Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas Day Sermon

Sermon Preached at St. James’ Episcopal Church, San Francisco, CA
Christmas Day 2013
Luke 2:1-20
by The Rev. Ron Willis

When viewed through the lens of American cultural and political values, God reveal’s God’s self in the most irrational of ways. We celebrate the likes of Donald Trump and the Housewives of Excess. We pay our sports heroes more than one could reasonably ever spend and our teachers and first responders so little that they can’t afford to live where they work. We fund massive corporations to steal commodity crops at below-cost prices and simultaneously cut off the primary source of food access to the most vulnerable among us. And the fundamentalist Christians among us are so drunk on American self-righteousness that they actually believe that they can force God’s hand and bring about the Second Coming by playing a very dangerous geopolitical game in the Holy Land.

Often at Christmas we ponder where Jesus might return to us. And just as often, we might suggest a homeless shelter here in the City, a farmworker’s encampment in the Central Valley, a desolate Native American reservation. But as deplorable as these and other domestic situations may be, and they are, they don’t meet the smell test when compared to the way God has entered into human history according to Scripture.

One of God’s great occasions of self-revelation came through the Hebrew people in Egypt. Holy Scripture brings us a vivid account of the flight of an enslaved people and their great Exodus to a new homeland. But why would God choose these people? Their entire race was enslaved by one of the greatest powers on Earth. And most likely people had no idea who they were, nor cared about their plight. But God heard the cries of this people, and made them the test case for revealing God’s purposes to and through them via Moses and the Prophets.

From the viewpoint of dominant American cultural values, we should have expected God to work in and through the Pharaoh and the elite of Egypt, a great power of the day. There, God would get everyone’s attention. There, God would have a great army and massive wealth to use to bring about God’s purposes. But God could not have acted more differently. God chose to reveal God’s self through the one group of people under the influence of Egypt’s power who had the very least of everything. No political power. No wealth. And no freedom. This hardly seems like a rational way to get humanity’s attention.

And today, as we celebrate the first coming of the Messiah, we are again confronted with a seemingly irrational set of circumstances if God’s intent is to illustrate to humanity God’s purposes. By our standards, we’d expect God to act in and through the great player on the political and cultural stage, through Rome and the Imperial apparatus. That’s where you get noticed, right? That’s were the power is. That’s where you have to go if you want to make a difference. But again, God does just the opposite.

God’s greatest revelation to us, God’s actual enfleshment, takes place in a most ridiculously unimportant backwater of the Empire.

To a nobody couple, probably crashing with relatives in an overfull household, all waiting to be assessed for burdensome taxation by the foreigners who rule them. With no bed available, the infant God incarnate is lovingly placed in a feeding trough, of all things. This is how God enters into human history, as the bastard child of a poor young couple who are on the road in the middle of absolutely nowhere? It’s a scene right out of one of Dorothea Lange’s iconic depression-era photographs. Hardly befitting a king, much less God’s own incarnation.

But wait, there’s more!

Shepherds were much celebrated in the agrarian periods of the Old Testament. They were seen as loyal caretakers who risked life and limb to shield their flock from harm, and we’ve done a remarkable job of romanticizing their existence. But by the time of Jesus’ birth Shepherds represented the lowest of the low in society. They were seen as moochers, feeding their animals on others’ land. They were assumed to be otherwise unemployable and as utterly untrustworthy. Some towns and villages banned them from entering their gates. They were not even permitted to testify in court, so unworthy were they. Moreover, they were despised by the religious authorities of the time, because they did not respect the Sabbath, working every day as they did, and also because they dealt with filthy dirty animals. Unpure! Unpure! The shepherds in our Gospel today are the quintessential outsiders.

And it is to these outsiders, these absolutely powerless itinerants, whom God’s messengers reveal the amazing new thing that God is doing in Bethlehem.

For decades now conservatives in America have picked and chosen through the sermons and statements of the Pope of Rome to imply Papal approval of their agenda. Recent Popes have provided them with plenty of material, which they used to justify the subjugation of women and to question the human dignity of gays and lesbians and others on the margins. And now, in Frances, we hear something different coming the Vatican. His message: we’ve been railing against abortion and gay rights so much that we’re blue in the face. Enough. It’s time to focus on being the disciples Jesus taught us to be through his word and example. It’s time to look after the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned and the sick.

