Friday, December 24, 2010

Homily: December 24, 2010 [Christmas Eve] Christ Church Cranbrook

Charlie Brown and Lucy are talking about Christmas. Lucy says, “At this time of year I think we should put aside all our differences, and try to be kind.” Charlie Brown asks, “Why does it have to be for just this time of year? Why can’t it be all year ‘round?” Lucy replies, “What are you, some kind of fanatic or something?”

I have few secret passions in life, but one of them is Peanuts, the Charles Schultz comic strip featuring Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the gang. If you go by my office at church, you’ll see that I have a Peanuts Advent calendar [a gift from a friend who shares my appreciation for the strip] on the door. I started reading Peanuts in the daily paper in fourth grade, and I have followed the cartoon through all its developments—Linus’s struggles to quit the blanket habit; the birth of Charlie Brown’s sister, Sally; the introduction of Snoopy’s bird friend, Woodstock; the arrival of the first African American member, Franklin; the search by Snoopy’s brothers Andy and Olaf for their desert-dwelling sibling, Spike.

This season my bedtime reading has consisted of working through a book that collects all the comic’s yuletide cartoons, A Peanuts Christmas. The strips are memorable: Linus agonizing over having to recite the Christmas story we just heard in front of the PTA; Sally writing to Santa and rhapsodizing about the joys not of giving but of getting; Lucy slugging Linus because he shows her up by writing his thank-you notes more quickly than she does; Charlie Brown putting up Snoopy’s Christmas tree in his doghouse and asking if Snoopy would rather unplug the TV set or the clock radio. Peanuts is so much a part of my life that I cannot imagine Christmas without it. “What are you, some kind of fanatic or something?”

The Nobel Prize winning Russian poet Joseph Brodsky once began a poem with these words: “When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.” [“December 24, 1971”] When you hear that you know it’s true: like the wise men, we’re all of us on our way bearing gifts. Like the magi, we’re all of us looking for something. Brodsky might also have put it this way: When it’s Christmas, we’re all of us children. A grown man –and a clergyman at that—lies in bed reading Peanuts cartoons because they evoke in him something essential about his feelings for the season. Parents and grandparents find pleasure in the joy experienced by their children and grandchildren because it reconnects them with something essential about themselves. When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi. We’re all of us looking for that magical gift signified by the star. When it’s Christmas, we’re all of us children. We’re open to joy and wonder in a way we usually aren’t the rest of the year.

There are many things I love about my job, but near the very top of the list I would put the experience, two weekends ago, of watching adults and children bring their gifts to the manger scene here in this church at our yearly Festival of Gifts. Of course it was a joy to see the expressions on the faces of the children as they brought their gifts and placed them before the baby Jesus. But it was even more thrilling to see the faces of the adults—from the very youngest to the very oldest—because for a few minutes everybody in the building looked and behaved like children. In the presence of the infant Jesus, the faces of everyone in the church lit up from inside with light. Something in the moment evoked the child even in the most prosaic and skeptical adults.

Tonight we heard again Luke’s familiar Gospel account of Mary and Joseph going from Nazareth to Bethlehem, giving birth to Jesus, and laying him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. This story always moves and engages us because it speaks to something deep and primary within us. The picture of the Holy Family--Joseph, Mary, and Jesus--is the living image of each of us in our primary family setting. Each of us is that infant surrounded by love and nurture. This child is precious to its parents, and the parents are precious to the child. The Holy Family represents all that we long for and aspire to as human beings. When we look at the infant Jesus in this stable we see something about our essential selves to which we respond and reach out.

Now no fan of Peanuts would want to idealize childhood. Charlie Brown is often depressed. Lucy is usually aggressive. Sally is always self-centered. The society of children can often be a cruel and oppressive place. And so can the society of adults. From the start, we humans are a mixed bag. We can be generous and selfish at the same time. As we grow up, though, we adopt a lot of behaviors—some of them healthy, others destructive--that help us survive both childhood and adult stresses. And then Christmas comes around yearly and reminds us of a different way for us to approach the universe—from an attitude of trust, in a spirit of generosity. The picture of the infant Jesus in the manger is the image of human life in all its preciousness and possibility. It is this appreciation for the preciousness, it is this spirit of possibility, that I saw on the faces of those bringing their gifts to the manger scene at the Festival of Gifts. Something in that gathered Holy Family reminded and reminds all of us of who we really are and to whom we really belong.

