Monday, December 30, 2019


The light shone in the darkness.
Truth comes in layers and each layer 
        has its own language.
Physical truth is grasped by the senses 
     and expressed in weights, measures,
     chemical compositions, and such.
Philosophical truth is grasped by the mind
     and expressed in factual, logical theorems.
Spiritual truth is intuited by the soul
     and expressed in signs and symbols,
     myths and dreams, poems and rituals.
The Incarnation is spiritual truth
     and Christmas is our poetic gateway into it. 

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said 
     that if we are to discover and express deep truth,
language must go on holiday
Hence, Episcopal monk, Martin Smith said,
     Christmas is the time (we) . . . send language 
             on a holiday.
     We . . . float in and out of legends and myths 
             and ancient lore, while our carols have us virtually 
             speaking in tongues as we warble, 
            “lullee lulay, Noel, Gloria in Excelsis Deo!
     It is to the poets we turn (at Christmas), 
              Brother Martin said

The Prologue to John is one of the first poems 
          about the Incarnation.
But it did not stop there.
Amadeus of Lausanne was a medieval French poet-monk, 
In his Christmas sermon 800 years ago, Amadeus said:
     When Mary gave birth, the heavens were glad
     and earth rejoiced and hell was shaken . . . 
     The heavens gave him a bright and beaming star,
                 and a glorious host of angels singing . . . .
     The exultant earth offered him shepherds
                 . . . and magi worshiping . . . .
     (I)magine the smile on the face of all creation . . . 
     Imagine the bright sky in its beauty,
                 all clouds swept aside and the stars saying,
                 “Here we are,” and shining merrily.
     Imagine the night flooding the darkness with light
                 and supplying brilliance in the place of murk.

Imagine the night flooding the darkness with light. 
For millennia, poets like John, Amadeus, 
        Christina Rosetti, and W. H. Auden have pointed us 
          toward this miracle and mystery of Incarnation.

The Incarnation means that 
      when God joins the human family,
     it changes human life to the core. 
John uses light into darkness as an image of that change.
In Mary Poppins, P. L. Travers uses depth into flatness
     to say the same thing.

You may recall, Burt the chimney sweep draws 
     chalk landscapes on the sidewalk. 
They are great pictures, but that’s all they are 
     -- 2 dimensional chalk drawings on concrete
     -- until Mary, Burt, and the children leap into one them. 
Then the chalk landscape becomes a vibrant, living place,
     bursting with songs, adventures, and wonders. 
That’s the Incarnation. 

The Greek word for God, Theos, comes from a root
     that means to leap.
Ours is a leaping God who transforms the world 
       by leaping into it,
     like Mary Poppins jumping into the chalk drawings.
When God jumps into the 2-dimensional chalk drawings
     we call our lives, they suddenly and miraculously   
       become real. 

God leapt into human history that first Christmas.
With just a slight nod of our consent,
God dives into us today to change our way 
of being in the world.
When God leaps into our lives,
     there is a smile on the face of all creation 
     . . . . and all the stars call out “We are here.”

We are prone to 2-dimensional living.
We go flat like a can of soda opened 
         and left out overnight. 
We flatten our lives with habitual patterns of thought,
     interpretation, and action.

Maybe we compulsively look for evidence 
        we aren’t wanted.
Maye we obsessively fret about tomorrow,
so afraid of what might happen 
     we can’t really see what’s happening now. 
Maybe we spend years hammering the same square peg
     into one round hole after another 
     so we can feel an old familiar frustration
     and know we are ourselves. 
Maybe we cling to an old grudge or grievance, humming    an old somebody done somebody wrong song
Maybe we become Pharisees enforcing 
     the iron law of bureaucracy.

There are as many different life-flattening patterns
     as there are people.
So what’s yours?
The first step toward freedom is seeing the cage.

God shows us something fresh and new
     every time we open our eyes,
     but we keep seeing the same thing
     because we are looking backwards 
              and calling it the future.

