Fantasy Island

There was once a man who lived in Sweden, Nathan Soderblom.  He was a high achiever, a good student, a believer in Christ – and he eventually became and Archbishop in the Church; he actually won the Nobel Prize.  He was effective, busy, sought after; he was a leader in his field.

However, having achieved the notoriety that comes with a certain kind of ambition, Soderblom went to the King of Sweden and asked him, “Your majesty – there is a little island off the coast of Sweden.  A beautiful place.  There is one little church, in a town with one street.  There are only a few hundred people living on that island.  Your majesty, I have grown weary, especially of my duties in Stockholm; now that I am nearing retirement; I would be so honored, as a retired ArchBishop, to offer myself as pastor, and shepherd, to that little congregation.”

The ArchBishop sat quietly, pensive and thoughtful, piously – waiting for the King to see what a humble offering of self and service the Archbishop happened to be making of himself.

The King smiled at the ArchBishop.  His old friend.  And the King took quite a while before speaking.  The King finally said, “Oh yes – Lovely.  Lovely.  Truly, it is a lovely island.  I know that place; I have been there.  It has an ambiance.  An atmosphere.  A feeling.  It is almost, for Sweden, like a piece of heaven.  And you know – ArchBishop – those people on that island, they need a postman to carry the mail through town once a day.  Ahhh . . . how I have thought it would be so nice to be that postman; how I would like to be the postman on that island.”

That is often how we interpret God’s call to us – and yes, even the most pious and professionally religious of us.

Of course The Carpenter comes calling in life – but it must be to the vision that I am carrying around in my own head.  Certainly God would take note of the calling that I have imagined for myself; certainly God would know about “my island fantasy.”

A little conversation I might find myself having, “Of course, that is how I will know it is from God; the next call from God will be anything but more of the drudgery of a life grown stale or difficult.”

I sometimes think this is what folks mean when they say that they are spiritual but not very religious.  In the “imaginations of our hearts” we create a tableau and then invite God to be our guest, the executive of our own version of peace.

Like the good ArchBishop we have walked the fence lines of our fields, we have found a break in the fence, and we can see that the grass is certainly greener on the other side.

“Ah yes, my friend.  How I would like to no longer be King, how I too would put down my duties, and be the postman on that island.”

Jesus is stepping into the world of the disciples with a particular invitation.

“The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near.  Repent, and believe in the Good News . . . turn around in our life and believe that this good thing is actually happening to you.”

This invitation is not the climbing of our own mountaintops.  It is not the identification of our own fantasy island.  It is actually a moment of crisis, but also a moment of opportunity.  Repentance and belief are being planted like a flag in the midst of the daily drudgery.  Following that flag will lead us into fields and forests that we cannot imagine.

At the outset, the beginning of the Gospel, we see a holy teacher out gathering his followers.  Jesus is breaking a few Hellenistic, Greek, and Rabbinic, Hebrew, norms.  What was expected is that the teacher would teach a bit, others listen a bit, and then the listeners might mull it over a while, and then decide if this teaching and this teacher were worth the trouble of following.

The locus of authority rested with the listener; it was more or less a buyers’ market when it came to following a teacher or a preacher in those days.  But Jesus is breaking this pattern.  Jesus does not wait for his followers; He goes and finds them.  Obviously God is the pursuer.  Heaven is declaring, “Ready or not here I come . . .” The time is now.

We know little about these first disciples.  The first disciples were prosperous enough to have others working for them; to own and manage their own businesses.  They were probably yeoman types; independent, yet well-off enough to have to pay the Roman tax.  Obliged to pay the Temple tithes. 

I have always found it a blessing to know so little about Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John.  I don’t have to wonder if they were “enough.”  If they had enough intelligence, enough social capital, enough charisma, enough moral fiber, or enough of the “right stuff” to be sought out by God. 

Really the only thing that we know they had “enough” of is that they could understand when something profound, and something of God, was happening in their midst.  That is something they could do; recognize that God was near.  And this gift, of knowing when the important thing is THE important thing, in that moment, is what set the course of the Western world and the entire fabric of our lives.

