Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Acceptable Gift

Musings after Christmas

There is an old song…lyrics from the 1930’s I think, that was sung at St. Paul’s Christmas Eve….

Some Children see Him lily white,
the Baby Jesus born this night.
Some Children see Him lily white,
with tresses soft and fair.
Some Children see Him bronzed and brown,
the Lord of heav’n to earth come down;
Some Children see Him bronzed and brown,
with dark and heavy hair.

Some Children see Him almond eyed,
this Saviour whom we kneel beside,
Some Children see him almond eyed,
with skin of yellow hue.
Some Children see him dark as they,
sweet Mary’s Son to whom we pray;
Some Children see Him dark as they,
and ah! They love Him too!

The Children in each different place
will see the Baby Jesus’ face
Like theirs, but bright with heav’nly grace,
and filled with holy light.
O lay aside each earthly thing,
and with thy heart as offering,
Come worship now the Infant King,
’tis love that’s born tonight!

The song is a sweet recognition that Godde appears to us in ways that we can recognize ….in ways that make it possible to be aware of the Divine. And, that children see differently than adults. If not otherwise taught, toddlers see other toddlers as just other humans their size regardless of color, shape or ability.

Early in the years I was dating my husband, he attended a Christmas Gala held by an old acquaintance. It was someone I didn’t know, and likely to be very upscale, so I stayed home. He took a gift, and was surprised to see that it wasn’t put under the perfect tree, because it needed to be rewrapped to match all the coordinated presents that were wrapped in one style. And of course, that got me to thinking….

The perfectly matched gift made me wonder how we repackage Godde’s gift … re wrap…so that the gift fits our personal décor. There are some obvious answers, of course. It is one thing for children to see the baby Jesus as a blond fair skinned child like them. Or an ebony skinned black haired little one. But I remember reading an article in the magazine called the Texas Coach that had a picture of Jesus and asserted that he had fair skin, blue eyes and …get this…a crew cut !! Just like the guy who wrote the article.

Then there was a series of interviews that the late Peter Jennings did in Israel with tourists for a special on Jesus. He asked people what they thought Jesus looked like and several said…like you and me ….white Midwestern Americans on tour in the Holy Land.

In contrast, several years ago I heard a sermon by Fr. Jim Hogan about Jesus the Man. He pointed out that Jesus was likely about 5’4”…medium height for his time…a Semitic person i.e. dark skinned, dark eyed, and very dark haired. He was also from an expressive culture of Mediterranean people and very likely talked using his hands quite a bit. Think Palestinians, Italians, Turks….Jews !

So I am thinking that one of the reasons we repackage Jesus is to make us feel safer with him. Regardless of what Abraham learned about entertaining strangers who may be angels, we don’t like strangers very much. We like people who are just like us and don’t challenge us to consider who we think is valuable, important and most of all, safe. And in times when we don’t feel very safe, we may close our circle a bit more.

There is nothing wrong with embracing a familiar figure of Jesus when we are in need of comfort. I LIKE the Good Shepherd, thank you, even if I know that Jesus trained as a carpenter. And we all like the cooing baby, lulled by the cattle that are lowing, in almost any racial configuration. But Jesus grew up, as have we, and our faith is called to grow up, too. The baby is a man, a poor man, with dusty smelly garments, followed by the riff raff of his culture and stirring up trouble with the authorities. Just how much work are we willing to do to remove the perfectly patterned wrapping paper we have cloaked him with, and see Godde’s gift as both challenge and comfort, an adult with compelling voice, someone asking the hard questions and waiting for our response ?

So I ask you, and myself…..what do you do to make Jesus acceptable in your heart’s décor ? How do you want him wrapped, concealed, disguised… order to not disturb the peace ? Godde’s gift is Love in human form……but Love has edges and questions….and we are missing a great deal if we cover it with pretty foil and bows.

Thoughts on the Kingdom

Reflections on the RCL readings for 1/25/09

Repent !

The Kingdom of God is at hand !!!
The End is near !

And that was Jonah’s job when he hiked for 3 days across wicked Nineveh – to tell the populace that they should repent or suffer the wrath of God .

