St Michael and All Angels Pastor Kristin Schultz
5th Sunday after the Epiphany – Salt and Light February 5, 2017
Today’s gospel lesson continues the Sermon on the Mount –
Jesus’ on-the-job training for his disciples.
He has just finished telling them that God blesses those who are rarely seen as blessed,
– the meek, those who mourn, the merciful, the peacemakers,
Now he says to them – You are salt of the earth. You are light of the world.
He does not say, you will be the salt of the earth, once you get it.
Not, you could be if only you did this one thing.
You are, already, by virtue of being here as my followers, salt and light.
Now, salt and light meant something in Jesus’ time that’s not the same as they are today.
Both are necessary parts of life, but they are things we can easily take for granted.
For Jesus and his followers, they were not so easy to come by.
So Jesus telling disciples they are precious and important –
vital and valuable to the life of the world
Amy Oden, who teaches at St Paul School of Theology, wrote about this passage:
Notice the present tense as Jesus tells his followers they are salt and light now, not in some distant future. Jesus’ teaching is not only about what the Kingdom of God is, but centrally about who we are, what our new lives in this new realm look like -- tasty and lit up.
Those who follow Jesus don’t merely sit back and receive abundant life, or simply tell others about what a great abundant life we have. Jesus is talking here about a life that makes a difference for others in the world.
We are the tastiness that adds salt to lives around us. We are light that makes plain the justice way of the kingdom of God. Jesus says we must be tasty and lit up in order to make a difference for God in the world. Neither salt nor light exists for themselves. They only fulfill their purpose when used, poured out.
This weekend at St Michael’s we have laid to rest two saints of this congregation –
Ina Stewart and Pepper Marts.
Many people spoke of Pepper as the salt of the earth in his steady, constant faithfulness.
Ina radiated the light of Christ’s love in her care for those in need
as well as her own family and friends.
We will miss their presence and their witness among us.
But even though we looked to them as examples and champions of faith,
They are not the only salt and light among us.
Each one of you acts as salt and light in your lives,
to all those you care for and reach out to and serve and welcome
and to whom you offer simple kindness.
That is who you are as God’s child, claimed in your baptism.
We have started using a phrase from the ELCA baptismal liturgy, when we give the newly baptized a candle and say, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
It began there – with your baptism – when God claimed you and the church welcomed you,
and commissioned you to the life of a disciple.
Three years ago I stood here and asked each person to write on a notecard one way they had been salt and light in the past week.
For weeks, we printed a “salt and light log” in the weekly Noticias, sharing those responses so all of us could recognize how tasty and lit-up this place really is.
I want to share some of those responses with you now – just some of the things St Michael’s members are up to in the world:
You offer the love that shines light in the darkness of people’s pain and need.
Your kindness seasons people’s days – and you may not even know the difference you make.
Karoline Lewis, a preaching professor at Luther Seminary, wrote about her experience of being salt and light by participating in the women’s march last weekend in Washington.
She said she has never marched before, and she is not sure why.
But she does know what drew her to Washington. She writes,
I marched for the Gospel I believe in -- the Gospel that tells me I am enough and insists that others are as well. The Gospel that says God needs me to be the salt of the earth. The Gospel that encourages me to speak up for those who have been silenced or have yet to find their voice. The Gospel that won’t let me stand on the sidelines but pushes me out into the world God loves so that others might know they are loved and welcomed and worthy.
For the Gospel does not censor. It does not silence the already oppressed. It does not cast suspicion on those who are other. It does not act out of fear. It does not bar membership. It does not look aside and say that God’s earth isn’t hurting. It does not ban the perceived outsider. It does not build walls to keep others out.
Like Amy Oden, Lewis pushes us to realize this salt and light thing is a matter of identity.
Both women write about the bushels we use to cover our light when we question our own worth, or think “someone else will do it,” or when we fear meeting resistance.