This particular moment with a teacher and a few followers set the course of human history.

The disciples don’t seem to be One Minute Managers; they don’t seem to have the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  Simon, Andrew, James, and John don’t seem to have any of the outstanding merits that might place them at the top of some class of Who’s Who.  There is really nothing that would recommend them as leaders of the most significant revolution of the Western World . . . except this – listening and following.

Standing beside the boats that contain their livelihood, the security and care of their families, these first followers recognize the moment of crisis and opportunity.  They know enough to know that God is near.  And they know enough to know the difference between a day-dream and reality.

They know enough to follow someone from one way of living into another way of living with God.  It is something that cannot be managed, finessed, arranged to our own liking.  It is an invitation that can only be accepted, and so they “left their nets.”

In my limited experience of following Jesus, no one truly follows The Carpenter from Nazareth while also carrying their “nets.”  Something is always left behind.

The brave and bright German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it so well, “When Christ calls a person, he bids that person come and die.”  Leaving what was and discovering what will be.

The rest of the Gospel, the rest of Jesus’ message, is simply a message that this is a death that we cannot live without; we will not save ourselves as we search for God’s heaven and Kingdom. 

A great deal of what we call ourselves, or ours, in this world will be given away, and finally taken away.  In order to find the Really Real, the reality of God, something of who we are, what we have been, will be left behind as we step into the Great Mystery of what Jesus is calling his Father’s Kingdom. 

This profound and deep Mystery of God’s eternal friendship and love for us may only be received when we are turned from the preoccupation of creating our own heaven on earth; accepting the beautiful, yet sometimes crushing, truth that in order to follow The Carpenter into a real paradise, we must leave the nets that have been our safety in this world.

This is not our world, it is God’s.  And every day we live and breathe in this borrowed place, there is one who is walking toward us; He says, “I know what you want.  I know what you dream; but I have come for you.  Lay it down.  Lay down the safety of your nets, and come follow me.”

Listening and Speaking – Father Thomas Nsubuga

By Father Thomas Nsubuga

This morning, I would like to draw your attention to our first lesson in 1 Samuel 3. In his comments on this text, Dr. Luke Powery says that the prophet Samuel affirms that prayerful listening leads to prophetic proclamation, that our silence and service are intertwined and that we must always listen before we speak. Since the roots of social and civic engagement are listening skills, I thought we should reflect on the importance of listening in the life of faith.

The first lesson on listening is that God speaks. God speaks and calls Samuel four times, (vv. 4, 6, 8, 10), but three of those times, Samuel thinks it is the elder priest, Eli, who is calling him, suggesting how difficult it may be to discern the voice of God. If we don’t know God’s voice, we may run to the wrong people for advice and guidance. If we don’t know the voice of God, we may only hear our own voice and then confuse it with God’s voice. Sometimes, we can’t hear God because of all of the noise in our lives, “the jangling echoes of our turbulence” (Thurman, Meditations of the Heart). Or, maybe we just listen to the distorted voices that tell us that it is not worth it, we can’t do it, it will never change; voices of defeat that have nothing to do with serving the resurrected Christ; voices that drown out the truth that God is love. It may be difficult to discern God’s voice sometimes but God is patient, continuing to call us even when we don’t answer and even when we might be afraid of what he may ask us to do. It is not until the fourth time, after Eli tells Samuel that it is God calling, that Samuel responds to God’s call with “Speak, for your servant is listening” (v.10). He soon realizes that God is the foundation of his future prophetic work, implying that God is calling, wanting to give us our voice, our vocation. According to Frederick Buechner, “God speaks not just through the sounds we hear… but through events in all their complexity and variety, through the harmonies and disharmonies and counterpoint of all that happens” (Buechner, The Sacred Journey and Listening to Your Life).

