The Mystery of Love: Where does this Story Take Place?

May I be the first to officially wish you a Merry Christmas. Whatever brought you to Holy Communion this evening, we are glad that you are here. Some of you are here because your parents made you come. That’s a good thing. It’s good to build up political capital at home. You might need it later. Some of you are here because a sibling asked you to hear them sing in the choir. Some of you are here because it is Christmas, and you are wandering, and perhaps you feel a little awkward. That’s okay. Whatever your emotional state, whether you are here ready to sing “Joy to the World,” or whether the quiet of “Silent Night” is more your tune; You are welcome. Whatever brought you here tonight, welcome. We’re glad you are here. Merry Christmas.

We know this story so well. Mary, Joseph, the Angels and Shepherds. Versions of the nativity have been painted on the windows of shops for weeks. Grandma’s creche might have been carefully unwrapped from ancient tissue paper before being set up on the mantel. Earlier tonight a diverse array of children presented our annual Christmas pageant, telling the story once more. We’ve heard and held, we’ve acted this story. We’ve sung the story. We know this story. This night I want to ask one question to all you experts on the Nativity. “Where?”

Where does this story take place?

I think the answer to that question has the power to unlock the mystery of Christmas, the mystery of Love come among us.

Where does this story take place?

Tonight I want to examine just two facets of that question, the socio-geographical and the personal.

The Social Geography of Christmas

Of course the immediate geographic answer is right there in the text: “in Bethlehem of Judea,” the city of David, the house of bread. We could point to the place on a map. But since we know this story. I want to push the question a little more. The strata of this location and its meaning, the layers, run deep.

Bethlehem today is a sort of Palestinian suburb of Jerusalem, walled off from Israel, guarded by checkpoints and high walls, razor wire. In the time of Jesus Bethlehem was a farming and ranching community outside the provincial capital. An easy day’s journey from the seat of power, it was at the edges, not the center of society.

In the story we’ll read in a couple of weeks, at the end of the Christmas season, the supposedly wise men get lost on their way to Bethlehem. They’re looking for a king, and so they turn right when they see the palaces and temples in Jerusalem. They wouldn’t think to look among the little houses and huts of Bethlehem.

Location mattered in the time of Jesus, more perhaps than ever before in human history. Emperor Augustus, who in our text has declared that all the world should be registered, his star has risen in Rome. Augustus was a new kind of ruler, considered the first emperor, he transformed the Roman Republic into a monarchy. Augustus also created a new form of religion: emperor worship. He was not just the king of the known world. Augustus fancied himself divine. He required worship. He raised taxes on the poor to convert his capital into a marble coated shrine to his deity. Thanks to the emperor, all the world would be oriented toward Rome.

Provincial capitals, like Jerusalem, the seats of governors and client kings, were to reflect the glory of Rome, the power of the emperor. In a province like Syria-Palestine, far from the center, the reflection might be a bit shabby, but it was clear where power resided, and in which direction the local ruler pointed. If all roads led to Rome, Bethlehem was little more than a truck stop. Notice, Jesus isn’t even born in the center of the lesser town. No, there is no room, noteven in Bethlehem.

Tuesday this past week found me in a laundromat, along with a number of volunteers from Holy Communion. Six months ago, a team from our church launched a new ministry, “Laundry Love.” Every third Tuesday, we gather to build community in the Classic Coin laundromat. We pay for laundry, provide childcare and a little food. We also hope to engage neighbors in conversation, and laughter. Anyone is welcome to volunteer, or to come do laundry. We hope to take perhaps one of the worst chores, and make it fun. We also hope to help lighten the burden a little on families making hard economic decisions in our neighborhood.

This week, as I surveyed the washers and dryers, and the crowd of volunteers, I thought, maybe this is where Jesus would have been born today. A laundromat would be a warm place to stop if there was no room at the inn. I could see Jesus laid in a laundry basket, carefully surrounded by warm towels given by grannies who have spent their last quarters on the dryer.

