Whose Story Shapes Your Reality?

your-storyThe theologian James Alison has said of human beings that “we are the animals that tell stories.”  When one thinks of the ways in which we are unlike other animals that inhabit our world, this is surely something that makes us different.   And this story-telling is not just a propensity we have or a habit we indulge.   It’s not just something we do because we like to do it, nor is it something we could choose to give up doing.  For it is precisely this telling of stories that constitutes our reality and makes it meaningful.

The primary way in which we make sense of ourselves and the world around us is through the telling of stories.  Our connection to everything is primarily linguistic.  Most people have no sensible memories before the acquisition of language, for it is language itself that allows us to order the reality around us and to interact with it.  Those who for reasons of disability are unable to engage the world linguistically are still certainly a part of it, but in a limited way.  They find ways to engage, but that engagement seems foreign to most of us.  Because for the vast majority of human beings, our connection to reality is rooted in language.  In order for something to be meaningful, it must be named.  And once something is named, a story can than be told about it.  Our reality is constituted by narrative.

The Judeo-Christian tradition itself points to the centrality of language and story-telling when it identifies the creative power of God with the spoken word.  In the creation stories of the book of Genesis, every thing that is made comes into being when God “speaks” it into being.  “God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light.”   The ancient writers of the scriptures perceived the power of language to constitute our reality — they knew who they were and the history of their people through the stories that were told down through the generations.   Thus, they easily imagined that the divine power to constitute reality was also rooted in the power of language.

We see this reflected over and over again in the Bible.  The prophets are conveyers of the word of God to God’s people.  The name of God is considered unutterable because to know and say a name implies some kind of power over it.  God and Jesus both give people new names when a new divine calling manifests in their lives.   The Gospel of John is able to say that Jesus is the Word made flesh, the embodiment of the divine creative word spoken of in Genesis.  Language is power — profound and fundamental.  And the great teaching of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and most of the world’s religious traditions are all given by means of story-telling.   Jesus himself tells stories — parables, a particular kind of story — that are meant to collide with the narratives we have already inherited and offer us new narrative possibilities, which have the power to re-shape our lives.

Right now, in America, in the midst of a feverish presidential election campaign, we are all caught up in conflicting narratives.   Different political parties and different candidates promote different stories of what it means to be an American, of what leadership is meant to be about, of what the larger world is like.  These conflicting narratives are nothing less than conflicting versions of reality.  People are captivated or repulsed by one narrative or another, while some attempt to break through these stories with yet other narratives.   All of these competing narratives are seeking to shape our personal stories, the stories of our country.  Indeed, they are seeking to shape the way we see reality.  The person who wins the election in November will be the person whose narrative attracts the greatest number of people.

Those of us who seek to follow Jesus are, like everyone, narrative creatures.  But we have been warned to be wary of the stories people tell us.  Wolves can appear in sheep’s clothing, telling us stories that seem to liberate us but really are meant to enslave us to a particular view of reality.  As Christians, the only story that is truly liberating for us is the story of Jesus.  It is the story in which a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew becomes the victim of powerful elites who create stories that mark Jesus out as dangerous, stories that are sold to crowds of angry and frustrated people to convince them to sign on to Jesus’ execution.   Jesus is turned into a scapegoat for the problems and tensions of his time, and becomes the victim of powerful people who stir up resentment against him in order to deflect people from the real problems that they are facing.

The Risen Christ emerges from that victimhood in order to bring all victimhood to an end. This habit of scapegoating a person or group and making them the target of a society’s fears and frustrations must end — this is, in part, the message of the Risen Christ.  He comes among us to show us a different way, to offer us a different narrative that does not require the making of victims.

And so, as we listen to the competing narratives in this election season, we are obligated as Christians to ask ourselves an important question:  which of these narratives is the narrative of oppression and which is the narrative of liberation?  In other words, which of the stories the candidates wish us to sign on to most closely resembles the narrative of Rome, which led to the victimhood and death of Jesus, and which resembles more closely the narrative of Jesus himself, that is, the story of God’s radical embrace of humanity, setting us free from the need to make victims?