In January 1956 God spoke. It was when Dr. Martin Luther King felt he could not continue with the civil rights movement. Recalling the event, he said “I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problem to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud, saying, ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’ At that moment I experienced the presence of God as I had never before. It seemed as if I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. I was ready to face anything. I knew now that God is able to give us the interior resources to face the storms and problems of life.” (King, The Soul of Leadership). I know that some of you have had a similar experience when God has spoken to you and you have found inner strength for outer action. God speaks at a kitchen table, in a living room, in a bedroom, in the car, here in the cathedral, even on a vacation trip; whenever you are tired, weak and worn. God speaks, revealing to us our mission in the world because if God doesn’t speak, we have nothing to say. If God doesn’t speak, we have nothing to do. God speaks, the question is “Are we listening?”

The second lesson on listening is that listening is the first task of a prophet. The term ‘prophet’ is thrown around in society and in the church and usually we think of speaking right away. But what we learn from this call story today is the priority of listening not only in the work of a prophet but also in our life and ministry. Because prayer is vital in listening to God, our prayer should be, “Silence in us any voices but your own, so that we may hear your Word and also do it; through Christ our Lord.” (Prayers for Illumination). Prophetic ministry and all other ministries are propelled by the posture of prayerful silence and listening and yet many of us are uncomfortable with silence. We find it hard to center down in silence because we may not like what we hear from God or our own hearts. Silence may be a corrective path to a word-centered spirituality that believes that the amount of words reveals how deep one’s spirituality really is. Perhaps we need an ear-centered theology that recognizes listening as much as speaking even as we read in scripture such verses as, “Hear, O Israel” (Deut.6:4) and “faith comes by hearing” (Rom. 10:17).

When we listen, we show that we don’t have all the answers and need God’s guidance. Listening signifies our receptivity toward the voice of God that we might discover our own voices in the world; that we might discover what to speak and how to act. Listening is a form of love—we listen to those whom we love, and if we are not listening, we may not love like we think we do. If we are not listening we may not even recognize the voice of the one who loves us to death. Listening is not passive; it is active attention and it may be exactly what you need when the going gets tough rather than getting caught up in the noise of unfruitful activity of guessing.

We pray; we keep silence but there comes a time when we have to act – our third lesson on listening. Listening leads to speaking. We cannot be silent forever. God will call us to speak and “The calling to speak is often a vocation of agony” (King, Speech about Vietnam in 1967). What we may be called to say may not be easy to digest. We may not want to speak it. Others may not want to hear it. But God still calls us to say it and we must break the silence. What Samuel is called to do is not easy. He is called to speak during a time of change, turmoil and impending war (1 Sam 3:11-20). Samuel cannot lie down in the temple (vv.3, 5, 6, 9) forever, but must get up and act upon what he has heard and what he will say will make “the ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” As servants and agents of God in the world we follow God’s agenda. Public servants do not just serve the public but God. In the case of Samuel, prophetic action is grounded not even in the wisdom of Eli, the seasoned priest but in God’s voice and direction. Therefore, to act justly in the world is to follow God’s ongoing activity in the world. But to know what God is doing, one has to listen prayerfully. The legacy of those who have been the voice of the voiceless reveals that their proclamations are rooted in theological obedience and prayerful listening to the call of a God of justice who says, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever‐flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). So, to be able to speak, one must pray like The Poet James Weldon Johnson and ask God to “pin [my] ear to the wisdom post” (Johnson, Listen, Lord: A Prayer) that like Isaiah (6:7) my mouth may be touched by the burning coals of God so that like Jeremiah (20:9) God’s word may be like fire shut up in my bones that I can’t help but speak what God desires me to declare. Speak and declare that “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” Speak and declare, that “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Speak and declare, that “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” We are to speak and declare that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and that “only love can drive out hate” (King).

My friends, listening requires prayer, silence and declaring the Word that we hear God speak. This Word is the incarnate Word that dwells among us, fleshed out in the every-day-ness of our own experience. It is possible that God is calling you for the nth time but you are still hesitant. I pray that today your response will be the prayer of Samuel— “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Amen.

Citizenship

I once listened to a friend give a short spiritual auto-biography. He was the proverbial “man in full” – The Southern Edition. Good looking.  Charming.  Good company and fun for both men and women.  Beautiful wife and two lovely children.  From a family line whose name you would recognize if you lived in the environs of three states East of here.  He ended up with his picture on the front page of the Wall Street Journal eventually.

