Of books and burnings

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 102-14597, Berlin, Opernplatz, Bücherverbrennung.jpg

A reminder of the anniversary of the Nazi book burning has been popping up on my calendar since May. I didn’t want to let it go by without notice. We should not forget the burning of bodies began with the burning of books.

Among those consigned to the ashes in this “Action against the Un-German Spirit” are these:

Victor Hugo
John Dos Passos
Ernest Hemingway
Helen Keller
Jack London
Upton Sinclair
Joseph Conrad
Aldous Huxley
D.H. Lawrence
H.G. Wells
James Joyce
Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Vladimir Nabokov
Leo Tolstoy

Maybe we don’t care about the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin or Trotsky. Maybe Kafka is a little too Kafkaesque for our taste, and Freud too Freud.   But into the fire went the work of Erich Maria Remarque whose profound novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, spoke so eloquently about the horrors of war.

An appeal to a fervent nationalism doesn’t want people to be reminded of the horrors of war, so into the fire it must go. And writers who are critical of the government must go. And those who are not like us (Jews, homosexuals, gypsies and others in the case of Nazi Germany) – they too must go.

When we incite the chanting of huge crowds and parade out flags the size of football fields, room for reflection, critique and questions must be silenced as unpatriotic. Into the fire the books must go. Into the fire the ideas must go. Into the fire the speakers must go.

In religious terms this is the difference between cult and church. Cult doesn’t allow any other information but what the cult leader allows. Church may have an orthodoxy, but it welcomes dialogue. What is truly church is always trying to articulate its teaching more clearly, not just shouting down the questions. It listens. It engages. It questions. It pays attention to scholarship. It reflects on research. Cult isolates; church engages. Cult divides; church connects. Cult consolidates power; church disperses it. Cult lives to be served; church lives to serve.

When those who govern are no longer interested in service, no longer open to dialogue, no longer concerned about facts – when it seeks and serves power – then bad things happen to the powerless. Then we burn books. And after the books, we burn people. They are sinners, after all. They are not like us. They are not our neighbors. They are not even fully human.

Christians should not play with matches. Nor should we stand quietly by when others are setting fires.

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Oh, the books of Albert Einstein were also burned.

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Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-14597 / Georg Pahl / CC-BY-SA 3.0

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A table in the dark

There is something haunting, lovely and deeply true about this photograph. Taken late at night the day after Easter, when all have gone home and the building and campus are still, here stands this solemn, peaceful testimony to the promise of Easter. In the darkness of the world is a table of life.

Bombs are falling, corruption spreading, refugees fleeing war and danger and being sent home.

2Hear my prayer, O God;
….give ear to the words of my mouth.
3For the insolent have risen against me,
….the ruthless seek my life. (Psalm 54:2-3)

12 Many bulls encircle me,
….strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
13 they open wide their mouths at me,
….like a ravening and roaring lion. (Psalm 22:12-13)

16 Dogs are all around me;
….a company of evildoers encircles me.
…. My hands and feet have shriveled;
17 I can count all my bones.
….They stare and gloat over me;
18 they divide my clothes among themselves,
….and for my clothing they cast lots. (Psalm 22:16-18)

3 The wicked boast of the desires of their heart,
….those greedy for gain curse and renounce the Lord.
7 Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression;
….under their tongues are mischief and iniquity.
13 Why do the wicked renounce God, and say in their hearts,
….“You will not call us to account”? (Psalm 10:3, 7, 13)

2 Look, the wicked bend the bow,
….they have fitted their arrow to the string,
….to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart.
3 If the foundations are destroyed,
….what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:2-3)

4 I lie down among lions
….that greedily devour human prey;
their teeth are spears and arrows,
….their tongues sharp swords. (Psalm 57:4)

8 On every side the wicked prowl,
….as vileness is exalted among humankind. (Psalm 12:8)

Yet here stands a table in the dark, beckoning us to dine, calling us to new life.

7How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
….All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
8They feast on the abundance of your house,
….and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
9For with you is the fountain of life;
….in your light we see light. (Psalm 36:7-9)

3 O send out your light and your truth;
….let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill
….and to your dwelling. (Psalm 43:3)

15Happy are the people who know the festal shout,
….who walk, O Lord, in the light of your countenance. (Psalm 89:15)

11 Light dawns for the righteous,
….and joy for the upright in heart. (Psalm 97:11)

28 It is you who light my lamp;
….the Lord, my God, lights up my darkness. (Psalm 18:28)

The light shines in the darkness,
….and the darkness cannot overcome it. (John 1:5)

Here stands a table in the dark, beckoning us to dine, calling us to new life.