Sometimes evil is horrific and cruel,
     but usually it is just dull, dark, deadening.
We recognize the banality of evil
      as Hannah Arendt called it, 
     by its monotony, its soul shriveling mediocrity,
     its failure to speak poetry.

But St. Irenaeus said, The glory of God
     is a human being fully alive.
Given the slightest crack in our resistance, 
and God leaps into our hum drum routines
     and turns them into lives,
     shines light into our darkness,
     raises mountains out of our chalk drawings,
infuses the fullness of life into our souls.

Sometimes God changes our circumstances,     
     but more often God changes our attitudes,   
     our interpretations.
God opens our eyes so we can see something new.
Then we might possibly do something new.
It is possible. I have even seen churches do it. 

We celebrate Christmas through ritual and song
     to remind us that our flat deadening habits
     are not all there is.
There is life outside the box.
Joy and creativity and surprises
     are all there outside the box.
There is available to us a life
     in which light shines, mountains rise,
     the whole creation smiles,          
     and we look around bedazzled saying, 
                 Glory be. Glory be. 

Thursday, December 26, 2019


We hear the Christmas story as a lovely fairy tale.
But that isn’t how the Bible tells it. 
The fairy tale is a feel good experience.
But we need more than that -- a lot more.
And that's what we find in the Bible,
     read in its historical context.

For starters, when the people of Nazareth looked at Mary,
     through the cynical, judging eyes of the world,
they didn’t see the Ever Blessed Virgin. 
They saw an unwed mother.
They did not say Hail Mary full of grace.
They said far less pleasant things. 

In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus tells us the names
he was called when he was growing up.
Those names did not reflect on his mother
in  kind way.
But St. Luke looked at Mary through the eyes of faith 
     and saw the Theotokos, the Mother of God.

People didn’t see Joseph as a leading citizen either.
A carpenter back then wasn’t a skilled craftsman 
         like today.
It was unskilled manual labor.
When Jesus began teaching, 
     people threw his father in his face.
Is not this the son of the carpenter? they sneered.
But through the eyes of faith, Matthew, 
saw Joseph, as the saint who listened 
to his dream angel and accepted the disgraced girl  
                God loved and chose.
The world teaches us we are not good enough,
     but the eyes of faith see things differently. 

Galilee was not the holy land back then. 
The fact that Jesus grew up in Galilee was reason enough
for many to reject him.
No prophet comes from Galilee, the Pharisees said. 
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? 
       Nathaniel asked. 
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, that place of darkness,
 as home of our Savior
     precisely because the world looked down on it.
The stable in Bethlehem was not only the least 
     hygienic place you could find for a birth,
it was ritually unclean, dishonorable. 
But centuries later, St. Francis, 
     seeing it through the eyes of faith, 
     regarded that stable as a shrine,
     made holy by its very earthiness, its humility. 
Francis built the first crèche as a holy object
     for us to venerate on the Feast of the Nativity. 

The Shepherds were a questionable lot too.
Their job made ritual purity impossible. 
Priests would not allow shepherds in the Temple.
But the Holy Family welcomed them into the stable.
The shepherds appeared quite different 
     in the eyes of angels 
     from the eyes of the world.
The angels chose the impure shepherds 
        to hear the first Gloria
and to be the first to worship Our Lord. 

The Nativity happens whenever 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 revered as a shrine.
The world divides us into in-groups and out-groups,
     acceptable and unacceptable.
In that system, no one is safe.
Even if we are in favor today,
     we may be cast aside tomorrow.

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

Theologian Virgilio Elizondo 
      was  the son of Mexican immigrants in San Antonio.
As a young man he attended pastorelas, 
miracle plays, about saints.  
He recalls
     . . . (T)he costumes (always) appeared very shabby.
     I (wanted) 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 sums it up:
     What the world rejects, God chooses as his own.
God chose Mary, Joseph, and Shepherds.
God chose Galilee.

God’s peculiar taste, God’s preference
        for the so-called losers of life,
        matters for us in two ways:

First, if God cherishes what the world scorns,
that changes how we value each other.
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 – here’s the second way the Incarnation matters –
we can’t do that for others until we find God’s grace
     acting in ourselves and in our own lives.
We start by seeing ourselves through God’s eyes 
       – not the world’s.

