Grace Presbyterian Church
January 14, 2018, Epiphany 2B
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Bodies and Temples
Or, to frame it in the social media sphere in which it most rapidly spread, #metoo.
The simple statement, though present in social media for a decade, touched off one of the most sweeping responses late last year as a wave of accusations (many heavily verified) of sexual abuse, harassment, or assault surged forth in many if not most fields of endeavor in American society. Just to recap a few:
1) a large number of women (and some men too) abused, or assaulted, or harassed by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and other Hollywood power brokers;
2) a number of Alabama women reporting being inappropriately approached by Judge Roy Moore while in high school (when he was in his 30s);
3) several other politicians choosing to resign in the face of other (again, highly verified) accusations (not to mention a president who not only has been accused multiple times but has also bragged about such behavior in the past);
4) a large number of current and former US Olympic athletes in gymnastics reporting assaults and abuse stretching over decades at the hands of a single team doctor;
5) prominent orchestra and opera conductors such as James Levine and Charles Dutoit accused of improper physical contact with musicians;
6) enough accounts of sexual abuse or assault against young women by church pastors or youth leaders to spawn its own unique hashtag, #churchtoo.
Indeed, enough accounts of such abuse within the bounds of the church (again, highly verified) were brought forth that the church had no real standing to criticize Hollywood or Washington. Not only young women abused by pastors or youth leaders, but also women in ministry harassed or assaulted by fellow ministers. I was particularly overwhelmed by the number of my colleagues in ministry responded with #metoo, or how many of my former seminary classmates for that matter.
In the continuing reverberation from these revelations, one incident from just last Sunday is particularly revealing about the church and its failures in this area. A Memphis area megachurch was treated to an announcement by one of its associate pastors of a sexual assault he had committed twenty years ago, as a young youth pastor in a church in Texas. The young woman had reported the assault to senior pastors in that church, who had told her to keep silent and not go to the police. His announcement, along with a long-distance and impersonal “apology” to the victim, was met in this Memphis church with a standing ovation. Only after a week of public scrutiny did that church announce that the associate pastor would be placed on administrative leave.[i]
So no, the church really doesn’t have much space to cast aspersions on the larger world’s tolerance for sexual immorality. And if a pastor wanted to preach a full sermon on that subject, the church itself could provide ample fodder for it simply based on its ongoing tendency to shame the victims of sexual assault while simultaneously elevating and shielding its perpetrators, all the more so the higher such perpetrators are placed in the church. It could be done with little difficulty.
And at first glance today’s reading from 1 Corinthians would seem to support such a sermon. Paul can be pretty prudish, and his reactions in chapters 5 and 6 are long on condemnation if sometimes short on substance, to the point that we can’t always be sure exactly what he’s castigating the Corinthians about. Clearly at least some of the Corinthians had got it in their head that Paul’s talk about “freedom in Christ” either in a previous letter or during an earlier visit somehow meant that a Christian (and a Christian male, to put it more precisely) could pretty much do whatever he wanted – hence the apparent Corinthian motto, repeated here twice by Paul, “All things are lawful for me,” with “lawful” here carrying more the shade of “permissible” rather than any legal force.
Paul rebuts that slogan with two different answers – “but not all things are beneficial,” speaking to the possibility of harm from such behaviors, and “but I will not be dominated by anything,” an echo of his language in the letter to the Romans about the enslaving power of sin. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean it’s at all a good idea. Eventually he returns to his condemning the habit of some of the Corinthian men to frequent prostitutes, using the “body of Christ” language also found frequently in Romans to amplify that condemnation.
Between these verses themselves and the preceding passages in chapters 5 and 6, it would be easy to make that the whole sermon. Easy, but not right.
At first there seems to be a tossed-off aside about not sex, but food: “’Food is meant for the body, and the body for food,’ and God will destroy both one and the other.” It seems an odd fit, but Paul has slyly inserted the idea that there are other ways to dishonor the body besides sexual immorality.
As a result by the time we get to verses 19 and 20, Paul is able to fling the discussion wide open, taking off the limitations of that particular subject, and pointing to a much broader and more encompassing point about our bodies and our relationship to God. To speak of us as being “a temple of the Holy Spirit within you” introduces one half of the idea; if we truly believe that the Spirit dwells within us, as first witnessed on the day of Pentecost and experienced again and again throughout the New Testament, how do we possibly commit acts that defame or damage the body? It becomes all the more challenging when it becomes clear that Paul is not only speaking of individual bodies but the body, again the body of Christ – the whole community.
The other half of that construction comes in verse 20, with the terse reminder ”you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God with your body.” That “price” was, of course, the crucifixion of Christ; a crucifixion that did not – indeed, could not – happen to an abstraction, or a spirit being, or any kind of immaterial deity. Only a flesh-and-blood human being could be crucified. Only an incarnate God – “God-with-us,” as you might remember from all those Advent and Christmas readings – could be crucified. Again, the Incarnation matters. Bodies matter to a God Who deigned to be embodied.