Here stands a table inviting the world to peace.

Believe in the light while you have the light,
….so you may become children of light. (John 12:36)

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Photo: dkbonde

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Startled by a priceless promise

Seventeen years ago today, about this time of the early morning, my daughter Anna was killed. Our daughter. Megan’s sister. Dorothy’s granddaughter. PK and Gloria’s granddaughter. Paul and Kathy’s niece. Christopher and Clara, Andrew, Amanda and Melissa’s cousin. The twins were tiny infants, but Kathy came with them anyway. John and Luan moved out of their home so that my family could stay together through the funeral. Paul and Christopher came almost immediately and stayed with me those first days. I deeply appreciated their presence in the house, especially Christopher’s hugs. Can he really be 19 now? The age Anna was? It is hard to comprehend how much time has passed. Life since them has often felt like driving through the tule fog near Sacramento. You can’t judge time and distance.

Anna wasn’t taken just from the family. She was taken from the world. She touched so many lives. And this crime touched so many lives. It also stole the lives of the friends with her in her car. All their families remember this day – and their cousins and neighbors and friends and friends’ friends. The shock wave ripples through time and space.

Sometime, today, I will have to write a sermon for tomorrow. Life goes on. I will have to wash dishes, too. I should go to the grocery store, but I know I won’t. I should pay bills, but I won’t do that either. I will call Mom and Dad and Megan because they will remember the day. I hope to watch the Michigan basketball game. Life goes on. But it will be hard to focus on any of those things. There has been a strange concoction of low-grade anger, despair and grief brewing since Monday.  Thoughts about the day the phone call came will keep rising up to remind me that the incomprehensible happened. And I will think about all those others whose lives have been stolen, whose lives are threatened, whose lives are saddened.   There are so many in the parish who have also lost children, or grandchildren, or parents, or lovers, or friends.  So many in the world.  We can fight death, but we can’t defeat it.

We have been talking about baptism this Lenten season. It keeps taking me back to that moment 37 years ago when I held Anna in my hands as she was baptized. She had been asleep as I held her out over the font. When the pastor poured the water over her head, she woke with eyes wide – but not a stir or peep. Just the startle of receiving a priceless promise. I remember thinking in that moment that she wasn’t mine; she belonged to God. God had entrusted her into my care, but she was God’s.

I will never say that God took her; Brandon took her life. But she never belonged to me; she belonged to God. She still does. The promise abides. As hard as it is for me to wrap my head around that promise, I will trust it. Her song has not perished. Her dance is not done. He laugh is not silenced. Neither are her compassion, her courage, her wisdom, or her love forgotten.

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In this one child

File:Stoneangel.JPGWhat do we say when lovely people end up with terrible news. A nine-year-old grandchild of the congregation has just been diagnosed with an aggressive leukemia. I could play with the metaphor of a body endangered by a malfunction of its immune system, producing such volume of immature cells that it crowds out the ability of the healthy immune cells. I hope that is a transparent metaphor for our national body politic. But who cares when a child is so dangerously sick.

I tried to listen to the news this morning, but I just wanted everyone to shut up. Too much screeching. Yes, these things are important. But here is a sick child. Here are fearful parents and grandparents. Here are fearful and helpless friends.

Reasonable people could solve the problems of weapons and trade and young people brought to this country as children, here now illegally through no fault of their own. If people would stop ranting and posturing they could solve such problems. Here is a sick child. This is a true problem.

This is a problem where most of us can do nothing but offer our prayers. The doctors have work to do. I am sure some of them pray, too, but they have work to do. They have to bring the best of reason and compassion to bear on this problem for the sake of this child.

And so we, the anxious congregation, turn to God in prayer. We ask the family what we can do, knowing there is not much to offer but our love and support.

And we will pray. We will ask God to bring healing to body and spirit. We will ask God to uphold the family with courage and hope. We will ask God to guide the doctors with their best skill and insight. And we will wait in that strange land that knows of an eternal promise, yet wants to see its fruits today, here, in this one child.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AStoneangel.JPG By M62 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Let the words of my mouth
….and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, O Lord,
….my rock and my redeemer.
…………………Psalm 19:14

It is difficult to refrain from speaking about the current political realities in our country. It’s troubling to see how easily we have been led down paths of division, anger and absolutism. What once passed as something of a national consensus on civility has deteriorated badly. And now we find that bots and Russian agents have had a hand in fostering the ill will that seems to infect everything. We don’t tolerate ambiguity. We don’t agree on facts. We are children of passion rather than faith and reason.

