Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Sermon for J.D. Salinger

Some years ago a wonderful Dominican nun gave me a one-liner that I’ve cherished ever since. She said that the reason there was a big Bible and a big Altar in the church is because there is a small Bible and a small Altar in our very hearts and in our lives. They are two complimentary ways of knowing God that have to do with formation and information. To define terms; formation has to do with listening to the story that God is telling us in the events and occurrences, praise and desolation, history and hope, prophesy and poetry of our own life as the context and the text where God tells out the Good News of our creation, of our participation in God’s creation, in the world where God is meeting us, every day in every way, moments ripening into sacraments, visible signs of the invisible gift of God, gifts given to us in every place and every moment of time.

This is not to deny the crucial importance of the church or the religious tradition and sacramental system in which we stand. That’s the big information we need! The Bible and the Altar in the centre are here so that we know who and whose we are in a world where so many voices are yelling and telling us that we are only what we eat or what we buy or who we dominate. And we’re built for a bigger truth than that! We need to know the face, the voice, the song of the one who creates, loves, and breathes us, who breathes the whole world we live in. So we need to know our Scripture, our tradition, the stories and the saints, of the family in which we stand, in the company where we are gathered. Because they all point to the formation of God in our own lives. Listen to Jeremiah:“Before you were born I knew you.” Listen to the Psalm we just read: “Oh Lord you are my hope, my trust, oh Lord, from my youth. Upon you I have learned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually of you.”

In Zen Buddhism they talk about “coming to know the face you had before you were born.” We come to church, we come to soak ourselves in the Gospel truth and tradition of this place, so that we might know the face of Christ, which is our true face and that of our neighbor and maybe our enemy and the stranger as well. We come together so we might become the body of Christ, which is our true body.

Two writers gave me early glimpses of how this might be true in my own formation. Does anybody still remember an English writer named Elizabeth Goudge? I recall seeing her books; “Pilgrims Inn” and “Green Dolphin Street,” in my grandparents bookcase before I could read, and sitting on the floor looking at the inside cover sketches of the main characters, the Elliot family. When I was 14 or 15 I read “Pilgrims Inn” for the first time. A family in the trauma of post-World War II England, moving to a an old house in on the English coast and finding themselves recipients of grace, unsought for favor, the gift of God. the surprise of love. And it is the mother and wife of the family, Nadine Elliott, on a walk in the woods who has a realization of the connectedness of life and the compassion it calls for. Goudge writes this:

“Quite suddenly you felt like your life was not an isolated thing, but one that existed in all other lives, as all other lives existed within yours. There wasn’t anything anywhere to which you could say, “We don’t need each other”

J. D. Salinger, who died this week at the age of 92, was another whose words formed me as a young man. His “Catcher in the Rye” was rich reading for a teenager, but his second or third book, “Franny and Zooey,” touched me deeply when I was 19. A young acting student returns to her parents New York apartment home to have a religious breakdown or breakthrough. Her brother Zooey accuses her of being a spiritual phony snob because she withdraws from the family structure to pray. At one point he says, and I paraphrase, “How can you claim to be a pilgrim, to follow holiness, then turn down a cup of consecrated chicken soup, which is the only kind of chicken soup we have in this house?” How can you seek holy information out there and ignore the holy formation you have in your own home?

Franny no longer want to be an actress because it seems to be ambitious, egocentric, self obsessed. Her brothers interupts: “The only thing you can do now,” he says, “the only religious thing you can do, is act. Act for God, if you want to — be God's actress, if you want to. What could be prettier?

And then he tells her something, something their older brother told him when they were leaving to appear on a radio show together; something that the people in our Gospel reading, in that home-town synagogue in Nazareth, would never see, something, that goes back to Sr. Mary Neill and the altar and the Bible in the world and the heart of who we are.

Seymour'd told me to shine my shoes just as I was going out the door... I was furious. The studio audience were all morons, the announcer was a moron, the sponsors were morons, and I just damn well wasn't going to shine my shoes for them, I told Seymour. I said they couldn't see them anyway, where we sat. He said to shine them anyway. He said to shine them for the Fat Lady. I didn't know what... he was talking about, but... I did it. He never did tell me who the Fat Lady was, but I shined my shoes for the Fat Lady every time I ever went on the air again. This terribly clear, clear picture of the Fat Lady formed in my mind. I had her sitting on this porch all day, swatting flies, with her radio going full-blast from morning till night. I figured the heat was terrible, and she probably had cancer, and — I don't know. Anyway, it seemed... clear why Seymour wanted me to shine my shoes when I went on the air. It made sense. [And Zooey goes on]...