To be clear, debasing or dehumanizing another person can never be reconciled with glorifying God with your body. But bodies matter wholly. That crack about food points to another indulgence of the Corithians, that will come up more forcefully later in the letter; their tendency to turn the Eucharistic meal, the meal with the Lord’s Supper in it as we would call it, into a debauchery of excess food and drink, with more well-off families already gorged and inebriated before poorer families have even had a chance to eat anything at all, much less the supper of our Lord observed. There’s no way this can stand as “glorifying God with your body” any more than consorting with a prostitute could.
Now for most of us, this hits closer to home than the other stuff in the chapter. If you’re like me, getting into food and its overindulgence is where Paul really has “done quit preachin’ and gone to meddlin’.” But food can be as much a vehicle for dishonoring God with our bodies, whether consumed in excess or its opposite; abusing the body by under-nutrition or starvation is no less dishonoring than abusing the body by overindulgence.
OK, that’s bad enough, but the imperative is still open-ended. What other ways do we harm the body?
What about the games we play, or watch other people play? Some sports encourage their participants (not openly, of course) to “do whatever it takes” to be the best, even to the point of getting doped up on all manner of literally godawful pharmaceutical supplements that wreak havoc on God’s creation. Some sports literally break bodies, leaving them unable to function properly after playing careers are over. Some sports break brains, leaving them unable to function properly after playing careers are over. I don’t have to spell that out for you, do I?
What about work habits? Do we or have we ruined bodies by overwork or overstress? Or conversely, do we fail to exercise them and maintain them in good health? Do we fail to keep our minds exercised and sharp in order to keep our bodies well? Yeah, this isn’t territory we like to think about too much on an individual basis for sure.
But again, individual basis isn’t all we are challenged to consider. How is the whole body of Christ affected by such abuses of the body, by such failure to glorify Christ with our body either individual or collective?
And the most challenging part of it all, perhaps, is that no matter how much we strive to “glorify God with your body,” that body will inevitably fail us. Whether through cancer or injury or simply the ravages of age, that body will break down and render us immobile or infirm, or just flat-out die on us. Yet we still strive to “glorify God with your body” because God glorified us by taking on the body, living as one of us, dying even as one of us.
“For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God with your body.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #2 Come, Thou Almighty King; #187 Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us; #468 In My Life; #702 Christ Be Beside Me
Grace Presbyterian Church
January 7, 2018, Baptism of the Lord B
The Heavens Torn Apart
Does anything about this story from Mark sound familiar?
In truth there are several passages that might evoke something familiar from the Old Testament, or scripture we just heard during the season of Advent in particular. John the Baptist gets his own Sunday in Advent, and his wilderness-chic wardrobe might have touched off sparks of recognition. Maybe the image of the dove descending brought back memories of, say, the story of Noah’s Ark, and the dove that finally returned, letting Noah know that dry land was on its way.
In this case, though, I have in mind a particular image, found in a particular scripture from Isaiah that actually got preached about a month ago. Maybe it sounds just a little bit familiar? From the very beginning of Isaiah 64…
“Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down…”
And there in today’s reading, verse 10:
“And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.”
Honestly, it’s hard to believe Mark didn’t do that deliberately.
Of course, Isaiah had a much bigger display in mind. You might remember that the prophet spoke of mountains shaking, fire causing water to boil, enemies trembling, that kind of stuff. And of course in Isaiah’s prophetic wish, the heavens-being-torn-open act was meant for all to see. Everybody was meant to be impressed and “scared straight,” so to speak, turning away from sin and rebellion to obedience to God.
That’s not quite how Mark’s account goes. In this case it seems Jesus is the only one who sees the heavens torn apart. Other gospels record the scene differently, but here the vision was apparently meant for Jesus alone. And of course, the Spirit “descending like a dove” probably wasn’t the follow-up Isaiah had in mind. Screaming like a hawk, perhaps, but a dove? Too peaceful-sounding.
Nonetheless, even this scene should give us pause. This was not a “safe” act for Jesus. Directly after this baptism Jesus would be driven out into the wilderness, to face temptation at the hands of the tempter himself. The course of Jesus’s ministry on earth was never going to be smooth, and Mark manages to make that clear just from this one image. “The heavens torn apart…”
In fact, this isn’t something Mark overdoes. The Greek word used here only appears one other time in this gospel, at the other end of it. In Mark 15:39, as Jesus hangs on the cross and dies, at that moment (we are told) that the curtain of the Temple was “torn in two.” The disruptive image of being “torn apart” returns at the end of Jesus’s ministry as it had appeared at its beginning.
Let’s be honest, it’s hard for us to envision baptism in this way. Nowadays, particularly in church traditions like ours, baptism often gets made “cute.” We have this cute little bowl of water, a child is baptized wearing a specially made and very cute baptism garment in many cases, … it’s just not the kind of picture that lends itself to images of the heavens torn apart.
And yet, if we’re doing it right, this baptism can lead us places we don’t expect to go. If you’re lucky, it leads you to something manageable, like being ordained and then installed as an elder on your church’s session, as W.T., Carl, and Julie are being installed today. And sometimes even a form of service like that can feel a little bit as though the heavens are least being ripped a little bit.