Now as we know from years of hearing the rest of this reading, Jonah was bitterly disappointed when his prophecy of the end didn’t come true. The people repented and the Lord spared them. It really isn’t fair, you know…you stick your neck out there to predict a doom scenario, look like a total fool on God's behalf., and don’t even get a crack of thunder for your efforts. The people go on with a new perspective, we hope, and you don’t get an ounce of credit…..

Then there is Paul writing to the community at Corinth. It was evident to Paul that the Kingdom…the 2nd coming of Jesus….was in close proximity. Material things, marriage relationships, all relationships were secondary to the imminent return of the Lord.

And finally, there is Jesus, himself. He arrived proclaiming the Kingdom of Godde as close, and then recruited three very unsophisticated fishermen to help him get the word out. Say what ??

What these 3 readings have in common is the proclamation of Godde’s action in the near term. From an OT perspective, this was a God of wrath…”clean up your act or die” kind of divine intervention. For Paul, the very arrival of Jesus on earth was the catalyst that put into motion the end times. We need to remember that Paul was a good Jew, a scholar, and had the full weight of the prophets like Jonah behind him.

And Jesus was using, to describe his own ministry, the words that his culture would understand…the Kingdom of Godde is at hand….

And here we are, 2,000 years later at least, or in the case of Jonah 2800 years later, still pondering what the Kingdom looks like. The Jewish tradition uses this reading from Jonah to proclaim that Godde forgives those who turn back and repent. It is read every year during Yom Kippur.

The perspective of Paul is useful to explain his urgency, which comes through in many of his letters. There was no time to waste in getting the Word to as many as possible before the Parousia, or second coming. Marriage was of no use…why bring children into the world ? Commerce was for just wouldn’t be long….

We have heard these predictions as humans periodically for centuries, whether driven by numerology or revelation, or in some cases delusion. And they aren’t a whole lot different in some way than the people who believe that having elected Barack Obama, we are facing eventual doom. Similar fears circulated when a Catholic was elected President in the 60’s.

When we are frightened, stretched, faced by enormous social change, our fears get the better of us and we look for predictions so that we know what is going on. At least we “know” what will happen even if it means we will be snatched up from our cars and rise whilst others are left behind. This provides certainty and it relieves people’s fears in a curious way. If you are facing Doom, you at least want to know what it will look like…

Nineveh repented and Jonah felt despair. Paul died watching for the reign of Godde to arrive at any moment. Jesus, however, died having lit the spark of the Kingdom of Godde …the kernel of faith…a new age….. and that is what is with us today.

So what do we see when we look at our own times of great change, and peer both back and forward ? Jesus pointed out the Kingdom of God was here…now. And he spent a lot of his preaching ministry telling what it looks like…”the kingdom of Godde is like….”
And all of those stories described a world that is upside down and sideways to what we want and expect. The First is last, a treasure is hidden in a field, a mustard seed grows large, the laborers who came early and came later to the vineyard…..the old rules aren’t in place in this Kingdom.

So is it here ?? Do we live in it, or wait for it to arrive ? Did it pass us by ?

(I can’t help but mention a minority view of theologians here, in that some believe that the 2nd coming of Christ occurred when the Holy Spirit was visited upon the followers of Jesus. That view would make the reality of the Kingdom our responsibility with Godde’s help, as our baptismal vows say in the Prayer Book. Just a thought ….)

I would suggest that the Kingdom is here when we embrace, to the best of our individual and communal ability, what we believe and what we have been taught. To love Godde, and our neighbors as ourselves. To feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned. If we are attending to the business of the Kingdom as we prayerfully understand it, we can in some measure put aside the gnawing fear and the common anxiety. This is the slow, sometimes plodding work of our lives in faith. No chariots, flames, rapture, trumpets….just the steady work that we do anyway. Of course it is punctuated by high points…moments when we are crystal clear, some hour during a Cursillo, a moment from a retreat experience. Or, as a not at all religious friend told me once, “I was sitting on the roof repairing a leak, and suddenly I saw that all things were One !” But then like Peter, we don’t get to build three booths on the mountain and hang out forever….we go down into the crowds resume our work, perhaps with a sense of new direction.

What do you and I, and this community of faith, believe to be the work of the Kingdom for us, in this time and this place ? So help us Godde… ?