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The Darkness Did Not Overcome It.

I have a confession to make to you, as I begin this sermon. Over the last week or so as I thought about this text, I had mis-remembered a crucial line. Here is what I was planning on preaching about: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness COULD not overcome it.” Could not.

Then, as I sat down to set down my notes, I re-read the text, and I saw the crucial difference: did. “The darkness DID not overcome” the light.

Well, that’s a different sermon, I thought to myself. The darkness did not overcome the light.

Often, as I was preparing to do in my earlier draft of this sermon, we like to split things into either/or, darkness/light, right/wrong. We set up little contests, or big fights. We live in a digital world, and sometimes I wonder if all of the on or off, this or that, has us playing a zero sum game. We polarize easily today.

The Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr says that we are dualistic in our basic inherited theology in the West. That’s what he calls this either/or us vs. them tension we seem to constantly live with: dualism. We set ourself up in opposition, in tension. He argues this causes some of the basic inequities we’ve constructed. When we view the world, especially the people of the world, as us vs. them, we set up a dualism. Women or men. Black or white. Gay or Straight. Republican or Democrat. We have created a lot of “or”s to categorize people. And our categories are failing us.

Which is why this image of the light shining in the darkness caught my attention. The darkness did not overcome it.

What is this light that shines?

The light is John’s version of the Christmas story. Rather than the shepherds and angels of Luke, the beautiful Hallmark/Disney  Christmas, John gives us a theological hymn. Aren’t Hymns some of the best of theology? Aren’t they also sometimes the worst? In this case, the Logos hymn, it’s some of the best. But what does the Logos do?

The Logos Generates. You may have missed this word in the passage as it was printed in your bulletin, because it is not there. Our New Revised Standard Bible translates the Greek word “ginomai” the root for our word “to generate” as “came into being.” I think we are better served by the fullness of the verb “generates.” In the Beginning, John tells us, the Logos was with God and through the Logos all things were generated.

This verb, generates discloses something about the life of God. God is constantly generative. Bring to your mind another descendant word, generator. According to John, the ongoing action, the ongoing work of God in our world is generating, giving power, giving life to all life. All life, note that God does not simply bring human beings into being. God, the Logos, continues to bring all things into being. Unlike our power generators which belch out carbon and limit the life of the planet, God generates ongoing life.

This verb, I posit, may be the best guiding light in determining whether a policy, or a position, or an action is Godly, is Christian. Pope Francis, I think, gets this intuitively. He has mostly left behind the life-sapping fights that have characterized the Roman Church. He has frustrated reporters that want hard-line statements on women, gay people, or non-Catholics. Instead he is busy embracing deformed men, washing Muslim girls’ feet, and playing with children. He’s generating life.

Of course using “generating life” as a guide can get tricky. There are moments when no decision will generate life, but I think this is a pretty good measuring stick. If an action or policy generates life for more people, for more creatures, for the planet, that action could be called “Christian” or “Godly” because it participate in Christ’s action as Logos.

God generates, life and light. But that does not necessarily mean that God is not also in the darkness. From the seventeenth century poet Henry Vaughn:

There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear.
O for that night! where I in Him
Might live invisible and dim!

We often associate darkness with loss, with sadness, with difficulty. We talk about the “dark night of the soul” using the words of the Spanish mystic John of the Cross. But do we know what the dark night means?

In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, the Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor considers John of the Cross’ dark night. She says readers of Dark Night of the Soul are bound to be disappointed if they want John to tell them how to survive hard circumstances and cling to God. “One of the central functions of the dark night, he says, is to convince those who grasp after things that God cannot be grasped…since God is not a thing, God cannot be held on to. God can only be encountered as that which eclipses the reality of all other things.”

I wonder whether this image from John’s Gospel of the light shining in the darkness is less about opposition and more about contrast. A candle shining in the darkness is more poignant that the same flame on a bright sunny day. Light and darkness need one another to make meaning. Christ’s light came to shine, but not to overwhelm.