I'll tell you a terrible secret — Are you listening to me? There isn't anyone out there who isn't Seymour's Fat Lady.... There isn't anyone anywhere that isn't Seymour's Fat Lady. Don't you know that? Don't you know that... secret yet? And don't you know — listen to me, now — don't you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . . Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It's Christ Himself...

modern authors with the same point: To see God present in the very midst of who and where we are. We are called here to be the family and friends of Christ, to not overlook him in our midst or even in ourselves; like Mother Teresa of Calcutta who saw Jesus “in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor.” and like Thomas Merton writing: “In becoming man, God became not only Jesus Christ but also potentially every man and woman that ever existed. In Christ, God became not only “this” man, but also, in a broader and more mystical sense, yet no less truly, “every man [every person].”

St Augustine, writing around 400AD, brings us home with this prayer:

Oh God, To turn from you is to fall, to turn to you is to rise, and to stand in you is to live forever; Grant us your help in all that we do, in all our perplexities give us your guidance, in all our dangers give us your protection, and in all our sorrows give us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, our body and our blood, our life and our nourishment, Amen.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A teaching sermon for Sunday

There are at least two ways we can conceive of our relationship with God; two ways we can approach God, or to let God approach us. Theologians use the terms “imminence” or “transcendence” to talk the times when God seems first very close (“imminent”) or very far away (“transcendent”), and there are good advantages to either vantage point.

For an example of transcendence, God writ large: look at the picture of God in the first chapter of Genesis: creating a world from waste and void, creating light and darkness, wet and dry, fish and vegetables and animals and humankind: all pointing to a God who is larger than creation, larger than our vision or our hope can contain. Listen to Isaiah: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” We find the prophets, again and again, recalling people to the knowledge that God is more than an idol, more than proper liturgical action, more than a familiar formula to make life safe for friends and family and to ensure victory over strangers and foreigners. God is much bigger than this.

In the New Testament we see this transcendence primarily in John’s Gospel and in the “war in heaven” special effects and themes in the Revelation to John. Amazing visions, big pictures of God. Keeping our vision large.

But then there is the understanding of God as “close” to us, which is imminent and all over the scriptures. Listen to Deuteronomy: “The word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it” That places us as the body of God in the world, the children of God, the family of God. And listen to the lesson from Isaiah from last week:

“You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”

This is the language of an intimate relationship!

Often Scripture uses both imminent and transcendent ideas and images, together or in counterpoint, to give us a wider understanding of God. Todays reading from Nehemiah is a wonderful example. In a scene some 400 years before Christ, refugees have returned to the city of Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple and gather to hear the word of the Lord being read aloud. And people get scared! Because the “law of Moses” seems so big and so strong and so demanding that there seems to be no hope. We’re talking major Transcendence here! And this still happens. There are people whose understanding of God is such that God could not possibly be honoring of our infirmities and fragility, but can only be approached as some kind of angry father in the sky. That is the reaction of the people gathering to hear the law as they assemble to rebuild in the ruins of Jerusalem.

And Ezra the priest says do not weep! For “this day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep... Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

What wonderful words. “The joy of the Lord is your strength”. Hebrew Scholars say it means that God’s joy is in giving strength to the people on the Sabbath day, because the attempt to please God, to show up to listen to God, when we’re afraid of how big God might be, does in fact please God. And maybe there’s the point; that sometimes, and I say this very carefully, it might do us good to be afraid of how God might call us and where God might take us.

I remember some 25 years ago, getting ready to move to a new town to take up a new ministry, and praying in my seminary Chapel: feeling an immense distance between what I felt God was asking me to do and what I could see myself achieving. But this tension came with a growing assurance that the open space would, in itself, provide a place for God’s will to be done in my life, whether I could conceive of it or not. I didn’t need to figure it out! So I could make the next step in my life with a growing hope that God meet me where I was, take me where I needed to go and give me what I needed; that his will might happen in my life in his good time. So both near and far, both big and small. This came when I let my hands be empty and open to God’s promise, and when I let myself be free to find out where God would take me. There’s the paradox: to keep open on both how far God can go and how close God can come.