As Christians, we cannot subscribe to narratives of oppression.  We cannot subscribe to the making of victims or the singling out of scape-goats.  We have been claimed by the story of Jesus, we have been claimed by the power of the divine creative word that seeks to bring into being the reign of God among us, that tells a story of love and faithfulness, that speaks good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, love of neighbor as self.  Our primary spiritual work is to make this narrative of liberation the central narrative of our lives, and to act in faithfulness to it.

From the cross, Jesus prayed God’s forgiveness on his oppressors, saying, “they know not what they do.”   The resurrection of Christ shown a powerful light on that moment, so that we might not slip into the darkness of that ignorance again.  Let us look now to that light, that we may not be overcome by the darkness of ignorance again.

The Limits of Forgiveness

repentance1-300x223“Then Peter came and said to [Jesus], ‘Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.” — Matthew 18:21-22

 

 

I have always carried with me a deep sense of God’s love.   While I have encountered many people who have struggled greatly with an image of God as judgmental, strict, demanding, and punishing, that has never been my struggle.   During my sabbatical last summer, as I worked on a writing project to put into words my understanding of God as known in the Christian tradition, I came to a realization that was really an expansion of this deep sense of God’s love that I have always had.  And that was that God is One who always moves toward us in a love shaped like forgiveness, compassion, and generosity.   I have come to see how clearly this shape of divine love is revealed and  known in Jesus.

And Jesus invites us into an imitation of this shape of divine love.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”  The term “father” (or, more accurately, “daddy”) is the primary term Jesus uses to talk about God, especially in John’s Gospel.  A little later in this same passage, Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these” (see John 14:8-17).   Here, John seeks to make clear that what Jesus enacts in his own life and ministry is an enactment of the divine love, revealing the shape of that love.  We, who are meant to do even greater things than Jesus, are called to similarly enact the divine love in the living of our own lives.   We look to Jesus as the one who reveals this love to us, and we see him constantly moving toward others in this love shaped as forgiveness, compassion, and generosity.

Within this context, then, it is not surprising that, in the passage from Matthew’s Gospel that appears at the beginning of this post, Jesus challenges Peter’s attempt to place a limit on one aspect of this love: forgiveness.   How often should I forgive someone who wrongs me?, Peter asks.  Seven times?   No, says Jesus, try seventy times seven (some variants read “seventy-seven times”).   I hope it is clear that Jesus is not saying, “490 times”.  Rather, he is using this mathematical expression to point to the limitlessness of God’s forgiveness and, thus, of our forgiveness.   God’s infinite love is infinitely forgiving, and this is what we are being asked to enact in our own lives, as we live into our call to be conduits of God’s love in the world.

This deepened understanding of the shape of the divine love has shown up quite a bit in my preaching since I returned from my sabbatical last fall.  Some of those who have to listen to my sermons might say it has shown up a bit too often!  Those sermons have always been, one might say, at a high level view.  That is, as we consider how we are to approach our fellow human beings in general, we are called to do so with a love shaped like the divine love.

Of course, people don’t live their lives at a high level.  People live their lives on the ground, within particular contexts, and with very particular people.  And, living life on the ground can include a lot of pain.   And so it was that I was recently reminded, by someone who’s life on the ground has included being the victim of emotional abuse, that this preaching on the need to approach others with limitless forgiveness has not been good news.  Rather, it has felt very much like the opposite.  It has sounded as though I am suggesting that there are no limits, and it has sounded to this person like an invitation to give an abuser a pass — and that feels like asking too much.  It feels like God might be okay with abuse.  It is asking too much, and God is not okay with abuse.

Hearing this very real testimony about very real pain has gotten me to thinking about the limits of forgiveness.   And it has helped me to see how limitless Jesus tends to be in the gospels.  After all, we are told that as Jesus was being crucified by his abusers, he said, “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing”  (Luke 23:34).   So what are we to do in the face of those who do genuinely bad things to others?  What are we to do with those who do genuinely bad things to us, things that are simply not okay?  How are we to live forgiveness and preach forgiveness in the face of these painful realities?

