God-With-Us (A Christmas Eve Sermon)

nativity-iconWhenever I find myself away from the lights of our urban sprawl  — up at Bishop’s Ranch in Sonoma County, for example, or driving across the vast expense of the Western US — I never fail to be astonished when I look up into the night sky, and behold the incredible beauty of the shining stars and the cosmic light of the Milky Way.    My astonishment comes, of course, from the beauty of the night sky, but it also comes from the knowledge that the light I see left those stars unimaginable numbers of years ago, and is only now reaching earth.   And more amazing still is the knowledge that some of those stars don’t even exist anymore — but we won’t know that until the light fades, probably unimaginable numbers of years from now.

Those shining lights, and their unfathomable journey through time and space, remind me that our human existence is a moment in an expanse of time so vast that we can hardly begin to contemplate it.  We are sitting here tonight as the result of a long series of events that started with the Big Bang billions of years ago and has extended out over that vast distance of time through the formation of the galaxy, the solar system, our planet, and the long evolutionary development of life on earth from simple organisms to the complexity that we are.  This history has moved forward from that Big Bang, and moves forward still.  But we can only understand it backwards.  We are only able to make this history meaningful by looking back from where we are now toward the beginnings of our universe.  And so much of what we are trying to look back at, in order to understand how we came to be here now, is still shrouded in mystery.    And yet, we continue to explore the universe as deeply as we can in our insatiable pursuit of the question, “How did we come to be here?”    To paraphrase Kierkegaard, Life moves forward, but it is only understood backwards.

This is true of the life of the universe, and is also true of each of our individual lives.  We live our lives forward from the moment of our birth, but we only  make sense of our lives — make our lives meaningful — by looking backward from the point at which we now stand.  And as we grow and mature, as we gain experience with both joy and sorrow, how we make sense of our lives, the meaning that we are able to take from our lives, invariably shifts as our perspective shifts.   Just as physicists and astronomers look back into the light of ancient stars and seek to construct a narrative of our universe that renders it sensible and meaningful, so are we constantly writing and re-writing our own narratives to give sensibility and meaning to the journey of our personal lives.

What is true of our lives is also true of the life of Jesus.  His life moved forward from the moment of his birth, but the church has only been able to make sense and meaning of his life by looking backward from a particular point in time.

On the day that Jesus of Nazareth was born, his birth was of interest to no one beyond his family and their friends, and perhaps the community and synagogue into which he was born.   His family held no important position, and their existence was not considered any more important than that of the average Nazarene.

So no one took particular notice of Jesus, as the lack of any substantive stories about his childhood seems to symbolize.   No one took notice of Jesus until he burst upon the scene proclaiming, “The kingdom of God has drawn near.”   No one took notice of Jesus until his preaching and his teaching and his healing of people gave him a reputation that drew people to him in large numbers.  The rabbi Jesus was someone to behold — the rabbi Jesus was not to be missed.

Then it all seemed to fall apart.  Jesus was arrested, crucified, his movement imploded, and everyone thought it was over.  And into the dark despair of his most intimate friends, at the moment when any hope that being with Jesus had kindled within them seemed to fade, a singular, life-altering, mind-bending moment irrupted into their lives:  the Risen Christ appeared among them.  They experienced Jesus as somehow being alive.  It was, you might say, the theological equivalent of the Big Bang.  It was the moment when everything changed.

And it was also from that singular moment that those first Christians began to look backward through the life of Jesus.  In the Risen Christ, they experienced God as with them.   And as they thought about their time with Jesus in the light of this experience, they realized that whenever they were with Jesus, they had experienced God as with them in him.   And so, this must be what Jesus had always been, from the very moment of his birth:  God with them, God with us.  In Hebrew, that idea is captured by the word, “Emmanuel”.

Held, as they were, in thrall by this perception, by this experience of Emmanuel — God-with-us in Jesus — they began to build a narrative of Jesus’ life that actually begins with the Resurrection and moves backward through everything that they remembered of what Jesus had done and said.   They tried to tell us as much as they could of the facts of Jesus’ life, but more than that, they wanted to tell us that when they were with Jesus, they knew that God was with them.  They wanted us deeply to know this, so that we could experience God with us in Jesus, as well.  Because for them, this truth held hope for the world.  For them, this truth held the key to living a transformed life rooted in God.   For them, this truth was everything.

