Monthly Archives: December 2011

Jesus, occupy us

Jesus, come among us and occupy us.

Every year on the Sunday before Christmas, we pray the same opening prayer: Purify our conscience, Almighty God, that your son Jesus, when he comes, will find in us a mansion prepared for himself. This past week I have found myself reflecting a lot on this prayer and I’ve been wondering what it really means to prepare a mansion for Jesus, a mansion in our hearts.

One of my favorite people around here has been heard to say “you know, people in this neighborhood, they might get uncomfortable hearing the word ‘Jesus’ over and over again. Don’t say ‘Jesus’ so much in your sermons.” But Jesus is God walking around as one of us! What’s not to like?

If Christmas isn’t about Jesus, what’s the big deal? Why do we do this to ourselves, the shopping, the decorating, the cleaning, the airports…I thought about roaming through the crowd with a microphone to ask some of you: what’s the big deal about Christmas? Why are you here? Why are you here? What does it mean to you, to come to this drafty old pile of mid-century modern brick on this cold night?

For me, Christmas is a big deal because it’s a celebration of the word made flesh. It is so outrageous, when we really think of it, that God became human and was born in a dark, smelly stable in a little nothing town in the middle of the desert.  I love it. The other thing is I love God’s outrageousness in sending Godself to become human in a family, a nuclear family of all things. Why didn’t God come to the synagogue when the wise teachers and leaders were gathered? Why wasn’t God born flesh in the middle of the Roman senate? Or at the very least, in the master bedroom of the rich landowner down the road? Jesus was born into a human family, that most fragile, easily broken unit of our society.

God chose to become human in an earthy, messy, unlikely, untidy place, as a reminder that that’s who we are.

Who we are—with all of our unique messiness—is where God wants to be. Who we are—with all of our messiness—is where God is.

Christmas is truly a Feast of the Incarnation. God’s fleshiness. Our Godliness. My favorite definition of incarnation comes from our friend saint Irenaeus:  God became human, that we might become divine.

Some people squirm when they hear this because they think that in order to become divine, we have to behave ourselves a lot better than we have been. But what if that’s not true? What if incarnation—God’s fleshiness—means that we get to encounter God right where we are, tonight, this weekend, next week, last week, last month? What if God’s longing is to find a home in us, exactly as we are? This is the good news of Christmas.

And this good news is for everyone. Think about the most un-divine, ungodly person you can think of. Think about your worst enemy, or the person you envy the most, or some crazy, violent, unkempt stranger that makes you want to cross to the other side of the street. These are the people the grown-up Jesus hung around with, God walking around in the world loving the unlovable, seeing God in the ungodly. The good news of Christmas is that God is born in them, too.

This is the big deal about Christmas: that the word becomes flesh. St. John the Evangelist put it this way: The word became flesh and dwelt among us. My favorite translation of that verse is The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.

What would Jesus find in our neighborhood? Or, if you’re not from around here, what would the Word made flesh find in your neighborhood? And if the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood, would we recognize it? Look around. Look for the most unlikely place in your city for God to be, the most unlikely person to be occupied by God, and think about that place as holy. Think about that person as the home of God’s word made flesh.

Every year at Christmas we sing “Joy to the World.” One of the lines hidden among all of the let heaven and nature sing verses is “Let every heart prepare him room.” Jesus wants to find room in every one of us, to dwell in us, occupy us, transform us, take back our hearts from all the distractions of our lives. If Jesus moved into the neighborhood, would he find empty space in your heart, longing to be filled? If Jesus moved into your neighborhood looking for someone to be born in, maybe someone a little bit untidy, messy, and unlikely, would he find room?

We have much to celebrate at Christmas. Even if your house is a mess or your life is a mess or you know you won’t get the gift you think you really want, or you can’t be with the one you love, there’s good news to be had. Good tidings of great joy. God is coming. God is here.

Jesus, occupy us, dwell in us, give us eyes to see the world as you see it, give us ears to hear the cry of the poor, give us courageous hearts longing to love as you love, Jesus, be born in us.

What is the Longest Night?

The Longest Night is the eve of the winter solstice, which this year happens at 5:30 am on December 22. The Longest Night is the night before the light starts to return, and the days begin to get longer, as imperceptible as that lengthening may be until sometime in February when we suddenly realize it’s happened. The Longest Night Service is a service that commemorates all of the complexities of the holiday season: darkness, light, joy, loss, nostalgia, hope, sadness, celebration, death, and new life.