I’m not sure I yet have a good answer to these questions.  And, more importantly, I’m not sure that I have the right to do so in any more than a tentative way.  While I have certainly been hurt by others’ actions in the course of my life so far, I have never been victimized by someone else.  I am not a victim of abuse.  And, therefore, I do not think it is for me to say what forgiveness can or should look like in the life of someone who has been victimized.  I can have compassion for those who have been victimized, but I cannot enter into their experience.

One of the things that seems clear to me as I look again at Jesus’ enactment of the divine love is that Jesus does not accept the ethical categories proclaimed by the privileged of his own time and tradition.  Instead, Jesus places himself among those who are the victims of those ethical proclamations, and he empowers them.  He gives them voice.  This pattern suggests to me that when it comes to deciding what is ethical, Jesus does not begin at the center and move outward.  Rather, he begins at the edges, and moves inward.  Ethics are to be informed by the victims, not by the powerful.   One might say that Jesus does theology from the margins.  And, as we seek to imitate his example, we cannot ignore this aspect of his ministry.

So, where does this leave me?  I remain convinced that God’s movement toward us is, indeed, a love shaped like forgiveness, compassion, and generosity.  Jesus’ living out of this in such a limitless way is perhaps meant to challenge the limits that we tend to adopt — and, like Peter, most of us tend to impose a limit too soon and too quickly.  But this does not mean that Jesus does not consider certain kinds of behavior to be wrong. As he goes among the victims of his time, he is clearly saying that whatever happened to make them victims was wrong.  He is not saying that their victimization is okay.  He is not giving the powerful wrong-doers of his society a pass.  Indeed, his ministry among the victims of his time acts as an indictment of those wrong-doers.  We could, perhaps, sum it up this way:  it is never okay to make someone your victim.

It is tempting for those of us who have not been someone’s victim to suggest how those who have been made victims should enact the divine love when it comes to dealing with those who victimized them.  But that, I think, is wrong.  It risks making others into victims again.  Rather, we must be like Jesus, I think, and go among the victims in today’s world.  We must listen to their stories, we must hear their struggles, and we must ask them to take the lead in showing us what the limits of forgiveness are.  We must learn from them how our proclamation of the love of God is heard in the ears of those who have been abused.

God’s forgiveness may indeed be without limit. But to protect the dignity of every human being, there might indeed need to be a limit to our forgiveness.   We could, I think, give that limit a name: justice, which itself is a powerful and recurring biblical theme.  Justice is, of course, not revenge, but it is a clear calling out of wrong-doing as exactly that.  Justice permits no hiding, it does not allow wrong-doing to be justified.  It demands that the making of another person into a victim be acknowledged, and it asks for repentance — which is more than being sorry, but is a deep conversion away from the making of victims and toward a way of living that affirms and preserves the dignity of all the people in one’s life.   It seems to me that perhaps, in situations of injustice, forgiveness cannot truly be given or received until the injustice is acknowledged in the way that justice demands.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops” (Luke 12:1-3).  This is what justice requires:  a bringing into the light of all that is not light.

The love and forgiveness of God, where it is truly manifest, brings a light that illuminates everything.  If someone is holding on to darkness, if someone is truly refusing to allow the light to shine on the ways in which that person has caused pain to others, can there truly be forgiveness?  Perhaps not. Perhaps the forgiveness must wait until the darkness can be let go of, and the light can shine clearly.  Perhaps forgiveness needs repentance.

Subverting the Status Quo

crucifixionOne of my favorite stories in the gospels is one in which Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  The disciples give him all the gossip, what other people are saying about him.  Then Jesus asks the more important question:  “But who do YOU say that I am?”   Peter, always seeking to be the “A” student, blurts out, “You are the Messiah, the Christ.”   Jesus affirms that Peter is right.  But Peter has no idea what this means — and, in many ways, the Christian journey for each of us is to wrestle with this question, “Who do I say Jesus is?  What does ‘messiah’ even mean?”