Last week, on Christmas Eve we lit candles during the services and sang “Silent Night.” Those weren’t the only candles lit at Holy Communion on December 24. There’s a not-well-kept secret in Episcopal Churches like Holy Communion. Almost every service we have is at least a little interfaith. Some of the members of our choir are Jewish. Jews come here just to sing hymns, especially at Christmas. The Anglican choral tradition has admirers in other faiths. They may choose not to receive the bread and wine, but they are more than happy to belt out Christmas carols and descants.

Last week, on Christmas Eve, as the choir and clergy gathered for dinner between the services, two of our choir members lit the first candles on a menorah and sang the blessings of Hanukkah. This year Christmas Eve was the first night of the Jewish celebration of light. That day earlier a rabbi friend, Jack Moline, was quoted in the Washington Post. “Lighting a candle in the darkness — that is something that stands on its own.” Another rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, once said that almost all Jewish holidays can be summarized simply: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.” Note, the goal is not conquering or eliminating the enemy. The goal is survival.

“A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” I was ready, as I was preparing this sermon, to talk about all the ways darkness could not overcome light. Now I’m not so sure. We face the start of a year that brings certain unsteadiness. I am less sure about saying exactly where “darkness CANNOT overcome light.” I am concerned about setting up too many definite opposites this early in the year. In the times to come, I think we need some more room for nuance, which may mean feeling like we’re stumbling around in the dark a little. We may need to let go of our assurances to move forward.

I am sure that in the year to come, we will stand together. We will light candles together, when we need to. Just as in 2016 we lit candles to pray for an end to gun violence with the Moms Demanding Action, to pray for an end to gun violence. Holding light in the dark is an action of hope.

One memory from 2016 stands out clearly for me. In my mind’s eye I can still see the crowd that came together on June 12 last year in the Grove. As the summer sun set the night after the attack on the Pulse Nightclub you could see 1000 faces lit by candles held against the dimming orange sky. I needed those faces that night. I needed those candles. I needed the assurance, after an attack on the LGBT community, that God’s light can still shine. In the year to come we will hold on to light in the darkness. We will pray.

There are times when we live in darkness. God can be found there in the darkness as well. Bringing the contrast, bringing light in uncertainty, that is part of our ongoing work, our ongoing celebration of this Christmas season. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Sometimes I’m still working out what the Gospel means, but even in uncertain times I know: God’s light still shines.

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Christmas: The Beloved Contradiction

Christmas comes as a beloved contradiction: God comes not to the protected center, but to the edge. Once in Royal David’s City, stood a lowly cattle shed. This very Victorian carol captures the tension. The Royal City holds a place so humble, and God’s power chooses to enter there. The back and forth can seem extreme on Christmas. The hymns we sing swing wide with our emotions. We jump between the quiet of Silent Night and the blasting trumpets of Joy to the World. Christmas comes to our ears as a contradiction, yet, we love the tension. We come to this service with anticipation to hear once more the message of the angels, to sing these hymns and splendid descants. We celebrate that the full glory of God enters the most humble of human circumstances. What a contradiction.

As I prepared to preach this night, I was stopped in the first verse of our Gospel by the character Augustus. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus, that all the world should be registered.” Caesar Augustus was great-nephew of Julius Caesar, and his adopted heir. Augustus is considered Rome’s first Emperor. Augustus’ rule marks the end of the Roman Republic. He was famed as a builder of roads and cities. Augustus himself joked that when he rose to power “I found [Rome] brick. I left it marble.” As the adopted son of Julius Ceasar, he was given the title “Son of God.” Augustus was a fitting name, at least in the emperor’s own mind.

Coating your capital in marble is expensive, so the Emperor declared a tax. That is how the King James Bible translates this first verse of Luke’s second chapter. “a decree went out…that all the world should be taxed.” Augustus registered and taxed the whole known world. And so Mary and Joseph make their way to Bethlehem, to Royal David’s city and find themselves at the manger with their new son. God appears in human history, not in the halls of centralized power, but on the edge of civilization, surrounded by a motley crew of shepherds.