Didn’t Jesus just tell his followers they will be persecuted for the sake of the gospel?
So Lewis says,
when you truly believe that you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, you just do it. You don’t debate it. You don’t second-guess it. You don’t wonder about it. You just go and be it. That’s Jesus’ point. Jesus doesn’t say think about it. He doesn’t say you will be, you may be, or try to be. No, you just are. You are salt and light. Period.
Does this all start to sound like a great responsibility?
Maybe you’re thinking – I don’t remember signing on for this salt and light stuff.
I’m just looking for a place to say my prayers and be inspired by good music
and go about my own life.
But that’s not the deal for disciples of Jesus.
Our lives are no longer our own; we belong to him, and he says we are salt and light.
But there is one thing in this lesson which is clear in the original Greek,
but impossible to hear in English.
When Jesus says “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.
You are a city on a hill.
Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,
you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
he’s not talking to just you, yourself, on your own.
In all these cases, the You is plural.
It is us, all of us, following Jesus together,
providing one another encouragement and strength on the journey.
It’s not something any of us can do alone, but together, we can make this church –
and this neighborhood, and this city –tasty and lit up.
And even then, we do not do it without the Spirit of Christ empowering us.
So, when it seems too difficult,
when you feel you have lost your saltiness and your light is fading, remember this:
the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Our light is simply the light of Christ, reflected in our lives.
That light is stronger than hate or fear or death.
It is stronger than doubt or suspicion or resistance.
That light can never go out.
Thanks be to God.
Sermon on the Beatitudes Pastor Kristin Schultz
St Michael and All Angels January 29, 2017
The lessons we read this morning work together to tell us something about God,
and what God values.
Micah reminds us:
What does God require of you?
Do justice; love kindness; walk humbly with God.
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise;
God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;
God chose what is low and despised in the world
And Jesus tells his followers something about how God chooses to bless God’s people.
It may seem that God’s blessing is on the wealthy and powerful,
those with status and prestige.
But these are not the values of the kingdom of God Jesus proclaims.
God chooses to bless people who are overlooked and despised
by the values of the world.
Last fall I went a conference called Why Christian?
I’ve talked about it before – about hearing the testimony of people who have struggled, who have wrestled both with God and with church folks who would tell them they didn’t belong.
And what I heard them say, one after another is – God blessed me when I was in my lowest place, and called me back.
During one worship time, Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber read us a new set of beatitudes.
I was transfixed.
So when I got home I looked up the sermon from which she read to us.
What if the beatitudes aren’t about a list of conditions we should try and meet to be blessed. What if these are not virtues we should aspire to. What if Jesus saying blessed are the meek is not instructive –what if it’s performative? …meaning the pronouncement of blessing is actually what confers the blessing itself. Maybe the sermon on the mount is all about Jesus’ seemingly lavish blessing of the world around him, especially that which society doesn’t seem to have much time for: people in pain, people who work for peace instead of profit, people who exercise mercy instead of vengeance. So maybe Jesus is actually just blessing people, especially the people who never seem to receive blessings otherwise. I mean, come on, doesn’t that just sound like something Jesus would do? Extravagantly throwing around blessings as though they grew on trees?
So today I’m going to share some new beatitudes – written by both Nadia and me.
Because I like to imagine Jesus here standing among us saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who wonder if they are good enough. Blessed are the agnostics. Blessed are they who doubt. Those who aren’t sure, who can still be surprised. Blessed are they who are spiritually impoverished and think they know everything. Blessed are those who wonder if their lives matter.
Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are those who have lost their dreams. Blessed are those who are lonely. Blessed are those who have seen too much death. Blessed are they who have buried their loved ones, for whom tears are as real as an ocean. Blessed are the mothers of the miscarried; and those who long to be parents. Blessed are they who don’t have the luxury of taking things for granted any more. Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who no one else notices. The kids who sit alone at middle-school lunch tables. The laundry guys at the hospital. The sex-workers and the night shift street sweepers. Blessed are the losers and the babies and the parts of ourselves that are so small. The parts of ourselves that don’t want to make eye contact with a world that only loves the winners. Blessed are the forgotten. Blessed are the closeted. Blessed are the unemployed, the unimpressive, the underrepresented. Blessed are the teens who have to figure out ways to hide the new cuts on their arms. Blessed are the meek. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.
Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who speak the truth in love. Blessed are those who speak up when they hear offensive jokes. Blessed are those who parent teenagers. Blessed are those who choose kindness, even on facebook. Blessed are those who pay it forward.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the wrongly accused, the ones who never catch a break, the ones for whom life is hard – for they are those with whom Jesus chose to surround himself. Blessed are those without documentation. Blessed are the ones without lobbyists. Blessed are foster kids and trophy kids and special ed kids and every other kid who just wants to feel safe and loved and never does. Blessed are those who demand justice; who march for justice; who advocate for the needs of others. Blessed are they who know there has to be more than this. Because they are right.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are those who make terrible business decisions for the sake of people. Blessed are the burnt-out social workers and the over-worked teachers and the pro-bono case takers. Blessed are the kids who step between the bullies and the weak. Blessed are the nurses and orderlies and those who work in nursing homes. Blessed are the merciful for they totally get it.
Some people think that if they are Christian, God will bless them,
and nothing bad will happen.
The beatitudes show us something different.
Not a God who promises happiness and rose gardens all life long –
but a God who knows we struggle, and promises to bless us and love us through our hardest times.
It reminds me again of Why Christian?, and the testimony of so many merciful people who know what it is hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice for themselves and others.
Those who know that to be poor in spirit is a blessing because it drives us into the arms of Jesus.
That is the greatest blessedness – when we know we need God in our lives.
Blessed are we who know God’s love when we suffer,
and open ourselves to God’s healing grace.
Thanks be to God
22 January 2017
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“The Word Made Strange”
“Jesus said, ‘Follow me.’” (Matthew 4)
Language has been much in the news this week. We’ve been pondering an inaugural speech, parsing the homemade signs carried yesterday in resistance, and just generally wondering what the larger meaning of it all is.
I was especially struck, therefore, by a conversation I had with one of you over coffee this week, when the subject came up of how predictable the language of the lessons we read here in church can be. You can pretty well bet that once every three years (since the lectionary is on a three-year cycle), we’re going to have the same old texts. And there are some days (like Christmas), when we get the same text every year. Let me assure you, nobody knows better than we preachers how familiar it can all seem, as we struggle to find something new to say!
But on the other hand, I often find it uncanny how just when you think you’ve got something like a biblical text down by heart, a new meaning can jump out at you that you never noticed before. It comes from what one theologian suggests [Rowan Williams] is practicing the art of looking at something familiar so intently and minutely, that it ends up becoming remote and strange.
Another one of you gave me just such an experience, also this week. You have perhaps noticed that we have made a bit of a substitution in our worship during the season of Epiphany: instead of the rote recitation of the Nicene Creed (which I know is not everyone’s favorite text), we are trying out instead an alternative affirmation of faith, taken from our sister church, the Anglican Church of New Zealand and Aotearoa.
So as I was saying, one of you gave me a fresh insight into these texts by calling my attention to the fact that oddly enough, the Nicene Creed never actually uses the word, “love.” That omission seems especially peculiar, given the fact that one of the strongest Christian beliefs about God, is that God is love, and John’s gospel and epistles in particular make that point over and over again—as if it is the one thing you’ve got to understand about God. (Think for instance of I John 4:8, which reads, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”)
So right there in the Nicene Creed, in what is one of the most basic of Christians texts, a huge gap opens up. The strange thing is, that until one of you called my attention to it, I had never noticed that fact before. And suddenly, a familiar text was made strange, strange indeed.
