incarnation

Life After Normal

IMG_3772

photo: Matthew R. Anderson

‘Do you love me?’ Jesus challenged Peter. ‘Lord, you know that I love you.’ ‘Then feed my sheep’.  ‘Simon, do you love me?’ A second time. Peter, wondering why again the question: ‘Lord, you know that I do.’ ‘Then feed my sheep.’ And again: Jesus being a bit pushy. ‘Simon, do you love me more than anything?’ Big Peter, stung now, maybe turning red, and being a man of quick temper maybe a bit angry: ‘Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.’

And finally, only then, Peter, always a bit dense, realizing too late what the importance of the number three was. Precisely how many times he’d betrayed Jesus. That’s a whole new kind of hope and life. It’s truth-telling, and repentance. It’s surprising, and life-GIVING rather than life-taking. As if all the hidden,  bad banks in Panama we’ve been hearing all about were suddenly to open their books and say: okay, now all of this money can go BACK. Take it. Take it back, back to the hospitals with their peeling paint and the falling down elementary schools that governments couldn’t keep open, and the health care workers being paid minimum wage, and the veterans who aren’t being given payments. All those austerity measures so the rich could get richer. Take it BACK! Let this wealth create life rather than destroy it.

John Mellencamp sings: “Life goes on, long after the thrill of livin’ is gone.” Sometimes, there’s just no going back to normal. The Gospel of the resurrection is the sacred word that sometimes we shouldn’t even try – because normal wasn’t right to begin with.

The resurrected Jesus stands on the shoreline of our lives, calling out to us in our little boats. Don’t go back to normal, he shouts out. That’s done, now. You can grieve it, if you need to, but it’s gone. Come sit, and be quiet, and have a little something to eat. And then together, let’s talk about what you’ll do next, now that things have changed. Let’s sit and think and ponder whatever resurrection is needed in your own life.

Advertisements

The Curious Unrecognizability of Christ

 IMG_4583

It’s always bothered me. In John’s version of Easter, Mary, when finally she turns around and bumps into Jesus, thinks he’s the gardener. Isn’t that a more than a little bit strange? I’m sure I’m not the only one. After all, we know who’s supposed to be Jesus. And unlike us, Mary was there. She’d known Jesus. But she sees him at the grave and – very strange – instead of being overjoyed doesn’t even recognize him. She thinks he’s the gardener. That just doesn’t make sense. It had only been, what? Thirty-six hours?

The whole thing is weird. Despite church tradition the first (human) words from the resurrection aren’t really “he is risen”. The first words from the resurrection are really “who are you?” Not an assertion, but an ongoing question, the same one we’ve been asking 2000 years.

Maybe it was the shock. Maybe it was Mary’s grief, blinding her to the man standing right in front of her. Those are all good, rational arguments. But for me, there’s another, more interesting possibility.

Maybe, I wonder, maybe new life ALWAYS changes our appearances somehow. Maybe the kind of passage from death to life that we celebrate strips away everything, like a fire, and only leaves the real person that the Creator intended. Including with Jesus.

Maybe reality is upside down, and it’s not that the resurrection isn’t real so much as what we’re living right now might not be. Maybe it’s not so much that we change, but that, given enough love and time, and perhaps some divine intervention, we become, if we’re lucky, who we really are.

Imagine being a tadpole. Your whole life has been in a pond. All you know is water. That’s the limit of your comprehension. And one day, your close friend, another tadpole, disappears. You think she’s gone, but she’s just following nature, which means that there’s a resurrection of a sort going on. She’s changing into the adult. A toad. Something all of you tadpoles don’t even suspect exists, even though it’s coming for all of you. Then, one day, from somewhere, somehow, into the water dives this magnificent creature from beyond. Not a tadpole. Something completely different. And yet you sort of recognize her. If that happened, it would alter everything you believed about reality, there in the tadpole world. Maybe Jesus became who he really was, who we will ALL someday be, only by going through the suffering he did. That’s certainly is the case for other people. I can safely say that at 56, my sufferings have changed me, and I know I’m not alone.

Easter doesn’t mean life eternal. It means life after death – or maybe better, through death. The spring of our lives is upon us, but there will never be a spring without a winter, and every winter, no matter how hard, carries spring in its bosom. Northern Europeans know that well enough. May God give us the eyes, and the hope, and the expectation, actually to believe, see and trust in THAT kind of resurrection.

Innocent Suffering

2013-06-13 12.41.35

photo: M. Anderson, Ireland, 2013

We have a problem.