“At this time of year I think we should put aside all our differences, and try to be kind.” “Why does it have to be for just this time of year? Why can’t it be all year ‘round?” “What are you, some kind of fanatic or something?”

One of my favorite writers on spirituality, the late great Zen teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, says this in his classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. He’s speaking of spiritual practice, but the words apply to the rest of life, too:

The goal of practice is to keep our beginner’s mind. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few. [Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, p. 21]

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” What makes children special is their openness to God, themselves, and the world. Even when they are selfish or cruel, children are still open to life in a way that we adults no longer are. This attitude of wonder, this radical openness, is what Suzuki means by “beginner’s mind”. It is what the poet William Wordsworth means when he speaks of childhood as a time of “splendor in the grass and glory in the flower,” a time when the world appeared to him “apparelled in celestial light” with “the glory and the freshness of a dream.” [“Ode: Intimations of Immortality”] Something in this Christmas story, this image of the Holy Family gathered around a manger this picture of a fragile child embraced by loving parents and worshipped by magi and shepherds, something in this recalls us to that part of ourselves that is open to wonder and beauty and joy, reminding us that life always has “the glory and the freshness of a dream.”

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” Christmas is about rediscovering this radical openness, about seeing the world once again “apparelled in celestial light” with “the glory and the freshness of a dream.” How do we reclaim the days of “splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower?” How do we quiet our expert’s and empower our beginner’s mind?

For those of us who gather around the manger scene tonight, perhaps the best way to begin is to recall what actually happens there. Because the birth of Jesus is more than a blessed family event, more than an archetypal or symbolic enactment of human wishes. The birth of Jesus is the coming of God into human flesh and experience. The Good News of this night—the news that makes the shepherds quake with fear and rush to the manger—is the news that the child Isaiah speaks of—the child born for us, named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace—this One has been born to us in the person of Jesus. So although Christmas is about all the human wishes we bring to it, it is primarily about the coming into our life and experience ofGod.

And behind God’s coming into our life and experience there is a story—a story of human origins and failures, a story of a humanity getting lost and then found. So Christmas is important to us for many reasons, but chief among them is that God’s becoming one of us in Jesus is an eternal affirmation of us and our worth. We were lost and now we are found. The magi bring gifts to Jesus because he is precious. We give gifts to each other because, in the light of God’s becoming one of us in Jesus, you and I are precious, too.

“When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.” By his birth in this stable, God has ennobled human life and experience. From this point onward, every life has divine meaning because it shares in the divine life of Jesus and God. That is why Christians take human life—including all forms of suffering and want—so seriously. Every human life bears God’s divine image. Even and especially yours.

As we approach the dawn of Christmas tonight and tomorrow, let each and all of us awake to the birth of the precious child, not only in Bethlehem’s manger, but in a new attitude of wonder and hope. God has become one of us in Jesus. Your life is precious and holy and blessed in ways you might not even perceive or understand. You are now free to let that childlike part of you come to full and free expression in all your dealings with yourself and others and the world. God is with us. We have nothing to fear. We can drop our defenses and open ourselves up to the world. We can be as trusting and open as the child we see cradled with his parents in a manger.

The great preacher Phillips Brooks said it best in the last verse of hymn he wrote in 1865 and which we will sing later tonight:

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!

“At this time of year I think we should put aside all our differences, and try to be kind.” “Why does it have to be for just this time of year? Why can’t it be all year ‘round?” “What are you, some kind of fanatic or something?”Sure we’re fanatics. All of us. We’re fanatics of kindness and hope. We are radically open, like children. The birth of Jesus gives us strength and grace to put away our differences and be kind. And so we embark on a journey of hope and discovery. “When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.” Amen.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Homily: The Second Sunday of Advent [December 5, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

I grew up in Burbank, California, a small city in the midst of metropolitan Los Angeles which, if you remember Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, is the home of NBC’s west coast studios. I went to college at the University of California at Berkeley, which, if you remember the 1960s, was the home of the Free Speech Movement and was the epicenter of the counterculture. You won’t be surprised to learn that for most of my college years I looked pretty much as you’d imagine a 1960s Berkley student to look, sporting fairly long hair and a beard. You might be surprised to know that I rode a motorcycle all through those years.