You might find yourself being led into far riskier and more challenging forms of service, whether it be in a pulpit or a mission field. You might find yourself put in a position of having to speak unpleasant truths among people who don’t want to hear them. You might find yourself, in the words of the PC(USA)’s A Brief Statement of Faith, called to “unmask idols in church and culture,” which never seems to go well for the one doing the unmasking. You might find yourself challenged to walk away from the comfortable and profitable, towards the challenging and impoverished to whom Jesus ministered. There’s no telling where that baptism might lead you.
But baptism does come with its promises as well. You won’t find yourself abandoned. As a popular saying went in my younger days, “If you think God’s far away, guess who moved?” You won’t be left defenseless in the stormy and difficult times. You won’t be given up for lost or forsaken – not because baptism is some kind of magic talisman, but because the Jesus who took on baptism himself is faithful and unwilling to give us up, the ones whom he gave so much to redeem.
During our installation of elders in a few moments, one of the elements is a reaffirmation of our baptismal vows. Such a reaffirmation is not at all about needing to “recharge” or “reload”; if anything it’s about our need to remember the vows that were made for us, perhaps, and reaffirmed in our confirmation, or that we made ourselves if we were baptized as youth or adults. In either case, be aware that even now, your baptism may lead you somewhere you never expected, even if the heavens aren’t torn apart.
For the unexpected path from the baptismal font, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #375, Shall We Gather At the River; #164, Down Galilee’s Slow Roadways; #163, Wild and Lone the Prophet’s Voice; #480, Take Me to the Water
Grace Presbyterian Church
January 6, 2018, Epiphany B
Hail the blest morn! See the great Mediator
Down from the regions of glory descend!
Shepherds, go worship the babe in the manger!
Lo! for his guard the bright angels attend.
Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
Dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid;
Star in the East, the horizon adorning,
Guide where our infant Redeemer was laid.
We know what to do with Christmas. From ginormous choral and orchestral productions to awwww-inducing pageants with children as shepherds, children as sheep, children as pretty much everything to quieter services with carols and candlelight, we know what to do with Christmas, or at least we have a lot experience with doing things with Christmas.
Epiphany, though, is a harder challenge, especially for us Protestants.
Part of the challenge is that, particularly in Protestant and especially in more specifically evangelical traditions, the event commemorated in Epiphany – the visit of the magi, or wise men – has already gotten conflated into our Christmas observance, despite their complete absence from Luke’s Nativity that we read on Christmas Eve. Still they show up – children as magi, or their own special number in the choir’s cantata – on Christmas, so that when Epiphany comes around most people are thinking “didn’t we already do that?”
Thus Epiphany tends to pass little-mentioned. The twelve-day orbit of Christmas collapses into a single exhausted day, or half-day even, and all that remains is greenery in the sanctuary, with one more Sunday sermon with carols programmed by a stubborn pastor. What we awaited with so much buildup fizzles away.
Cold on the cradle the dewdrops are shining,
Low lies his bed with the beasts of the stall;
Angels adore him, in slumber reclining,
Wise men and shepherds before him do fall.
Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
Dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid;
Star in the East, the horizon adorning,
Guide where our infant Redeemer was laid!
This isn’t true everywhere, of course. In many countries of Central and South America, the occasion is marked with great celebration and festivity, both liturgical and otherwise. Beyond the religious observance, “Three Kings Day” is an occasion for its own folk custom. The night before, children leave their shoes at the door, along with water and grass or hay for the three kings’ camels; the next morning, those children awaken to find a present, in gratitude for their provision for the camels, I guess. The day is also marked with a special “Three Kings’ Cake” or Epiphany cake (which is really good), and the final removal of all Christmas decorations.
This may sound cute but remote to us, but maybe not as distant as we think. Nowadays a family that is planning a stay at a resort down at Disney World can, with a little advance planning, ensure that their children can leave their shoes or shoe boxes by the door with the appropriate gifts for the three kings, and find a present waiting the next morning.
Now I’m not sure what would happen if this folk tradition went worldwide, but it might just be that we could learn something from our Central and South American neighbors on this one. Three Kings Day, or Epiphany, does have something to teach us about gifts and giving, perhaps a different lesson than our commercialized Christmas does.
We end up with a lot of confusion about these magi. Even the notion of there being three of them is a confusion linked to the mention of three gifts – Matthew doesn’t tell us how many there were, much less assign them names like Caspar, Melchior, or Balthazar. Furthermore, the terms “wise men” or “magi” are easily misinterpreted, and “kings” just doesn’t have any foundation at all in scripture. Most likely they were scholars, specialists in watching stars and reading signs in them (today we’d call them astrologers, and they wouldn’t be reputable).