The affirmation from the New Zealand church, however, is quite overt on the subject of love: it says, “You [O God] have revealed and proved your love for us in Jesus Christ.” So here is another text, also suddenly made strange, by including what another left out.
My point is this: the meaning of texts in the current moment is often to be found not in their familiarity, but in their strangeness as it becomes apparent to us by such close attention. It is, if you will, taking a poet’s approach to language, for a poet is one who is able to take words that seem familiar and well known to us, and by using them in unexpected ways or drawing out previously unimagined connections, to show us something new.
Here’s an example, also taken from my experience this week. When I’m driving here to morning prayer in the church, I try to leave just before 7:45 am so that I can catch Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac” on the radio, which comes on at precisely that hour each day. This past Wednesday, the poem he read was “To Sara, 1999,” by Bill Jones. It is about two parents whose young daughter is leaving home, perhaps for the first time by herself, on her way to a trip to Ireland. He writes,
Tonight, fifteen, you’re boarding
a plane to Ireland by yourself
on your first flight, seven hours
in the dark across the Atlantic
to land in Shannon at dawn.
Backpack in place,
you walk the long corridor
beyond where Mom and I can go.
We stand there, grinning,
watching and waving,
as you pass through security
and emerge on the other side.
How often we have all passed through airport security, but how strange that experience is made in the poet’s eye, which is able to see it as a metaphor for life’s transition from childhood to adulthood, from home to independence. As one who recently saw my own child walk through just such a security checkpoint, the poem certainly arrested my attention for its insight into something seemingly so prosaic, yet also nothing less than an irreversible life transition.
So through attentiveness, words, images, and ideas can leap out of what we thought we already knew so well, and suddenly open a different dimension to us. In short, words have far more communicative and revelatory power than we are normally aware. Think for example of the political events of this weekend. When we are given a lexicon of words that makes our country seem strange to us—words like “carnage,” “swamp,” “grab,” “crooked,” “rapists,” “rigged,” “lock up”—it is no wonder that a resistance should at some point be spawned that tries to substitute an alternative vocabulary (at least, that was what I was thinking yesterday afternoon as I wandered among the 10,000 or so people gathered on Albuquerque’s plaza). Words have a way of taking hold, and of having a hold on us, so we must use and adopt them with care—a principle of civil society quite forgotten in the Twitter age.
As an example of the power of words, take the word “call,” which comes to us out of today’s gospel, where Jesus begins calling his disciples. Jesus is strangely able to persuade people to follow him, simply with the invitation: “Follow me.” The call he extends is not complicated, not really even explained, but it exerts sufficient power over them that they leave everything to respond to it.
Now, call is a word we use all the time in church, as if we understand it completely. But hold that one word up for a moment, and let it become a bit strange to you in its contemplation. Call: is that a lifelong thing (like a career), or is it more temporary and fleeting (like a vacation)? Can it be both? Is a call definitive, or is it always partial and uncertain? From who does a call come—directly from God, or from our own interior response to God? What if we feel as if we have no call? Does everyone have one, or is true call more rare? Am I being called to something right now, or is my call something that has been lingering in the back of my mind for a very long time, unattended and unanswered? Does a call change? Might I be called to a variety of things, or is a call unique?
Just taking that one word—call—and letting the changes ring on its possible meanings, has the potential to lift the very familiar story of Jesus calling the disciples, and make it seem very strange indeed. What was in the disciples’ minds when they responded so readily to such a vague invitation? Is there anything that would cause me to drop everything that I currently am, and to take some other direction in life? Is there some reason that I need to drop everything that I currently am, and to take some other direction in life?
Perhaps it is worth saying, that this approach of letting the familiar become strange through our attentiveness to it, is quintessentially Anglican (Episcopal) in character. There are some Christian traditions that focus on dramatic, personal conversion. Others are concerned with the faithful fulfillment of duty. And each of those has its value.