Many churches have “Longest Night” or “Blue Mass” services this time of year, and St. David’s is no exception. It’s a place to observe the season in a way that honors loss and sadness. A friend of mine once said about this service:

“it helps me compartmentalize all the sadness that I always feel this time of year for no reason. I come, I light a candle, I cry a little bit, and then I can get on with celebrating Christmas.”

Our personal longest night doesn’t necessarily coincide with the longest night of the year. The longest night you stayed up with a loved one who was dying, or stayed up waiting for a wandering child to call, or stayed up longing for something to be other than it was….The Longest Night service can be a time to remember those long nights, to mark them night with a candle, a song, a prayer, a bite of bread and a sip of wine in memory of the One who comes to us with the slow return of light.

The Longest Night Service is itself not long. It begins at 6 pm on Wednesday, December 21, and ends shortly before 7. We’ll have a place to light a candle, share a photo or another memento, sing, and listen to wonderful music from the Portland Women’s Threshold Choir. If you need a place remember someone you love and miss this time of year, or just to mark the ambiguity of this season, we hope to see you on the Longest Night at 2800 SE Harrison in Portland on Wednesday.

Nothing is impossible with God

The Rev. P. Joshua Griffin preached on Advent IV this morning.

In the name of God the Creator, Liberator, and Animator of the Universe.

In our reading from Second Samuel, King David finds it unfair that he is to live “in a house of cedar,” while “the ark of God stays in a tent.”  As King, David has achieved some sense of stability in his life, some semblance of control, a sense of power, and he feels that the Lord deserves the same manner of comfort.

But God replies: “Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and tabernacle.”

And here it is: the fundamental transcendence, motility, vitality, infinity, irreducibility of God—or the Holy, or the Divine, or Love.  Take your pick, none of these words can contain what they refer to.  A transcendent universal Love so radical, so mobile, cannot be reduced to words.

The great Anglican poet T.S. Eliot reminds us:

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

And yet words are what we have, and stories are one way we communicate the Mystery.  This time of year we tell the story of infinity drawing near, of God coming to dwell in history:

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a tiny town in Galilee, a remote backwater called Nazareth, to a Jewish virgin named Mary, who was engaged to a tradesman, a common laborer, named Joseph.

Gabriel said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.  Do not fear, for you have found favor with God!  And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, Jesus, and he will be great, and holy, a servant of Love, ‘the Son of God.’”

But she was afraid, terrified, mystified, and stupefied.  “How can this be, for I am a virgin?”

The angel said to her “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the Most High will overshadow you…. Oh, and by the way, your cranky old cousin, Elizabeth—the barren one—yeah, she’s pregnant too.”

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  Then the angel departed from her.

These two stories, of King David and of Mary, present us with a paradox.  Each reveals a fundamentally different image of God.  The first presents a transcendent, wandering God, who cannot be contained by structure or word.  In the second, it is announced that this same God will come to dwell in Mary’s womb, housed and held in human flesh.

And so we encounter a fundamental quality, not just of Christian life, but of all human experience. Theologians call this “the coincidence of opposites,” that place and moment when the transcendent collides with the imminent, the infinite with the finite.  Too often we whittle down this paradox, yet the spiritual invitation is not to resolve it, but to live within it, to hold it as Mary did.

As God-bearers, each one of us trembles with Mary, even as we say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  We live in service of an already/not-yet Kingdom, a paradox we feel at every level: in our hearts, in our families, in our parish, in our neighborhoods, in our Church, in our city, in our country, and in our world.

This Advent, as we struggle to make way for the coming of the Lord—the infant King who redeems all our earthly humanity, we might take comfort in the words of the great Trappist monk Thomas Merton, written to a younger monk:

“Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on… you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect.  As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.”

The angel said to Mary, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

The infinity of Love will be enfleshed in the womb of Mary, and will be born in a sordid encampment. Nothing will be impossible with God.

Mourning shall turn to joy, darkness to light, death shall give way to life.  All tears shall be wiped away. Nothing is impossible with God.

The lowly are lifted up and the powerful brought down from their thrones. Nothing is impossible with God.

The hungry shall be filled with good things, and the rich sent away empty. Nothing is impossible with God.

Justice and peace shall encompass the earth.  Equilibrium shall be achieved.  Competition shall be set aside, cooperation shall be the norm. Nothing is impossible with God.

The infinite will collide with the finite, and the impossible shall be rendered possible.

As we labor for God’s Kingdom, as we labor with the earth, in our homes, and in our hearts, may we not fear what we do not understand.  May we continue to seek after that which we cannot express —the infinite, uncontainable, unpredictable Love of God.


