Sunday, December 25, 2016

Gift and Sign

Nativity, 1311-1320 - Giotto 
Thirty years ago next month, I went to live at a sort of New Age commune in Massachusetts, where I worked on the construction of a new community center building in exchange for a bed in a dormitory and all the vegetarian food I could eat.   In the original house that came with the property there was an upstairs room that had been set aside for meditation, and it was there that I first began a daily practice of sitting down for a half hour before and after work to be silent and still.  And tonight I’m remembering one evening in that room when I experienced a kind of release in my breathing, an opening that began in my sternum and spread of the back side of my rib cage into my abdomen, an expansion of my body and my mind.
And afterward, as I walked out into the summer evening, down the country road to the neighbor’s house where the community dinner was happening that night, savoring the soft light and the sweet air, a thought came to me about air, about oxygen and the gases that I was breathing in and out—the thought that had also breathed.  Over the course of his lifetime, he breathed in and out countless atoms of this same atmosphere.  And have been dispersed by the ceaseless circulation of the elements, and mixed throughout the living system of the earth, so that it seemed likely to me in that moment that every breath I tooked must contain at least one atom that had also been breathed by Jesus.
Of course, I could have reasonably said as much about every other person, even every other creature, that has ever lived.  But in that moment it was the thought of sharing the breath of Jesus, that filled me with a sense of wonder, and quiet joy, and peace.  Which was strange, because I didn’t think of myself, then, as a Christian.  Now that I’ve attended church for twenty years, and been baptized, and graduated seminary and been ordained a priest, I can interpret that evening’s experience using theological language that wasn’t available to me at the time.  But I can’t improve on the freshness of that intuition, spontaneously arising from the life of my body, and what it said to me about Jesus. 
His was the life of a human body, in common with everyone on earth.  He breathed the same air, and ate the same food, the same blood ran in his veins, the same pains of mortality shadowed his days.  And yet there was something about his particular body, which transformed the very substance of this world.  By entering into it, taking it into himself, giving it back again to the shared matrix of life, he charged every aspect of earthly existence with new power and meaning.  And to those with the heart to receive it as a gift from God through him, he gave the world divinity.  This giving began at Christmas, on the night that Jesus took his first breath.
This makes Christmas different from the other birthdays of important people we commemorate on the calendar.  In no other case do we say that their births were, in and of themselves, significant.  On January 15th, for example, we do not gather to tell the story that begins, “When Calvin Coolidge was President, and Dr. L. G. Hardman was governor of Georgia, at the family home in Atlanta, Alberta King gave birth to her middle child, a son.”  We don’t do that, because to our minds there wasn’t anything particular extraordinary about the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Whatever importance it has derives from the achievements of his later life, when he became a man. 
But the Gospel of Luke, which we hear tonight, and the Gospel of Matthew, which has a different version, tell stories that are full of the conviction that even the birth of Jesus was extraordinary.  Not that that Jesus himself did anything unusual.  He was simply born, as we all were born: he took his first breath; no doubt he cried.  Maybe he lay on his mother’s breast and tried to nurse.  She swaddled him tightly in a blanket and he slept.  Jesus’ birth was not significant because of anything he exceptional he did, but because of who he was.  His mere existence was already a gift to the world, and a gift does not become a gift because of anything the gift does.  It is a gift because of the intent of the one who gives it.
 And also because someone receives it.  The climax of Luke’s Christmas gospel is the angel’s promise to the shepherds that if they go to Bethlehem they will see a sign, a sign confirming angel’s good news about the birth of the Messiah, about peace on earth and God’s favor to all.  Tonight we didn’t go on to read the rest of the story, which talks about how the proclamation of the angels was received: how the shepherds did go and did find the baby lying in the manger; and how they told everyone what they had heard concerning the child, and went away praising and glorifying God; and how Mary took in everything the shepherds said, and treasured their words in her heart.   
For those shepherds the infant was the sign of God’s gift of life and love to the world, and they received the gift.  And this giving and receiving is the whole driving force of the gospel.  When Jesus heals the sick, he tells them that it is their faith in God that has made them well.  When he preaches the kingdom of heaven, he says, “let those who have ears to hear, listen.”  The words he spoke were the words of life, and yet he never wrote them down.  He gave them away, like seeds scattered on the ground; it was the people who received them, that remembered them, and told them to others, while others remembered other things he said, and passed them on, and it is only through this kind of crowdsourced transmission that we know anything about him at all. 
The most significant of all his words, judging by the frequency and devotion with which they are repeated, are the ones he said on the night before he was handed over to be killed, when he took bread and said, “this is my body, given for you.”  And he took wine and said, “this cup is my blood, poured out for you.”  They are words that are fulfilled when human beings take the substance of the earth—in bread,  in wine—and share it as the gift of God to them.  Eating and drinking together, they receive the life that was in Jesus.  They take it into themselves and they become what Jesus was in the substance of his being, from the moment of his birth: the gift of God to the world. 
This transformation is not something we can achieve by willing it to be so—we cannot even conceive how it happens.  We may not even notice until we have been eating this meal regularly, week after week, and year and year, for a long time, how it is changing us—making us less anxious about life, less fearful of death, more inclined to forgive and to ask for forgiveness, to be generous and caring toward others, more open to the promptings of the Spirit in our hearts, more entranced with the richness and the sweetness and the simplicity of the journey into God.
The gift of Christmas comes with such a simple sign—a newborn baby wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.  This simplicity makes it possible for anyone to receive it: even if we lack the means to decorate our home with a fragrant tree and shining lights and presents in colorful wrappings, even if we don’t have any home at all; even if there is no rich food and drink on our table, or any friends or family to gather around it; even if there is a chair at the table for the person dearest to us in the world sitting empty.  Every year, as the first, imperceptible turning of the earth toward the sun takes place, we come to this sign.  It reminds us that the gift of the presence of God is always new, always fresh, always available for those who care to listen--as soft, and quiet, and constant, as the breathing of a new-born child.        