There was success, there was fun, there were cars and motorcycles and trips to the beach; there was laughter and drinks on the golf course, laughter and drinks on the fishing boat, laughter and drinks at the ball game; and sometimes there was just laughter and drinks; and sometimes there were just drinks, and drinking.

“Weightlessness.  Weightless,” is how he described himself.  And then he leaned forward and put his head in his hands, and shook his head.  “You know, that’s the hardest thing about it.  When it was good, it was really good . . . and when it was bad, it was really bad; and not just for me.  But for everyone around me.”

“I was just taking one step forward . . . and a heck of a lot more than two steps back.”

Though the balls of the good life were all up in the air, he still felt stuck in something.  He talked about waking up every few weeks feeling lost, exhausted, and a little sick.  “It was easier for me to stay on the roller coaster, than face life on the ground.” he said. 

There was too much momentum, too many balls in the air, too much make-up and pretending to simply stop and have a glance at real nakedness, in the clear light of day.  “I knew I should change, I wanted to change . . . or to be changed, but I was pinned beneath this weight,” he said.

He paused in telling his story, and I felt the heavens had opened a bit, he sat up, and said to us, “I finally just got sick and tired of being sick and tired.  I got tired  . . . of being sick and tired, and so I gave that weight to God.”

This friend made the journey that others have made.  He went to rehab.  He joined AA.  Slowly his erratic behavior and thoughts found their place on a map larger than himself, and God placed a compass in his hand.

His first great outing as a disciple was to join a prison ministry team; it hurt his business, he began to lose his previous largess, but found a community of real friendship.  With time he has become one of the most joyful and helpful people that I know in the real lives that others live.

Over the years the telescope turned around, and today he is known first as a Christian, a friend, a fellow traveler and sufferer, someone who comes calling in the name of Christ, and someone who is called upon because of the name of Christ.  I believe that he would say that only now he is truly weightless.

He once said to me, “Alston, I have learned something . . . I found with Jesus that I have a lot more coming out than I had going in.”

John the Baptist is out in the Wilderness, out from Jerusalem, helping the people who are sick and tired of being sick and tired.  John the Baptist is not so much returning to his family roots, the priesthood of Zechariah and the collegium; rather John is going farther back, to the wilderness voices of Israel’s deep past. 

Going back to Elijah, Elisha, those who wander the land, eat the fruit of the land, dressed not in the finer and processed fiber of sheep’s wool, but rather the more common and coarse camel’s hair, fastened with leather belts.  It’s the life of the spiritually pure, dressed in the sturdy clothing of those who work the land and day-labor.  John will not wear the wool of a sheep, “the lamb’s tunic,” in order to proclaim the coming of the lamb of God.  It is a sign of his humility.

As said by Cyril of Jerusalem, “John fed on locusts to make his soul grow wings.”

John lives a simple life, and he brings a simple message: repentance, turning around, changing direction in life, because God is nearer now than ever before.  John brings a simple and powerful offering of reorientation, of personal/individual and collective transformation. 

Clearly, there must be some resonance to John’s message, because many folks from the Capital, from the Jerusalem area, are coming out to hear him.

And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

I like to think that John has a medicine for their weariness, their own frustration with being sick and tired; a medicine for their lack of honesty about themselves and one another that only God can give. 

I am reminded of something Fred Rogers, Mr. Rogers, once said, “Life is deep and simple, and what our society gives us is shallow and complicated.” The medicine for things shallow and complicated that John brings is “Metanoia.”  Repentance. 

That change in life’s direction, sometimes great, sometimes small, a reorientation that creates the shift in the flywheel of our actions, intentions, and affirmations – perhaps our self-understanding/identity, that will eventually send the entire vehicle of our lives in a new direction.  Occasionally, when enough of these adjustments are made in enough lives, even whole peoples and cultures might see a new direction as well.

That walk with Jesus where we find we have a lot more coming out that we had going in . . .Metamorphosis – transformation. 