But the Anglican tradition of which we are part is more likely to turn to a patient, inquisitive attention to small things as the way to God, finding “heaven in the ordinary” (as the poet George Herbert put it), in the moments when the familiar is suddenly made strange to us. It is what Simone Weil called attente (“waiting”), not passively, but with a wide-eyed attention and expectancy for what might spring up. As one writer put it, Christian life and worship “is a bit like birdwatching”: you may see only what you have seen a thousand times before, but then suddenly the unexpected will dart into your vision, and you find as a result that your soul has been unexpectedly enlarged by the experience.* Amen.
* Benjamin Myers, Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams, 2012.
© Joseph Britton, 2016
Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
15 January 2017
“Jesus Christ is the light of the world.” (Collect of the Day)
A week ago yesterday, I gave the homily at the funeral of my mother-in-law, Barbara Cavarra. She was a person who craved sunlight, and hated the darkness of winter, so it was ironic (and perhaps even poetic) that she died on the Winter Solstice just as dawn was breaking, ending the longest night of the year.
I closed the homily by observing that even now, the days are already beginning to grow longer (even if imperceptibly), and that fact might remind us of the broader perspective that in death Barbara has gone toward that heavenly light that ultimately lies beyond our knowing. And light is, I said, the only real metaphor we have for God, which is why in this Epiphany season we turn again and again to it—like I did in that homily—looking for a way to express who this Jesus is whose birth we celebrated at Christmas.
Light is the one true metaphor for Christ for a variety of reasons. The warmth and light of the sun, for instance, shines equally on us all, as does his love. The sun’s intensity also has nothing to do with our own effort, but is entirely outside our control or doing. Its luminosity allows us to see and function where otherwise there would only be darkness and confusion. Its energy supports growth and provides sustenance. In short, without it there would not—could not—be life, not unlike the way in which our souls rely on the divine love made known to us in Christ for their animation and continuation.
There is a beautiful Pre-Raphaelite painting that hangs in a side room of the chapel at Keble College, Oxford by William Holman Hunt (perhaps you know it). Entitled “The Light of the World,” it has an uncanny power to get at the meaning of this symbolism of light. The painting is of Christ in a garden, just at dawn, carrying a lighted lantern. He stands outside a cottage door, which is closed against him, as he prepares to knock upon it. Curiously, the door has no handle, so it can only be opened from within.
The implication is clear: Christ brings with him not only the illuminating light of the lantern, but the cosmic dawn itself. He is life, or as the Prologue to John’s gospel puts it, “the true light that enlightens every person, coming into the world.”
Yet for the soul closed in upon itself, like the cottage shut to the outside, his revelatory knock can only bring light into its dark recesses if the soul first takes the initiative to open the door to him. And this becomes the essential question of this Epiphany season for us: how do we open the door of our lives to this new light that has come into the world?
Yet we have many reasons and means for keeping the door closed.
One is anger. We have heard a lot about anger in recent months. Anger in the streets. Anger at the ballot box. Anger at one another. Even so, we should know that anger is never a fruitful place from which to try to act reasonably or make decisions. Paul warns as much in Ephesians, when he admonishes us never “to let the sun go down on our anger” (Eph 4:26-27), lest the devil gain a foothold. Against Christ’s invitation to be people of the light, anger keeps the door closed, extending the darkness which comes with it.
A sense of privilege and entitlement is another means we have of keeping the door closed. I know of no other human attitude that more effectively shuts the door to light and love than such a sensibility. For some people, it’s a matter of social and economic class. For others, it’s where they went to school. For others, its’ where they were born and therefore hold citizenship. But when we are self-satisfied with who we already are, we have no motivation or inclination to open the door to something, or someone, new.
Which leads us to self-righteousness. Who was it, who said that the truest thing that can be said about people of any sort, is that “All of us are much more human than otherwise”? [Harry Stack Sullivan] It takes a big dose of realism and humility to see ourselves in the face of those whom we most despise, to open the door of experience to theirs, but the truth of the matter is, we are more like even them than we are not.