And Christians have played a role – or, at least, a great number of people and institutions bearing the name of Christ have played a role in the increasing polarization of society.

The media, too, is complicit. Last Sunday (2/18/18), Fox News ran a headline on my news feed: “North Carolina mom begins serving jail sentence for baptizing daughter.” It’s the kind of headline that feeds the narrative that Christians are being persecuted in this country. But if you read the article you discover that this woman was jailed for violating a court order. A judge had granted custody of the child to the father, including authority over decisions like baptism, and the woman refused to follow it.

What does it mean for us to “Sow light” and “Scatter mercy”? It means, at the very least, that we renounce the use of words as weapons. Words are meant to connect not divide. Words are meant to build the ties that bind us. There is a reason that couples falling in love spent the whole night talking. And even where we disagree with one another, words allow us to find some resolution other than beating each other over the head with a club.

God’s first word called forth light. The words that follow called forth a beautiful and harmonious world. God’s first words to humanity were words of blessing. And humanity’s first words named the creatures of the earth. Names are about relationships.

Words are remarkably powerful instruments. With them we crossed seas, journeyed to the moon, built bridges, discovered penicillin, and sang Bach’s B Minor Mass. With them we also set the stage for the murder of six million Jews and the Trail of Tears. It is our responsibility to use words for good not ill, to heal not wound, to connect not divide.

It’s cheap and easy to use words to divide. We know how a harsh word can slice through us. It is almost instinctive to respond in kind. Mother taught me that “sticks and stone may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” She was wrong. I appreciate, now, the lesson in toughening up against ordinary childhood tauntings, but that doesn’t obviate the fact that words have great power. And, as words capture so well: with great power comes great responsibility.

It seems to me we are at a point where, oddly enough, patriots and Christians should find themselves on common ground.

It seems to me that it is our patriotic duty as citizens to resist foreign efforts to destabilize our country and, on that account, we should renounce divisive words and refuse to entertain them. Even more, as citizens of the reign of God, as participants of the new creation born of water and the word, we should refuse to use words to divide. We should heed the truth expressed so succinctly in James 1:26: If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.”

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“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” (Proverbs 18:21)

“The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” (James 3:5)

“Those who desire life
….and desire to see good days,
let them keep their tongues from evil
….and their lips from speaking deceit;
let them turn away from evil and do good;
….let them seek peace and pursue it.
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
….and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” (1 Peter 3:10-12)  

“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (I John 3:18)

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Ash Wednesday begins the journey

(My apologies to those who follow our multiple sites.  This was also posted at Watching for the Morning (that speaks about upcoming Sundays or worship) and Holy Seasons (that provides daily verses and reflections in Lent and Advent)

Tomorrow we begin our long journey to Jerusalem where Jesus will wash feet, break bread, pray in Gethsemane, get kissed by Judas and abandoned by his followers, be abused by the thugs who snatched him in the night and tortured by Roman Soldiers in the full light of day. And he will not fight back. He will raise no army. He will lift no sword. He will call for no chariots of fire. There will be no joining of earthly and heavenly armies to slay the imperial troops of Rome. There will be hammer and nails and a tomb with its entrance barred by a stone.

And in the darkness of that final night will shine the light of a divine mercy that envelops the whole world in grace. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian observance of Lent, a forty day period of fasting, sharing and serving, a time of spiritual renewal that will bring us to that day when the women find the tomb empty and see a vision of angels declare that God has raised Jesus from the dead.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. And our evening begins with the burning of the palm fronds from Palm Sunday last year and the ancient practice of anointing ourselves with ashes.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – it is partly about remembering our mortality. More profoundly it remembers that death came when humanity turned away from God. And so it is a day of repentance, of turning back to God. It begins a period of forty days of intentional turning towards God, an intentional deepening of our spiritual lives, an intentional deepening of compassion, faith, hope, and joy.

Our signs of repentance are not merely personal. We ask God’s forgiveness on behalf of the whole human race. And there is much to confess. The deceit and destruction loose in our world, the greed and overconsumption, the violence, the warring. There is much to confess. And we will stand with the victims of all our evil. With those ashes we stand with the abused and forgotten, the hungry and homeless, the refugees unwanted, the fearful and grieving. We stand with them all, daring to name our human brokenness, knowing that Jesus will share that brokenness and bear the scars in his hands and feet.