The Genesis of Jesus

On the other side of this wall is a little room where the altar party puts on our vestments before worship, and where we keep our processional crosses and torches and other paraphernalia of the liturgy.  It’s also where we keep a book like this, called the Register of Church Services.  Each page in it is the same, a table of columns and rows in which we record the details of every service of worship that takes place under the auspices of St. John’s—when it happened, and where, and what kind of service it was, and how many people were there, and who were the leaders, and so on.  Now, there are more services going on around here than you might realize, but even so, it takes a number of years before a book like this gets completely filled in.  It was Wednesday in Holy Week, 2012 the last time we began a new one.
But I still have not put this, last book to rest in the file drawer in the church archives with the other old Registers of Church Services.  I’ve kept it out on a shelf in my office, right behind my desk.  During the first couple years of its retirement I used to look at it frequently, usually when I was planning for a special liturgical event, and needed to remind myself what we’d done last time, and how many people had attended.  Sometimes I took it down just to look at it for a little while, to see what stories it has to tell.  It had come along with this building when St. John’s Episcopal retook possession from the breakaway church in 2009, and its records go back a number of years before that, detailing the worshipping life of a parish very different from the one I know, and yet hauntingly the same. 
For the last year or so, I’ve not looked at this Register at all, but I’ve kept it on my bookshelf anyway.  I see now that I’d been keeping it out for today.   Because here is the record that notes that ten years ago yesterday, the 17th of December, 2006, was the Third Sunday of Advent, and that there were 23 in attendance at the Rite I Eucharist at 8 a.m. that day, and 140 at the 10 o’clock Rite II.  And here in the last column on the page, the one headed “Memoranda,” there is written this little note:
12 noon—Parish Mtng.  Vote to disassociate from The Episcopal Church and Diocese of Northern CA and change name to St. John’s Anglican Church!
Ten years is a long time—maybe long enough that after today I can finally put this book away in the archives.  A lot has changed.  I don’t know how many of the 163 people who were in church here that Sunday are gathered again this morning at St. John’s Anglican on the other side of town.  I do know that very, very few of them are here today.  Ten years has been long enough for the crisis to feel resolved, and the wounds almost healed.  It’s been long enough for new things to grow out of the ashes of the fire. 
On the other hand, ten years is not so long a time that we can’t still feel a little of the anger, and the fear, and the sense of betrayal that were in the air that morning.  Which is why I’m bringing it up today—not just because ten is a nice round number, but because this anniversary falls in Advent, when we remember how much we hope for God to come and be with us, to save us from our sins.
This is the hope that Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus is all about.  The angel sums it up for us when it speaks to Joseph in his dream.  It tells him to name Mary’s child Yeshua, which in Aramaic means something like, “He will save,” because he will save his people from their sins.  Now, this line of scripture that might make some of us feel just a little bit squirmy.  The notion that Jesus came to “save us from our sins” has often been turned into shorthand for, if I might say so, a somewhat simplistic and aggressive form of Christian belief.  Which can make it hard for some of us to get any meaning out of it that actually sounds like good news.  But Matthew can help us with this, if we realize that for him these words are not some superficial slogan.  He is making them the centerpiece of the prologue to his gospel, so that we will read the whole rest of the story to find what “saving his people from their sins” really means.