And so the conservatives here have just lost it! This Pope is a radical Marxist! Somebody talk to him! Somebody get him back on message – it’s all about abortion and gay rights! How dare he suggest that unfettered Capitalism has a hidden dark side? Who is he to decry how those who “have” can work the system to gain more at the expense of those who “have not?” Blasphemy, they cry!

But what does Scripture tell us? God reveals God’s self to those who are lowly, outcast, enslaved and poor. Our job as Jesus’ disciples is to prefigure the reign of God. We are to expect that God’s reign will continue to break into this world in places where human need is the greatest: Among those who hunger, those who are in prison, those who suffer because of the active or passive neglect of the powerful.

Our Christmas invitation might be to be in those places, or empower others to do so, to be God’s hands and feet in this world until Jesus returns.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Getting the Christmas List Right

Last week my friends Rhea and Joel took their three-year old daughter, Olive, to meet Santa and Mrs. Claus.  When it came to sitting on Santa’s lap for a photo op she wasn’t having any of it, but she did enjoy having them read her a story.  It all went pretty well, until, on the way home, Olive began to get very concerned that Rhea might not have gotten her Christmas list right.  She anxiously asked her mother, with a voice as serious as a heart attack, “Did you tell them I want love?!”

I wonder if you got your Christmas list right.  You probably remembered the iPAD Air, Burt’s Bees Tips and Toes Kit, and the DVD Box Set of all five seasons of “Breaking Bad.”  The stockings are hung, the cookies are baked, and the roast beast is thawing.   You can go check, check, check, right down your to-do list.  But did you remember what you really want?  Or were you too afraid to ask?

It is so easy at Christmas to forget what we really want.  It is an ache so deep in us that we readily distract ourselves with lots and lots of other stuff.  We get busy.  We make ourselves impressive so nobody will notice, no matter how empty we may feel inside.  We settle for the items way down on the Christmas list for fear we might not get what we really want.  But not Olive: “Did you tell them I want love?!”

Not romantic illusions, not sentimental tripe, not early parole for good behavior, not some quid pro quo, but unconditional, unconstrained, unlimited love – enough to last forever – that is what we really want.  And that is precisely what we get for Christmas, if only we have the courage to receive it.  Hear the angel saying, “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.”[1]

God’s love comes in unexpected places, in ways we could never have anticipated.  It comes, as Jesus himself said, like a thief in the night, especially on this night.  We gather tonight at the scene of a break-in.  Love is breaking-in.  The birth of Jesus is an inside job, God’s way of subverting our suspicion, cynicism, and fear from the inside in the only way He could: in the form of a vulnerable child, slipping right through our defended hearts and breaking them wide open. 

God comes to us in Jesus to steal the only thing He desires from us:  our hearts.  The mystery of Christmas is not how much we desire to be loved by God, but how much God desires to be loved by us, the lengths to which God will go to reveal His desire for us.  God desires our love because He knows that our loving Him (and our neighbor, which is the flip side of the coin), is the only way to open ourselves to receiving the love for which we so deeply yearn. 

The shepherds hear the Angels’ song and come rejoicing to the manger.  The birth of Jesus is good news for absolutely everybody, even for nobodies like these poor shepherds; especially for nobodies like these poor shepherds, who now realize they are the objects of an infinite love, a divine gaze reflecting back to them an inalienable dignity.

But love is never easy, and with dignity comes responsibility.  Mary treasures the good news the shepherds bring, but she also ponders it in her heart.[2]  The arc of love that begins in the manger ends at the foot of the Cross, but it bends toward new life, stronger than death, bursting forth anew in the Resurrection.  Love gives us a lot to think about.  No wonder Mary turned pensive that first of many sleepless, nursing nights.

We, too, are swept up in the arc of love, a wild spiraling journey that brings us back again to Bethlehem to rediscover love’s joy and love’s courage:  the courage of a mother’s love; the courage of our Father’s love, holy be his Name; what we all want and need because we were made for love.

