 2017


We hear the Christmas story as a lovely fairy tale.
But that isn’t how the Bible tells it.
For starters, when the people of Nazareth looked at Mary,
            through the cynical, judging eyes of the world,
         they didn’t see the Blessed Virgin Mother of God
They saw an unwed mother.
They did not say Hail Mary full of grace.
They said less pleasant things.

In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus said,
            He who knows the mother and the father
            will be called the son of a harlot.
It sounds like that’s what he was called.
But St. Luke looked at Mary through the eyes of faith.
            and saw the Theotokos, the Mother of God.
The world we live in is the world we see,
            and the eyes of faith see a better world.

People didn’t see Joseph as a leading citizen either.
A carpenter back then was not a skilled craftsman like today.
It was manual labor.
When Jesus began teaching,
            people threw his father in his face.
Is not this the son of the carpenter? they sneered.
But Matthew, using the eyes of faith, saw Joseph as the saint,
            who listened to his dream angel
            and accepted the disgraced girl
            who was in God’s eyes full of grace.

Galilee was not an honored place in the world’s eyes.
The fact that Jesus was from Galilee was reason enough
for many to reject him.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Nathaniel asked.
Prophets do not come from Galilee, the Pharisees said.
But faithful Matthew quoted an obscure passage from Isaiah,
            Galilee of the Gentiles
            The people living in darkness
            have seen a great light.
God choose Galilee as home of our Savior
            precisely because the world looked down on it.
That stable in Bethlehem was not only the least hygienic place
            you could find for a birth,
it was ritually unclean, dishonorable.
But St. Francis, seeing it through the eyes of faith,
            regarded the stable as a shrine,
            made holy by its very earthiness, its humility.
Francis was the first to build a crèche as a holy object
            for us to venerate on this Feast of the Nativity.

The Shepherds were a questionable lot too.
Their job made ritual purity impossible.
Priests would not allow them in the Temple.
But the Holy Family allowed them in the stable.
The angels chose the shepherds to hear the first Gloria.
The angels’ faith saw the shepherds quite differently
            from the eyes of the world.

The wise men who came at Epiphany
            were not even Jewish.
They were Zoroastrians astrologers.
But for Matthew, they were the first to worship our Lord.

The Nativity happens when the rejected is embraced,
when the one the village called vile names
            is seen through faith as a holy virgin,
            and the smelly stable is reverenced as a shrine.

The world divides us into in-groups and out-groups,
            acceptable and unacceptable.
In that system, we can never be safe.
Even if we are in favor today,
            we may be cast aside tomorrow.

But God doesn’t work that way.
Christ’s incarnation as the illegitimate child
            of a poor couple from the backwater of Galilee
            was God’s way of breaking open
                        the oppressive system of in and out,
                        admired and despised
--   the system that keeps the oppressed down
                        and the privileged perpetually nervous.

As a young person, Latino theologian Virgilio Elizondo.
attended pastorelas or miracle plays about saints. 
He recalls,
            “. . . (T)he costumes (always) appeared very shabby.
            I was . . . tempted to give the people some money  
            so they could buy finer materials for the costumes.
            Eventually I learned that . . . (miracle play costumes)
may be made only from discarded materials
                        (because) in the Incarnation the rejected of the world
                        are chosen and beautified.”

Jesus said, the stone that the builders rejected
                        has become the cornerstone.
St. Paul wrote,
            God has called not . . . .  the powerful,
            not the important of society, but the insignificant,
                        the weak, and the despised.
Elizondo brings it to a simple point. He says:
            “What the world rejects, God chooses as his own.”
God chose Mary.
God chose Galilee.

God’s odd taste, God’s preference
for the so-called losers of life,
matters for us in two ways.
First, the fact that God cherishes what the world scorns
should change how we treat each other.
If we want to be on God’s side, we befriend the outcast
            whether they are cast out on grounds of race, class,
                        moral judgments, or legal status.

But we can’t do that for others until we find God’s grace
            acting in ourselves and our own lives.
We start by letting God erase the judgments of us.
So, how’s your life?
What kind of judgments are you laboring under?
Are you having an Andy Williams Christmas?
Do you have “parties for hosting, marsh mellows for roasting,
            and caroling out in the snow?”
If not, well neither did Jesus.

It’s the parts of our lives that don’t measure up to expectations
            that warm God’s heart.
How does your life look to you?
It’s all in how you look at it.
Are you looking at yourself and your life
            through the cynical, judging eyes of the world?
Or are you looking at yourself and your life
            through the eyes of faith,
            eyes that see yourself as the child of God,
            eyes that see angels who sing for you,
            eyes that see your own life as full of grace.

What is it about ourselves we have been taught to hate?
Are we the wrong height, the wrong weight, the wrong gender?
Is it our voice, our mannerisms, our ineptitude at this or that?