By the time Matthew has finished his writing we will learn that it’s a story that is ongoing, and will be until the end of the age.  And it is also the continuation of the stories that came before, the ones about Israel’s God and Israel’s people that are recounted in the Hebrew Bible.  That’s why Matthew fills his gospel with quotations from scripture, so we see that the events he describes fulfill the ancient prophesies and promises.  It’s why he makes even the structure of his book to be a kind of reflection of the Torah, so that the genesis of Jesus is patterned on the beginning of that other, more ancient story. 
Like the Book of Genesis, the story of Jesus begins with a man and a woman, who are intended for one another.  And then there comes betrayal.  In Genesis the Serpent convinces the woman to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, and to give some to her husband. In Matthew, it is found that Mary, who has yet to be joined to Joseph, has conceived a child.
In Genesis, when God finds his creatures hiding in fear and shame in the bushes of the garden, Adam points his finger at Eve and says, “She did it!”  And Joseph is tempted to do the same.  He would have been within his rights under the law to publicly disgrace his fiancĂ©e for dishonoring him in this way, or even to demand that she be stoned to death.  But, says the gospel, Joseph is a righteous man, and in this manner Matthew is already telling us that “righteousness” is going to have a particular meaning in the story that follows.  It is not the self-righteousness that is superior and judgmental toward others, but something more akin to forgiveness, understanding, and compassion.  Still, Joseph decides that his trust in Mary is broken (who can blame him?), and that it’s best for them to quietly go their separate ways, but just then the angel comes with news from God.
In his dream Joseph learns that Mary has not betrayed him at all, and that he can still trust her to love him and be his wife, and more than that, that all his pain and doubt has been for God’s extraordinary purpose.  At the same time, Joseph is left knowing that something mysterious happened to Mary that will always remain between her and God, and that her first-born son will never be exactly his.  He will always have to live with the knowledge that the neighbors can subtract from nine, and that some of them might see his marriage as not quite up to the highest standard.  He will always have to live with the memory of his painful feelings of betrayal, of jealousy, and rage; the memory of his struggle to master those feelings, and his resolve to break off his engagement.  But being saved from our sins is not the same as having them erased from memory, as if they never happened.  It means that they are prevented from destroying us.         
I cannot help but see the fact that today there are people worshipping from the Book of Common Prayer at two St. John’s churches in Petaluma, as a sin.  Which is not to say that no good has come of it, or that we cannot find in what happened ten years ago yesterday and all that followed, stories of courage, and kindness, healing, and hope, both on “our side” and on “theirs.”  All things considered, it might be better this way, at least for now.  One thing that I am sure of is that God did not allow this sin to destroy us, but has birthed miraculous new life out of the brokenness of anger, rejection, and betrayal.  I hope this is true for “them” as well as for “us,” and it would not surprise me a bit if it were.  Because that is what happens when Christ comes.      

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.