So, how’s your life tonight?
What kind of judgments are you laboring under?
Is everyone in your family gatherings
     just heart-warmed to be together?
Are you having a Bing Crosby /Andy Williams/ 
            Hallmark Christmas?
Do you have parties for hosting, 
      marsh mellows for roasting,
     and caroling out in the snow?
Or, if you are Gen X, 
       perhaps a Legendary Christmas like John and Crissy?
If so, great. If not, well neither did Jesus. 

How does your life seem to you?
It’s all in how you look at it.
Are you looking at yourself
     through the cynical, judging eyes of the world?
Or are you looking at yourself
     through the eyes of faith,
     eyes that see yourself as the beloved of God,
     eyes that see angels who sing for you,
     eyes that see your life as full of grace.

Is your life spruced up and polished like Herod’s Palace
or does it feel a bit like the stable? 
The parts of our lives that don’t measure up
     are the ones to touch God’s heart.
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 God’s.
Zephaniah says,  
The Lord has torn up the judgments against you. . . .
He will rejoice over you with happy song . . . .
He will dance with shouts of joy over you.
Yes, that means you – as you are tonight.
In God’s eyes, we are already a delight.
God has ruled. That is the good news we call gospel.
God has ruled that we are his beloved.
He gets to do that because he’s God.

Joy to the World isn’t just about what happened 
       long, long ago.
It’s about what started long, long ago 
     and is happening now in your life today. 
This Christmas, take a leap of faith
that any shame you carry
     is the world’s judgment – not God’s.

Paul said, If God is for us, who can be against us?
     . . . If God declares us justified, who can condemn us?
This holy season invites you to open the eyes of your faith 
to see that you are the Christmas miracle. 
Your life is the gospel.

Then resting in that faith, 
     offer a little love to somebody else 
– someone outside the circle –
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.

To truly celebrate the Nativity,
practice the holy paradox 
of accepting the unacceptable,
     starting with the unacceptable in yourself,
     and the dark sky around you will lighten faintly
     in the East until the morning star rises  in your soul.

Monday, December 23, 2019


We have so often heard a hashed together Christmas story
    combining different narratives into one 
    that it’s hard to hear Matthew’s story straight 
             – the way he wrote it.
We mix and match elements from Matthew and Luke, 
    add an ox and an ass, then a drummer boy.
Eventually, we’ll probably have Rudolph arriving 
    in a sleigh carrying Frosty the Snowman seeking healing 
                      for his melting disorder.
We have to forget a lot if we are to hear Matthew’s 
         story, plain and simple.
Matthew never heard the hymn we just sang. 
His story doesn’t have an Annunciation to Mary 
            by the Angel Gabriel.

The other versions have a lot to offer.
But, today, I invite you to hear the story
    the way Matthew told it.

In 1st Century Judah, virginity at marriage was a big deal
    – so big that the wedding was preceded by a medical exam
             to verify the virginity of the bride.
Mary colossally flunked her exam  by turning up pregnant.
From Matthew, we have no idea what Mary thought of the news
    announced not by a loving angel but a judgmental rabbi.
We don’t know what Mary said to Joseph.
Did she try to explain, to defend herself, 
    to deny the obvious conclusion?
We don’t know. 

We have only Joseph’s response  – to put her away quietly.
He could have had her stoned to death.
But he didn’t do that. Maybe, he loved her. 
       Maybe he was just kind.
For whatever reason, Joseph was merciful.
But merciful still meant divorce.

Engagement was as solemn a commitment 
      as marriage back then.
Breaking an engagement wasn’t just 
    cancelling the florist and the photographer.
It was a simple but devastating legal proceeding.
Our Gospel story virtually begins in family court.

Then came the dream.
Notice the angel’s words.
He said to Joseph, Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.
Joseph wasn’t angry or judgmental.
So the angel didn’t speak of jealousy or forgiveness.
He spoke instead of fear.