However, this transformation is not a magic trick; it’s not even a new idea among ideas.  It is more like a death and a rebirth.  It is more like a deep cleansing that might come with the sting of cold water splashed in the face of our self-delusions; something like the way I braced for the vaccine earlier this week – bracing ourselves in the face of our mortality.

It is something like being pushed under the water, holding our breath, and coming up breathing again; yet in a new way with a new purpose. We are immersed as our old, familiar, well-tended and curated, selves . . . we arise as a child of God who now walks by another road.

 The fact that Jesus goes out from Jerusalem and offers himself to John the Baptist is confirmation that Jesus believes in John.  It is confirmation that Jesus recognizes and honors the medicine, the deliverance, the transformation – the repentance that John is offering to individuals and the people; a life of transformation – perhaps finding that we have more coming out that going in . . .

During the events of the past week in our country, I find myself asking the question and meditating upon this notion: why would I expect a nation, a population, a segment of a population, to spiritually awaken beyond a point that I have not embraced, or arrived at, myself?  It reminds me of the bumper sticker: Be the change you want to see in others. Or on this Feast of our Lord’s Baptism – Be the Repentance that you expect to see in others. 

The events of the past week are tragic for our shared citizenry; what occurred was wrong. 

The definitive explanation and interpretation of these events will become a new battleground; with various outposts of temporal and otherworldly righteousness established on any number of available high places.  Thus is the nature of human events; thus the nature of our shared humanity.  Hurt, bruised, offended, the various parties retreat to various corners of self-determination; either preparing for another battle, or perhaps finding that they too are sick and tired of being sick and tired.

One of the old Christians, Cyril of Jerusalem, used to liken repentance to a snake shedding its skin, “For every snake puts off its signs of age by pushing through some narrow place, and gets rid of its old apparel by squeezing it off” . . . and he was speaking of all who would deign walk in the name of Christ; we are the snakes shedding our skins. We must break with our old nature and put on the new.

However, we will not walk the path of Metanoia without remembering that we do not get to “have” God without also “having” our neighbor.  We are shedding our skins together.

We will not find a pathway, we will not go home by another road, until each citizen, Christian or otherwise, discovers the truth that our desires for the highest and best use of our liberties depends upon the integrity and safety of those with whom we disagree, giving voice to their own vision of what is highest and best.  If we cannot grow sick and tired of being sick and tired, together, we must be prepared to live in a long, never-ending version of what we witnessed on The Feast of Epiphany, 2021, when our fragile experiment in American liberty was briefly put in the balance of fate.  A visible and sad experience of shared humanity in need of John The Baptist’s transformational medicine.

 In our fallen world that is yet to be fully redeemed, Cain is killing Abel somewhere, every day, all of the time.  Without external intervention, so it may remain. 

However in a world in which the “bat quol,” the “daughter voice” of God is breaking through the heavens and alighting like a dove, there is a medicine from another time, another place, a medicine from the world that is to be, that is breaking through the clouds and saying, “Shuv, Metanoia, Repent, let’s go home by another road together.”  Even on Wednesday afternoon this past week, the voice of John the Baptist is crying out in the Wilderness, “Prepare the Way of the Lord, Make His paths straight.”

The voice of God is forever offering a path of redirection:

         “God opened the gates of heaven and sent down his Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, lighting upon the head of Jesus, pointing him out right there as the new Noah, even the maker of Noah, and the good pilot of the nature which is shipwrecked.”  – Gregory Thaumaturgus. 

In lives that are shipwrecked God sends Jesus as the good pilot.

 While our shared citizenship may feel like a beautiful piece of fabric that has been torn, or that is unable to cover all those who would seek shelter beneath her, our citizenship in heaven is intact; it will never be adjusted or abrogated by those whose who, for a season, manage the temporal affairs of state. 

Jesus’ baptism, our baptism, is a mark made in eternity; regardless of how the heathen doth rage.  Heaven speaks on behalf of our leader, our advocate, our guide; regardless of what is shouted in the streets by those protesting that they are sole arbiters of the national vision.

In times of national uncertainty, I find it necessary to recall the certainty of my citizenship in heaven; and our Lord’s command that we walk in that citizenship in such a way as not to become stumbling blocks to those who do not yet believe.  I believe that our Baptisms become our compass.