In the summer of 1969 I was home from college and taking a pre-helmet law ride on my motorcycle around Burbank. I came to a stoplight right in front of NBC studios. Now you might also remember a television game show that was very big in those days called Let’s Make a Deal. One of the features of that show was that the audience members would dress up in outlandish costumes to try and get host Monty Hall’s attention. So it wasn’t uncommon to see, among all the other strange sights you might see in Los Angeles, people in front of NBC dressed as clowns, cowboys, outer space aliens lined up and waiting to get in to Let’s Make a Deal.

I pulled up to this stoplight and I heard someone yell, “Hey, weirdo!” I looked around. Standing there was a very large man dressed as a stalk of celery. I thought they might have been yelling at him, but in fact he was the one doing the yelling. “Hey, weirdo!” he screamed again. “Beautify America! Get a haircut!” Now I don’t know how this strikes you, but having a man dressed as a vegetable call you “weird” is a very strange experience. And he was not the only person in line offended by my looks. Suddenly a whole chorus of middle-aged adults, dressed as farm animals, robots, ballerinas, and clowns started yelling at me in chorus, “Get a haircut! Get a haircut! Get a haircut!”

Thankfully, the light changed and I got out of there.

Now I tell this story because, whenever I hear about John the Baptist, I think about that man’s enraged cry to me, “Hey weirdo!” What I wanted to ask then and now is, “Weird, precisely, to whom?” Sure, I must have looked strange riding a motorcycle with hair like a girl’s and a scruffy beard in addition. But how often do you see someone dressed like a stalk of celery? And when that stalk of celery starts questioning your appearance, perhaps it’s time to rethink things a bit.

In today’s Gospel, Matthew tells us, “Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” I can just imagine John the Baptist walking down Alameda Boulevard in Burbank, past NBC and the Let’s Make a Deal audience, and hearing the celery-stalk guy yell out, “Hey Weirdo!” Certainly a man wearing camel’s hair clothing (not, I presume, a camel hair blazer) and a leather belt (not Gucci) eating some sort of biblical version of health food is going to get your attention. To us conventional types, a person dressed like that is apt to look a little odd.

But before we get to John’s message, let’s notice two things about his appearance. One is that as impressive and arresting and compelling as John is, he does not call attention to himself. As he announces this morning, “One who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.” As John’s Gospel put it, “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” So the first thing is that as impressive as John is, he is not the one he proclaims. He points to the One who is. And then there’s a second thing, which both we and the folks standing in front of NBC and even the young man on the motorcycle need to pay attention to: sometimes someone who looks and sounds and acts very different from you is telling you something you need to hear. To the conventionally upright citizens in John the Baptist’s audience, his message was probably obscured by his costume, his diet, and his manner of life. In the same way, neither the Let’s Make a Deal crowd nor I could have heard each other back in 1969: to them I was a Berkeley hippie weirdo freak. To me they were a bunch of uptight middle aged establishment losers. Who, in our own time, is saying to us things we need to hear? And what is it that prevents us from listening?

Now even the President of the John the Baptist fan club would have to admit that his message was not one calculated to win friends and influence people. Calling your audience a brood of vipers—a nest of snakes—is not going to get them on your side. And more: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. . . . I baptize you with water for repentance, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." Hey, John, take a chill! I’m just trying to live my life! What is all this talk about axes and water and fire?

The ax, the water, the fire. John’s preaching is a pronouncement of judgment. Think about those three images for a minute. The ax judges by separating, say the root of the tree from its main body. Water of course judges by cleansing. And fire judges by burning away that which is impure. The ax, the water, the fire are, in a sense, all frightening images to behold. But look again. Each one is also a friendly image as well. The ax, after all, is a human tool. Water is the source of life. And fire keeps us warm. So when John the Baptist says that judgment is coming, and when he uses these scary images of axes and water and fire to tell us that, our first impulse is to run away. But when you pause and reflect, even these frightening signs have something in them that is friendly to us.

