Hopeful Longing

Isaiah 9: 1-6; Luke 2: 1-14

creche

“Shepherds quake…at the dawn of redeeming grace.”  Silent Night is marking its 200th Anniversary on this very night.  On a night when the organ had been damaged by flooding, the words of a simple poem, set to guitar chords, has managed to transcend time as an eternal carol.  Silent Night.  Holy Night.  All is calm; well, at least for here, maybe not in your homes.  There is, though, something that is aroused in us in the silence in the night, when our own hearts quake.  There is obviously great joy that is so much a part of this feast.  I myself enjoy the time with nieces and nephews because of the joy, the sense of wonder and mystery that Christmas holds, but also knowing that it passes with time.  There is, along with that joy, often a deep sadness that many experience on this holiday, often associated with family and loss but also, in a way only a mother can know, the separation that takes place upon the birth of a child, setting in motion a deep longing and desire to be one.  This feast, like no other, manages to bring together that sense of great joy and sadness all into one, pointing the way to finding joy in the sadness and pain we may be feeling.

There’s a sadness as well when we look at this creche that has a way of capturing us each year like nothing else.  It’s not just a sadness that comes with what Christmas has become culturally but tied to the sadness of this scene, that like Silent Night, doesn’t find its way into our feast until centuries later, yet, a longing and desire draws us here to this place because in the midst of it all, it reminds us of who we really are.  It draws us in and speaks to us in the silence of the night because at the core of our being, this is who we are and yet we’re not there yet.  Everything about our lives moves us in the direction of becoming this creche, this scene of such peace and joy.  Yet, everything in us, connected with that longing and desire for love and joy, pushes us to resist it all at the same time because we don’t want to go to the place of longing, to our deepest sadness and hurt.  That’s precisely, though, right where we find that joy and peace.

It is where all the prophets lead Israel, as we hear in today’s first reading.  It’s one of the most poetic of all Isaiah’s writings.  But we need to understand, Israel once again finds itself on the brink of war.  Poverty and famine have become a way of life.  A chaotic and corrupt political leadership was the name of the game.  Israel, more often than not, found itself floundering in life, not only feeling as if God had abandoned them in so many of their experiences, but the separation that came from their land and from one another.  The deepest longing and desire of Israel was to be one and at peace but it never seemed to come to fruition.  They have lived through the pain of an enslaved people.  Isaiah, today, speaks of a people that knows darkness and knows it well.  They are a people that knew pain and suffering.  They are a people that knew separation and longing.  But the thing about it is, like us, the more we look beyond ourselves to satisfy it only deepens the pain and loneliness.  Isaiah offers a message of hope in finding the light in the midst of the darkness and not to despair, that what they desire they already have and keep seeking elsewhere. To be a people of faith they must find hope in the darkness of their own lives and trust that life will spring forth.  Long before Jesus is born in this stable, plainly pointing out to us our deepest identity, wrapped in swaddling clothes, Isaiah learned to trust the interior life, the divine indwelling, knowing the presence of God and revealing a message of hope and joy to a people that knew darkness more than anything.

The same is true of Mary and Joseph, as well as the shepherds with hearts that quake.  Mary and Joseph, in giving birth to the Christ, don’t somehow bypass darkness.  Jesus doesn’t come with a blueprint and map as to how they are to proceed in all of this.  The three of them are going to face utter darkness, not always knowing where they are going until they too are exiled.  Their own history and connecting with it, reminds them of the necessary hope as they make this journey.  The shepherds themselves will not make their way somehow to the top of the list in their time.  Rather, they found their deepest selves in that encounter.  In the quaking of their hearts, something begins to move deep in the silence, illuminating their own longing and desire for love and peace.  As we hear in this gospel, Mary and Joseph don’t rebel against the religious and political leaders of their day.  They simply through freedom and choice don’t become like the nations but rather grow into becoming like the one they bear, the Christ.

They will all face unbelievable sadness and pain in this journey.  There’s nothing easy about giving birth and the same is true of a God who tries to birth new life in each of us, leading us to trust the eternal that has already been planted.  All the stories we hear this season will point us in that very direction.  What’s most important is that when we find ourselves in that darkness is not to become consumed by it and be defined by it.  Whether it’s this creche or this altar, we are always being captured by the deepest desire to be love and joy and both remind us of that very truth of our being.  We will never get rid of darkness.  We will never get rid of sin.  For that matter, we will never destroy corruption and abuse of power and all the rest because all of it points to that deepest longing and desire within us.  It begins and ends with Christmas, with this very creche in which defines who we are.  In our very sadness and brokenness as humans, who simply long for joy and love, we learn to find it in that precise place we’d rather avoid.