Of course, the main thing we do remember rightly about those magi is their gifts. We learn to pronounce odd words like “frankincense” and “myrrh,” we make up songs to help us remember them (like the hymn we’ll be singing after this sermon), we make sure those children in the pageant have the appropriate containers to represent those gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Christian tradition has also over the years spent quite a bit of energy trying to comprehend or explain those gifts. One popular meme on social media makes clear that, if the wise men had been wise women, they’d have been sure to bring more practical gifts. In a more serious vein, much scholarly ink has been spilled to explain why those particular gifts were chosen. Carefully studying Jewish tradition and custom, these diligent students decided that gold was a symbol of the kingly attributes of this newborn Messiah, frankincense of his divinity, and myrrh (commonly used in burial practices of the region) of his suffering and death.
It all sounds good, but of course these magi weren’t Jewish. These travelers probably came from Persia (Iran today), so they weren’t likely to be thinking in those terms. Gold has a pretty strong track record of being precious across many cultures, and in some Eastern reaches of the biblical world at that time frankincense and myrrh were regarded as having medicinal properties. Most likely, these were simply the most precious gifts these travelers could give.
And of course, it matters that these magi were Gentiles – from outside the orbit of Judaism. All of the principals of Luke’s story were Jewish – even if the shepherds were at the very bottom rung of Jewish society. Here, though, Matthew brings in these outsiders as his principal visitors to the child; outsiders, like us (who would, of course, count as Gentiles in the context of this story). More than anybody else attached to the Christmas stories in scripture, these magi represent us.
And what they brought were the most precious gifts they could bring.
Our tradition and popular culture have actually caught on to this at times. Recall the carol “In the Bleak Midwinter,” in which the singer finally resoves that “what I have I give him, give my heart.” Or one might think of the somewhat more secular carol “The Little Drummer Boy,” in which bereft of gold or any similarly precious gem, finally gives the one gift that was really his to give; he plays his drum for him (pa-rum-pum-pum-pummmm…) he plays his best for him.
There are other parts of the story. The travelers’ inept approach to Herod and his resulting raging paranoia (this is what happens when scholars try to do diplomacy, I guess) are a story unto themselves, and the conclusion of verse 12 only hints at the horror to come. But perhaps what we most need to be challenged by here today is the question of what exactly do we give?
The adult Jesus will one day tell his interrogators to “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). We live in a time when an awful lot of folks are doing the opposite. What exactly do we give?
Ultimately the only gift that really matters, the only gift that makes even a little sense to give to this Messiah, is us. Wholly, completely, fully devoted lives that respond to God’s call on us, without reservation or rejection. Whatever it is in the strange formula that makes me, me, and makes you, you; whatever our particular quirks and eccentricities, our oddities and strangeness; this is the gift we give, really the only gift we have to give.
Kneeling, the magi gave what they thought were their most precious gifts. In his poem “Journey of the Magi,” T.S. Eliot wondered if they came to regret that:
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This; were we led all that way for
Birth or death? There was a birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
What do we lose when we don’t give ourselves? What dies in us? What hope, what joy, what meaning and fulfillment are snatched from our lives when we withhold ourselves from God-with-us, who stops at nothing to bring us to God?
Sing it whatever way you want to – what I have I give him, give him my heart! – or sing it another way, as long as you do it:
Say, shall we yield him in costly devotion,
Odours of Edom and offerings divine,
Gems from the mountain and pearls from the ocean,
Myrrh from the forest and gold from the mine?
Vainly we offer each ample oblation,
Vainly with gold would his favor secure;
Richer by far is the heart’s adoration,
Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #152, “What Star Is This, With Beams So Bright”; #149, “All Hail to God’s Anointed”; #151, “We Three Kings of Orient Are”; #150, “As With Gladness Men of Old”
 From Collected Poems 1909-1962 (Faber, 1974).
 Words originally by Reginald Heber, altered in traditional handing down; tune from an old Kentucky song as rendered by the Waverly Consort from the album A Waverly Consort Christmas (Veritas D 108831).
Grace Presbyterian Church
December 31, 2017, Christmas 1B
Notes From a World Without Christmas
I remember once, while I was home from college for the weekend, our family received a promotional brochure from a local congregation. I do not remember the affiliation, but it was definitely of a highly evangelical, maybe even of a charismatic type. The headline of the brochure was, so to speak, “Reclaiming First Century Christianity.”
Of course, the church in question wasn’t meeting in homes, and certainly not in Roman-style catacombs; they had a real sanctuary and even one of those gyms (excuse me, “recreation centers”) that churches liked to build back in the 70s and 80s. The church didn’t seem very “first century Christianity” in that respect.
I wonder now what that church would think about reclaiming “first century Christianity” if they had known (which I’m pretty sure they didn’t) that one of the other things first-century Christians didn’t have, besides dedicated sanctuaries and such, was Christmas.
While at least some of the stories of Jesus’s birth were certainly circulating among the members of those gatherings of Christ-followers that were spreading from Palestine across the Mediterranean, the gospels from which we know those stories (Luke and Matthew) were not written down until quite late in the first century. In later years even if there had been an impulse to observe some formal celebration of the Nativity, there was no agreement on the date such a celebration might occur. It was well into the third century before any consensus was achieved on celebrating the event on December 25 (a date which in the Roman Empire was dedicated to the celebration of the Roman god Saturn). And even then, the first known celebration of Christmas, in the city of Rome, was not recorded until the year 336. So for about three hundred years of Christianity, nobody was saying “Merry Christmas” to anybody. Think about that.