John the Baptist uses the ax, the water, the fire as symbols of judgment. And judgment, when you first hear about it, is not something that any one of us wants to receive. Who is their right mind would want to be subject to judgment? Who that we would want to know would set themselves up as a judge?

But here is where God’s language and our language sometimes run afoul of each other. So it is with these images of the ax and water and fire. What we see in those images is threatening. What God intends is a blessing. The ax and the water and the fire are coming toward us, not to annihilate us but to make us well. The surgeon’s knife wounds us so that we might be healed. This is the respect in which John the Baptist talks to us of judgment. Hear again the words from today’s collect:

Merciiful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer. . . .

The point of God’s judgment is not that we should feel bad about ourselves. The point of God’s judgment is that we might be clean and healthy and whole in order to greet with joy the news of our salvation. So Advent, these four weeks before Christmas, is a time of judgment. It is the time, metaphorically, when God separates us from that which weighs us down. As you and I encounter this message of judgment in Advent, John tells us that even now God is laying the ax at the root of our trees, God is cleansing us in the waters of Baptism, God is burning away that which is dead so that we might abundantly have life. And the word he uses to describe that is our good old fashioned term, “repentance.”

Now “repentance” is another word which normally frightens us. When someone tells me to repent it’s not usually because they like what I’m doing. But here is where, once again, language confuses us as much as it clarifies. The Greek word we translate in English as “repent” is the word metanoia which means, literally, a change of direction. And what metanoia suggests is that you and I are walking in the wrong direction. In common everyday language we use “repent” as if it means somehow to feel bad about something. “I repent eating the last cookie in the cookie jar. Forgive me.” But that isn’t what “repent” means at all. Metanoia doesn’t mean you should feel bad. It means that you should change direction. Take stock of yourself. Let go of what is lifeless and sick and deadly. Go forward lighter and leaner and possibly in a new direction. For John the Baptist, repentance is what we do in response to judgment. We change direction.

What that means for us is this: God comes toward us in Advent. God’s presence is an incomparable blessing, but before it can be that blessing it must first be an awareness of our need for change. And so what we need to do when we repent is not so much to feel bad or punish ourselves. What we need to do is take stock and get ourselves ready to be abundantly joyful.

Robert Pinsky’s great translation of Dante’s Inferno begins this way:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself

In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell

About those woods is hard–so tangled and rough

And savage that thinking of it now, I feel

The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.

And yet, to treat the good I found there as well

I’ll tell what I saw . . .

Life’s journey, Dante says, always at some point leads one into a dark wood. And yet in that dark wood one finds not only fear but good. In a pleasure-seeking culture like ours, Dante’s wisdom makes little sense, but John the Baptist knows something of what Dante is talking about, and, if we’re honest with ourselves, so do you and I. Things happen in our lives that don’t exactly fit with our imagined life plan: illness, loss, grief, failure, separation. There is for us judgment in these things, but the judgment is the kind that John the Baptist speaks of. God lays the ax at the root of our trees. We are washed and burned that we may be healthy and whole and ready for life.

The writer Frederick Buechner talks about the “fierce blessing” that he discovered in the hard and sorrowful moments of his life. That fierce blessing is what God offers us on this second Sunday of Advent. As we stumble through that wood, we’re offered a new way to walk, a way that demands that we turn from the way we were heading and let ourselves be bathed in God’s healing light. It’s like what the old Native American poem says about the experience of being lost in the forest:

Stand still.
The forest knows

Where you are.
You must let it find you.

[David Wagoner, The Heart Aroused]

You may think you’re lost. God knows where you are. And God is coming to find you with the ax and the water and the fire. This may feel like an experience of judgment. But we know the judge, and the judge wants only that we be ready to greet with joy the blessings that are coming at us as Christmas approaches.

Even when you’re lost in life’s dark wood, the One who seeks you sends you signs and hints of what it is you’re looking for. Lost as you may feel at times, God is coming to get you. All of us get lost, and all of us can wander off in the wrong direction. God knows where you are, and this meal we move into now is a sign that you are in the process of being found. “Hey weirdo! “ Turn around. Change direction. Come up into God’s presence and discover a kind of fiercely blessing and forgiving love that has the power even to let grumpy game show contestants and arrogant motorcycle-riding college students see that they can now travel together into the new direction of God’s embracing love. Amen.