The Gospel of Luke keeps this balance alive, moving between transcendence and imminence. Luke’s Jesus meets the people where they are: meets them in understanding and affection, and occasionally challenges them to the point of being rude and shockingly familiar; to takes them where they would never expect to go: to know that deep “joy of the Lord”

Here’s the centre of today’s Gospel:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Now Jesus is in his hometown synagogue, with people who have known him for years, and in that that they might have been like many of us who have spent some time in the church, with the liturgical round of lessons and readings and hymns bringing a seasonal rhythm and reassurance that we know what’s coming next, that there will not be too many surprises from here on out.

But that attitude does not do well, either for the people in Nazareth, or for us either, it doesn’t open a faithful space to be amazed at a message that might make us brand new. Listen again! “To bring good news to the poor... To proclaim release... recovery of sight... the oppressed go free...proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

To hear Jesus anew, to allow God to be very big and very far off, as well as to be very close and very much in love with us, we must be willing to let him take us step by step and day by day to places and ways we never expected in order that we might become people we never thought to be.That is why we’re here. The Eucharist is very big and very small. It is larger than the world yet it is something that we are able to consume, to take upon our tongue, bring into our bodies, incorporate into our daily lives; taken with empty hands and a great hope that the God who is higher than all the heavens and bigger than all the cosmos is still, as St. Augustine says,” closer to us than we are to ourselves” and able to meet us in the midst of our daily lives,

We are like Jesus’ family and friends in Nazareth, we are like those wandering Israelites returning to Jerusalem to rebuild their broken hope; called to come with empty hands and hearts ready to receive grace, to hear and see, to taste this Jesus, who comes offering the bread of heaven and the sweet wine of hope, a taste of the kingdom, where we will come to know that the “joy of the Lord is our strength.”

In the name of Christ

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Sermon for Epiphany 2C

Weddings are strange and wonderful things. I didn’t last at the first wedding I attended. A Roman Catholic friend of my family named Noreen Gentile, was married in Sacramento, California, when I was about five years old. I don’t know if I got noisy or restless, but I spent most of the service with my grandmother in the car outside. What I remember was disappointment that I didn’t see the couple get married in what I was sure was “the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Goat!”

Since I missed that one I looked forward to the next wedding, when my brother married when I was 14. I was too young to be a groomsman but the young men who stood next to my brother made sure I participated in the reception by giving me champagne, quite a lot of champagne. I haven’t seen the wedding pictures for years, but a 14 year old boy falling down while dancing with a bridesmaid is not a pretty sight. And I didn’t see the Holy Goat either!

Then in Melbourne 5 years ago, when I was the chaplain at RMIT and part of the ministry team at St Peter’s Eastern Hill, a couple of of young people asked if I would preach at their wedding. Here’s some of what I said:

“In spite of all the predictions on the future of marriage, any marriage; people get wed in the face of God and a gathered company, because it’s reminder how good and deep and wonderful love can be. Because you’re taking it with the most serious and realistic expectation there is! What we see at a wedding is two people pledging to tie a knot to live and die together, to deepen their day to day experience of life with one another as sign and sacrament and mystery; in sickness and health, riches and poverty, life and death: All the good and bad of it. To pledge to be living in the very midst of that cauldron that Jesus tells us about in the Beatitudes: to be poor in spirit, meek and mourning, hungry and thirsty, needy and deeply human; and blessed, happy, loved, stewarded, inspired by God in an ongoing mutual ministry.”

And I think this is not just true of husbands and wives, but of all relationships; not only the bride and groom but their families and friends too. Look around at any wedding and see the web of people who are destined to meet frequently from there on; at other birthdays, baptisms weddings and funerals far into the future. So not just a man and wife, but all of us called to the cauldron of community, to take up the yoke of learning to live together, whether church or work of club or community. To take up the task of trying to love God and our neighbor, and realizing that it is the same love.

But whether wed spouse, friend or tennis partner, workmate or lover, it can be complex. As I told Mark and Sue five years ago, “there will be moments when your partner starts to tell that certain story one more time, gets a certain look, utters a certain phrase, wakes in a particular mood, falls into a peculiar trait, and you think, ‘there they go again!’ You don’t always have to like it, but you must always do your best to love them then and there!”