Anger, privilege, self-righteousness. These are three clever and cunning ways we human beings have of trying to keep the door shut against the light of Christ.
But as this Epiphany season moves toward its culmination on the Sunday before Lent, when we will hear of Jesus’ Transfiguration—how he himself is caught up in a heavenly light and energy—we might ponder even now the meaning of that enigmatic event. It is as if, in his humanity, Jesus will in that moment be turned inside out, and the light of the divine love which is at the core of his life will overtake everything else that he is. He becomes “the dwelling of the light” (to quote the voice out of the whirlwind that speaks to Job [38:19]), and is shown to be “the gateway to an endless journey into God’s love” (as Rowan Williams put it in his study of icons of Christ [The Dwelling in the Light, p. 5]).
Which takes us back to that door in Hunt’s painting, shut against Jesus. Hunt explained that his work is based on a verse in the book of Revelation [3:20], which reads, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and sup with him, and he with me.” The knocking, then, is both a request and an invitation: a request to open the door, but also an invitation to sit down at table with the one whose very being is light and love.
You may have heard that our beloved fellow parishioner, Pepper Marts, died this week. Pepper had an extraordinary facility for understanding the meaning of the language of worship, and he often supplied us with emendations to our liturgy to make that meaning clearer. Among his most insightful observations was that the sense of the words “Do this in remembrance of me,” which we recite over the bread and wine at every celebration of the Eucharist, might best be rendered as “Whenever you do this, I will be at table with you.”
Christ, the light of the world, offers to be at table with us, to share our lives, to offer the warmth of fellowship and the intimacy of discourse that comes from the simple act of sharing a meal. So having opened the door to his presence here in this church, we will soon take up his invitation to be at table with him. And that is no small thing, for in doing so, we will do nothing less than make our witness against that anger, privilege, and self-righteousness which we have seen holding the door tightly shut not only against him, but against one another as well. Amen.
© Joseph Britton, 2016
Rowan Williams - Archbishop of Canterbury
excerpts from Christmas Sermon
Canterbury Cathedral, 25 December 2004
It used to be said that if you were travelling by ocean liner, the worst thing you could do was to visit the engine room. Getting too close to the center of things (or what people think is the centre of things) can be alarming or disillusioning or both: you really don’t want to know that, people will say; you don’t need to know how things work (or fail to work). Get on with it.
And that’s where Christmas is actually a bit strange and potentially worrying. When we’re invited into the stable to see the child, it’s really being invited into the engine room. This is how God works; this is how God is. The entire system of the universe, ‘the fire in the equations’ as someone wonderfully described it, is contained in this small bundle of shivering flesh. God has given himself away so completely that we meet him here in poverty and weakness, with no trumpeting splendour, no clouds of glory. This is how he is: he acts by giving away all we might expect to find in him of strength and success as we understand them. The universe lives by a love that refuses to bully us or force us, the love of the cradle and the cross.
It ought to shock us to be told year after year that the universe lives by the kind of love that we see in the helpless child and in the dying man on the cross. We have been shown the engine room of the universe; and it ought to worry us – us, who are so obsessed about being safe and being successful, who worry endlessly about being in control, who cannot believe that power could show itself in any other way than the ways we are used to. But this festival tells us exactly what Good Friday and Easter tell us: that God fulfils what he wants to do by emptying himself of his own life, giving away all that he is in love. The gospel reading sets this out in terms that cannot be argued with or surpassed. God is always, from all eternity, pouring out his very being in the person of the Word, the everlasting Son; and the Word, who has received everything from the gift of the Father, and who makes the world alive by giving reality to all creation, makes a gift of himself by becoming human and suffering humiliation and death for our sake.
‘From his fullness we have all received’; Jesus, the word made human flesh and blood, has given us the freedom, the authority, to become God’s children by our trust in him, and so to have a fuller and fuller share in God’s own joy.