God’s Dream

Who does Isaiah think he is? Can you imagine walking through town or standing on a street corner saying “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me?” And yet, after all the doom and gloom we’ve been hearing from the prophets the past few weeks, all the doom and gloom that we have been hearing in our own world, we could use a little good news, and Isaiah has it in abundance. I hope that if we have good news to share about God’s promises, we will proclaim it.

If you’ve ever read my office door really thoroughly, past the New Yorker cartoons, you’ll remember that there’s something posted right on the window glass that comes from a friend’s blog post last year. It starts with someone asking him: “What do you understand to be God’s Dream?” He replied:  “Well, I don’t think it gets any better than this!” and proceeded to quote the first three verses of Isaiah 61, which we heard this morning.

Just to review, the prophet understands his mission to be

To bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;

To provide for those who mourn…
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

God’s dream, then, is a dream of reversal—reversal of our expectations, faint spirits (ours included) lifted up by praise, and the transformation of the world’s economy into God’s economy.

About five hundred years after these words were written, St. Luke attributes to Mary the remarkable song that has come down to us as the Magnificat. And in the Magnificat, Mary the mother of God’s promises says pretty much the same thing that Isaiah said centuries earlier.

God has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

The God whom Mary knows is the God who promises to turn the world’s economy into God’s economy. When I was in England I came across a small book called “Mary the Mother of Socialism.” It’s a collection of essays by a bunch of Anglo-Catholic Socialists—my very favorite kind of Anglo-Catholics, and my favorite kind of socialists—essays on the Magnificat as a manifesto from God about very real redistribution of wealth.

A friend recently said: “using words ‘redistribution of wealth’ together in a sermon can be a career-changing sermon.”  We are so afraid to talk about this stuff, and yet this is what Jesus talks about more than anything else! If it occasionally makes us squirm, it may be that we are, in today’s world, the mighty and the rich. But Jesus is not making this up. He gets it from Isaiah and from his own reading of his scriptures, of the world, and of God’s dream.

In the 4th chapter of Luke, Jesus gets up and reads aloud in the synagogue—right there an act of audacious reversal—Jesus reads this passage from Isaiah 61 and says: This is what I’m about.  And people responded to him then in the same way they probably responded to Isaiah and would respond to you or me: who the heck does he think he is? Getting up here and saying God has anointed him to bring good news to the poor?

Do you have a favorite passage of scripture that you can point to and say: That’s what I’m talking about?

What does God’s turning the world upside down look like? The deaf hear, the blind receive their sight, the hungry become full. Last week God surprised and overwhelmed us through the Voices Unlimited Choir, a choir made up mostly of people with autism and other disabilities, singing carols and reading lessons with a passion and a clarity that humbled our hearts and made our hearts sing.

Today’s words from Isaiah and from the Song of Mary are our proof-text for what God promises to do in the world, but so is our own life’s experience. We have to look for it, and proclaim it. Last week’s lessons and Carols was one of those experiences. The image of a recently homeless family of five children, whose mother wants only winter coats and a Fred Meyer gift card, receiving the extravagance of response through our giving tree is one of those experiences. The unlikely people who gather in this building week in and week out is a proclamation of God’s reign.

What is your life experience of God turning the world upside down? As we prepare for the great Good News of the angel’s message to Mary, which we’ll hear next Sunday, and of the angels’ announcement to the shepherds, which we’ll hear the week after that, think about what your great good news is. God is coming, God is here.

God’s dream starts with the words of Isaiah, the words of Luke, the words of all the prophets before and since, and with story after story about God’s confounding our expectations and turning the world upside down. The dream continues with us, with our stories and our words. In this season of Good News, can we have the same audacity of Isaiah? Let’s try.

Repeat after me:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,

Because the Lord has anointed me.

He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

To bind up the brokenhearted,

To proclaim liberty to the captives,

And release to the prisoners.

You get the idea. God’s dream is our dream, God’s story is our story, God’s words are our words. God is coming, God is here.

Parallel time: baptism from the inside out

In accordance with God’s promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

When I was in elementary school I used to rush home every day in order to get there by 4:00, to watch “Dark Shadows.” For those of you who have never heard of Dark Shadows, or who have heard of it but never watched it, or who used to watch it but have chosen to deny any knowledge of the show whatsoever, it was a genre of soap opera that never quite took off in the pre-Twilight era: a “Horror Soap.” This meant that in addition to the usual stuff of romance and family intrigue, about half the characters were in some way related to the local vampire or werewolf, or had some other macabre and magic powers.