Maybe these things are faults in the word’s eyes,
            but not in God’s.
In the eyes of God, we are already a delight.
God has ruled. That is the good news we call gospel.
God has ruled that we are his beloved
            just because we are who we are -- just as we are.
Joy to the World isn’t just about what happened long, long ago.
It’s about what started long, long ago
            but is still happening in your life today.
This Christmas, take a leap of faith
that any shame you carry
            is the world’s judgment – not God’s.
As Paul said, If God is for us, who can be against us?
            . . . If God declares us justified, who can condemn us?
Soak in God’s absolute and unconditional love for you,
Dare to believe that God enjoys you just as you are.
Open the eyes of your faith to see that
            you are living in the midst of a miracle,
            right here, right now.

And resting in that security, offer a little of that kind of love
            to somebody else – show some kindness to a stranger –
            find a virtue in someone you don’t like,
                        and wish them well for the sake of that virtue.
Practice the paradox of accepting the unacceptable,
            and the dark sky around you will lighten faintly
                        in the East and the morning star will rise
                                    in your soul.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017


The virgin birth is a stumbling block
         for many people.
So a lot of creative work has gone
         into watering the story down
                  into something easier to believe.

We probably don’t need to make people’s opinions
         about this a shibboleth for orthodoxy.
Half of the Gospels don’t mention it.
None of the Epistles seem to be aware of it.
The Scriptures that treat Jesus as fully divine
         don’t rely on it.

But it is inescapably there in the story
         as told by Matthew, Luke, and the Creeds.
So we can’t avoid it.
We may understand it literally,
         or morally, or spiritually.
But I don’t see how we can honestly water it down
         to make it easier to believe.
Yes, virgin births occur in nature, albeit rarely,
         among some species.
Yes, artificial insemination can happen by chance
         and, in fact, has happened.
Yes, Mary’s words which we have translated
         as virgin could mean that she has just now
                  reached marriageable age.
But none of that tap dancing defends the faith
         or treats the text honestly.

The essential point of the story
         is that what the angel foretold
                  Mary knew to be impossible.
How can this be? she asks.
She might have responded any number of other ways.
 Like, Forget about it. This will wreck my reputation
                  not to mention my wedding.
                  How will I fit into the dress?
Or she might have taken the humble approach,
         Oh no. Not me. I am not worthy.

But Mary was a modern girl.
She goes immediately to the same point
         any modern skeptic would,
                  How can this be since I am a virgin?
So if you have trouble believing in the virgin birth,       
         you’re in good company.
The first person to doubt it was the Virgin herself.

And Gabriel responded with the point of the story
         – a point which all the modernist tap dancing obscures.
Gabriel said, Nothing will be impossible with God.
And Mary responded, Then let it be.
She consented to give her life over to God’s impossible promise
         for Nothing is impossible with God.

The story of Israel began with such an impossible promise
         almost 2,000 years before Mary
         when God promised Abraham that he and Sara
                  would have a child.
Abraham was a modern skeptic himself.
Genesis  17:17:
         Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed.
         Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old?
         Shall Sarah who is 90 years old bear a child?

But God insisted that the promise would be kept;
         and Abraham believed God.
He left his home and gave his life over to the promise,
         the impossible promise of God.
Faith means giving our lives over to the promise.
Modern people have done some tap dancing around
         the word faith too,
trying to make it into something less than belief
           easier than belief.
But faith is more than belief.
Anyone can believe in God.
As the saying goes, the very demons believe in God.

The  person who explained faith best was Soren Kierkegaard,
         who called faith a leap.
Faith isn’t just believing firemen are
         holding a net down there.
Faith is jumping out the window.

So this brings us to the point.
We can believe Luke’s story
         about the Virgin birth or not.
But just believing it won’t constitute faith.
What matters isn’t whether we believe Mary
         trusted God’s impossible promise to her.
What matters is whether we trust
         God’s impossible promise to us.
Believing Mary had faith is just a pious platitude,
         unless we follow her example.

That brings us to how we live our lives.
How do we decide where to invest ourselves?
Do we look at the world and assess what is possible,
         then try to achieve as much as is possible for us?
If that’s what we do, and if the gospel is true,
         then we’re selling ourselves short.
Because the gospel is that God has something better in mind
         for us than the merely possible.
God’s dream for us is the impossible.

So what is this promise?
What is the impossible promise God offers us?
Think back to last week
         – Isaiah’s prophesy of the peaceable kingdom
         – where the lion lays down with the lamb
                  and no one dies young
and sickness and poverty and suffering are all overcome.

Think of 1st John which says,
         We are God’s children now.
          It does not yet appear what we shall be,
                  but when he appears we shall be like him.”\
Think of Paul’s promise,
         The whole cosmos will be set free from its bondage to decay
         and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God...
         For in this hope we are saved.

God invites us to live into that promise.
It all starts with our inner self.
What will it be like for us inside.
What is possible for us?
The world says there are all sorts of conditions.
For a woman to give birth to the savior,
         she must have a man.
For us to love, the people we would love
         must first act loveable.
For us to be serene,
         we must first be secure in our life situation.
For us to be generous, we must first be rich.

Without those things and more,
         it is as impossible for us to have Christ in our soul
          as it was impossible for Mary to have Christ in her womb.
But Gabriel said, “With God, all things are possible.”
And Mary said, Then let it be.