Now all that, observing that no official celebration of “Christmas” would have been known to the Christians of that time period doesn’t mean that the Nativity, or the theological truth represented in it, was insignificant to those followers of Christ.
In the reading from Galatians we hear Paul sum up, succinctly and effectively, the nature of Christ’s incarnation – a good fancy seminary word referring to God being born in human flesh. When Paul speaks of God sending a Son “born of a woman,” those few words embrace one of the basic truths of the gospel that nonetheless proved extremely hard to grasp for centuries of the church’s existence.
To speak of Jesus as God, exalted, divine, glorious, resurrected and risen, caused great difficulty for some Christians when confronted with the image of a baby born in a squalid and smelly animal trough being that exalted and glorified Son of God. Over time the church ended up with tormented theological exercises trying to excise such squalidness from the story of Jesus; he wasn’t really human, or his divine nature was completely separate from his human nature, or any number of other such attempts to avoid the icky complications of a fully divine Jesus who was also fully human. Even if the church couldn’t fully explain how “fully human/fully divine” worked, it consistently rejected any attempt to reduce or eliminate Jesus’s humanity.
You’ll also notice the idea of adoption coming up later in that sentence; you might also remember that idea coming up very strongly in Paul’s letter to the Christians at Rome. Here Paul emphatically insists that it is Jesus’s incarnation – “born of a woman” – that makes our adoption as children of God (and also “if a child, then also an heir”) possible. Then, because of that adoption, we are made ready to receive the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, which moves and shapes and guides our lives as children of God.
We are perhaps accustomed to the occasions of Holy Week and Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and Easter Sunday doing the heavy theological lifting of the faith. We should not neglect the theological significance of the occasion that flew by for us this past week, perhaps buried a little under prolific holiday displays and piled-up presents and enormous holiday meals. That theological significance, bound up in the name “Immanuel” (“God-with-us”), for example, is indeed foundational for much of the theological weight borne by Holy Week and Easter. The child laid in that messy and pungent manger was God. That God in that manger was a human child. As mind-twisting as that combination has proven over the centuries, it is indispensible to our understanding of this Jesus, the one born in a manger, the one crucified on that cross, the one risen from the tomb.
Fully God, fully human.
Fully human, fully God.
This is the indispensible truth of that occasion we celebrated this week, this season, whether anybody is saying “Merry Christmas” or not.
For God born of a woman, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #143, Angels, From the Realms of Glory, #133 O Come, All Ye Faithful, #142 ‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime, #127 Hark! the Herald Angels Sing (Jesus, the Light of the World)
Grace Presbyterian Church
December 24, 2017, Advent 4B
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
One Final Advent Meditation
It may seem strange to stop and take time for a passage from 2 Samuel, of all places, before plunging into the service of lessons and carols, that massive processional of scripture and song that draws a line from the fall of humanity to the birth of Jesus, tracing God’s loving action throughout the history of humanity to redeem that which is lost.
On the other hand, though it is not part of that traditional service, the story in this chapter is in many ways readable as a part of that design. In his instruction to King David through the prophet Nathan, God sure seems to be laying the groundwork for how that coming Messiah is to be understood, as a great leader in the line of David. Indeed, if you hear references to David in the carols and anthems of Christmas, passages like this one are part of the reason why; God’s promise to David is interpreted over the ages as pointing to Jesus as being of the lineage of David. Given that David’s actual royal lineage didn’t fare to well after his death, with the kingdom he once ruled in power being first divided and then conquered, it’s not surprising that a new interpretation of a passage like this would be sought.
Still, though, there’s more to this story. It’s not just what God promises David that tells us something about the coming Messiah; it’s also what God forbids to David that tells us something as well.
David’s intentions seem honorable enough. He lives in a lavish palace, but the Ark of the Covenant, the very symbol of the presence of God, is still sheltered in a tent. That’s not right, David decides, and resolves to do something about it. The prophet Nathan signs off on the idea without doing his prophetic due diligence, and for that he gets jolted awake with instruction from God, instruction to rein in David’s plans.
God has to remind David who provides for who. Who caused David to be pulled out of the sheep pasture and end up king? Who brought down David’s enemies, both personal and geographical? Who made David? God. God provides for David, not the other way around.
Even more is God’s other point. Since when did God ask David for a “house”? Did God complain about the tent? No. God has dwelt not in a fancy temple or palace, but God has lived among the people – “tented” among the people, so to speak. God is among the people, and does not deign to give it up because David has an itch to build a fancy building.
This says something about God, something that will be made even clearer in the Nativity. A God who chooses to be born among us humans, who chooses to take on humanity in full and live among us humans as one of us, is not a God that will be confined in fancy palaces or temples or cathedrals or churches. God is not bound to a building. God chooses to be among the people that God loves and wants to redeem.
There is, indeed, the miracle of Christmas. A God who, mighty and all-powerful and all-knowing and transcendent, still comes to us, born an infant in a feed trough in an out-of-the-way place far from thrones and palaces.