Our problem is simple, and it’s this: on the one side we have a God who, we say, is almighty, all powerful, all-knowing and all-loving. On the other side, this God’s world has toddlers lying drowned on beaches and terrified young girls kidnapped out of their schools by armed men who sell them as slave-brides. How do we reconcile our beliefs with the suffering of the innocent? It’s the age-old dilemma of faith.

This world, I realize, also has rainbows and beautiful sunsets, laughter and hugs –

but not enough of those, not nearly enough.

Today is a dark day, a way-of-the-cross day.

Today is a day to hear the crowds shout for blood, and to see Jesus’ blood streaming down his face from the thorns.

Today is a day for remembering sadism, the callous ability to cause harm, the sickness of powerful men who find joy in hurting others. Let’s be honest and name evil for what it is, and how OFTEN it is: today is a day for marking that there are, in our world, too many sociopaths and psychopaths, and not just individuals, but psychopathic tyrannical governments, too, whole systems that murder to cover up, who would rather their citizens die than vote, or who believe peace means crucifying to make an example. Demonic powers, the power of the dollar that sells arms to countries where children soldiers shoot other children, the powers of efficiency that ran the trains to the gas chambers, the powers of cynicism that say there’s nothing we can do, except to make our own selves comfortable and make money. How can we believe in a God through all this?

Crucify him! Crucify him! There is NO answer to the problem of innocent suffering. These children do not deserve to suffer. That’s the truth. All we can do, this frightening not-so-Good Friday, is to say that loudly and clearly. There is no faithful answer to suffering except one – the voluntary suffering WITH others. The standing up to injustice, even when it costs us, as well. And the remembering that God was in Christ, as Paul says, on the cross – the holy, terrible, awful, painful, wrongness of the cross – reconciling the world. For there is no answer to innocent suffering, except to stand with the innocent.

We Call it Winter

Today, with how cold it was, I got out the gear. Actually it was kind of fun. Snow pants, long special mitts good to -40 Celsius, thermal underwear, Russian-style hat, boots. Since this winter has been, generally, so mild, it’s okay – maybe even good – when every now and then the temperature drops. Nobody is complaining about the cold snap. So long as you’re prepared, you’re okay. Right?

Jesus, apparently didn’t have much preparation time for his excursion in extreme conditions. Luke says that Jesus returned from the Jordan river area and was led into the wilderness. Just like that. No prep time.

That word – wilderness, and the mental and physical and spiritual space it represents – is important. We Canadians have our own form of wilderness. We call it winter. We’re proud of it and scared of it, at the same time. Like the people of the middle east, or peoples anywhere, and their wild places. In the Bible the wilderness represents more or less what the hardest times of winter represent for us Canadians – a place of deprivation, but also of challenge, and survival. Also, and very importantly, the wilderness represents a place where Israel, and later Jesus, and later, the early Christians, consistently meet God. In that struggle for survival and meaning they define their true identity.

Interesting, how that works. It’s the HARD places, the difficult circumstances, where we tend to find our true characters under stress, AND where our Creator is to be found. The wilderness is a place that allows us, in fact, drives us, to meet our Maker. It’s just us and the elements, the most basic needs to survive. Lent represents our time in the cold. Our winter.

To hell and back

highway hearse 2014

I went to visit a parishioner in the hospital once and was completely thrown by what I discovered when I walked into her room.

Maybe I hadn’t been paying enough attention. Someone had told me what this woman was in for, I remember that. But I’m afraid it had gone straight in one ear and out the other. So when I walked into the hospital room, I was surprised to discover there was no bed. Instead there was this thing in the centre of a large space. It looked like some kind of miniature circus ride. Or a space-ship pod, or a climbing frame or something.

Hello? I said, tentatively. I stopped in the doorway. Was I in the right place? Then from the middle of the tubing and bars I heard the small voice of my parishioner: “hello….I’m down here.” I peered closer. Near the floor. And there she was, strapped right into the middle of that contraption. Hanging upside down.

I walked up to it. There was a bed there, all right. I could see it at this point. But it was an upside down bed. There was also a chair beside it. When I sat in the chair I couldn’t see the woman at all. It’s called a Stryker frame, she informed me dryly, while I sat down, got up again, and then kind of wandered in a circle around her, looking for some way I could actually make eye contact. Are you having trouble, pastor?

Obviously, it should have been me asking HER this question. But there we were. I have a spinal cord injury, she told me, while I dithered and fidgeted. I’m going to be in this thing a month, at least. My poor husband’s stuck at home working his job and taking care of three kids. We’ll be lucky if we’re still together by the time I’m out of this thing. You can stop shuffling around like that. She sounded annoyed. I’m not going anywhere.