Some 30 plus years ago, I realized that a guy I talked to in a class, an english grad student in California, who I had an occasional beer with, had turned into a some kind of good friend. Over the years, friendship turned to honoring, and caring and sharing successes and failures, and the death of parents, and loves that didn’t last, and a deep and surprising regard and respect for the fragile gifts of the other. I spent New Year’s Eve with him and his wife last year, and we’ve gotten old together and I bless God for that.

Going back to the wedding sermon: “Love is, as they say, a many splendored thing, but love will break your heart, exceed your expectations, expand your world, slay and resurrect your ideas of what life and commitment and community and God are all about; and that’s just on a slow week! But the deeper truth is that, whether friendship or marriage, these partnerships in expectation and demand will fill your world with the most precious kind of flesh and blood holiness.”

That is why we say that marriage is a sacrament and perhaps friendship is too. And that’s why, in the second chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus, the word of God, goes to a wedding. He honors relationships, and it isn’t easy. He comes with some friends, and his mother comes by and leans on him for a favor for the wedding party: “They’re out of wine, can you do something?” They’re out of wine, meaning their friends didn’t bring enough to share, and they’re in the middle of a long party, and it’s going to end quickly and badly, unless someone does something and... Can you do something?

God can do something, In the Gospel of John particularly, God shows up doing some very odd and wonderful things. There’s a great one-liner in the first chapter of John, “In the beginning was the Word... and he came to pitch his tent with us.” The word became flesh and lives with us, the word of love becomes flesh and blood and goes to a wedding reception, the word of God’s presence in the world gets asked by his mother if he can do something for a wedding that’s going lopsided. And he does.

There are empty jugs for a religious feast, he asks that they be filled with fresh water, and suddenly there is wine, fine wine, better than they started with, better than they could afford, better than you could hope form saving the best for last.

Here’s an aside. A priest once said when he did pre-marital counseling, he’d talk about the marriage, and he could see the couple thought he meant the wedding day. They’re thinking a one day event, he’s talking about a whole life commitment. Jesus comes for the wedding party, but Jesus stays for the relationship, because Jesus is a sign of the wedding, the marrying together, the covenant of love between God and this creation, this God-made world. Here is God pledging to pitch his tent in the middle, to stay near for the whole process: the wedding, the baptism, innumerable, birthday parties, and tennis matches and cold winters, and misunderstandings and times when there’s not enough patience or money or hope. God in Christ is there with us.

When God comes to the party, each one of us is called to look to our wives and husbands, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, tennis partners, work mates too, those we love a lot and those we love a bit less; and see that God has pitched his tent there too. And we are called to look to all those places with the hope of God’s presence in our hearts.
As I said to Mark and Sue five years ago:

“Your promise to each other in God’s sight [and that is close to our promise to God in our baptism as well] is a sign for us as well, a promise and a hope that we can live life more deeply, risk more, care more, belong more, to each other, to the world, to God. And we are here to celebrate that, as well as to pray for you, support you, love you, always, and especially here and now when you are serving as a sacrament before us, a sign of God’s love.”

To be a sign of hope in love! That takes us back to the reading from Isaiah we heard earlier, of God’s vision for Israel, which we see in the life of Christ: God’s vision for the people he loves and the places where he pitches his tent: listen to the poetry:

“You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord... you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”

For Christ our God has come to the marriage feast with the wine of rejoicing in the midst of human relationship. So come let us adore him. Amen.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Baptism of the Lord

It might have seemed an ordinary day when Jesus was baptized, Maybe John the Baptist had gotten used to it, routine does that, and the riverside ritual drowning of the old life and rising to the new in hope of God’s promise to Israel had turned into a somewhat routinised wash and wipe. But then he sees Jesus; and knows him to be the one: The faithful servant, who will embody God’s spirit in a human life, bringing forth right justice, bringing forth new life. He must have remembered the amazing insight of the prophet Isaiah as he looked to see this Jesus beginning to live out his life in righteousness, as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to all who sit in darkness, opening blind eyes, bringing out prisoners from whatever dark dungeons of isolation or judgment bind them. What a sight for John! “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare.” And now to see Jesus face to face, to know that greater presence, purpose, hope is finally here. “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” And to know in addition, perhaps dimly, that the beginning of the life of Jesus following his baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist marks the beginning of the end of John’s own life. And still he rejoices!