Where could you imagine this story taking place today? Where does God act? Often far from the halls of power, among the least likely people, at the edge of the edge. While the king would have us all worship him, while those in power build gold palaces, the King of kings is born in such an unlikely and out of the way place and is celebrated by all the wrong people.

The mystery of God’s love is not centered where human systems of power would suspect. God’s love does not emanate from Rome or Washington. God’s love does not trickle down from on high. God’s love is born among the shepherds and the vulnerable. That is the story we celebrate tonight. God’s love comes among us and lifts up the lowly, the unacknowledged, the unheard. That is where God’s love is born.

The Personal Geography of Christmas

I’ve already started leaning toward the second dimension of my question for Christmas:

Where does this story take place?

This second dimension is personal: Where does this story take place for you?

Where does this story take place for you? Maybe I could ask that question differently: Where was your “best” Christmas?

I suspect for most everyone, save maybe the angels and shepherds from tonight’s pageants, the question takes us back in time. We remember a Christmas past with fondness. I would caution that these memories have the tendency to get polished by age. We remember past Christmases better than we may have experienced them in the moment. This capacity we have to look back across years and geography, to remember the Christmases past, can produce as special kind of longing.

If you are longing this Christmas, if you are missing loved ones, or you are just longing for the Christmas spirit, as you once believe you knew the spirit, know that longing can be a blessing. Longing itself can help us search for where this story takes place.

Brother Thomas Matus of the Camaldolese has written about the nature of faith, of religion. In the diaries from his travels to visit one of his order’s monasteries in India you learn that brother Thomas isn’t the world’s most traditional monk. As a young man in California, before he became a Christian, he was initiated in an Hindu order. It’s a very Californian story: a young white man first becomes Hindu, then converts to Catholicism. But Brother Thomas eventually joined the Camaldolese Catholic monks, an order with a monastery in India. Visiting the country connected the two parts of his spiritual journey. In India he finds a question central to all religions:

Which direction should I bow?

Which direction?

All religions are directional. They all point toward God. There’s a reason we often talk about a “spiritual journey.” Faith is an orientation.

If tonight you find yourself longing, you are in a place to begin the journey, to begin walking. It brings us back to the original question: Where? Which direction?

Tonight, for followers of Christ, the shepherds know the answer: Bow to the stable. Head toward that most unlikely place where God’s love chose to dwell. Bow to the vulnerable little child entrusted to an unwed girl, still too young. Bow to that manger on the margins, off the road, outside the center, in that antic cold and frustrated night. There, where you’d least expect it, God’s presence can be found.

What if the “where” of this story is exactly the question we need this Christmas? What if all of our worries about the fate of the world, the state of our own lives, could be relieved? What if instead of looking for answers to come from the elite, the empowered, we turned down a different road? What if the power to change the world was in the hands of the most unlikely  people?

Where does this story take place? The answer is more complex and beautiful the harder you look. For in the end the story can take place only in the hearts of all those who long for God. The love of God comes among us, yes even us. The answer to the question is up to you. Where will this story take place for you this Christmas?


True Religion

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.  (BCP 233)

I just read for you again the prayer from the beginning of our service, the Collect. We pray one of this short prayers at each service on Sunday morning. The Collect helps us transition from getting here to being here, and introduces the Scriptures we are about to hear. Most of these short prayers are thousands of years old, like the one we heard today, and many of them bear the stamp of their first translator into English, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, like the one we heard today.

Cranmer was a poet, and a contemplative. He believed in the power of language to move the soul. For thousands of years, the priests had intoned the earlier version of this prayer in Latin. They asked God simply “to increase in us religion.” Cranmer added the word “true.” Thomas was Archbishop during the time of the Reformation, when there were several competing religions. He thought: “We might need to specify. Increase in us true religion.”

This prayer holds the genius of the poet. Because it makes us ask, what is TRUE religion? Cranmer wants you to wrestle, to pray for TRUE religion.

True religion doesn’t come easily. Take a look at Moses.