We live from him and in him. The whole universe exists because God has not held back his love but allowed it to flow without impediment out of his own perfection to make a world that is different from him and then to fill it with love through the gift of his Son. And our life as Christians, our obligations, our morality, do not rest on commands alone, but on the fact that God has given us something of his own life.We are caught up in his giving, in his creative self-sacrifice; true Christian morality is when we can’t help ourselves, can’t stop ourselves pouring out the kind of love that makes others live. Morality, said one prominent modern Greek Orthodox theologian, is not about right and wrong, it’s about reality and unreality, living in Christ or living for yourself. Being good is living in the truth, living a real life, a life that is in touch with ‘the fire in the equations’ and that lets the intense creativity of God through into his world. The goodness of the Christian is never a matter of achieving a standard, scoring high marks in a test. It is letting the wonder of God’s love knock sideways your ordinary habits, so that God comes through – the God who achieves his purpose by reckless gift, by the cradle and the cross.
[In his letter to the church in Philippi, when St Paul insists on love between Christians, he appeals, not to an abstract moral principle, but to the fact of God becoming human. Christ empties himself, and Paul invites us to do likewise, living for others as Christ has done. Love is given so that love may be born and given in return.] That is the engine of the universe; that is what we see in the helpless child of Bethlehem, God so stripped of what we associate with divinity that we can see the divine nature only as God’s act of giving away all that he is.
And if we want to live in the truth, to live in reality, to live by the Spirit who is breathed out from the Father and the Word, this has to be our life. Can [this church respond to the needs of the world from this place of self-emptying love? Can we motivate one another to] get involved in voluntary action, advocacy and giving? If the answer is yes, we shall have taken a step towards living in the truth. The law of all being, the fire in the equations which has kindled all life and which burns without restriction in every moment of the life of Jesus from birth to resurrection, will have kindled in us. ‘I have come to cast fire upon the earth’, said Jesus. We may well and rightly feel a touch of fear as we look into this ‘engine room’ – the life so fragile and so indestructible, so joyful and so costly. But this is the life of all things, full of grace and truth, the life of the everlasting Word of God; to those who receive him he will give the right, the liberty, to live with his life, and to kindle on earth the flame of his love.
© Rowan Williams 2004
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
"What is Truth?"
“Behold, the dwelling of God is with humankind. God will dwell with us,
and we shall be God’s people, and God will be with us, and be our God.” (Rev. 21:3)
“What is truth? What is truth?” That is a question that will follow this child Jesus whom we celebrate tonight for all of his life. The people of his hometown will wonder by what authority he speaks so compellingly as a young man; his disciples will debate the truth of who he is as he pursues his ministry among them; the scribes and the Pharisess will debate the authenticity of his teaching; and ultimately, the question will be put most directly to him at his own trial by Pontius Pilate: ”What is truth?”
The importance of Christmas, I think, is that it ultimately has to do with exactly this question, “What is truth?” And this is especially so this year, when we are aware of being surrounded by so much untruth. Indeed, in recent years, the deliberate spread of false information and the denial of demonstrable fact have become so prominent in our culture, that we have had to invent a vocabulary to name it: we now speak of “truthiness,” for example, as an acceptable level of veracity.
Christmas, however, points us back to truth itself. It does so, because the story it tells asks us first and foremost to look honestly at the truth about ourselves, seen in the light of what happens at Jesus’ birth. In the simplicity of Mary and Joseph and the humbleness of the back-alley setting of Jesus’ birth, the story challenges the self-important understanding we have of ourselves. We are, after all, so adept as human beings at constructing elaborate and well-defended accounts of our own security and importance, which we repeat over and over to ourselves to shore up the defenses around our sense of self.
But then, like the intrusion of the Holy Spirit into the life of Mary, life has a way of breaking through those fantasies, exposing their ultimate fragility and absurdity. A job is lost. There is a market crash. An illness robs us of our health. An accident snuffs out the life of our beloved.