 Divine citizenship, collective transformation, personal repentance, standing with Jesus on the banks of the river Jordan, listening to John The Baptist, is something the vicissitudes of this world will never breach.  The truth that we read and pray today is a doorway from temporal realities into eternal verities. 

And the one who opens that door for us, Jesus who becomes the Messiah, is the one who stands at that door for every human being, every citizen; Jesus is the only leader of a world whose destiny is true freedom and liberty.

Borrowing the words of an old Christian, Hippolytus, “Listen to the Father’s voice: . . . “This is my Beloved Son,” yes, none other that the One who himself becomes hungry, yet feeds countless numbers. 

He is my Son who himself becomes weary, yet gives rest to the weary.  He has no place to lay his head, yet bears up all things in his hand. 

He suffers, yet heals sufferings.  He is beaten, yet confers liberty upon the world.  He is pierced in his side, yet repairs the side of Adam.”

If it is “freedom” that we seek for ourselves and others, there is a leader, a “cause,” by which to find it; and He is standing on the banks of the Jordan River listening to John the Baptist offer the words of repentance and transformation in Baptism.

There is a story about the funeral of Leonid Brezhnev, the General Secretary of Communist Party from 1964 until his death in 1982.  The Cold War. Vice President, George Bush represented the U.S. at the funeral of Brezhnev. Bush was deeply moved by something he saw there. 

We must remember that Communist Russia during that time was very clearly atheist, secular, utterly convinced that religious realities were not simply foolish, but that they were dangerous – opiates of the people.  Being religious meant being a self-declared enemy of the State.  After a few generations of party rule, any form of religious expression, either collectively or individually, had become anathema and the invitation to suffering at the hands of “those who knew best.”

Brezhnev’s widow stood motionless by the coffin until seconds before it was closed.  Then, just as the soldiers touched the lid, Brezhnev’s wife reached down and made the sign of the cross on her husband’s chest.

She took a risk and offered her silent prayer in the last moment that she would be able to touch her husband.  She made the sign that we will make on the bodies of our own children; the sign that has been made upon us.  It is the sign of the promise.  It is the sign of the everlasting covenant. 

It is the sign I make on the forehead of baby before saying the old and true words:  “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and you are marked as Christ’s own forever.”

Please stand with me as we reaffirm our own Baptismal Covenant.

The Baptismal Covenant: Page 304

The Baptismal Covenant

CelebrantDo you believe in God the Father?
PeopleI believe in God, the Father almighty,
    creator of heaven and earth.
 
CelebrantDo you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
PeopleI believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
    He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
        and born of the Virgin Mary.
    He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
        was crucified, died, and was buried.
    He descended to the dead.
    On the third day he rose again.
    He ascended into heaven,
        and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
    He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
 
CelebrantDo you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
PeopleI believe in the Holy Spirit,
    the holy catholic Church,
    the communion of saints,
    the forgiveness of sins,
    the resurrection of the body,
    and the life everlasting.
 
CelebrantWill you continue in the apostles’ teaching and
fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the
prayers?
PeopleI will, with God’s help.
 
CelebrantWill you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever
you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
PeopleI will, with God’s help.
CelebrantWill you proclaim by word and example the Good
News of God in Christ?
PeopleI will, with God’s help.
 
CelebrantWill you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
your neighbor as yourself?
PeopleI will, with God’s help.
 
CelebrantWill you strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity of every human
being?
PeopleI will, with God’s help.

Emmanuel – Takes One to know one

The Story of the Nativity: Christmas Paintings by Illustrator Michael Dudash

Fifty years ago on this very night, John McCain was a prisoner of war in Viet Nam.  During the 2008 presidential race, John McCain was asked by Time magazine to share his “personal journey of faith.” In his article McCain shared a powerful story of something that occurred while he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam:

“When I was a prisoner of war in Vietnam…my captors would tie my arms behind my back and then loop the rope around my neck and ankles so that my head was pulled down between my knees. I was often left like that throughout the night. One night a guard came into my cell. He put his finger to his lips signaling for me to be quiet and then loosened my ropes to relieve my pain. The next morning, when his shift ended, the guard returned and retightened the ropes, never saying a word to me.