As we enter the Great Triduum — the Great Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter — this question raises itself again for me.  And, this year, I am struck by a particular answer:  Jesus is the One who comes to subvert the status quo, to tell us that what we take to be “normal” is actually a twisting and distortion of God’s dream for humanity.

Jesus does this in a couple of ways.

First, he indicts the culture of his time and the ways in which it victimized and marginalized people whom it defined as “the Other”.   Jesus declares the accepted ways of treating the poor, the diseased, women, and foreigners null and void.  He says that the religious and cultural traditions that say these accepted ways are okay are human traditions, developed to accommodate the discomfort of the privileged and the powerful.  They are not, he says, of God.

Second, he subverts the expectations of people like Peter who are ready to call him Messiah.  Those expectations revolved around a kind of religious and cultural nationalism that focused on the desire to end Roman oppression of the Jewish people.  The messiah was supposed to be a general, a king, someone who would reassert and reestablish the Davidic kingdom.  But this was not what Jesus was about.  He was not interested in a political revolution that would reestablish a national identity, but rather in a revolution of the human heart and spirit that would root people firmly in God’s vision for humanity, one in which there is no room for nationalistic and tribal concerns.

Jesus’ double-subversion of the status quo and traditional expectations is what led him to the cross.  The privileged and powerful voices of empire and tradition could not embrace the vision of which Jesus was the bearer and sign.  They lacked both divine imagination and courage.  And so they resorted to the remedy that the powerful and the privileged always resort to when nothing else is working:  they set out to violently suppress what Jesus represented by killing him.  And, in the process, they convinced the people who were at the center of Jesus’ vision to cooperate in his destruction.  The crowds that cheered Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem would call for his crucifixion just days later.  Authority convinced them to act against their own best interest, and to participate in trying to kill the dream of God.

But God in Christ continued to subvert the status quo, and the expectations of tradition.  In the Resurrection, God declares that the divine dream for humanity cannot be killed off or suppressed.  It will always find a way to confront the privileged and powerful, and to continue to call the human heart and soul into the transformed life of the kingdom of God.  The revolution of the human spirit goes on, even in those moments when it seems least possible — especially in those moments.

As we enter these Great Three Days, let us consider what is our participation in the status quo.  How is God confronting us?  How is God seeking to call us lovingly into a new life?  Will we find the imagination and courage to say “Yes”?

Unity is Not Unanimity

Taize-CrossThe current headlines from the recent gathering of the Primates (senior bishops) of the Anglican Communion — that The Episcopal Church (based in the US) is to be excluded from key aspects of the Communion’s life, as a result of its decisions regarding the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church, including the sacrament of marriage — raise a question that deserves serious consideration:  What does unity really mean in the life of the church?

Over the centuries, Christian people have often, it seemed, confused unity with unanimity.  They have assumed that in order to be united, people must agree about certain things.  That list that must be agreed to tends to include both matters of doctrine and morality.   The list has shifted over the centuries, but it has never gone away.   When groups of Christians have been unable to sign on to the list du jour, fracture of relationship has been the result — along with the formation of new denominations.

The results of the recent gathering of Anglican Primates appears to be simply another iteration of this history.   The majority of the Primates have a list of doctrines and morals which must be signed onto, in their view, in order to have unity within the Anglican Communion.  And the very top item on the current list seems to be a certain view of marriage and human sexuality.   Since the Primates, and the churches they represent, are not unanimous with respect to their views on these issues, the result is fracture of relationship — a deliberate distancing of The Episcopal Church from the other churches of the Communion, and the very real possibility that other churches will end up being treated the same way as they move toward The Episcopal Church’s position.

This idea of unity as unanimous agreement is, it seems to me, false; and particularly so for Christian people.