“Shepherds quake…at the dawn of redeeming grace.”  It’s what Christmas is all about.  In the silent of night, the silent of darkness, a light is illumined, casting light upon our hurt and pain, our deepest longing and desire.  Maybe we find our own hearts quaking this evening, breaking forth and invited to something new, a new sense of wonder, simplicity, and joy, a child-like spirit that reminds us of days long ago.  It’s God breaking in.  It’s God reminding us that we’re something more than this cultural Christmas that also feeds into that deepest longing.  Like Mary and Joseph, we seek the courage to step into that very darkness, that pain, that longing, for it is there that they place their trust and find hope.  We are no different.  The gift awaits us all in that very place within our hearts that quake with the shepherds on this night, this silent night.  Wrapped in swaddling clothes we find a child, we find ourselves, with the dawn of redeeming grace.  Silent Night.  Holy Night.  All is calm.  All is bright.

 

Easter’s Good Friday

The Passion According to John

For a moment I invite you to look at this Passion that we just heard from John and this day that we now celebrate, Good Friday, from a different perspective. Over the centuries as a Church we have often only looked from one direction and that’s where we have just come from, the Lenten Season. It was a time of sacrifice, a time of giving up, but when we do we gather today in sadness despite the fact that on the first day of the Lenten season we’re told not to do that, not to be gloomy. That’s not the point of Good Friday despite the fact that we often do it not just with this day but with our lives, and in particular, we become fixated on our hurts and live a life of victimhood. What I invite you into, though, is to look at it as John did some 70 years after the death of Jesus and from the lens of resurrection, from the lens of Easter.

I have said for the past few weeks as we looked at the stories coming from John that he’s a very different interpretation than what we just heard back on Palm Sunday and Matthew’s Gospel. In John’s, from beginning to end, Jesus is conscious of what he does and is aware of not only the choices he makes but also how others respond to him and react to what he does and doesn’t do. Today’s Passion is no different and so it’s not just Jesus but John who’s writing to his community that views from that same lens. In the other gospels, it’s Jesus who is interrogated by everyone as the chaos ensues around him. But not in John’s. It begins that way, but being aware and being conscious of it all, Jesus turns the tables as he does throughout the gospel. It goes from him being on trial to him putting everyone else on trial and interrogating them, without getting trapped into their own chaos and confusion and struggle for power.

With that understanding, even to his own death, there is a point to everything that John conveys through images and events in the passion. One of the images that we tend to just flash by is the one, nearing his death, where Jesus has this encounter with the beloved disciple and Mary. He says behold your son and behold your mother. For John, the message he conveys to his community in that moment that a new family, a new community forms out of this moment. They are no longer simply bound by blood or by tribe but by something more. It’s not to say that blood or tribe just suddenly goes away, but as his community forms and this new family takes shape, it’s now the eternal Christ that unites them as a people. For John, what dies on the cross are the bonds that often separate us recognizing from the beginning, as his gospel begins, that it is the Word, the eternal Christ, that lives forever. It’s why it’s a solemn day but not a sad day. From the ancient Church it’s been this passion that we have heard as a people, not to embrace a victim mentality or viewing life through the lens of what was, but rather the new life and the new community that forms.

It’s followed up, as the death of Jesus takes place, when a soldier then thrusts a lance in the side of Jesus and blood and water flow out. For John, it all comes together in this moment, life and death, and the birth of a new people, a new family, a new community, flows when blood and water break forth. In the beginning was the Word John tells us and now in this moment, it’s not a lance that thrusts forth but rather new life. It’s the perspective that John tries to convey to his community. This celebration was about coming together to retreat and to reflect upon where we have come from and where the Christ now tries to lead us.

I can stand here and ask everyone of you in this church about the suffering of the world and our lives and I would bet that all of us would be able to identify the great sufferings that occur, from the smallest of children blown up by bombs to people killed on the streets, those suffering with great illnesses and so forth, but even that is about the perspective we have on life. It’s so easy to live the life of victim and that is one of the theories that has been drilled into us about Jesus and why this day happens. We could live in what was, embrace our hurts and how we have been wronged or somehow cheated out of something, but, quite honestly, then we might as well live our lives stuck on Palm Sunday and the lenten season and never move beyond. That’s not the grace of this day for John and nor should it be for us. That season of our lives has now ended and a new one is being given to us, a new beginning, as blood and water burst forth from the side of Jesus.

As we continue this journey and these days of retreat, we are once again invited to look at it from a new perspective, one that offers life rather than more resentment, loss, and victimhood. It serves us no good anyway. What are the symbols and images that seem to be touching our hearts at this very moment, where the Word now tries to break forth in our lives. We live our lives in hope and are called, as Jesus is in John’s Gospel, aware and conscious of who we are and what we do in the face of such suffering, often brought on by our own unawareness, and to be freed to embrace the new life. In the end, for John, it all comes down to this as Jesus breathes the spirit upon this new community as he takes his last breath. Yes, something dies but what remains is the eternal and it is the eternal Christ that stands as our truest bond as community and as family.

Is It Over Yet?

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve about had my fill, plus some, on this election cycle. When I was watching some news this morning all I kept thinking was, “Is it over yet?” It’s a lot like that child in the backseat of a car who perpetually questions whether we’ve reached our destination as the car continues to fly down the highway at seventy miles an hour, seeming endless in sight. Over and over again the question lingers because it just seems to take forever to get there, without an end in sight.