Now, you have to know where Moses finds himself for this story to make sense. Moses was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter last week, pulled out of the river in the basket. He grew up in the royal household. Moses knows privilege. Then something happened that changed Moses’ whole lot in life. But then he sees the way that the Egyptians are treating the Hebrews. He sees the injustice. Moses defends one of his kinsfolk when an Egyptian master is beating the Hebrew. Maybe Moses goes to far. Moses kills the Egyptian. He buries him in the sand. Then he runs. Moses gets out of Dodge.

Which is how he finds himself tending the flock of his Father-in-law Jethro. Now, this is not a comfortable place. Moses grew up in the palace.  He’s a bit of a city boy. Tending your father-in-law’s flock is not where you wanted to end up in the ancient world. (Working for your father-in-law is hardly ever where anyone wants to end up). Moses is on the lamb. He has no where to go, no prospects. He’s stuck.

Moses is out there, the Bible tells us, “beyond the wilderness,” and he hears a voice: “Moses, Moses.” Notice, God has to say his name twice to get his attention. God is persistent, even when humans are resistant. “Moses” God goes on: “I am the God of Abraham.” I am the God of Isaac and Jacob. God establishes continuity. Then God turns the page.

“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings”

This encounter with Moses shows us the something critical about our God. God is a God with a bias. God stands on the side of the oppressed. God works actively for the liberation of people from slavery, from bondage. God is a God who seeks out the least, the lost, the left out. The rest of the story of Exodus, in many ways the rest of the story of the Hebrew Bible, and the story of the followers of Jesus is a living out of this revelation of God to Moses: “I have heard their cry.” God is not a God who blesses the powerful and leaves the weak out in the cold. Quite the opposite. Here’s one of the tests of true religion: True religion responds to the cry of the suffering.

As the great theologian Howard Thurman once asked, What does your religion have to say to people with the “backs against a wall?”

“I have heard the cry of my people, and I have come down to deliver them.” This is where the passage gets really interesting. The story turns really fast. Did you catch it? God says, I have come down to deliver them. You could almost imagine Moses turning his head around looking for God. Where? Where are you? It will be a long time before Moses sees God. Instead God says, I have come to deliver them, so Moses, Moses I’m sending you. YOU go talk to Pharaoh. “Go Down Moses. Way down in Egypt Land. Tell Old Pharaoh, to let my people Go.”

You sort of feel for Moses in this moment. God has just said “I am coming down.” Moses probably got excited. He was nervous to see God’s face, but I’m sure he was eager to see God’s action. He was eager to see God right the wrongs, to turn back the tide of injustice. And then God says, “it’s on you Moses.”

It’s a bit like what Jesus says to his followers this morning: “Take up your cross.”

I feel for Moses this morning, surprised by an overwhelming task from God. I also feel for Peter. Today we read Jesus’ harshest rebuke . “Get behind me Satan.” I feel for Peter this morning. If I’d been there, honestly, I probably would’ve been standing near Peter, nodding, agreeing with him, saying “Yes, yes, exactly.”

We come to this rebuke of Peter while Jesus is on the run (notice a theme). They’re on the road, getting away from the crowds. Jesus has fed 4,000 on the sea of Galilee. The Pharisees come after him. He escapes. He performs a healing of a blind man in the chapter before this reading, and tells the man “don’t even go into the village” because he’s afraid of the news getting out. When Jesus asked last week, “who do people say I am?” there are nerves behind that question. Peter last week got the answer right, for once. “You’re the Messiah.” And Jesus orders him to be silent.

Jesus is nervous. Jesus explains to the disciples what is coming, and he paints a pretty ugly picture. Jesus explains that he expects to be hauled before the courts, to suffer, to die.

Peter doesn’t want that for Jesus. Can we blame him? He doesn’t want it for the movement he’s joined. Peter has just identified his leader as the savior, the messiah, the anointed one. Peter wants success. Peter wants it to look good. We don’t hear Peter’s words to Jesus, but I imagine they are something like: “Wait a minute Jesus, that suffering and dying stuff, I’m not sure I signed up for that. That’s not going to sell well.” True religion doesn’t sell well. If a faith doesn’t require some skin of your back, it isn’t Christianity.