David didn’t understand it, and we still don’t understand it most of the time. But God will not be confined; the name “Immanuel” – “God-with-us” – is still Immanuel, God still with us, as God came to be with us on that Bethlehem night in what once had been the city of his ancestor David.
For a God not bound to temples, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Grace Presbyterian Church
December 17, 2017, Advent 3B
The Cry and the Shout
We modern folk are accustomed to being deluged with song during the Christmas season. Indeed, if you ever go outside the walls of your own house at any point between the day after Thanksgiving (or earlier in some cases) and Dec. 25, one can, if not careful, be under a more or less constant barrage of songs connected, however loosely, to the occasion of Christmas – the sacred songs and carols we know very well, but also songs with no particular connection to the Nativity or the Christmas story. Everything from roasting chestnuts to snowmen to reindeer with incandescent noses, you can get overwhelmed with songs ranging from the sweet to the sappy and sentimental to the sometimes creepy (I’m looking at you, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”).
By contrast, even we in the church have a tendency to be unaware of much song for the season of Advent (though I do hope that’s changing around here). In many congregations (as I am reminded by many of my colleagues in ministry), there is exactly one “song of the season” for Advent that is at all familiar: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
I’m going to hazard a guess, though, that even those congregations that consider it a familiar song of Advent haven’t always been terribly familiar with the whole hymn. It might have come as a shock last Advent, our first here with the new Glory to God hymnal, to find this hymn stretched out to seven stanzas, in contrast to the three that had been included in the previous collection, The Presbyterian Hymnal.
Perhaps the more curious among Presbyterian congregations noticed the short informational note at the bottom of the page, informing us that this hymn has its roots in a quite ancient practice of the church, dating back at least to the era of the great European emperor Charlemagne and probably farther back than that. Rooted in a practice of daily worship, these stanzas (or “antiphons”) were assigned to the seven-day period before the Vigil of Christmas (or Christmas Eve to us) as evocations of Old Testament passages evoking the longing of the people for a Messiah.
I’ve included some of this in the insert in your bulletin to keep this sermon from being any longer than necessary, but you can see that these verses draw on not just the book of Isaiah (a popular source of Advent readings) but four other different sources from Hebrew scripture, each one read as looking forward to a promised Messiah and evoking some aspect or characteristic of that Promised One. Their gathering together in the Middle Ages, and their assignment to the final week of the season of Advent, became a means of intensifying the essential cry of Advent: “Come, Lord Jesus!” As the prophets and sages of old cried out for the Advent of the Messiah, so we too, followers of Christ these many years later, also cry out for an Advent, a coming of our Savior not in a manger but in ultimate and unending reign of all God’s creation. Even in the moments we cannot articulate it, it is the unspoken and unspeakable yearning in the very heart of the one who seeks God.
Of course, that these O Antiphons (as they came to be known, since each one begins with the exclamation “O”) were formalized for liturgy probably around the reign of Charlemagne does create an interesting perspective, to say the least. As Holy Roman Emperors go, Charlemagne was one who tried to live up to the “Holy” part of that title – not by living a holy life by any means, but by inserting himself into the affairs of the church. Indeed, the whole body of what we now know as “Gregorian chant” was systematized under his influence, mostly to ensure that the churches in Charlemagne’s empire were all “singing from the emperor’s songbook,” so to speak.
That lofty origin sets these O Antiphons, and the more modern hymn we sing that was adapted from them in the 19th century, in a rather different social status than one of the other texts that is frequently sung during the season of Advent. While the O Antiphons evoke the words of kings and prophets and priests, the Magnificat is drawn from the words sung in Luke by an unwed woman, pregnant under what her community and maybe even her husband (if you believe Matthew’s account) considered to be suspicious circumstances. Maybe you remember how such a young woman might have been sent away to stay with distant relatives to deflect the scandal of such pregnancy? I wonder sometimes if that’s what was being done to Mary here, sending her off to escape the prying eyes and wagging tongues of Nazareth. In this case the distant relatives were Zacharias and Elizabeth, themselves looking forward to a new arrival after decades of barrenness. Maybe that’s what was happening here; let’s keep those embarrassing pregnant women off in the hill country, away from prying eyes and gossip.
Whatever it was, it was a far cry from the palaces of kings and emperors that produced the O Antiphons. It’s all the more remarkable a scene, though, as these two women, off in the hills, prophesy to one another. Elizabeth names the One in Mary’s womb as no less than, in her words, “my Lord,” and in response Mary sings out the brief but powerful words we know as the Magnificat, from the first word of its Latin translation Magnificat anima mea, which translates “my soul magnifies.”
This prophetic utterance operates differently than those O Antiphons. Where those stanzas sing about attributes of God – “O wisdom,” “O Immanuel” (or God-with-us), and so forth, Mary’s song is all about deeds; what God is doing, or more what God has done. God has looked with favor on lowly Mary; God has done great things for her; God has shown mercy from generation to generation. Then Mary’s song stops preaching and goes to meddling; God hasn’t just shown strength, but God has “scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts”; God has toppled the powerful (an emperor like Charlemagne, perhaps?) and elevated the lowly; God has fed the hungry ones and sent away the rich with nothing.
