Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Present

Luke 2:1-20

I often wonder when we come to Christmas what you out in the pews are thinking.

The cat leapt out of the bag last Sunday and suddenly the whole congregation knew that I was marking forty years that I have been a priest. That means for forty years I have been engaged each Christmas in examining the story, listening to it, pondering it, sometimes fretting over it, all with a need to open it up afresh and find in it the thing that will make the whole festival somehow come alive, move, inspire, speak to—to whom? To you, but equally to me. It is not unlike the annual drama of Christmas morning. People go digging into presents, tearing through wrappings and popping off ribbons, pulling out things that sometimes call for gasps—oohs, ahs, “Darling, you shouldn’t have, you shouldn’t have”—a tumultuous party of surprises and delights, if, of course, you’re lucky enough to be able to have all that. Well, that is the kind of experience, though in a spiritual idiom, that I itch for Christmas to be on this holy candlelit night. For that to happen, somebody, though not necessarily I, must arrange a moment of connection. That in turn forces the question of who needs and wants to connect, with what or whom, and how.

Over the decades I have gathered a little information on what you are thinking, though it seems awfully sketchy to me. It appears, for instance, that many folks assume that the tale of Jesus’ birth is a piece of biography, much like any birth narrative. And, since popular imagination stitches together the very distinct and in some ways incompatible accounts of the two gospels with birth stories, the popular mind imagines that shepherds, wise men, angels, Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus were all right there somewhat on top of each other. Add “manger” and soon you have a full-blown barnyard, with oxen, asses, camels, lowing cattle, even chickens and the occasional duck or goose. It is all quite a lot of fun; and preachers, for example, don’t get very far by trying to deconstruct the entire scene. “That is just the way it all happened,” the average worshiper might say.

Still, people wander into church on Christmas, looking for only God knows what, and I wonder about them—about you, if you are one of that number. Is it the power of the old carols to awaken dormant memories of your youth? Is it the smell of greens and the flicker of candles that can transport you to a space where Mystery does not have to elbow its way through mindless crowds in order to draw you in, warm your heart and stir your soul? Do such as you give a dip of figgy pudding about somebody’s doctrine of the Virgin Birth or the meaning of the word “Savior”? Or do you deep down wish someone would explain those things to you because you sense that they might actually have to do with the Truth you need to live your life by?

The default position of the Church has long been that it is up to us insiders, and especially the learned, professional caste, to put on the show and tell the story, and let the audience get what it will. And that might not be too bad an idea. But suppose we want to push the boundaries a bit. Suppose we might wish to pause the tape and rerun a slice of the dialogue, and run it again to get a closer, sharper view of the characters in the story. Is it possible that there actually might be a layer or two of meaning that we never have considered? And might one or more of those layers of meaning actually help us, change us, alter us so that we get to, say, New Year’s Day and find that our whole approach to life has shifted ever so slightly, or even more than slightly?

In some ways the most intriguing feature of Luke’s story is the presence of shepherds. It really is not strange, considering that Luke’s setting is Bethlehem, the City of David, who himself was out keeping the sheep when the prophet and king-maker Samuel came, obeying the Word of God, looking for a potential king among Jesse’s sons. The shepherd, who happened to be the youngest, was exactly the one whom Samuel was looking for, as it turned out. And now, centuries later, perhaps in those very fields, other shepherds were minding their business when suddenly an angel appears with a peculiar announcement. The story is different, but the parallels are obvious enough to evoke a connection between an ancient anointing and this birth of one who has sprung from Jesse’s root, a new Davidic king. But something else is in play, too. Shepherds in first century Jewish society were among the least powerful and respected people. That fits very nicely into the gospel that Luke is proclaiming, with its continual emphasis on the marginal, the misfits, the underestimated, even the despised. The words of the Magnificat, the pregnant Mary’s song, are still ringing in the ears of the reader: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the humble and meek.” The shepherds are a case in point.
Romanian Shepherds, photo by Dennis Carlyle Darling

They become the very first ones in Luke’s gospel narrative to go looking for Jesus. Imagine. In the middle of the night shift, nothing much going on, suddenly they are in the middle of an other-worldly episode, seeing and hearing an alien being, having an eerie experience which can only be described as “glory” shining round about them, filling them with fear. And after a multitude of angels have appeared and then disappeared, the shepherds say to one another, “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing.” And they go in search of the child wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.

It is not only the shepherds who are key to this story; it is the search they undertake in the middle of the night. It will not do simply to have a birth unremarkable and unremarked. The Messiah does not show up in any way that could be expected, much less in a manner that is self-explanatory. No, that is the point. The birth of this marvelous person is so ordinary, so commonplace that it could be entirely missed. William Cowper’s words are sometimes taken to be scripture themselves: “God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.” That is true. But the most mysterious thing of all is the way God performs wonders through very natural processes, like human birth, processes that are so much a part of the fabric of the universe that there is no reason to stop and pay attention to them at all.