It must have been true as well for good St Peter, who so often got it wrong in his earlier pilgrimage with the Lord, now full of the conviction in speaking by the spirit to a noisy crowd, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.... preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all.” He might have looked ahead from that moment, that day and seen the coming martyrdom, the waiting cross, as well as the unbelievable glory that would be his in taking up that ministry, that service, that end. And he, perhaps by grace, rejoiced as well.

For most of us it is not quite that dramatic or that clear-cut. I was baptized, became a Christian, put on Christ, a bit over 42 years ago a the age of 21. Part of it was the need for connection, respectability, community; part of it a desire and need to say both “Thank you” and “I am sorry” often and in the context of a community which would take those duties with due seriousness; to ask for pardon and to allow some potential for graceful growth, that brought me here, along with some shy hope of the heart to unfold in a kind climate of grace and growth. There was a prayer by WIlliam Temple that spoke to me at the time, gave me great hope. It speaks to me still.

Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord  and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

It is often not easy to keep hope alive. Two years ago, when I was working in Chaplaincy in higher education, a young student, a single mother with a little boy, came to me with some depression, a muted quality rather than desperation, and sat in my office and said, “my life looks nothing like what I see on the web and in the mall and I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” and I listened, and I let her have room to consider and think and mourn and start to grow and risk and again. And what I wanted to say, and what I hope she heard eventually somewhere else, was “Get a life, get a life with creativity, with a call to justice and community, with inspiration and some height and depth and breadth to it, get a life in Christ! Not to take you elsewhere, not to make you someone other than who you are, but to let you be you, fully and wholly and exactly where you are!

Because that is, I think, where Baptism drops us. It might be dealing with a new baby or with old age, living with disappointing relatives or sore feet, it may be enduring bad luck or a sad heart, it may be moving to new work in a new town that is exciting and demanding and lonely and lovely. It may be looking down a well worn old road or a brand new prospect and seeing a corner up ahead that signals a turn into a place you never thought to visit. But Christ’s call to baptism, to be part of the community of faith, the body of Christ called to be the church, takes you right where you are!

A friend of mine went to see a renowned spiritual leader and said, “How do I know where God is calling me?” The woman’s response was quick, “Go where the tension is in your own life. He will be there!”.
He will be there on Christmas morning or Good Friday, the wedding feast or the solitude in the desert, the great Eucharistic feast or the solitary times when you are asking that the cup might pass; wherever you go, Christ has been, will be, is there with you, will be with you always. “For there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

Our baptism, our immersion into the way of Jesus, plunges us into the depths of our real life with God: makes us companions with Christ in the deepest part of the human journey, washes us up with the most unlikely people and teaches us the surprising lessons of love, and contingency and humility and hope in the heart of all places and all things.

That is the gift of Christ, that is our heritage as children of God, where Christ calls us to follow, by his baptism and by our baptism. And that is a message and a pilgrimage that cannot be approximated by the mass markets, by the merchants of desires who rent their spaces on the web and at the mall, God is bigger and smaller than that, God goes farther and comes closer than that. And that is maybe why we’re here; alive, in this world at this time. To take that chance, to live this life!

We come to be baptized to find out where we end and where we’re for and where we begin, and it is in Christ! In Christ’s whole-hearted embrace of humanity we feel God hugging the whole of the human race, all life and death, all powers and principalities, the whole creation, into the call of love, the call of community, the command to follow, so that there is and shall be no place where we are safe, in life or death, thing past or things to come, here or in heaven, from the love to God.

Here are some words to end from the Baptismal service in our Prayer Book:

Be made one with Christ in his death and resurrection
Die to sin, rise in newness of life
And continue forever in Jesus Christ.


Sunday, January 03, 2010

Epiphany Sermon

Today’s lessons point to three styles of rule and ruler, that come from the fist, the head and the heart. King Herod would like to think he has the world locked up. As the representative of Roman rule, he holds the keys to prosperity or poverty, freedom or captivity, life or death in his hands. So it is disturbing to him when there is a rumor of another ruler coming to be, another possible rule of how to be in the world, showing up on the horizon.