I stopped shuffling around.

Are you okay? She asked.

I’m okay, I answered her.

Well, I’m not, she said. Welcome to my own personal hell.

Now when all the people were baptized, it says, and when Jesus likewise had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “you are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

So pleased, apparently, that God would lead this Beloved Jesus, also, to his own personal hell, tortured and dying, on a cross. Someone once said: beware of being one of God’s favourites. It gets you into trouble every time.

And when you think about it, isn’t that true? Martin Luther would’ve been burned at the stake if they could’ve gotten hold of him. Or Martin Luther King, shattered with a bullet for speaking up for justice. Or Thomas a Becket, run through with a sword right there, on the steps of his altar. Or Saint Paul, persecuted and ridiculed and shipwrecked and murdered. Or any of a thousand Syrian Christians right now, in a country that was one of the first blessed with the Gospel, fleeing desperately to save their lives.

With you I am well pleased. That’s what the voice said to Jesus when he was baptized.

It’s an odd sort of pleasure.

In trying to understand the mystery of why Jesus was baptized at all, I think about the woman in the hospital, who told me she was in her own personal hell. Or the comment I saw on Facebook yesterday, congratulating another woman on her first cancer-free diagnosis. After five years of hell, said the Facebook post, finally free!

Yes, I think. I understand hell, when you put it like that. Probably all of us do. Certainly any of us over – I don’t know – 40 years of age. You don’t make it that far without a few cuts and bruises: cancer, divorce, separation, child problems, parent problems, dreams lost, dreams found. Who knows? Life, we eventually realize, isn’t what we do when we’re not suffering. Life eventually becomes, more than we might think, the ways in which we DEAL with suffering. Live through it. Rise, not above it, exactly, but with it. Sometimes, even, because of it.

So maybe the baptism of Jesus makes sense if we think of baptism, not as something that leads away from suffering, but something that leads straight through it. And then, if that’s it, the fact that Jesus was baptized means that he was willing to take on, willingly, the kind of voyage into hell that the woman in the Stryker frame was talking about, or that the Facebook post person was just getting over. The human condition.

I felt like such a fool for the first few minutes I was visiting that woman in the Stryker frame. I just stood there, towering over her while she complained bitterly and then cried about what she was going through. I felt completely out of place, awkward and embarrassed. It took me forever to realize the simplest thing: that I didn’t need to be standing at all. Eventually, when the nurse came in, she found me where – if I’d been sensitive enough to realize it – I could have been from the beginning: on my back, on the floor, parallel to the bed, looking up at this parishioner. Sharing her perspective.

What really pleases God, it turns out, is solidarity. That’s what the baptism of Jesus is probably really about. For Jesus emptied himself, Paul writes, taking on the form of a slave, and in that form – on the floor, lying beside our human suffering, he became obedient, in love, to the human condition, even death on a cross. Only then was he raised. Like Jesus, it will be for us only when, trusting in the compassion and community we see in the cross, and finally beginning to understand this strange way of being God’s favourites, that we too, through death, in solidarity with the one who went first, will know what it means to rise again.

Which Star We Follow

De L'eglise after snowstorm

It’s January third. And I think it’s safe to say that this year, there’s not a lot of optimism. New Year’s Eve I was at a small dinner party. One of the people there had prepared some lovely cards with questions on them that went around the table and we all had to answer. When the questions were about last year, each of us shared warm memories. It was great. Lots of laughter. But then came the question: “what significant happenings do you expect on the world stage in 2016?” And all of a sudden, you could feel the chill. Each of us had wonderful recollections of the year past. But most of us were quite apprehensive about the year coming. War, violence, financial crisis, disease, climate change, breakdown. One after another we laid out forecasts of doom. That’s what we saw in the stars.

When the Magi heard the king, it says, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star they’d seen at its rising.

Apparently, not all stars say the same thing. At our dinner party, we saw bad things. Trouble, and difficulty, and pain, and disaster, despite our fairly rosy personal stories. But according to the Gospel of Matthew, the magi also followed a star, right to the Messiah.

So which is it? Will our coming year be guided by a star of great difficulty, or a star leading to Bethlehem? Which ways are we being led?

Epiphany is such an important moment that every year it surprises me we don’t make more of it. It’s huge. If it wasn’t for Epiphany, there’d be no Christian faith, as we know it. Without the kind of trip commemorated today, those of us from European ancestry, at least, might still be worshipping the god of some oak tree or other in the vast, dark, northern forests.