And with what then are we left? This is where the Christmas story invites us to re-examine the truth about ourselves. And the first thing we might notice in doing so, is that despite the messiness and fragility of human life, God’s being and loving is strangely directed towards us. As the theologian Rowan Williams puts it, whereas we might expect that a God who is the creator of all things would be ashamed or reluctant to identify with our corrupted humanity, nevertheless God instead chooses in Jesus to take on the very flesh and bones of our life, crossing a boundary from the divine into solidarity with our humanity, just as it is.
Williams makes this point most strongly with reference to icons of Mary, many of which depict her holding the child Jesus gazing lovingly, longingly, insistently into her eyes. In such an image, we sense the divine presence enacting a love that does not depend on anything, except on having someone to love. In the gaze of her child Jesus, in other words, Mary is able to see herself truthfully—as one who is loved by him, which is to say, loved by God.
Such an image encourages us likewise to see ourselves perhaps for the first time truly as we are: as the object of a love that does not depend on our attempts at managing our success or keeping control of our lives, but merely on God’s desire to love us. In a word, the truth about us, is that we are loved. We are the beloved of God not because of who we are, but simply because we are. That is the truth toward which Christmas leads.
But if that is true, then we have some work to do truly to recognize and accept such a freely given divine love for ourselves. We too have a boundary to cross: from the confused picture we have of ourselves as secure either in the affirmation we receive from or the manipulation we make of other people, to the self-emptying poverty of spirit that is necessary to accept ourselves as loved for no other reason, than that we are. As Williams puts it, “I discover myself as someone who is being made real by God’s attention to me; I live because Christ looks at me,” just as the infant Jesus gazed at Mary.
In fact, the whole story of Jesus’ birth points us exactly in the direction of a poverty of spirit—a relinquishing of our own inflated self-importance—that turns out to be the prerequisite to knowing ourselves truly. The nativity narrative is given its shape and form by indicators pointing insistently and repeatedly toward just such a modesty. Think of the obscurity and unpretentiousness of Mary, chosen to bear the child Immanuel; or the simplicity and anonymity of Joseph, her betrothed; or the sacrificial trek they make together on foot and by donkey to Bethlehem; or their banishment to a stable at the end of the journey; or the coarseness of the shepherds to whom Jesus’ birth is first announced. At every turn, only those who have no reason to assume anything about their own importance are invited to be involved in God’s crossing of the boundary between heaven and earth—and perhaps the lesson for us is that only those who know they cannot trust their own self-congratulatory fantasies about themselves are in the end able to receive such good news as we hear tonight.
Perhaps this is what Oscar Romero, the martyred bishop of El Salvador, meant when he said in one of his Advent sermons:
No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor.
The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God, for them there will be no Christmas.
Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone.
That someone is God. Emmanuel. God-with-us.
Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.
Christmas is about seeing ourselves with this kind of truthfulness, not just so that the distortions through which our pride and ego operate can be exposed for what they are, but even more importantly, so that we may see God truthfully for who God is: the one whose comprehensive, forgiving attention to us makes it possible for us to drop all the games of self-deception by which we otherwise try to live. Only when those games have ceased, is there room for the stranger to enter in; only then do perceived threats to our well-being retreat in importance; only then are our efforts directed to the common rather than individual good.
In a time such as this of such rampant untruth, living with the kind of truthfulness to which Mary gives witness may be the most important thing we as a community of faith have to do. This Christmas night challenges us to set a high bar of what it means to value truth, to act with integrity and restraint, to respect other people’s dignity and worth, and to instill those values in ourselves, our children, our church, our community, and our nation. This Christmas night challenges us to wrestle in all humility with that ultimate question with which we began: “What is truth?”
For to repeat: “No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly
poor. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.” Amen.
© Joseph Britton, 2016