William Blake describes God, the source of love, as like the sun, which gives its light and heat away,

“And we are put on earth a little space, 

That we may learn to bear the beams of love.”[3] 

 The beams of love are sometimes as weightless and warm as the sunlight on our face; sometimes they are as heavy and numbing as the hard wood of the cross.  Our life’s purpose is to learn to bear those beams: to give birth to love, to bring it forth in every act of creativity and compassion in our lives; and to carry this love for and with each other, even when it is a heavy load. 

“Did you tell them I want love?”  May love be our plea, our gift, and our sign, as we make our way again to Bethlehem. [4]  Amen.

[1] Luke 2:10-12.
[2] Luke 2:19.
[3] William Blake, “The Little Black Boy.”
[4] See Christina Rossetti’s poem, “Love Came Down At Christmas.”

Monday, December 16, 2013

A Disappointing Messiah

John the baptizer in the wilderness

John sent word by his disciples and asked Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”[1]  For John the baptizer, Jesus was turning out to be a disappointing Messiah.  Apparently, the news of what Jesus was doing gave him pause.  He was beginning to wonder if maybe he had made a mistake pinning his hopes on Jesus.  

Is Jesus the one you’ve been waiting for?  Maybe, like John, you have your doubts too.  It may not seem like Jesus has made much of a difference in your life, much less the world.  I guess it all depends on our expectations.  Just what is it that we expect the Messiah to do?

Jesus clearly was not fulfilling John’s expectations.  Remember John from last week’s Gospel reading.  He rejects the Jerusalem Temple system and its ruling elites, calling them snakes and warning them of the wrath to come.   He is a fiery, populist preacher, baptizing in the wilderness, creating a purified people ready to meet the Messiah.  This Messiah will come with his winnowing fork in his hand, “and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”[2]

Drawing on the vision of the prophet Isaiah, John imagines God’s Messiah coming to liberate and restore Israel, judging and punishing her enemies.  For John, the enemy is the Roman Empire and the Jewish aristocrats who collaborate with Roman rule.  Sorting out the good guys from the bad guys and punishing the wicked is what the Messiah is supposed to do.  That is how the world is made right again. 

Now, rather than dismiss John’s expectations as the apocalyptic excesses of a wild-eyed fanatic, I believe John expresses the legitimate hopes of oppressed people everywhere.  Even more, he represents a very mainstream view that, in the face of manifest evil, justice and order can only be maintained by counter-violence.  In fact, God is invoked as the justification of violence against the wicked, as the source of power whereby the wicked are overcome and punished here and now. 

“Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you."
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.[3]

John’s hope for the Messiah is the hope for one great, big final violent act on behalf of God to end violence once and for all.  Then, and only then, will there be peace on earth.  John is waiting for a war to end all war, a war on terror to rid the world of evil.  In his conviction that we just cannot make do without violence, are we so different from John? 

Well, if that is the Messiah’s job description, we had better start interviewing some candidates other than Jesus.  Jesus offers an entirely different kind of hope, one that may seem a little scandalous. 

Jesus responds to John’s questions with a pastiche of images also drawn from Isaiah’s vision:  "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."[4]
Notice what Jesus leaves out: no purifying flames, no winnowing fork, and no proclamation of divine vengeance.  Jesus refuses to become a Davidic warrior-king.  His rag-tag following of the sick, the poor, and the outcast is no rebel army.  He is no threat to his enemies.  John is focused on moral purity and revenge.  Jesus is focused on healing and forgiveness.[5]

Both John and Jesus desire human liberation and healing.  They draw on the same prophetic vision of renewal for the whole earth – not just human beings – but their understandings of how that promise will be kept could not be more different.  This is why Jesus blesses those who are not scandalized by his way of being Messiah.  He knows he is bound to disappoint those who are expecting a quick – and violent – fix. 

After John’s disciples leave, Jesus asks the crowds a rhetorical question:  What did they come out to the wilderness to see?  His reference to a reed shaken by the wind and someone dressed in royal robes is an allusion to King Herod (the coins minted by Herod pictured a reed blowing in the wind).[6]  John is in prison ostensibly because he criticized Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias, more likely because his apocalyptic movement was perceived as a threat.   That is why John is eventually executed.

But, of course, the crowds came out to the wilderness to see John, not Herod. Perhaps the crowd is fascinated by the conflict between John and Herod, curious to see whose side Jesus will take in this rivalry. John, according to Jesus, is a great prophet, the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prediction of a messenger who would prepare the way for the Messiah.  In this, he is greater than any human being heretofore; and yet, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John. 