We dare to name it all, because God is mercy. Because God is redemption. Because God is new life. Because God is new creation. Because God is eager for us to turn away from our destructive paths into the path of life.

So with ashes on our foreheads we will renew the journey that leads to the empty tomb, the gathered table, and the feast to come.

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They work at harmony

File:Olaf Choir.JPG

St. Olaf Choir at Boe Chapel

The music was exquisitely beautiful. Perfect pitches. Soaring harmonies. Wondrous voicing. The St. Olaf Choir was singing in Stanford Chapel, the chapel adding its own majesty and beauty to the evening.

I didn’t want to turn on the TV when I got home. I didn’t want to read the news. I wanted the peace and beauty to linger in a delicious quiet.

The harmonies contrast so dramatically from the rancor that fills our airwaves, governs our politics, and corrodes our communities.

We all know this. We all say we want things to change. We pray for peace in our homes, peace in our streets, peace in our world. But outrage is so seductive, and rancor so much easier. Love is work. Despising the words, deeds or thoughts of others has that silky reward of making me feel so righteous. It’s why we love war. It makes the world black and white. Good guys and bad guys. All moral complexity is dispensed with. We must win or lose. We must destroy the other or be destroyed.

And then comes this choir. It may not look as diverse as our country – it’s a largely white choir from a largely white campus in a largely white region of the country – but every collection of humans is inherently diverse. We are all different from one another. Even the children of the same parents in the same household differ from one another. The lovely similarities in family photos belie what we all know; we are different.

And these voices are different. But they come together. They work at harmony. Leadership weaves them into majestic beauty, raucous joy, delightful serenity, profound prayer.

They work at harmony. And they find it. And the world is made more beautiful. Human life made more precious. Our souls are set free and walk peacefully after into the cool night air. Strangers talk with one another, and the traffic of the departing cars is kinder. Harmonies multiply.

They work at harmony. And they find it.

We can too.

File:Memchu altar pulpit.jpg

Stanford Memorial Church

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Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AOlaf_Choir.JPG By Rudolfdiesel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMemchu_altar_pulpit.jpg By Eric Chan (Maveric2003) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Days like this

Gloria and my daughter, Anna

I feel like I should write something about Gloria. Today is the first anniversary of her death. It was a good death – no, not a good death, a good dying. Her family was gathered around her. She was alert through the day. We told stories. We expressed our love. We shared memories. We laughed and wept. We were together.   We were there with her. The hospital was gracious. The nurses helpful. It was a good dying.

But it was still death. She never came home to us. We watched her last breath and walked away alone. Now it was plans with the funeral director and the pastor. Now it was conversations on how to remember and celebrate her life rightly. Now it was looking in her files for notes on what she wanted. Now it was going through her closet and deciding what to do with things. Now it was emptiness and sorrow.

Death will always be death. Yes, it is a reality of existence, but I disagree with the sentiment that “it’s a part of life.” It’s an end of life – this life, anyway.   Yes, all those things about being made of stardust are true. The elements of our bodies will return to the soil and arise in the grass and trees. But the thing that we are – the thing that is more than elements and neurons, the thing we call spirit, person, self – that thing has slipped away.

There is memory. There is legacy. There is that echo of her living presence that rattles around in the house touching our memories, our hopes, our emotions. But she will never guide me as I dig for her in the flowerbed. She will never make her myriad trips to various stores, each its own best place for some particular ingredient for dinner. She will not delight in going to lunch in some new fast-food restaurant – or pull out a small pile of coupons for places to try. She will no longer kindly assert that she loved it all when we tell the stories of a houseful of boys playing pranks on their father and keeping every snake and bug caught in the woods.

I do not want to move too quickly to any of those attempts to soften our loss or obscure the ruthless reality of death by promises of life to come. It doesn’t seem fair to me. Too easily such talk invalidates our loss, our grief, as though we should not be sad because “She is with God, now.” Maybe. But she is not with us and that loss is definitely real.

That talk about “It’s part of life” seems to do the same thing to me, as if death were not really death. But we are not leaves falling from the trees in the fall and returning to the soil to be taken up again. We are vibrant, strange, loving, hating, believing, trusting creatures that like some flavors over others, some flowers over others, some fabrics over others. We choose. We feel. We hope and dream. We weep and regret. We are. And then we are not. And those who remain, hurt. Something is lost, not just to us but to the world.