Whether you have heard the message of Christmas so much and so often that it has become a part of you, or whether you have only the vaguest clue as to what it has to do with you if anything, the search is not only possible but highly rewarding. But be sure of one thing: it is a search. Bethlehem is even today not all that big a place, but you may be certain that running around trying to find a baby in a manger is no cinch. Luke does not tell us how many hours it took to find the Christ, nor how many alleys the shepherds ran down only to find nothing, nor how they might have made mistakes by following the sounds of other infants’ cries. We only know that the shepherds left their field and went to Bethlehem, seeking.

So the search is what ultimately leads to Christ and thus to the Great Joy which shall be to all people. That is a challenge for many people in our culture to get their minds around. We are not used to searching, but rather to having our desires instantly gratified. Even those who fancy themselves committed to a certain rigor in their faith and in their way of living have difficulty sometimes understanding that the meaning of the Messiah is not something that one can pick up by a quick internet search or a rapid read-through of a paperback edition of a paraphrased Bible. And why, you may wonder, does the search for Christ have to be hard? It is not the difficulty of the search that distinguishes it. It is rather the nature of the one being sought. Searching for Christ is not exactly like searching for the best bottle of wine for the money, or for precisely the right gift for the one who has everything. It is not quite like the scholar’s search for an obscure manuscript, nor like the researcher’s quest for the drug that will cure a disease, nor the explorer’s combing unknown territory to probe its secrets. Although searches are searches and share some things in common, the search for Christ is different because it is fundamentally a search for you.

And here is where the search of the shepherds is not necessarily the pattern for you and me. They are looking for something that matches the sign which has been given them by the angel. They are looking for somebody or something that, however important or even divine, is outside themselves. You and I can search for the Savior too, but the search means rifling through the bits and pieces of our lives, filtering the experiences that we have had and are having. If you are going to find God, you are going to find God in the details of your own life. True, you might decide to go on a pilgrimage to some holy island or sacred mountain. You can go on a retreat or go work among the poor—but these are only settings for your life, contexts for the search. The search itself, no matter on what island or mountain or sofa or desktop, is a search through the recesses and corners of your own life. The Bethlehems to which we go are inevitably the hard places in our lives. It is generally the places where we are sore from suffering, where we are most challenged, where some addiction is bleeding us, where some weakness has worn us thin. These are frequently the places we need to look for God’s gift. Don’t be surprised if these Bethlehems, these places where God shows up in your life, are not too far from the places where you are quite strong, where your passions burn the brightest, where your talents shine. For they, too, are places where you can and often will find the startling Babe.

This is what real Christmas, and therefore real Christianity, is about. It is not about going through the motions approved by society or family or even church. It is about searching for and ultimately finding Christ and therefore finding God and therefore finding this Peace on Earth and therefore discovering the One who can save us from uselessness and meaninglessness and deadly boredom and living hell. It is about opening yourself to the possibility of Mystery. It is searching for Christ even if it means fearlessly calling into question the points of view you hold dear, the habits that are the most comfortable to wear, the structures that frame your everyday routines. This baby lying in the manger, when he grew to become a man, said in one of his most shocking pronouncements, “except you become as children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” And that is what we are searching for: the child, the infant, the new life in ourselves, new life that is often struggling to be born in a dark night, new life that we find in unlikely places, like a manger, like a cross.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Meaning Exactly What?

I want to spend this year with you examining the Search for Meaning. While it is true that a good many people in church on any given Sunday have found plenty of meaning in the Good News of Jesus Christ, many more are hanging around the edges wondering where they can find meaning, if there is any meaning, or whether the Church has anything to say that would help make sense of their lives. Even a great many people who already think of themselves as faithful Christians surely know that the journey with God in Christ is one that never settles on a particular meaning but always pulls us forward to explore possible meanings that we have not yet imagined.

Seeking for meaning will take us into all sorts of places. We will find ourselves looking at various stories, scratching around for the purposes in the story-originators’ minds as well looking at the features of the stories themselves. We will step back from various scriptures and ask how they connect with what is going on in our personal and corporate lives. We will also look at what I call the anti-gospel: the ever-present reality of things that promise meaning but which in the end rob us of meaning and purpose. We will meet shadowy figures and haunting themes that stalk through the Bible like ghouls whose echoing laughs mock the search for meaning, whose ploy is to seduce us into settling for easy answers and pious formulas so that we can steer safe of the risks of searching deeply.