Luke likely included this story in part, to give us some exposition. When did these things take place? In the reign of the first Roman emperor. Surely you’ve heard of him. Jesus’ contemporaries knew that the wider world would need a sense of context. The preacher William Sloane Coffin once said that If you took a gallup poll there is no question which figure would have been estimated more significant: The august emperor or Jesus, the baby in the manger.  And yet what a sign of hope for humanity: While the marble of Rome lays in ruin, here we are this night, celebrating Jesus’ birth.

Christmas contradicts human logic. Allan Rohan Crite, the famed black Episcopalian artist’s image of the Mary and Jesus is on the cover of your bulletin. Crite captures the contradiction well. Mary and Jesus are drawn with curves and ovals, the soft center in the midst of the hard ramshackle lines forming the city around them. Crite’s is not a traditional nativity scene, no mighty angels, no peaceful snowy fields, no bright star. In the image on your bulletin, the angels give way to the humble stoop in a rough neighborhood. But even there mother and child share a loving gaze. God incarnate is held by Mary on the edge of town, in the dangerous street.

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The story we tell this night is not far off the artist’s rendition. Jesus is not born in the Royal Hospital. God comes in flesh, not in the Imperial palace of Rome, or even in the provincial capital in Jerusalem. God comes on the edge, on the edge of the edge, the margin of the margin, and still there is no room.

One of the most meaningful liturgies for Christmas I’ve ever attended involved a long walk. A decade ago I was living in San Diego, California. A college friend invited me to the Border Posadas. Church groups from San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico were to meet on either side of the border fence, just a few yards from the Pacific Ocean. The Posadas celebration comes from Latin America. Traditionally a procession forms, moving from house to house. The people, like Mary and Joseph, ask for room in the Inn. They are turned down at house after house, and so the procession continues until it comes to the designated home, or to the church, where at last they are given room and the party begins.

That December the air was cold, well, cold for California. The Border Patrol, in a measure of crowd control, locked down the parking lot nearest the border fence. So those of us who wanted to participate had to walk about a mile on the sandy beach paths down to the fence. Some of our fellow travelers were filled with anticipation. There, on either side of the fence, they planned to reunite with family members. Because their immigration status might be in question, or their loved onemight lack a visa, crossing the border was out of the question this Christmas. These folks trudged through the sand with smiles and little gifts to pass through the fence, if they could sneak them past the guards. When we arrived, we sang Christmas Carols in English and Spanish. We read Scripture. We prayed, one congregation, separated by the border. Hearing the refrain “there is no room” up against that menacing fence, made the contradicting message of our story all the more poignant. Humans failed to make room for their creator. In the words of John’s Gospel: “[Christ’s] own people failed to recognize him.”

Mary and Joseph didn’t choose their journey, following Luke’s story. The Emperor Augustus’ decree meant they were forced to travel. The registry was required. Mary was heavy with child, and the journey could not have been easy.

On a clear day today, you can see the edge of Bethlehem from the hills of Jerusalem. Royal David’s City is made visible by the huge border fence constructed by the modern State of Israel. Bethlehem is Palestinian territory. During my pilgrimage we crossed over to see the Church of the Nativity. The journey reminded me of my trips to the US/Mexico border. The guards in Israel wore similar uniforms to US Border patrol, and they carried almost identical weapons. You have to go beyond the guards, beyond the wall, to find the place where Jesus was born.

Leaving behind a sense of safety can feel like a contradiction. In my travels I have passed by border patrol agents and militarized walls, barriers built to keep people like me safe, I have thought in my gut “Would my mother really want me to leave this cordoned safety?” (I’ve talked with her since, and her response is mixed).

In the midst of this contradiction, on the edge of the respectable, outside the centers of power, Christ comes. God comes to us. Emmanuel, God is with us, in the most dire of human circumstances. This is good news.

Out on the edges, out beyond what we can control, in circumstances that Mary and Joseph surely did not choose, Jesus was born. Tonight, thousands of years later, we celebrate the Love of God coming to transform our world, to transform our lives. And in Scripture we hear once more the message of the Angels, a message which can feel like a contradiction: God comes to the edge.