So let us linger there for a moment. Let us stand at the graveside and feel our loss. Let us tell the stories and weep the tears. Your job isn’t to make them go away. You job is to see that a real person lived whom we loved and who loved. Your job is to stand with us in the sorrow. Your job is to honor life and lament death. And, when we are ready, we will speak of what is to come. But don’t count on us to stay there. Days like this will take us back to the graveside.

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Her legacy of kindness will remain

My stepmother would have been 87 today. I called my Dad to let him know I was thinking of him, of her.

There was not much else to say. We talked for a while about any number of things. But Gloria was the one on our minds. I wish I could have been there so that he didn’t have to live this day alone.

They were married 60 years. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be alone after all that time. This is his first Christmas, her first birthday, since she died last January. My brother was there until Christmas Day. I flew in that night and spent a few days. My daughter and her husband came. We had one of our special Danish lunches and I made a Danish dinner one night.

It was all very nice. But Gloria was not there. It was still her kitchen, but knives and dishes are migrating to other drawers, other cupboards. Her way of keeping the kitchen is fading. We didn’t have fresh fruit every morning, as she would have insisted. I wasn’t sure which were the right towels for the guest bathroom. The ones I picked didn’t quite match, but at least they were the same color – more or less.

That sense of fading presence bothers me the most. I tried to put things back in their right place in the kitchen, but there were things I couldn’t remember. I did find the special cleaner she used for the stovetop, though. And the drip that frustrated her if you didn’t turn off the kitchen faucet in just the right way is still there. But she wasn’t there. And she won’t be there. And her presence will continue to fade. Memory slips away like sand through your fingers – but her legacy of kindness will remain.

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We come to kneel

File:Guido Reni - São José.jpgThis is the message from our Christmas Eve service.  Links to the texts for the evening can be found at the blog post: Great mercies for a world in need of mercy.

Every time I sit down to work on my Christmas Eve sermon I think of my daughter Megan who lives now in New York. Pretty much every year on Christmas Eve she sends me an irate text message about the sermon she has just heard while going to church with her husband’s family and asking me to send mine. I think, too, about my daughter Anna’s observation about the preaching she heard in another church that she described as three stories from Reader’s Digest and a “Yea God!”

I feel a lot of pressure on Christmas Eve to get this right. And while it’s probably true that as long as I don’t say something offensive, you would go home happy for the chance to light candles and sing “Silent Night”. But there is more to this night.

President Trump has taken credit for allowing us to say “Merry Christmas” again – which I find totally comical – but maybe his comments provide us the opportunity to make a distinction between the mid-winter cultural holiday of American society and the mystery of the child who is born this night. There is a difference between Santa and Jesus. There’s a difference between the gifts under the tree and the gift in the manger.

There has been a conversation going on among the staff about the length of the worship services in Christmas. A piece of that argument is the statement that “People have things to do.” And while I understand and respect that reality, my gut reaction is that this is what we have to do. Dinner is important. Family is important. Present are fun. But worship is what we have to do.

Our worship tonight and tomorrow and through this season is not just one of the baubles on the tree that makes up our holiday; it is the tree.

If Christmas doesn’t involve us coming to hear the story and to kneel before the Christ child, then something is deeply wrong. If Christmas doesn’t have at its center some sense of the majesty of God’s kindness and mercy and love, then something is deeply wrong. If Christmas doesn’t invite us into a greater kindness and a deeper compassion, then something is deeply wrong.

We have seen Nazi’s marching by torchlight this year. At the center of our response to that must be the lighting candles and singing “Silent Night.”

We have seen an immense greed grab for the wealth of this nation, this year. At the center of our response to that is the worship offering and the gifts to the children at the family shelter, and the gifts to the children at the Fisher House, and the gifts to help Iris’s family’s congregation in Puerto Rico, and the work of the ministries we support among the Kurdish people in Turkey and the education of children in Rwanda. Where there is greed, the core of our response is generosity.

We have heard an endless stream of lies and falsehoods this year, and the core of our response to that is the tell this story of the one who comes to us “full of grace and truth.”

We have seen a stunning hardness of heart this year, and our answer to that must be to tell this story of sacrificial love.

We have seen bitter battles for power this year, and our answer is to tell this story of Herod who would kill all the children of Bethlehem to preserve his power – and of the Christ child who will wash feet and lay down his life for the sake of the world.