Like any search, the one for meaning is a hunt with no guarantee of a trophy at the end. We never know whether we will find any meaning better than what we could patch together right now in the next five minutes. That is why so many people probably don’t want to fool with a search for meaning. To them—maybe you are among that number—there is no reason to search for meaning because it is perfectly obvious what the meaning is. After all, they were taught “the meaning” of things and of life in school or by their parents or indeed by the Church. All they have to do is to assume that whatever things mean is what they mean, and go on about their business. There is no scarcity of meaning, nor any dearth of systems that can supply it readily enough. We can go shopping for meaning just as we can go shopping for many things. Books and film, political parties and ideologies, a vast supply of things cooked up by the world’s various commerce systems, and a long parade of religious and philosophical alternatives provide a veritable bazaar of meaning. But most of those things, including some near and dear to my heart, are not in the end worth much unless they align with the Truth.

So this is not just the search for anything meaningful, which is not really all that hard to find. It is the search for meaning that actually lasts and outlasts everything else. If I were unconcerned about any but the stouthearted, I would stick a little notice up in the narthex that said something like, “Search for Meaning. Only the brave dare enter.” But my instincts are just the opposite. I believe that most of us are a little antsy, at least, if not downright scared, of beginning a search for meaning, unless we already have begun. And I want to sound a note of reassurance that comes out of the mouths of angels throughout the sacred story: “Fear not.” You have nothing to lose by asking questions. Not your balance, not your faith, not your life. But you have quite a bit that you might gain if you happen to discover along the way that there is a pearl of great price that you might have walked right past had your eyes not been open to looking for pearls. And should that one discovery change your life for the better, you will be glad you signed on to the search.

So much for prologue. Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. What do we make of John the Baptist? He appears for two weeks in Advent each year, and then comes back for a reprise on the First Sunday after the Epiphany. Beyond that, we don’t hear much about him. He is here today proclaiming his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins because his is perhaps the clearest voice we hear telling us what it means to prepare for the coming Reign of God. And that is what Advent urges us each year to do. The Reign of God, mind you, not the celebration of Christmas, unless you understand that Christmas has something to do with the Reign of God, which would make you a rare bird indeed. John the Baptizer lets his hearers know that he is not the focus of that Reign, but the forerunner of a more powerful One that was on his way. The Coming One would inaugurate the Reign of God in an outpouring of God’s Spirit that could be described as a baptism, so effusive would be his power.

Now the search for meaning is not the same as pigeonholing something like this story in a ready-made grid of ready-made meaning. Fully 65% of us here this morning could do that without even blinking. That is because the function of the story is obvious: it is a prelude to the story of Jesus. The figure of John is likewise obvious: he is an announcer, a forecaster, the opening act in a story of salvation that is to center in the ministry of Jesus. But stand further back and what do you see? Possibly you see that John is a game-changer. He articulates a message (repentance) and an action (baptism) that on the long haul were to reorder reality for an enormous number of people, one might even say the whole world. For this message of repentance went beyond personal rehabilitation and became a call to humans to change from self-preservation to sacrifice, from tribal protectiveness to inclusiveness. And baptism went from being an act of personal purification to being an entrance rite into the Christian community, which dared to believe itself to be living in union with the Risen Jesus and therefore with God. Simply by seizing the moment; by giving voice to the groundswell of discontent with the way things were going and the way people were living; by allying himself with the old prophetic tradition that spoke truth to power; by refusing to conform to the expectations of respectable society; by thundering a sermon of inner change to accompany the outward washing of baptism; and perhaps most of all in refusing to make himself the star of his own show: in all these ways John changed the game.

Do you see any meaning in that? Who is a herald of the Reign of God right now? Are you? Am I? If we know anything at all about God, we know from the human experience that we call “history” that God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed; that God is busy welcoming the outcast and the sinner; that God’s righteousness transcends the moral pettiness of convention and shakes the foundations of power. Whose are the voices that announce the essential claims of justice? And, by contrast, whose are the voices that decry nearly any motion to change things in the direction of greater sharing in the common weal?

Sometimes our life on this planet can seem inordinately complex, like the mass of wires and cords under my desk at home that form a clot of interconnections past all order and comprehension. But that is just an illusion. There are complex problems, but there are a few truths that need to be heard. One such truth is fairness. Another is honesty. A third is kindness. It is not possible for one to speak the Truth unfailingly and still be nice all the time. But we can make room for and recognize the Baptizer when he appears. We can even be the ones who are the baptizers ourselves, announcing the coming Reign of Truth and Righteousness. It involves not going to the store and buying a coat of camel’s hair and a new supply of health food so much as it entails calling people, beginning with ourselves, to account. The Reign of God is coming whether we like it or not. We can join the forces of Peace and Justice, or we can serve the old order which is always about protecting the interests of the powerful. The little baptism of today is just a foreshadowing of an outpouring of Spirit tomorrow. One is coming who is mightier than any you see or hear today. And that one is the both the Alpha and the Omega, the Source and the Destiny of all Meaning.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011