So tonight, as we hear once again Luke’s achingly beautiful telling of the story of Jesus’ birth, it is just like going out into a dark place and looking  up at the light of the stars.   That story comes to us as a light that has traveled through time and space, a light whose origin is shrouded in mystery.   We so often end up wondering about its factuality, raised as we have been in an environment that equates truth with fact.  But that is not the kind of wondering Luke’s story is meant to provoke in us.  No, Luke’s story is meant to provoke in us the same kind of wonder that we experience when we look up into the night sky.   It is meant to move us into a place of awe, which is why it is so awe-somely told:  with angels singing, and shepherds abiding, and animals lowing, and the stars shining in the heavens.  Just as the lives of the first followers of Jesus ended up revolving around the Resurrection, that singular moment that changed everything, so did they tell the story of Jesus’ birth as if it were the singular moment around which all of creation revolved on that night so long ago.   Because they were not simply telling us the story of a baby’s birth; they were telling us the story of God with us in Jesus.

I don’t know what your life might be revolving around these days.  Maybe you’re not sure yourself, at least some of the time.  But tonight, each of us is invited once again to stand in the darkness of a hurting, imperiled, uncertain world and look up at the light of the Christmas story.   As that beautiful light filters down to us from centuries ago, our task is not to analyze it, but to fall in love with it.  And when we fall in love with this beautiful, ancient story, we fall in love with Emmanuel.  And we can believe again in the possibility and the power of God-with-us.   It is a power that completely changed the lives of Jesus’ first friends, and it is a power that can change our lives now.  And through us, it is a power that can change the world.

God-with-us is the power of hope.  God-with-us is the power of love.  It is the power of realizing that God is not simply out there somewhere, but is within and among us, as Jesus himself said (Luke 17:21).  Human history is a testament to how badly we need this power of God-with-us, and how often we misunderstand it, or forget it all together.

We remember tonight the birth of Jesus in history, the appearance of Emmanuel:  God-with-us, and the beauty of the light he brought into the world.  We pray tonight for the re-birth of Christ in our hearts, that we may know the power of God-with-us, and shine that beautiful, ancient light into the dark, suffering corners of our own souls, and of the world.

Stop Feeding Your Fear

European grey wolfA colleague of mine recently opened a sermon with a Native American parable:







As early contenders for the Presidency of the United States jockey for position and for their parties’ nominations, some of those candidates seem to believe that their best chance lies in feeding the evil wolf.  Their rhetoric is aimed at pressing on people’s worst fears and instincts, on prejudices and biases that lurk within.   This constant feeding of the wolf of the ego is an extraordinarily dangerous game to be playing.  It risks blinding people to goodness, giving those in whom the ego wolf is strong a perceived license to do violence against those people and groups who are targeted by this rhetoric.

As Christians, we are specifically told not to do this.  “‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.”  (Matthew 5:21-22)    In this teaching, Jesus is rightly pointing out the danger that feeding our anger (which is closely related to fear) holds for us.  Murder and all manner of other violence comes forth from us when we insist on feeding the wolf of anger and fear.   Jesus clearly points out the spiritual danger of allowing ourselves to go down this path, and tells us not to do this.

True leadership is not about playing on people’s fears and working them up into a frenzy of anger.  True leadership is about helping to calm people in the face of fear, about leading people away from anger and toward compassion.

There are those who would lead us down a dangerous, dangerous path.  We must refuse to go down that path, for the sake of our own spiritual health and for the sake of our nation.  Stop feeding the wolf of anger and fear, and start feeding the wolf of empathy, compassion, and generosity.


The Decline of Religious Thought

perennialRecently, someone shared with me a translation of a speech that was given last May by Navid Kermani, a German writer and scholar of Islam, upon his acceptance of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.  Kermani is German-born of Iranian parents.  In his speech, he talks about the way in which classical Islamic scholarship is being swept aside in favor of a more fundamentalist approach.   He said, in part,

“it was once conceivable, even self-evident that the Qur’an is a poetic text which can only be grasped using the means and methods of poetology, just like a poem. It was conceivable, even self-evident that a theologian was at once a literary scholar and connoisseur of poetry, and in many cases a poet himself. In our time, my own teacher Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid in Cairo was charged with heresy, lost his university post and was even forced to divorce his wife because he understood Qur’anic scholarship as a form of literary scholarship. This means that an approach to the Qur’an which was taken for granted, and for which Nasr Abu Zaid could draw on the most important scholars of classical Islamic theology, is no longer even acknowledged as conceivable. Anyone taking such an approach to the Qur’an, even though it is the traditional one, is persecuted, punished and declared a heretic. And yet the Qur’an is a text that is not only composed in rhymes, but speaks in disturbing, ambiguous and enigmatic images; nor is it a book so much as a reci- tation, the score of a song that moves its Arab listeners with its rhythms, onomatopoeia and melodies. Islamic theology not only took the aesthetic peculiarities of the Qur’an on board; it declared the beauty of its language the authenticating miracle of Islam. What happens when one ignores the linguistic structure of a text, however, when one no longer understands it correctly or even acknowledges it, can be observed all over the Islamic world today. The Qur’an is degraded to a manual in which one can search via Internet for some catchphrase or other. The powerful eloquence of the Qur’an becomes political dynamite.”