In his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Pauls observes, “Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.”   What Paul is pointing us toward, I believe, is that the locus of Christian unity is not based on unanimous consent but rather on the conviction that Jesus is Lord, a conviction that is ultimately enabled by the one Spirit.

While this is not a term I normally use — generally because of the conservative theological connotation it has acquired in the present day — to say that “Jesus is Lord” is simply to say that Jesus is the one on whom we rely to bring us into a salvific (which is to say, a healing) relationship with God.  To say that “Jesus is Lord” is to express our loyalty to his proclamation of the kingdom of God, to say that he is the one whom we follow and whom we trust to bring us to God.   This is the unity of the Christian church:  to claim this central role for Jesus in our lives as we seek to “work out [our] own salvation”.  And Paul is clear that anyone who is able to say this does so “by the Holy Spirit.”

There is no doubt in my mind that this is something that all of us in the Anglican Communion are able to do.   We have each and all entrusted ourselves to  Christ and to his proclamation of the kingdom of God.  This unites us to one another and, indeed, to Christians around the world.

But having entrusted ourselves to Christ, we then embark upon the life-long journey of understanding exactly what this means.  As we continue to contemplate the life of Christ and to listen to his proclamation of the reign of God, we must work out what his life and his proclamation mean for us in the particular time and place in which we find ourselves. Just as we see Christ as the incarnation of God in a human life, so we must figure out how to incarnate the reign of God within and among us.   And while it may sound straight-forward, the actual process of incarnating that reign is far more art than science, and can be quite complicated.  Because for anything to be truly incarnated, it must — by definition — become fully and deeply embedded in its time and place.   The consequence of this incarnational truth is that Christians in different places will enact the Gospel differently, and will reach different conclusions about what it means relative to any given issue or situation.   This is simply because the act of incarnating the reign of God inevitably involves dialogue and interaction with the surrounding culture and its diverse inhabitants.

This, it seems to me, is how Christians who all are seeking to be faithful can arrive at very different points of view.  What we must learn to see is that these different points of view all begin at the same place:  a commitment to following Jesus into the heart of God.

We have tended over the centuries to want to find our unity as Christians by making everyone adopt the same point of view about pretty much everything.  The persistent divisions within the Christian community give us all the evidence we need about how well that has worked.  Nevertheless, we continue to nurture a fantasy of a universal church where everyone will be on the same page.

We need to come to terms with the fact that Christians have really never been on the same page with respect to lots of things, and it is unlikely that we ever will be.  But we can find unity in something we have, in fact, all always agreed on:  that Jesus is decisively the one whom we follow, and we trust him to lead us to God.   Rather than beating each other up about the different ways in which we incarnate that commitment, we would be far better served by rejoicing in the many and diverse ways we incarnate that commitment.

In the midst of the rejoicing, however, it is equally important to recognize that Jesus does give us a standard that must apply to all our efforts to incarnate the gospel, regardless of time and place.   When asked for the bottom line of his teaching, Jesus answers, Love God with your whole heart, body, soul, and spirit, and love your neighbor as yourself.   However the gospel is incarnated, whatever conclusions we draw from our commitment to Christ about how we live in union with God, we must be able to affirm these principles positively.   Our incarnation of the reign of God must reflect a deep and abiding love for God, and it must reflect a deep and abiding love for our neighbor.   When Jesus himself was asked to define that word “neighbor”, he said that the neighbor was the one among us who was in need.

We must always bear this standard in mind, and we must constantly and honestly reflect on our own incarnating of the Gospel and ask ourselves, “Is this expressing a whole-hearted love for God AND a whole-hearted love for my neighbor, the one near me who is in need?”   When we find that it is not, then we have an obligation to re-align our following of Jesus.

Incarnation of the reign of God is far more messy than most of us would like it to be — but it is the task and the truth to which we have been called.

