God of Mercy


Oh, I’m late. Very late. I can’t keep hoping for perfect. I have learn to just let them go.

I think I’m going to just link to the readings, to keep things shorter on the page. I really do suggest going and reading them, however, since these aren’t so much free standing sermons as short form reactions to the text. My nasty little habit of preaching is to unlink the topic from the text, and this blog experiment is about trying to cure that. Today’s writing is mostly about the passage in Matthew 2.

Jesus and his family will go down to Egypt. The murder of children hangs in the air. The salvation of the people of Israel is playing in a surreal reverse gear. Jesus is being placed into history, one story at a time. He will wander in the desert for 40 days, he will bring forth water, and finally, re-image the sign of the serpent raised above the people, and go to the cross. The stories of the exodus play out again before our eyes.

It seems hard to read this year.

I wish to pray, once again, for peace in our time. Israel’s incursions into Gaza have compounded an increasingly unconscionable occupation and strangulation of an entire population. I recall watching the removal of settlers from Gaza with such great hope…and find only bitter disappointment at what has happened since.

In Hebrew, Egypt is called “the narrow place,” or mitzrayim. God calls the people out from there, out from narrowness, slavery and death.

By this, we do not mean a modern nation or people. We are talking about God’s Chosen people, who are always identified by their need for God’s restoration (no matter what creed they approach God by). And we are talking about a memory and history of slavery, a narrow place.

And that is precisely where Jesus goes. In fact, this time, Egypt is the refuge, a place of safety when Judea is about to be wracked with the murder of children. It is not the place. It is the idea. God is not brought low by narrow places. God is present there, not locked up, but as the lighthouse, the key for the door, the voice that tells us that we are not alone.

I watch the news, I see that thin strip of land, between Israel and Egypt. And I see a narrow place.

It is a narrow place. It has become a mitzrayim. Not the land itself, which would bloom if allowed. Not the people, who have been displaced and scarred by war. The walls are narrow. The commitment to violence, and “disproportionate response.” The helplessness that those in power proclaim. The true helplessness into which children and their parents are forced into. The hunger. The death.

It is a mitzrayim, and we cannot abide it. Who will God send to preach against it? Whose voice will tear down the walls? Whose hands will build a lasting peace?

Christ enters Israel’s history, goes down to Egypt, and comes back. Christ enters our history, goes down to death, and comes back. And this is all we need to know. No matter what the narrow place is, God shall go there to find us. There is no place that we can be confined, or shut ourselves away in that God With Us will not go.

The fears of depression, the pain of rape, the denial of the closet, the separations of racism, the terrors of war. From Darfur to Guantanamo to Gaza, here and there, all earth is full of narrow places. And they are being broken. For God wills us to life, and life abundantly. God will always go. Going forth into the world, going to create, going to redeem, going always in love.

Let us give thanks. Our narrow places cannot hold us anymore. And when we are healed, what is beyond us? To know that we are free?

We can turn to our neighbor. We can go forth into the world. And we can love.

Blessed be the God of redemption.

Amen.

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Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

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. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

That’s the collect, and the Gospel, John 1:1-18.

It’s officially Christmas now. I included the hymn because it is based on the traditional psalm for the day, 117. We have good tidings all around us, and some very difficult and thick texts. There are so many places to write on this day….the epistle is the passage in Galatians where Paul speaks about the protection and guidance of the law, and I’m always tempted write on the tensions in proto-Christian communities of Jews. It’s my academic bread and butter.

But I want to elaborate more on what E said to my last post. That God comes in the mirror of our expectations to undo our attempts at Empire. As she puts it, “it seems something akin to using black paint to paint a snowstorm.” Rest with that image for a moment, and realize what is being said.

Indeed, as John tells us today, none has ever seen God, comprehended God. It is in Christ, close to the Father’s heart, that God is made known. There is an additional and delicious irony here. As a fellow Yalie wrote recently, there is much attachment to the notion of God as Father. And it is a rich well, a source of living water to the church. But it is necessarily incomplete. As John is trying to explain to us…none has ever seen God. Not by picturing or thinking of God as Father, as Son, as Mother, or spirit. No language, no matter how innovative or traditional can alone show us God.

God is made known in the relationship between God the unbegotten and God the begotten. That One becomes Two which becomes Three. The mere words of explanation just won’t do, though. As Denys Turner puts it, it is not an experience that can be pinned down, or a thought that brings revelation. It is a process of encounter, where one comes to live in the unknowable “darkness of God.”

This new story that God proclaims to us is almost totally unknowable. It is not of human origin, and it is not like anything we have ever heard. It comes in parable, in demonstration, and ultimately, in the cross. You cannot tell someone the Good News like a piece of information. It must happen to them. The relationship that comprises that Good News must begin to enfold them, because it is precisely relationship that expands the unity of God in love to become the Trinity, a God that by it’s very nature creates, gives of itself, and redeems.

The heady discourse of John points us to these truths. But these are not meant to be speeches or diatribes. They are the introduction to an incomprehensibly wondrous story. One that we are invited to live into as it unfolds before us.

A snowstorm, painted in black.

Blessed be the God who calls us to see light and darkness.

Amen.

O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Isaiah 9:2-4,6-7

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness–
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

I sat in church on Christmas Eve, and like many times before, I sang “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.” I pondered about the meaning of the lights, and the stars in the song and the Christmas story as we have come to know it.