It’s a challenging text, if you pay too much attention to it. And for years certain corners of the church did their best not to pay attention to it. Instead of singing the Magnificat, brash and even a little subversive as it is, hymnals were filled with such carols as “The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came,” where the focus is on Gabriel’s announcement from earlier in Luke 1, with Mary’s role limited to verse three, a not-very-Magnificat-sounding little stanza that tells us:
Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head,
“To me be as it pleases God,” she said.
“My soul shall laud and magnify God’s holy name.”
Most highly favored lady, Gloria!
You notice just the hint of the Magnificat, but not enough to be dangerous. Or maybe the hymn “Once in David’s City,” with its line “Mary was that mother mild,” a description that smacks more of putting women in their place than any kind of real attention to how Mary acts and speaks in scripture.
I have no interest in forcing a choice between the only two Advent songs most people know. What must be said, though, is this: if we tune out the powerfully disruptive song of Mary, we are pretty likely to fall prey to the solemnized, imperially sanctioned tones that would point us to attributes of a high and distant God to keep us from looking for a God who breaks into humanity and upsets the order of things like empires. Both belong; both are needed.
Advent is not a passive season. It looks both backward and forward; it sees the degradation and sorrow of the world and still insists on hope; and it most definitely does not submissively endorse the way things are. When we have learned that, when we have understood what it means to wait in hope and expectation, we may finally have grasped the whole point of Advent. And when we’ve grasped that, we might be ready for Christmas.
For the God on High who comes and acts among us, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #88, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (stanzas 1, 2, and 3); #88, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (stanzas 4 and 5); #100, My Soul Cries Out With a Joyful Shout; #88, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (stanzas 6, 7, and 1)
Grace Presbyterian Church
December 10, 2014; Advent 2B
You may have noticed that, in my time here, I might have broken into song a time or two from the pulpit, during a sermon. A time or two.
So at first glance at today’s text from Isaiah, it would seem to be a musician’s dream. A significant portion of this chapter was appropriated by Charles Jennens, George Frederick Handel’s librettist, for some of the early solos and choruses of his oratorio Messiah. It’s one of those pieces of music that’s almost impossible to avoid this time of year. If it’s not being performed live somewhere, it’s probably going to pop up on your TV or radio if you happen to watch or listen at the right time. It’s a Christmas tradition, as they say.
Seriously, I’ve sung these portions of the work so many times as to have large chunks of them memorized.
[sung] Comfort ye … co—-mfort ye, my people…
Or [also sung] Ev-‘ry valley … ev’ry valley shall be exalted…
Or maybe [sung, too] And the glo—ry, the glo-ryof the Lord shall be reveal-ed…
You get the idea. Jennens and Handel mined this chapter very heavily in writing the first portion of his oratorio – “Part the First,” in the ornate language of some of the earlier published editions. And it’s not hard to get why. It’s a beautiful, hopeful text. Unlike so much of what prophets like Isaiah had to say much of the time, it provides reassurance to a people, whether in Isaiah’s direct audience or to us today, who are rather in dire need of some form of reassurance. Where much of the prophet’s task was to call out the people for their sins, and last week we had the prophet basically suggesting that God should just blow in and knock everything over and push the restart button, here the message is much more gentle and accessible.
Much the same message is found in today’s psalm. It offers us some beautiful, if rather curious, images – “righteous and peace will kiss each other” might take a moment to sort out in the imagination – but it, like most of Isaiah’s chapter, provides hope, comfort, and even a kind of joy in its evocations of righteousness and peace, love and faithfulness.
The trouble is, when we leave here and go home, perhaps with the radio on in the car or the TV on when we get home, or perhaps when we look at the newspaper we didn’t finish this morning, it becomes very hard to remember all this stuff about comfort, or love and faithfulness, or righteousness and peace kissing. There’s a disconnect between what we see around us, what we know and observe about humanity, including ourselves, and what promises we hear in these bits of scripture from Isaiah and Psalms. We feel it as much as know it. Peace is nowhere to be found; righteousness seems an illusion; faithfulness and love are pipe dreams.
If a modern-day psalmist were to describe our contemporary culture, he or she might pen lines like “…steadfast hate and vindictiveness will meet; abusiveness and greed will high-five one another…” Promises of comfort, as Isaiah proclaims, sound hollow, more like fantasy than real, earthly possibility. How can we possibly look for that?
But Isaiah has more to say, something more that makes clear that these promises are not fantasy, and that they are promised even in the face of the human frailties and faults we know all too well. And the musician who communicated this best of all – who “preached” this message far more effectively than I could ever hope to do – wasn’t Handel, but Johannes Brahms. [Brahms, Ein deutsches Requiem, track 2, begin at 5:03]
In the second movement of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem, that composer appropriates a piece of Isaiah’s chapter 40 as well, but he avoids the passages made famous by Handel’s settings, choosing instead from the central movement of this text in verses 6-8. These verses provide a kind of reality check after the effusive promises of verses 1-5, and before the celebratory tones of verses 9-11. With a tone a bit more pessimistic and maybe even a little cynical, this passage provided plenty of reasons for Handel to skip it in creating Messiah. On the other hand, it was perfect for Brahms.