These are heavy words, “take up your cross,” and I’m mindful that we’ve had an awful week. We still haven’t seen the full scale of the disaster in Houston. Even as the flood waters were rising, a group of Evangelical pastors were spitting homophobic and transphobic nonsense and saying they represented the one true faith. (All their sound and fury signifies nothing). Parishioners of mine in Washington DC got in touch this week. They’re nervous. These are folks who were able to secure good jobs, and come out of hiding because of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA, were terrified this week that they were going to lose their immigration status, be shortlisted for deportation to countries they haven’t seen since they were a few months old. We’re also still dealing with the trauma of the images that came out of Charlottesville, waking some of us up to the hatred that is alive and deep in this country. I know I’m not alone in thinking, “Oh God, what’s next?” How do you even respond when the new cycle just feels like body blow after body blow for people you love?

I’m going to ask you to read a book.

This Fall we’re going to try an experiment. We’re calling it “One Book, One Parish.” The assignment is The Rev. Dr. William Barber’s “The Third Reconstruction.” Barber is a black Baptist pastor, and the chair of the North Carolina NAACP. He was one of the architects of a movement called “Moral Mondays” challenging the North Carolina legislature. And he take the long view of history. He argues that we are at a turning point in this country. The First Reconstruction was after the Civil War. America was re-made when slavery was abolished. The Second Reconstruction was the Civil Rights era. Today America is trying to be remade again. We have reached the Third Reconstruction.

I want us to read this book together, because I think it can help break the paralysis and the fear. Lately it feels like our whole country is playing defense. We’re standing up for some vision of history. We’re standing up to defend our neighbors from bias. As long as we are playing defense, I think we’re all losing. Rage won’t win the day. Rage isn’t enough. We have to get out of defense mode. We have to start moving forward toward a vision.

What is the America we want to see reconstructed? What is the city, the country, the world we want to live in? What does that look like? How can we get in the business of hope?

In “The Third Reconstruction,” Barber tells a story about his grandmother. After cooking for her whole extended family on Sunday, but before the food was served, she and her nieces would take a little bit of food along with a little money and anointing oil. She’d say to young William in the kitchen “We’ll be back shortly. We’ve got to go and hope somebody.” Here, in Barber’s words, was his response to his grandmother:

As a young black boy learning proper English in school, I thought my uneducated grandmamma was misspeaking—that she mistook the word “hope” for “help.” I even may have tried to correct her error in word choice a time or two. But looking back, I see that Grandmamma articulated more theology in that single phrase than some preachers manage to get into an entire sermon.

I don’t know a better description of “true religion.” “We’ve got to go and hope somebody.” True religion is Houstonians volunteering boats and going to rescue one another. True religion is the Baptist and Muslim youth groups my friends in Texas saw working side by side yesterday to muck out houses as the waters receded. True religion can be radical. I heard some true religion from a Catholic priest on Friday, here in St. Louis at a rally to protect DACA, who spoke out and said our Christian vision of the world imagines a place for refugees and immigrants. We welcome the stranger in the Christian worldview. Where have you seen true religion lately?

Friends I have to brag a bit about this church. Amidst all the bad news we’re hearing, this church is on the front page of the paper. This church is proclaiming good news. There’s a story about our laundry love ministry. Every third Tuesday we’re getting to know our neighbors and spreading some Laundry Love. You’re invited. September 19. Come volunteer at 6pm. Go hope somebody.

I could go on and on about the work of hope I am seeing in this church. Reconstructing a house, meeting neighbors for a beer and discussion, doing the hard work of praying for one another. I am grateful, really grateful to be a member of this congregation. You help me see hope: Your hard work, your generosity, the love you show, it increases in me true religion every day.

God has heard the cry of the people. God is coming. Go hope somebody.