Lights in the sky seem like signs of awe and wonder to us now, but they are a bit vague. We require the commentary of the angels, the shepherds, and Phillip Brooks to know that stars announce a savior and a king. To a contemporary, this would have been very obvious. Caesers announced their births with stories of stars and comments. Coins were struck commemorating the blessing of the heavens on the new ruler.

Political leaders may be better, or they may be worse, but none are messiahs. The fundamental story of the world, is one of scarcity. There is good in the universe, and you want to get it. Have it for yourself. Share it with the people you like. Take it from others.

This story gets told a multitude of ways. And some are in fact more just than others. It is better to imagine a political order in which the poor are given food rather than on in which they starve. But we are still talking about a political order. It is good to talk of hope, but we live in a nation built on the labor of many for the enrichment of few. We can rejigger the percentages of how that transaction takes place, but we are not talking about destroying the system. We might talk about diplomacy, which is well and good. But we have not beaten our swords in to plowshares.

So no matter how many presidents come and go, America will never be the Kingdom of God. Jesus is not an Caesar, nor president, nor any kind of human ruler. The light of Isaiah, the illumination of a Prince of Peace is something entirely differnent than the lights of fame or the hope of a single nation. It is the new story, shining out from the night.

So why the star? Why would the Son of God use the calling card of empire to announce the new story?

Jesus is a king who is not a king. He makes an explicitly imperial claim in order to see that the empire had no business commanding our imagination and our conscience in the first place. To make us feel how different it is to feel the yoke of oppression slip from our shoulders than it is to just have it made lighter. Circumstances might put us under human rulers…and we might be so lucky as to have some power to choose ones who we think best. But no matter how they came to be, they are not about the Kingdom of God. Bound by human concerns, they will act more or less like the author of Samuel puts it…taking soldiers away from their homes, grain from storehouses, and the fruits of our labors. We might owe them taxes, or obedience to laws meant to create order. But we ought to withhold our souls. For human rulers will still tell us the old and sinful story. That someone must be our enemy, that there is not enough to feed the hungry, that we deserve bounty when others lack.

This Christmas, celebrate the birth of a savior. One who tells a new story. One in whom, there is no scarcity of any kind. Who does not discern by borders or nations, creeds or politics, but solely on the endless and generative love of the Triune God.

Blessed be the God who dwells with us, as child and savior.

Amen.

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith– to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

That’s the collect for Advent 4 from the Book of Common Prayer, and Romans 16:25-27, the epistle.

I vastly prefer the KJV rendering of the phrase….to God only wise.

I recently was writing to a friend on the occasion of her ordination to the priesthood, and what I believe is ahead of her. I invoked this passage as a way of trying to convey my hope for her, and a church that we both love.

She inherits an ancient and weighty honor at a time when the Anglican Communion has become utterly riven. Nearly armed camps have staked out positions and fought for the soul of the church.

I won’t disguise that in one of those camps, I am recognized as a child of God and offered the Good News of Christ’s redemptive love, or say that they are equally guilty in the split. Far more than being conservative, the rebels are endorsing a vision of a church nearly unrecognizable to history. As my friend so eloquently describes, the Episcopal Church is just that, one of Bishops. It is not necessarily high church or low, liberal or conservative, but one of the unbroken line of succession going back to Peter himself. These are not simple changes, but ones of unmistakable weight. And in this fight there is hatred, racism, imperialism, cynicism, and downright sin of all measures.

Where is the wisdom? Where can we see beyond such fractiousness and reach grace?

To think of God only wise, we often imagine a bearded white man, atop a throne. This is a figure who knows the future, whose power and control over history are unquestionable. The proper response is one of confidence, that the wise God will resolve everything, righting wrongs and setting things in their places. So perhaps we see our faction win, hope for a restoration of the church that is comfortable to us. But Paul closely follows this grand address with the words, “through Messiah Jesus.” The one who is crowned on deathrow, and raised up on a tree of death. The one that was “exposed to material conditions so so malignant that he was executed.”

The only wise God of Paul is one who is foolish to the ways of humanity, scornful of victory, triumphant in defeat. I don’t know how to hope like that. I can’t imagine a church that is upheld if “my” side loses. The opponents we have faced have not just decried our participation in the church, but vilified and hounded us in ways that truly frightens me. I know that my life is largely one of privilege, but for many of my sisters and brothers, this hateful rhetoric is just one more thing contributing to their peril and suffering. It separates them from their communities, families, and the God who endlessly pursues them in boundless love. I am so hard pressed to find hope in such a situation, it seems far too tragic and senselessly wasteful to be redeemed.

So, I do not yet know what it means to see the wisdom of God. I can only sit in prayer this advent, and wait. There are long nights this time of year, and you begin to wonder if you should ever see a dawn again. Rising in the darkness, and ending your toil long after the sun has gone down… I am not ready to sing glad carols and tidings, I am more like Elizabeth and Zechariah, who at the opening of Luke despair of bareness in their old age. Advent is a season of vigil for a Messiah who has not yet come…who cannot simply be summoned by rote prayer or piousness, but is a figment of contested imagination. Do we seek a king, a warrior, a priest? We, once again, do not know where to place our hope. We would do well to wait in the silence this season.

For I am beginning to suspect that it has very little to do with knowing the future. Or seeing a way out. Much more than that, it is a willingness to simply be, to witness, to proclaim grace when we feel it kick within our wombs, to be incarnate. Even unto death.

We seek a wisdom that was heartbroken long before the divisions of the church began to surface, that will remain hopeful far longer than they shall exist. That is with us. With us in the beginning. With us now. With us, world with out end.

To God only wise, through Jesus Christ, be all glory forever!