Verse 6 echoes verse 3 and its language of one “crying out.” But where verse 3 doesn’t exactly make clear who is crying out (we’ll see who gospel writers thought it was in a little bit), in verse 6 the prophet is positioning himself as the object of the command: “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’” But somehow the prophet isn’t impressed. Psalm 81 and its promises seem far from his mind.
What does come to his mind is the very thing that seemed to be missing from our psalm excerpt and from the beginning of this chapter; the frailty, faultiness, and outright disobedience of humanity. The prophet’s reply “What shall I cry?” would probably benefit from a little slang interpretation here;
Cry out? Cry out what?
What can possibly be said to these hateful, faithless people?
These people are like grass. They have all the faithfulness and constancy of the grass in the field – looks pretty now, but withers and dies when the heat comes on. What’s the point of prophesying to such a faithless, worthless bunch?
Now there’s some stereotyped Old Testament prophet talk.
For all the inconstancy of the people, though, there is one thing – one hope – that is sure. And Brahms says it much better than I.
What you have been hearing begins about five minutes into the second movement. This is the third time Brahms repeats the prophet’s weary claims, and the fourth is coming now. It’s in German (this is the German Requiem, after all) but you can keep track beginning in the second half of verse 6 – “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field,” and then skipping to verse 8 – “the grass withers, the flower fades…”
“ … but … “!
“Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet in Ewigkeit.” “But the word of our God will stand forever.”
“But”! Never has so much power and hope and attention been musically invested in that little conjunction “but”! Okay, in German it’s actually the word “aber,” which translates as “but.” Here those three little letters are packed with so much hope.
Our inconstancy, our faithlessness, our hatefulness, our spitefulness, all of those horrible things that we see in ourselves as a species and as a human race cannot outlast the promise of our Lord. Our failure cannot be the final word; it will always be trumped by the “word of our God” that endures through all eternity. Brahms, who was not a particularly religious person by practice but knew his scripture quite well, saw the hope in that little German word “aber” and found a way to express it with a power and a joy and an exuberance that maybe we can learn from and hold on to in our own reflection on this passage.
Something a little similar happens in our gospel passage for today, from Mark 1, although no composer has emerged to set it in such an effective way. In verse 4 we are introduced to the character John “the baptizer,” whom many early Christians quickly decided was the one crying out in the wilderness early in Isaiah 40. If we take verse 6 seriously then “character” seems a pretty accurate description of the man. The gospel writer wastes little time in introducing us to John and his message – “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” But by verses 7-8 it becomes clear that John’s message is less about himself than about The One yet to come, The One who is going to bring something new and different:
The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
There’s that word again – “but,” or in this case the Greek word “δε.” Here, though, while it is a word that signifies hope, there’s also maybe a little danger with it, maybe a little disruption. What does it mean to be “baptized with the Holy Spirit”? Sounds a little scary.
It’s no longer about God doing something in the abstract, no longer about God’s faithfulness outlasting our sinfulness and faithlessness. Now, that little conjunction “but” is introducing a far more challenging promise; God isn’t just going to do something, God is going to do something to us and in us.
It isn’t about God out there in the distance being all Godly and majestic and powerful and safely distant. It isn’t even about God tearing open the heavens and shaking things up as in last week’s scripture from Isaiah. It’s about God getting inside us and shaking us up. And maybe that’s … well, not exactly scary, maybe, but … okay, maybe it is a little scary. It means we might change. It means we might not be able to kick back in our own comfort zone. This One who is to come baptizing us with the Holy Spirit brings hope, yes, but hope that comes with a little bit of threat, a little bit of an edge.
That’s the thing about Advent, if you take it seriously. It’s not quiet. It’s not passive, really. It is charged with the energy of a God whose faithfulness will outlast all of our faithlessness, yes. But it’s also charged with the energy of a God who doesn’t feel like waiting that long, a God who chooses to break in now and turn us inside out and upside down with the Holy Spirit, a God who instead of tearing open the heavens and starting earthquakes invades humanity in the form of a human who turned over tables, and healed the sickest of the sick, and turned the heads of the religious leaders inside out with his challenge to their privileged theology, who exalted the poor and told the rich to give it all away, and who didn’t even have the decency to stay dead when humanity finally killed him.
That, my friends, is the power and the challenge of Advent.
“But,” for three little letters packed with hope and danger, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #106, Prepare the Way, O Zion; #96, On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry; #87, Comfort, Comfort Now My People; #103, Come Now, O Prince of Peace
[Note: The recording of the Brahms Ein Deutsches Requeim used during the sermon was by the Monteverdi Choir and the Revolutionary and Romantic Orchestra, led by John Eliot Gardiner, Philips D115329; the videos included above are quite different in their tempi and therefore timing.]
It’s not Advent music…except when it is…