A month or so later, on Christmas Day, I was standing in the dirt courtyard when I saw that same guard approach me. He walked up and stood silently next to me, not looking or smiling at me. Then he used his sandaled foot to draw a cross in the dirt. We stood wordlessly looking at the cross, remembering the true light of Christmas, even in the darkness of a Vietnamese prison camp.”  {Found on Christianity Today website}

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light . . . Those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.” – Isaiah.

Perhaps you find yourself wondering why you are here tonight.  Perhaps  you are moving beneath a cloud tonight.  Perhaps you wonder about yourself and God.  Be comforted; God’s story also begins with shadows and questions and fear and uncertainty.

I suppose there were many questions on this journey from Nazareth.

The makers of history are on the move; Emperor Augustus has placed himself at the center of the world issuing decrees.  Augustus is a Caesar, a master of all that he surveys.  He pulls the great levers of power.

In the ancient world some men were considered gods.  And some men considered themselves God.  In fact, today in Rome, there is an old crumbling stone.  It reads, “The birthday of the god has marked the beginning of the good news of the world.”

This stone does not celebrate the birth we celebrate tonight; rather this stone was raised by Roman senators celebrating the Pax Augustus, the great peace and prosperity brought about during the reign of Emperor Augustus.

The irony is that we don’t remember this Emperor because we are grateful for the peace that he secured for a political season.  The irony is that the living God is about to draw back the curtain on the imposters.  The irony is that we remember the Emperor because we celebrate a homeless child born on the edge of his empire. 

The would-be makers of history actually become the footnotes in the history written by God.  A sliver of light and beauty peeking through the empire’s armor.

At the feet of the winner, on the corner of his empire, where the great and powerful might feed their horses, in the forgotten place, a small corner of hay, grain, and dung, the unseen hand of heaven is very gently nudging the world. 

It is there that the unseen Mover – moves . . . and no one is really paying attention; no one is living with the appropriate situational awareness.

God delivers a Messiah who is not of the world’s own choosing; God comes to us as a child, so that we might learn how to become his children.  Out of the Father’s heart, this gift – while one man, an Emperor, is trying to wrap his arms around the world, and the other is coming to rule the world by being placed helplessly in its arms.

This baby is a “feather on the breath of God” in the words of Hildegard de Bingen.  He is a light and song at the feet of the world’s darkness and the decrees of the mighty.  For any who cannot or will not see God’s love, He will be the face of love;  he is the hand and feet for those who falling down through the cracks; he is the heart that breaks when our hearts grow cold; he shares tears with those who find that their tears are too heavy and too costly to give.

Being born and lying in the tiniest corner of the world, He is the gift that we cannot give to ourselves.  God has come for me, and for you, with the tiniest sliver of hope, light, beauty, and truth into a world covered in shadows.

Our Lord came down from life to suffer death;
the Bread came down, to hunger;
the Way came down, on the way to weariness;
the Fount came down, to thirst.
—Augustine, Sermon 78

At Christmas time there is a story that Paul Harvey used to share:

The man to whom I’m going to introduce you was not a scrooge, he was a kind decent, mostly good man. Generous to his family, upright in his dealings with other men. But he just didn’t believe all that incarnation stuff which the churches proclaim at Christmas Time. It just didn’t make sense and he was too honest to pretend otherwise. He just couldn’t swallow the Jesus Story, about God coming to Earth as a man.

“I’m truly sorry to distress you,” he told his wife, “but I’m not going with you to church this Christmas Eve.” He said he’d feel like a hypocrite. That he’d much rather just stay at home, but that he would wait up for them. And so he stayed and they went to the midnight service.

Shortly after the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier and then went back to his fireside chair and began to read his newspaper. Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound…Then another, and then another. Sort of a thump or a thud…At first he thought someone must be throwing snowballs against his living room window. But when he went to the front door to investigate he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They’d been caught in the storm and, in a desperate search for shelter, had tried to fly through his large landscape window.