As a priest, I’m privileged to spend some edgy moments with folks. I’m invited to stand by hospital beds, and to negotiate with landlords who have handed out an eviction notice. Parishioners ask me to walk with them in protests, and to pray with them after a loved one has died. Those of us who are clergy are privileged stand as witnesses as God continues to come to the edges of human life. When we are at our worst is often when God breaks through.

I have also had the privilege to witness those “creative edges” that change life. I’ve celebrated with entrepreneurs as a little side project became a full time job. I’ve walked with folks as an unexpected friendship blossomed into romance. I have witnessed vows to “love, honor, and cherish” a spouse. I’ve seen college students discover a passion and launch into a career. Often the moments of clarity come not in the carefully controlled center of our lives, but out on the creative edges. The edges are God’s territory.

And so this night, we wait silently. We light candles against the dark. We stand as witnesses to the persistent work of God, the continued blessing of the edges of life, even this year, especially this year. And this night, we shout loud hosannas. We proclaim with all our might “Joy to the World. The Lord has come.” Tonight we embrace the mystery of Christmas. We celebrate a contradiction we may never fully comprehend: God loves us, and God comes to redeem us from our own sense of control. Merry Christmas. Amen.

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Advent: Are You Prepared?

Are you prepared? This week I caught myself saying, “Christmas is coming like a freight train.” Does that feel true for you? Exams to finish? Papers to grade? Food to prepare? Gifts to buy? Family coming to town? Therapy appointments to schedule to deal with the family coming to town? It is a busy season. Are you prepared?

A decade or so ago, I heard one of my theological heroes talk at my alma mater, The University of San Diego. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Friar of the Order of Preachers, is a tiny little Peruvian man. You’ve heard me say this before, but I’ve noticed that many holy people are very short. Mother Teresa was five feet. Desmond Tutu is tiny. Gustavo Gutierrez is short in stature, but he’s a theological giant. He’s the father of Latin American Liberation Theology.

The speech I heard him give was around this time of year, in great Shiley auditorium. He made many fine points about God’s preferential option for the poor, about Scripture’s attention to the least and the lost. But for me the speech culminated when he talked about what he called the defining prayer of our culture. Our defining prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven, stay there.” Stay there! We’ve got this handled.

I think he was right to say this is the defining prayer of our culture. We live a society that is more technologically advanced, more militarily dominant, more economically resourced than any society ever, in all of earth’s history. It can feel like we have “it” handled.

And it can feel like it is our job to get “it” together at Christmas. It can feel like if we just wait in one more line at Target, if we just get to the gym one more time to work off the holiday pounds, if we can just get the house cleaned before my mother arrives, we will have it together. We will be prepared for Christmas. It can feel like if we just get that one thing done…

But that’s NOT the point of Advent. That’s not the point of this season of preparation. It’s not.

Christmas isn’t about us having the details ironed out. Christmas is the celebration of God’s biggest invasion of our privacy: the coming of Jesus.

God’s work in Jesus, from the very beginning, is an inconvenience to human plans. In the stories of Mary and Joseph hearing from the angels, they are shocked. Mary and Joseph didn’t plan for this. You don’t plan for unexpected pregnancies. They eventually find the blessing in the disruption, but it takes awhile. It’s a long road to Bethlehem. The stories of Advent can feel like a cascading avalanche of dashed hopes, of ruined expectations. We’re not prepared for God’s entrance into our world, into our lives. We never are.

That’s the beauty. God isn’t waiting for you to be ready. God doesn’t need you to have your act together. God is showing up whether or not you have the presents wrapped and the ham out of the oven. God is always already coming to you.

You’re work is deceptively simple. Get quiet. Wait for the Lord. Be still, as the psalms say. “Be still and know that I am God.”

In the midst of all the rush, can you make room for stillness? In the midst of all our cultures preparing, can you quiet yourself down? Can you wait with hope?