We don’t know much about the Magi who bring this news to him: They could be the scientists of the day, when astrology was considered a solid study for research and forecast, they could be the equivalence of therapists and social workers, examining dreams to figure out how the future might unfold, they could have been representatives of foreign powers; but any of these would make Herod nervous.

For they come to him asking if he knows where the child is who is born to be King of the Jews. This king who rules by birthright would be an obvious threat to Herod, who rules by dominance, and his own own resident experts, tell him that: “in Bethlehem...will come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” So there is a dangerous possibility that a new world might be coming into being, the old world turned upside down with new possibilities opening up: a ruler who is a shepherd to his people is not exactly the model that Herod has offered thus far. His response is politic: he asks him he asks the Magi to inform him, as soon as they know, where the child is located so that he can make an appropriate response.

And the Magi go on their way, following a light that seems to come from the heavens, and coming to a most surprising destination:

When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

We don’t know how long they had been on the road. Perhaps their wanderings had turned to pilgrimage and their pilgrimage into homecoming in the moment when they were overwhelmed with joy, when they knelt down, when they offered gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.They were three important gifts to give to a King, but surprising gifts to give to a child in a stable. Let’s look at those gifts.

Gold is a suitable gift for anyone in power. Herod would have recognized its significance, the right thing to give a king or ruler, even one who is a shepherd; but if they could look ahead in their great joy they would have been surprised to see what this ruler would ask as a response to his rule:

Come to me all Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

This is a different kind of ruler with a different set of values and demands: based on compassion and caring for all peoples, based on an awareness that we are but dust. Fragile creatures who are still the salt of creation, a city on a hill, the light of the earth. Our worthiness comes as a gift of grace and love from the God who creates us, from the God who joins us as a child in the middle of the human condition, with a rule that is set in the middle of the human condition, in the smallest and most needy as well as the strongest and mightiest.

I remember back in the 1950s when my father told me while watching a great tennis player (I think it was either Arthur Ashe or Rosewall), “he works really hard to look that relaxed.”.=So it might take a certain kind of power and grace and magnitude to be as defenseless as a child, to be open to listen and to learn and to love; but here is a God, a ruler and a king, who enters into his creation as the least of all -- as a helpless baby in an unimportant place in a single moment of time. So when you give gold to a newborn baby there is a new hope in the world.

Frankincense is used in religious rituals, as a suitable gift to bring to a priest. My sense of priesthood is that, in many ways it is a place where saying “thank you” and “I am sorry” are taken most seriously; not as just matters of custom or etiquette but as an acknowledgment that quite often we are given glorious gifts and we use them wrongly. I remember a professor saying that candidates for priesthood came to seminary to learn to be godly and ended up being somewhat lordly instead. But if Jesus is the head of the priesthood of all believers, then his community, this new creation, is something quite different:

Listen to the Beatitudes a few chapters later in Matthew:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

This is a way of being in the world that is not built on being a strong winner, but instead on being a true lover of God in your own time and place. This way can get you into trouble within existing the systems of hierarchy and heroism -- where “the one who dies with the most toys wins”, and Herod and his friends certainly won’t like it -- but it can make you a real winner in the last, at the end when the biggest blessings are handed out. The good news is that you will win in heaven: the bad news is that you have to die to get there.

I was once told that the big question is this: “How uncomfortable are you going to allow yourself to be for the new Creation?” And this child will go all the way, will live life into the jaws of death to open a way we can follow, that goes far beyond death.

Here we have a hero who is willing to live simply and to die well in light of what he believes to be the deepest truth of the light and love of the world. It is enough to make those wise ones, the Magi who come from somewhere else, feel a great joy: because the holiness in the heart of the universe, the great love which is our hope that every side is seen here beginning as a little boy in a little town in the middle of nowhere and in the middle of everywhere.

In Epiphany we see the God of light and love, as a child who comes to help us to grow up the full stature of Christ. He will offer a rule of life, neither burdensome nor difficult: he will share a priesthood for humble people on the way to share great gifts of righteousness, and he will defeat death, that last impostor, so that we may live with him forever. It is enough to give you pause, and it is enough to give you great joy. In the name of Christ.