For a while, one of the show’s subplots was something called “Parallel time.” In one wing of the mansion where much of the action took place was a pair of massive oak doors. Sometimes, one would open the doors and find a dark, dusty, empty room. Other times, they would open the doors and find they had entered into another drama entirely. Familiar characters seemed to be dealing with whole new sets of problems, or none at all. As the newcomer began to take all of this in, he or she would realize that this parallel time had been going on all along; it existed alongside of that person’s day-to-day existence, and yet at the same time, once aware of this other world, he or she became part of it.

Incarnation—God’s fleshiness, which we celebrate at Christmas—is all around us in this moment in time. If you walked into our building last Friday afternoon, you would have been greeted by the smells of delicious home-made soup prepared by Food Not Bombs. You would’ve heard children lovely violin music. If you came back Saturday morning, you would’ve smelled more deliciousness coming from the kitchen, as two of our prize-winning bakers were cooking up treats for this afternoon’s party. In the lower level, you would’ve seen people from all walks of life learning to make jewelry in the art studio. This afternoon, the Voices Unlimited Choir, who announce the kingdom of God by welcoming people of all abilities into their midst, will offer a traditional service of Lessons and Carols, and then we’ll all eat and drink and listen to more great music in the St. Nicholas party. God’s fleshiness, in a particular moment in time.

In our Advent worship, in our readings, and in the activities of our own December lives, we are all getting ready for a particular moment in time, the moment described in the story we hear every year on Christmas: the journey to Bethlehem, the overcrowded inn, the swaddling clothes, and the angels’ glorious announcement to the shepherds.

At the same time, we know that the story of the birth of Jesus, which we anticipate throughout Advent, is part of a completely different and eternal story.

John the Baptist knows this. Mark the Evangelist knows this. Mark doesn’t even bother with the shepherds and the swaddling clothes; did you notice that? For Mark, the Good News begins with John’s baptism and moves immediately to the grown-up Jesus.

I will baptize you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

I would like to suggest that in today’s gospel, John the Baptist opens a door onto parallel time. Imagine that we are standing on the threshold.

In one direction, we see John the Baptist appear and proclaim a baptism of repentance. He is there in a specific time and place, as familiar to Mark’s readers, then, and now, as this time and this place is to us. We know what John is wearing and what he’s eating. He’s an earthy, in-your-face, here-and-now kind of guy. We know what scriptures he’s been reading, and we know what he has to offer: baptism in the river Jordan, for the forgiveness of sins. An opportunity for the people of Judea to cleanse themselves and to turn with openness and hope toward the promise of someone much greater than John.

On the other side of the threshold, we see the time that stretches from the prophets to this moment, right here. In one line—I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit—John the Baptist tells the whole story. The story that began in creation moves through the lives of the people of Israel, broken and desperate for the glad tidings we heard from Isaiah. The story has no end: it continues with the One who is coming after John, the One for whom John is only a messenger, the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.

We have no record of Jesus ever actually baptizing anybody. So what is baptism with the Holy Spirit?

I would like to suggest that baptism in the spirit is baptism that will change us from the inside out. If John’s baptism with water is a baptism of repentance, of changing our ways in a particular time and place, the baptism of the Holy Spirit brings us into a new relationship with God, always and everywhere. This new relationship exists both within time, here and now, and in the world without end.

By his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus transforms the nature of baptism. It is no longer something we do to signify a change of heart. It is that, but it is more than that. The baptism of Jesus in the Holy Spirit is baptism into who we are. It is baptism into the faith community that shares, through time and beyond time, the whole story.

At the conclusion of the Chronicles of Narnia—another wonderful story of “parallel time”—C.S. Lewis writes about

“the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever, in which each chapter is better than the one before.”

No one ever has read this Great Story. And yet we tell bits and pieces of it every Sunday. We tell the story of God’s presence in history, in the lives and witness of our ancestors in faith. We tell this story in the Holy Eucharist, which is another example of a particular moment in time, bread and wine we can taste and see, which also contains the stuff of eternity for which we cannot even find words.

We are standing on the threshold between this moment, the Second Sunday of Advent, 2011, and the eternal time that the prophets are forever promising us.

Unlike the characters in Dark Shadows, we don’t have to leave one kind of time in order to be present for the other. Baptism in the Holy Spirit means that we can have it all. We can move through our lives, grappling with the day-to-day intrigue of being human. At the same time, we live as participants in that great story that has been going on before time. From both sides of the threshold, let us greet with joy the coming of Jesus.