And then Jesus says something very revealing, which was not included in today’s Gospel reading:  From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!”[7]

God is not the source of violence.  Those who belong to God’s kingdom suffer violence.   This is the scandal of Jesus, the offense that makes him a disappointing Messiah.   He will suffer being made a victim in solidarity with victims, but he refuses to reciprocate by making victims of his enemies.  His death is a scandal to those who are convinced that only violence can overcome violence. 

This is the problem for John, whom Jesus compares to the Old Testament prophet Elijah.  As Andrew Marr observes,

John was locked in precisely the same relationship with Herod and Herodias as Elijah was with Ahab and Jezebel. In both cases, we have a prophet deadlocked with a royal couple in what can only be called a stalemate. That is to say, in each case, the prophet has become a mimetic double of his royal enemy. In such a situation, it does not matter who "wins" because as long as one is trying to "win," then God and God's people lose. One might be edified by Elijah's protest against the sacrificial cult of Baal which was taking the lives of countless children. However, Elijah's slaying all the prophets of Baal hardly changes things for the better. He has solved one problem of victimization by making victims of others. As long as the prophets, for all their zeal and righteousness, struggle with abusive authority in a mimetic way and create further victims, as did Elijah, then no fundamental change has taken place. God's kingdom is still subject to violence and, no matter who wins, a violent contestant in the winner. [8]

The prophetic tradition culminating in John the Baptist only brings us so far toward the kingdom of God.  That tradition understands God’s desire for the renewal of the world, but it us unable to salvage that vision from the wreckage of the cycle of violence that God’s kingdom suffers.  This is the real scandal from which we need to be delivered:  the scandal of making victims of one another.

James Alison writes, “There is only one way not to be locked into the scandals of this world, and that is by learning to forgive, which means not allowing oneself to be defined by the evil done.”[9]  This is the message of the Crucified Messiah: Blessed are those who are not scandalized by the risk and promise of forgiveness.  It is the only way to new life beyond the death we mete out by making victims of each other.

When Nelson Mandela emerged from his jail cell to become the President of South Africa, he included his jailers in his inauguration ceremony.  President Bill Clinton asked him, “Didn’t you hate them?” Mandela said,Yes, but I realized if I hated them I was still their prisoner, and I wanted to be free.”[10] 

Our Messiah comes to us as the Forgiving Victim, not the Vengeful Warrior. Jesus does not bring an end to evil and suffering in one fell swoop.  Instead, he patiently inducts us into a way of life that invites us, in imitation of him, to accept our vulnerability, forgive our enemies, and create a reconciling community of healing love.

This Messiah brings no quick fixes, no smug sense of superiority over "those people," no opportunity to make anyone else – not even God, certainly not our enemies – responsible for our choices.  This Messiah has come.  And yet, we are still waiting – or, better, he is waiting for us – to fulfill the promise of his coming.  Is Jesus a disappointing Messiah?  Maybe.  Sometimes.  In those dark moments when I just wish someone would make all the bad stuff go away.   Still, I think Jesus really is what we’ve all been waiting for: the gracious mirror in which we might see reflected the true image of ourselves; of the people we are meant to be.  And so this season we sing again,

“O, come Desire of nations, bind in one the hearts of all mankind, bid thou our sad divisions cease, and be thyself our King of Peace.”[11]

[1] Matthew 11:2-3.
[2] Matthew 3:1-12.
[3] Isaiah 35:4-6.
[4] Matthew 11:4-6; cf. Isaiah 26:19, 29:18-19, 35:5-6, 42:18, 61:1.
[5] Andrew Marr, OSB, “The Least in the Kingdom of Heaven:  A Look at John the Baptist and Jesus” at
[6] Ben Witherington, “Commentary on Matthew 11:2-11” at
[7] Matthew 11:12-15.
[8] Marr, op. cit.
[9] James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong:  Original Sin Thorough Easter Eyes (New York:  Cross Road Publishing Company, 1998), p. 144.
[10] Nancy Rockwell, “Forerunners” at
[11] “O come, O come, Emmanuel”, number 56 in The Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Publishing Inc.).