I couldn’t help but to be mindful of the fact, also, that there seems to be no other news that happens during this cycle. All we ever hear about is Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, every now and then Gary Johnson, and who’s going to try to win the duel of berating comments that does nothing more than divide and dredge up people’s most visceral reactions toward fellow human beings. How about the number of people killed in Africa by terrorists groups since the beginning of this year? There seems to be no mention of that in the news. How about the number of people around the globe and here in the States that die for not having adequate food, clothing, and shelter each year? There seems to never be a mention of that. That’s really not news and doesn’t sell to the consumers. No one seems to notice that what we are consuming is eventually going to kill us in some way, or at the least, numb us to the real problems that we face as a country and as a fellow human race. If we want to label anything deplorable, it’s the lack of empathy that we have lost towards our fellow brothers and sisters, so often numbed by screens that we can turn on and off and so often translating over into the way we relate to others.

The lack of empathy is typically the result of deep wounds that we allow to fester within us and typically avoid. This mess we call the presidential election is a good way to avoid that pain and numb it even deeper within ourselves. Now it is one thing to do that on an individual level, but when the collective psyche has been damaged and hurt, it, in many ways, leads to the reality in which we live and often scapegoating others, deflecting our own pain, onto others, often those that don’t have the ability to defend themselves, those without a voice. The people that often need that empathy the most become the villain in the story that unfolds. There’s no better way to avoid our own pain than to project it onto the one that can’t defend, can’t stand up for themselves, and in turn only deepens the wounds of others. The cycle continues. Is it over yet?

I can’t help but to think of the visceral reaction to Colin Kaepernick sitting and then choosing to kneel during the singing of the National Anthem. Whether any of us agree or not, it is the paradox of the freedom for which it stands, that one can make a conscious choice to reject it. There’s a fine line between reverence and turning something into a god. I was reminded of the great Martin Luther King, Jr who had addressed the reality regarding war that speaking is sometimes a “vocation of agony” as he would describe it. Even Scripture reminds us of the voice crying out in the desert. When we can no longer empathize with those who feel they have no voice and those who have often faced pain inflicted upon them, it’s not them that are at fault. It’s us who can no longer see beyond our own political lens that has been inflicted upon us, when demonizing the other is more the name of the game than not. It has nothing to do with money and rights. It has to do with understanding that maybe someone has a different experience that myself, whether because of color, religion, sexuality, or something else that, at times, has brought about suffering. The lack of empathy hinders us from taking a step back and saying to ourselves, maybe we have a problem that I don’t understand, and allow ourselves to reflect, have a change of heart, empathize, for the other, rather than be do quick to judge. Or as our politics likes to do, inflict it upon others.

These are sad days in the life of this country, a country that continues in many ways to reel in the pain of the tragic events of September 11, 2001. We often speak about those days that followed and how the nation had come together as one. It was a golden opportunity for us collectively to step back and begin to look at life differently and discern how we move forward in a positive way, rather than the great divide that has ensued. It was a golden opportunity to reevaluate what is most important to us as a people, hopefully one another and not political jargon that seems to dominate our lives these days. Is it any wonder why people are dissatisfied and disenfranchised by the whole process? When voices are crying out and we choose to ignore, we will undoubtably pay a price in the end, finding ourselves wandering aimlessly in life, looking for direction and purpose. Is it over yet? Maybe then I can finally move on in life and start caring about people as people again, rather than voters, skewed by politics, screens, social media, and talking heads telling me how I should think and feel.

With all that, again, my mantra is simply, “Is it over yet?” As I write this I believe there remains fifty-five days left before the 2016 presidential election. At the moment, neither candidate is appealing in any way. Neither candidate has won my vote. And it’s not even because I have a disdain for anyone, but rather, there’s no future in what is spoken and it seems to simply take you back to middle school playground antics of choosing sides with who might be the cooler kid to hang out with at this moment. There’s no prophetic message in bringing people together. There’s no sense of dream that our nation can move beyond such pain that we experience and allow ourselves to become something new. It’s not about turning back the clock to some other time. All days have passed. It’s about listening to our brothers and sisters, especially those who are hurting, and from the ground up begin to build something new as one people. Otherwise, we are simply left with the weight of another election upon us and people waiting to breathe a sigh of relief that it’s coming to an end.

Is it over yet? It’s all that comes to mind as I sometimes feel sad for what I see and hear, to the point where I need to turn it off and have my sense of humanity restored. There’s nothing like that encounter with the homeless that walk through the front yard. There’s nothing like watching the school kids playing outside during recess. They all remind me of the hope that we should all desire for our future as people and as country, and yet the constant reminder that there are greater needs that need to be addressed. Tearing people apart and destroying reputations sets the “winner” up for failure right from the beginning. If we’ve demonized the other for months on end, how do we ever see that person as leader, as someone who can help move us through the pain to the life that is desired for us rather than the destructive force we have made them into over the year. Quite frankly, there’s too much at stake right now to settle, and for any of us to be reduced to a vote and questioning whether it will ever end.