Many of you know that I spent my first years as a priest serving with a Spanish language congregation. Advent sermons are a little easier in Spanish. Wait and hope are the same word: “Esperar.” And the word rhymes well with another good word for Advent: “Respirar.” Breathe.

Slow down and breathe. God is coming. Ready or not, God is coming.

So why slow down? Why breathe? Is this just one more thing on my to-do list? Make room to be quiet. Do I need to add that to my calendar too?

Well, yes, and no. As he worked for the liberation of El Salvador’s poor, and interviewer asked Archbishop Oscar Romero how he made time for an hour of prayer every day. They said, “you are so busy. You have so much work to do.” He said, yes, “on the busy days I need two hours.” We’re not all saintly archbishops. Two hours, an hour, that’s a high standard. Maybe start with five minutes. Work your way to twenty. Then give me a call. The point of the story isn’t the amount of time, it is the practice of taking time. Romero realized that to be fully present to his people, to live into God’s calling, he needed quiet time. He needed space to reflect and to listen, to slow down and be with God.

In Advent, it can seem like the stakes are high. Family members have expectations about what is served at dinner. Kids have expectations about what the gifts they will receive. Let it go. That’s not where the stakes really are. Too often in life we let unimportant expectations set us up for emotional drama. We want something specific under the tree, on the table. Let it go. What if we came together this holiday season with no expectations? What would that Christmas gathering look like?

What if we let go of our small expectations, and looked at the real stakes?

Advent is a season of prophets. Isaiah for two weeks has been speaking about wolves lying down with lambs. He puts forth this incredible vision of God’s Holy Mountain as a place of safety, of strength, of health. Jesus tells John the Baptist’s followers to relate to their leader the story of the blind seeing, the dead being raised. The prophets remind us that the stakes are higher than working Christmas lights.

The stakes are high, but we often use the wrong measuring sticks. God’s vision is one of health, of wholeness, of justice for all creation. God’s vision for humanity is not some postcard of snowflakes and a family gathered around a table, with a goose. In God’s vision we’re all vegetarians anyway (check Isaiah last week, the lion was eating grass like on ox). God would have us involved in the building of God’s kingdom.

In John’s Gospel, chapter 10, Jesus says “I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” I came that you might have LIFE. He uses the plural “you” which our presiding Bishop from North Carolina translates as “all y’all.” Jesus came, God came into our world, to bring health and wholeness to EVERYONE, to the whole planet.

The central image of Isaiah’s prophecy today is the desert blooming. Now, I know that most of you grew up here in the midwest. This is a place that doesn’t lack for water, which means that we also don’t lack for vegetation. All year round something is growing, something is blooming. Let me tell you, my sinuses know. Missouri is fertile territory. In this state, it is always green somewhere. The desert is different.

Most of the year the desert is dry, brown, quiet. But have you ever been in the desert in the springtime? It’s unbelievable. Stretches of parched sand become fields of flowers seemingly overnight. I remember driving through Joshua Tree California one Spring when I was in college and being stunned silent, overwhelmed by the colors. “The desert shall rejoice” Isaiah tells us. The least expected terrain can show God’s blessing most vibrantly.

There are desert places in our world, countries where people are fleeing violence, where hope is hard to find. There are neighborhoods in this city that are deserts, where healthy food is hard to find and violence comes to easily. There are desert places in our lives, projects set aside, dreams differed, relationships left fallow. Can we be quiet enough to let God show us the blessing that is possible? Can we quiet our own small expectations enough to hear the still small voice of God, presenting us with abundance?

I began by asking, are you prepared? Let me conclude by asking: why are you preparing? What are you preparing for? I think all of us, this preacher included, could use a dose of prophecy. We all need a reminder from time to time that we are not in charge. We need to pray, but we need to let go of the prayer of our culture. We need to let go of the busy, commercial, culturally loaded preparation. Let it go. Advent is a time to realize that we don’t have things together. God does not need us to hang the tinsel. We need to pray: “Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be they name. THY KINGDOM COME.”