Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Now, Opened Lips

“So what?” It’s the question on my mind, thinking about Christmas.  “So what?” What do we do with the knowledge that God was enfleshed as a human child, born to refugee parents in a beaten-down stable? So what? What now? The answer, my friends: we preach. “Go through, go through the gates, prepare the way for the people; build up, build up the highway, clear it of stones, lift up an ensign over the peoples. The LORD has proclaimed to the end of the earth: Say to daughter Zion, "See, your salvation comes; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him." They shall be called, "The Holy People, The Redeemed of the LORD"; and you shall be called, "Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken."

We preach and proclaim and shout with a loud voice that the Lord’s redemption is not at arm’s length, is not somewhere out there, is not waiting for us to earn it with lives of righteousness or perfection.  The Lord’s redemption is here, is now, and we celebrate it once again on this day: “But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger."   This is the day, and the season, where we are given the opportunity to join the great prophets of old in proclaiming God’s good news to the world.  Where God’s gift to us is not just redemption, but the opportunity to embrace our calling as God’s prophets of hope in a broken world.  And when I speak of being a prophet, I don’t mean being a dime-store soothsayer, someone fixated only on future events who fundamentally has no clue as to what God’s mysteries will bring.  Being a prophet living after the Incarnation of the Son of God means being willing to declare to the world that something has happened to it so deeply, so profoundly, that the tide has turned, hope has risen, love has awakened, life is changed.  Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar, says it best about prophets when he says, “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” Being a prophet, in the Biblical sense, doesn’t just mean predicting the future.  It also means having the courage and inspiration to tell a different story, to encourage the people to imagine life as being more than what is seen with the eyes, to declare to a ruling power that their day is up, and another world has come to pass.  Such is the prophetic witness of Isaiah to his people living in exile, and such is the witness of the poor shepherds on the outskirts of Bethlehem.

These shepherds must have been unassuming people, tending sheep at night by the light of the moon, taking in the comfort of an evening breeze, resting in the normalcy of their lives.  But then an angel appeared, proclaiming something profound and transformational.  And not just one angel, but a multitude appeared and gave us the most beautiful song of praise: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” But this is not just a song of praise. This is a prophet’s song, declaring peace among those whom God favors, which we know are not just a select few, but is the whole of humanity.  It’s prophetic because no shepherd living in Palestine under a brutal Roman occupation would have ever assumed peace could be possible. Yet here the angels deliver this song, this message, this prophecy.  The shepherds then, with curious hearts set ablaze, go to see the child who is himself peace incarnate.  But they don’t just see this child.  They deliver this prophetic song to Mary and Joseph: “When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” It’s astounding to me that the shepherds, with their angelic song, are able to minister to the Blessed Virgin herself, God’s highly favored lady.  But such is the way of God in this new world, using the most unassuming characters to declare that a new world truly has come to pass. Not from a gilded tower, and not from a senate chamber, but from a ragged stable and the mouths of marginalized shepherds comes the triumphant pronouncement of a new kingdom, full of peace and salvation.

The Church no longer enjoys the cultural power it once did. We, like the shepherds, stand at the margins. But that is good news to me, because it allows us find new and creative ways to preach this Gospel of God’s enfleshment in the world. We preach to a world that doesn't need words of criticism from a pious Christian tribe, but words of hope, grace, and mercy from a community of people gathered around the God of love who pours forth love and tenderness on the whole human race. It's is our joy and delight to tell a different story to the world, to our county, to our friends and family…a story where all of God’s  children can take part in redemption, where everybody has a rightful place in the ‘city not forsaken’, where nobody is beyond God’s redemptive touch. “When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

 “So, what?” We preach and proclaim and shout aloud that God is in the world, putting things to rights. We become prophets telling another story. And we trust that the Spirit will use us a vessels of divine grace.

*A sermon preached on Christmas Day 2015 at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM. The texts were Isaiah 62:6-12, Titus 3:4-7, and Luke 2:8-20.

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