Joseph, it seems, was afraid – afraid of what?
Afraid that Mary would betray him again, over and over?
Afraid of what people would say about her, even about him?
As there were words for her, there were words for him. 
Afraid to be father of a child of fornication.
Joseph was afraid of this relationship
    which didn’t fit the rules, didn’t live up to expectations.

Can we relate to Joseph’s position?
Are any of our personal relationships scary in some way?
All relationships have risks attached
    unless we keep them loose and shallow.
Commitment to someone is risky 
     – we don’t know what they’ll do or who they’ll become.
Sharing deeper levels of ourselves is risky
    – we don’t know how people will respond.
Belonging to a faith community is risky.
A church might do most anything.
A church is likely to embarrass us 
    in front of our liberal friends one week,
    and our conservative friends the next.
Church people are likely to let us down, give us undeserved flak,
    and engage us in petty squabbles.

Relationships are risky
    especially if there’s a history of trouble.
If we extend our hand across lines of race, class,
    religion, or politics, we don’t know how the other side
             will take it.
We don’t know what labels they’ll put on us.
We don’t know how they’ll interpret out gesture.

Around the world, fear is the driving force
    behind so much of the blustering of nation against nation.
Living together on this planet,
    will require some trust.
And trust is risky business.

The angel went on to tell Joseph why he need not be afraid.
He said, The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
Now we’ve read Luke and the Creeds.
 We’ve read today’s lesson 
    where  Matthew reworks Isaiah’s  prophesy,
    that wasn’t about a virgin birth,
    and turns it into a prophesy of a virgin birth.
Believe me, nothing in the prophets could have alerted Joseph
    to anything like the Christmas story as we know it.

We have the benefit of 2,000 years of theologians 
       explaining Incarnation.
We’ve been to pageants and listened to Handel. 
But Joseph didn’t have any of that.
So, when the angel said, the child . . . is from the Holy Spirit,
    Joseph had to be thinking Could you unpack that a little?
             Just what exactly does that mean?

But the angel didn’t unpack anything.
No explanation either biological or theological.
He just said, The hand of God is in this. 
    God is doing something here.
And he went on to say how it would play out.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,
    for he will save his people from their sins.

The when, where, and how didn’t matter.
Theological and biological explanations didn’t matter.
All the angel gave Joseph was the promise of God,
    the promise we’ve been hearing about all Advent,
    the promise of salvation, wholeness, and peace.

I wonder if there is something of God’s promise
    in our relationships with each other.
I wonder if salvation, wholeness, and peace
    may not be lurking in there -- and if risk isn’t 
the price we pay, if vulnerability isn’t the ticket 
to the peaceable kingdom.
Matthew tells us Joseph did as the angel commanded . . . 
    He took (Mary) as his wife.

It turns out Joseph had good reason to be afraid.
Shortly, after the birth, the Holy Family had to flee by night 
    and become refugees in Egypt
    where they lived for several years in hiding.
When the menacing king had died, Joseph’s home town
    Bethlehem was still too dangerous.
So Joseph spent the rest of his life in exile
    in the very different land of Galilee.

When the angel said, Fear not,
    he wasn’t guaranteeing that life would go smoothly.
He didn’t mean Mary was a safe choice.
He meant she was the path to the promise,
    the risk worth taking, the danger worth facing.

If we commit to lasting relationships with people,
    if we stick with each other, there’s no guarantee 
    we won’t get hurt.
If we join a faith community, there’s no guarantee
    we won’t be embarrassed and frustrated.
If we extend our hands across the social divides,
    there’s no guarantee we won’t be misunderstood 
    and mistrusted.
If we make peace in the world, there is no guarantee 
    that other nations and groups will not betray us.

But despite all that, we have the Scripture 
    and the movement of the Spirit
             in our hearts and in the Church.
Despite all the risks, the Lord still says to us as he said to Joseph,
    Do not be afraid. 
    These risky relationships are the way 
     to the peaceable kingdom.

So I wonder, might some of our challenging relationships 
be the voice of God asking,
    Will you make room in your world for my Word made flesh?
    Will you make a place for my Son?