Well, he couldn’t let the poor creatures lie there and freeze, so he remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony. That would provide a warm shelter, if he could direct the birds to it.

Quickly he put on a coat, galoshes, tramped through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the doors wide and turned on a light, but the birds did not come in. He figured food would entice them in. So he hurried back to the house, fetched bread crumbs, sprinkled them on the snow, making a trail to the yellow-lighted wide open doorway of the stable. But to his dismay, the birds ignored the bread crumbs, and continued to flap around helplessly in the snow. He tried catching them…He tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them waving his arms…Instead, they scattered in every direction, except into the warm, lighted barn.

And then, he realized that they were afraid of him. To them, he reasoned, I am a strange and terrifying creature. If only I could think of some way to let them know that they can trust me…That I am not trying to hurt them, but to help them. But how? Because any move he made tended to frighten them, confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be led or shooed because they feared him.

If only I could be a bird,” he thought to himself, “and mingle with them and speak their language. Then I could tell them not to be afraid. Then I could show them the way to safe, warm…to the safe warm barn. But I would have to be one of them so they could see, and hear and understand.”

At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sounds of the wind. And he stood there listening to the bells – Adeste Fidelis – O Come all Ye Faithful – listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas.

And he sank to his knees in the snow and opened his heart.

Emmanuel.  God is with us . . . forever.

William Faulkner and Holy Living and Holy Dying

Since we stay not here, being people but of a day’s abode, and our age is like that of a fly and contemporary with a gourd, we must look somewhere else for an abiding city, a place in another country to fix our house in, whose walls and foundation is God, where we must find rest, or else be restless for ever . . . we must carry up our affections to the mansions prepared for us above, where eternity is the measure, felicity is the state, angels are the company, the Lamb is the light, and God is the portion and inheritance.

  • Jeremy Taylor, Holy Dying {1651}

I cannot recall the time or the place, but I remember either being told or reading that William Faulkner kept two books by his bedside through most of his life – “The Book of Common Prayer,” and “Holy Living” and “Holy Dying,” by Jeremy Taylor.  Faulkner has been a companion in The Way for most of my life.  I remember sitting in my apartment in Burlington, Vermont while in college and reading “Absalom! Absolom!” in one sitting; beginning early in the morning and finishing late in the night.  The story of Shreve McCaslin and his family, told in the freezing Harvard dorm room of a New England Winter, in some mysterious way haunting my own apartment at the University of Vermont.  My grandmother told me stories of the young Bill Faulkner coming to Memphis from Oxford, his sitting barefoot on the porch of my great-great uncle, Clarence Ogilvie, having drinks on long summer evenings.  Generally I find a theological yearning in Faulkner’s characters; especially white Southerners haunted by a slippery, and mildly odiferous, Confederate mythos that was something like dreaming the dream of a dream. 

I remember seeing a photograph of one of my most beloved Bishops, the Right Reverend Duncan M. Gray, as a young man, standing as a priest over Faulkner’s grave giving the words of the Committal from the Book of Common Prayer.  Bishop Gray had been the Rector of St. Peter’s Oxford prior to become Bishop of Mississippi.

These days I read Jeremy Taylor far more than I read Faulkner.  The Anglican Divines are worthy guides from one world to another; and I sense the drawing near of a shore that was once distant.  Every day we come closer to the “something” for which we all search in this life.  While William Faulkner kept Jeremy Taylor beside his bed at night, during the day he wrote, he drank, he kept up a kind of “run-down” Virginia-Mississippi operation as a country gentlemen at Rowan Oak, in between the hours he was writing extraordinary literature that may have been as much serendipity as effort.  I am trying to be like the man in the photograph, who is standing over Faulkner’s grave reading from the other book that Faulkner kept by his bedside.  Both of us need good and boon companions like Jeremy Taylor, a guide from cradle to grave, until we are reunited on the other shore; where there will be a porch swing, a man named Clarence, and ice in glasses on a long summer afternoon in Memphis. 

Just thoughts and asides.

Blessings and Godspeed.