Kermani’s statement about the Qur’an resonated with me in terms of what has happened in Christianity over the past few decades with our approach to the Bible.  While the Bible and the Qur’an are quite different in many respects, they are both part of the world’s body of sacred literature.  And sacred literature, by its very nature, is not meant to present meaning in a self-evident way.   Part of the reason for that is because these texts arose in times and cultures that are less accessible now.  But another part of the reason is that these texts were meant to be read within the particular religious communities that revere them.  They are meant to be read and interpreted within a larger context of religious tradition and practice.  And just as the goal of any spiritual path is to go deeper, so the texts are meant to both help us and make us take that journey into the depths of meaning.  Texts that are easily accessible don’t invite us into that depth.  And yet, so many Christians have robbed the biblical texts of their depth by insisting on literal, surface meanings as the only possible meaning.  The result, as in Islam, has been to displace traditional ways of reading and interpreting these texts, and to degrade the Bible into “a manual in which one can search via Internet for some catchphrase or other.”   Thus, its “powerful eloquence…becomes political dynamite.”

Kermani goes on to say, “Islamic State was not just founded today, nor did it only emerge with the civil wars in Iraq and Syria. Though its methods meet with disapproval, its ideology is Wahhabism, whose effects extend to the furthest corners of the Islamic world today and which, in the form of Salafism, has become especially attractive to young people in Europe. If one knows that the schoolbooks and curricula of Islamic State are 95% identical to the schoolbooks and curricula in Saudi Arabia, one also knows it is not only in Iraq and in Syria that the world is strictly divided into what is forbidden and what is permitted – and humanity divided into believers and unbelievers. Sponsored with billions from the oil industry, a school of thought has been promoted for decades in mosques, in books and on television that declares all people of other religions heretics and reviles, terrorises, disparages and insults them. If one denigrates other people systematically, day after day, it is only consistent – how well we know this from our own history, from German history – that one will end up declaring their lives worthless too. That such a religious fascism even became conceivable, that IS finds so many fighters and even more sympathisers, that it was able to overrun entire countries and take over cities of millions with barely any resistance – this is not the beginning, but rather the provisional endpoint of a long decline, a decline also and especially of religious thought.”

He describes the process by which an ultra-conservative, reactionary, and fundamentalist form of Islam — one that has turned the eloquence of the Qur’an into dynamite — has spread around the world.  By a much different process, the same thing has happened in Christianity:  ultra-conservative, reactionary, and fundamentalist Christian theologies are now presented as what Christianity is, and its spokespeople are everywhere to be found.   While their ideology seems to be losing ground in the United States, the desperation of its adherents grows precisely because mainstream America doesn’t seem to be buying it.  That desperation reaches out, on occasion, in violent tantrums (like the recent violence at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado), but I fear that as time goes on, even more violent outbursts will come.  As the representatives of this form of Christianity continue to “denigrate other people systematically”, they gradually turn those people into less than human others amongst their own followers, and that will eventually enable more and more violence to be enacted against those who are being denigrated.

And outside North America and Europe, these fundamentalist theologies have a much deeper hold, and have already motivated Christian terrorist groups in some parts of Africa.

All of this is tied to what Kermani calls a decline of religious thought.  Whereas in both the Islamic and Christian worlds, religion and theology once represented sophistication and intellectual rigor, they have now become synonymous with the very opposite.  There certainly are people in both traditions who are attempting to keep alive a more sophisticated theology and spiritual life, but they appear often to be losing ground — in large part because the machinery of public information chooses to ignore them.  Or, perhaps, is unaware of them all together.

Yet we must continue to push against reactionary, literalistic, and denigrating theologies.  The religious traditions emerged from the human experience of the sacred, and as human beings, to lose touch with the sacred is to lose touch with something vital about our humanity.  Those who would disfigure this experience of the sacred by making it justify their own violent ends cannot be allowed to have the final word.