We have seen way too many weapons of war this year and our answer to that must be to tell of this prince of peace.

We must answer all the ugliness of the year by kneeling before the Christ child. We must find the Christ of Christmas and not just the Santa of our cultural celebration. We must see the Christ who enters the world as a fragile child – and we must lift up this truth that God chose to come to us as one of the most vulnerable in life.

God doesn’t come as a strong man. God doesn’t come in the courts of Herod or the palaces of Caesar Augustus. God doesn’t come to the home of the High Priest. God comes to us in a vulnerable child in a vulnerable family. God comes as a peasant child at a time when most children won’t make it to adulthood. God comes to us in a peasant child in a country occupied by foreign troops. God comes to us in a peasant child whose parents have been dislocated from their home by the greed of empire. (The census isn’t about keeping track of people; it is about keeping track of what everyone owns so that Caesar can take what he wants.)

This is where God chooses to show his face – in the weak, in the poor, in the vulnerable. And so Jesus, in the last week of his life according to the Gospel of Matthew, will use that vivid image declaring that when the Son of Man comes with the holy angels, “all the nations will be gathered before him and he will separate them from one another like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” And he will say to those at his right hand:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ (Matthew 25:35-36)

And when he is asked when they saw him, he will say “as you did it to the least of these…you did it to me.” Or, “as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

God chooses to show his face in a child, helpless, poor, lying in the manger of a peasant home when they are, for all intent and purposes, refugees.

And yes, this is about politics, but it’s not about political parties. It is about the body politic. It is about the way we live together as human beings – not only in our country but throughout the world. It is about the values and the ideas that shape our understanding of the heart of human existence. It is about what we worship, what we trust, what we treasure, what we serve.

The most important thing we do this night is to kneel before the Christ child, to say this is who we worship, this is who we trust, this is who we treasure, this is who we serve.

We gather tonight not just to light the candles and sing “Silent Night’ but to tell the story and bear witness that the heart of all existence comes to us in a child, in the most vulnerable of all people.

We gather to remember and declare that God’s arms are open to all who are vulnerable – and to us in the places where we are vulnerable, where we are weak, where we are poor. God’s arms are open to the grieving. God’s arms are open to those in pain. God’s embraces us when we feel far away, when we fear, when we despair, when we fail.

God embraces those living in the pain and devastation of war. God embraces those where food is used as a weapon. God embraces those bound in North Korea or sold into slavery in North Africa. God stretches wide his arms – God stretches wide his arms – to embrace the world in all its sorrow.

And God’s arms are open to us also in every moment of joy and sweetness. In every moment of delight. In every act of kindness. In every moment of intimacy. In every experience of beauty.

God comes with open hands not a closed fist. With an open heart not a closed heart. With and open mind not a closed mind. With compassion not judgment. With truth not ideology.

God comes to save.

This word ‘saved’ is important. In the third chapter of John, Jesus says: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

There is so much about this verse that is important. It doesn’t say that only those who believe in him will be saved through him. It doesn’t say only those who do the right things will be saved through him. It doesn’t say that only those with the right Christian label will be saved through him, but that the world might be saved through him.

And this Greek word ‘saved’ – it means to be healed and restored. So when someone is healed from a disease, they are saved.

The creation story is not a tech manual about how God made the world, it is a confession that the world was made a garden – and we messed it up. Deeply and profoundly, we messed it up. But God comes to mend what we have broken, to unite what we have divided, to raise up what we have cast down, to heal the wounded, to open unseeing eyes and hardened hearts. God comes to restore the human community and heal every human heart.

This is why we are here tonight. This is why we light the candles and sing the songs: to give voice to this truth that the creative power and eternal heart of the universe has come to us, has entrusted himself into our hands, has opened the path and shown us the way back to our true humanity.

We brought my daughter, Megan, home from the hospital on this day in 1983. Her two-and-a-half-year-old sister, Anna, wanted to hold her. We wanted to let Anna do this, but we also knew how vulnerable Megan was, how important it was to hold her properly, to hold up her head. It is a scary thing to trust your newborn child into another’s hands.   But God has entrusted himself into our hands. And he has entrusted us into one another’s hands.

He is trying to tell us how to hold each other properly. He is trying to tell us how to forgive one another fully. He is trying to tell us how to love each other truly – as he has loved us.

We must find this Christ child.

We must come to kneel before him.


Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGuido_Reni_-_S%C3%A3o_Jos%C3%A9.jpg Guido Reni [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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