Returning by Another Road

The Epiphany is depicted in a mural titled "Adoration of the Magi" in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception at Conception Abbey in Conception, Mo. Painted by Benedictine monks in the late 1800s, the artwork is the first appearance of the German Beuronese style in a U.S. church. Christians celebrate the incarnation of the divine word -- the birth of Christ -- Dec. 25. The feast of the Epiphany is Jan. 2. (CNS photo courtesy Conception Abbey) (Nov. 8, 2004)

Yesterday — January 6 — began the season of Epiphany, whose heart is the story from Matthew’s Gospel about the three wise men who come from the  East, following a star, looking for the “king” whose birth they believe the star to announce.  They pay a visit to King Herod, believing that he would want to help them locate this newly-born king.  They are not at first aware of how threatening this news is to Herod, who asks that they let him know where they find Jesus, so that Herod can pay his respects, too (something, of course, which Herod has no intention of doing).  The wise men do, indeed, find the baby Jesus and give him their famous gifts.  At the conclusion of their visit, however, they “return home by another road”, having been warned that Herod’s intentions are anything but honorable.

This sweet story is usually interpreted as pointing symbolically to the significance of Jesus’ birth for people outside the Jewish community — for the wise men come “from the East”, meaning they are not Jews.  And much has been made of the symbolism of their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.   Particularly of the myrrh, which was traditionally used in the anointing of bodies after death — and therefore is taken to be a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own death.

This year, I have found myself wondering about the symbolism of the rest of the story.  For me, the wise men strike me as pilgrims, as spiritual seekers who are wise enough to perceive that in Christ, God has come into the world in a new way.  And they recognize that this particular coming of God is something they need.  It is like a light — or a star — that draws them to Christ.  And so they make their pilgrimage, leaving their home and the land that is familiar to them to go to a strange place.  Part of their wisdom is that they are wise enough to know that they can’t stay home, they can’t simply remain in their comfort zone.

When they encounter Christ, they have the courage to open their treasure chests — to open their hearts to him.  Indeed, the story suggests that it is in encountering the Christ that they are drawn to open their treasures to him, to share with him that which is most precious in their lives.  It requires courage, because the moment they open their hearts they are opening themselves to transformation, to change.  They are letting the light of Christ in, and they will never be the same.

And so their encounter with Christ sets them on a new path.  They do return home, they go back to the familiar and comfortable, but they do so “by another road”.  The return home different than when they left.  They are not quite the same people.  They have allowed Christ into themselves, and they have begun to be recreated from within.

Some people, like Herod, cannot make this journey, because it is too scary.  Rather than seeing the beauty of allowing Christ to remake them, they see only the cost of that remaking.  They cannot let go of what must be surrendered in order to embrace the light.

As we make our way into Epiphany this year, may we see the invitation to open our hearts to Christ and allow ourselves to be remade not as threatening, but as reassuring.  May we see it as God’s movement toward us in love, as an opportunity to become the light we see in Jesus, and thereby to bring light to the world.

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:

ONE EVENING, AN ELDERLY
CHEROKEE BRAVE TOLD HIS
GRANDSON ABOUT A BATTLE THAT
GOES ON INSIDE PEOPLE.

HE SAID “MY SON, THE BATTLE IS
BETWEEN TWO ‘WOLVES’ INSIDE US ALL.
ONE IS EVIL. IT IS ANGER, FEAR,
ENVY, JEALOUSY, SORROW,
REGRET, GREED, ARROGANCE,
SELF-PITY, GUILT, RESENTMENT,
INFERIORITY, LIES, FALSE PRIDE,
SUPERIORITY, AND EGO.

THE OTHER IS GOOD.
IT IS JOY, PEACE LOVE, HOPE SERENITY,
HUMILITY, KINDNESS, BENEVOLENCE,
EMPATHY, GENEROSITY,
TRUTH, COMPASSION AND FAITH.”

THE GRANDSON THOUGH ABOUT
IT FOR A MINUTE AND THEN ASKED
HIS GRANDFATHER:

“WHICH WOLF WINS?…”

THE OLD CHEROKEE SIMPLY REPLIED,
“THE ONE THAT YOU FEED”

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.