To put it another way: Jesus was born a Jew, lived a Jew and died a Jew. That is fact. Insofar as anyone in his day believed he was a Messiah, it was a Jewish Messiah. “Born to set his people free” as the old hymn says, emphasis on HIS people. That we who are non-Jews got in on the Jesus thing is actually kind of surprising. If wasn’t God’s plan – which of course, Christians believe it WAS – then it’s one of the greatest ironies of history (as Nietsche believed!). Christianity is what happens when Israel’s Messiah comes and everyone believes it BUT Israel.

We Christians are not the originators of the Christmas story. And we’re not even its first and most important recipients. Yet, according to Matthew, we were at least invited to the party. How do we know this? Because of Epiphany. Because of the Magi, the first non-Jewish worshippers, following the star to find the baby, born in Bethlehem.

So the very first image we get of our own spiritual ancestors is that they were pilgrims (which is, of course, great for me to be able to say!). They were outsiders, and foreigners, and seekers. They were also a little bit lost.

I started out asking which star you thought this year might be hanging in our skies: a star of difficulty and danger, or a star leading to the love and transformation of the Christ child. The irony is: they are probably both the same star. And isn’t that a pretty good description, maybe, of who WE should be, following it? Pilgrims, outsiders, foreigners, and seekers – despite often being a little bit lost.

Tree Lot on December 23

German ornament copy

Maybe one of the saddest things you can do, the evening of December 23rd, is to stand on a sidewalk and look at a Christmas tree lot. It’s like peering into the fairy-tale ballroom after Cinderella and the Prince have left. You see the evidence of something magical. But no actual magic. And no people. There are tags strewn about, needles stamped into the earth, bits of twine here and there from the wrapping machine, placards wired onto the fence advertising the prices– scotch pines, ten dollars a foot. A Big “Merry Christmas-Joyeux Noel” still stencilled on the entrance. But the party’s over. All that’s left is garbage.

Which is why it’s doubly hard to see a tree, on such a lot, hours before Christmas. A tree that apparently, no one wanted. I empathize with those trees. On the lot by the church in my neighbourhood last night, it was dark. The speakers on the lightposts in Verdun were still playing Christmas music: Jingle Bell Rock and Bing Crosby crooning White Christmas. But on the lot, the lights had been put out. A half-dozen trees leaned forlornly against slat fencing. No one even bothered to guard them– the gate was wide open. You want a tree? Go on in and take one, someone would have said. If someone had bothered to be there.

The trees, so valuable just a few days ago – are now for the asking. The problem is, no one’s asking. The bubble of Christmas tree speculation – if we can call it that – bursts somewhere during the evening of, probably, December 21st. A Christmas tree alone on Christmas Eve is as unwanted as a turkey after Thanksgiving. Worse, actually. Because at least a turkey can stay frozen. People get hungry again. No one gets the urge for a Christmas tree in January. Not even a beautiful ten-foot balsam fir. And because they’re cut, the tragedy is, no one can replant them. These living creatures have been sacrificed for absolutely nothing. Actually, less than nothing. They’re a liability.

So there I was, my hands full with last-minute groceries, looking into the lot, hearing the carols, and thinking about Christmas. And abandonment. I was remembering all the times in my life I’ve felt like one of those trees. The times I’ve been at some conference and realized that all the important people around me were being taken up, disappearing one by one into conversations, lunch-plans, networking, wanted for their value. And I was left behind. The times, so many years ago, when I was a teenager, when I sat at home alone, my social capital less than nothing. Times have changed, in my life. That’s not true anymore. But my memories still remind me what that’s like.

And then I thought about my students. All those young people, on the day they start CEGEP or college, trying so desperately to figure out what might get them a job five years down the road. It’s such a crap shoot. The stakes are high. Some of them will get it right. They’ll be the ones snapped up like the premium Christmas trees at the beginning of December. Many of them will get it partially wrong. But they’ll get picked up just the same, like the tree that’s a bit quirky but just right for that family in the small apartment, or the one that’s sold for a few dollars less. But after that, a few students will see the promise, feel the action so close but so far, and for any number of reasons, they will be passed over. They’ll wind up like these trees. Those are the people I said a prayer for, standing there.

Then I thought about Luther. Because doesn’t a person automatically think about Luther, looking into a Christmas tree lot?  Luther LOVED the Nativity. But he said, and I quote: the birth was pitiful. There was no one –those were his words: no one – to take pity on this young wife who was for the first time to give birth to a child; no one to take to heart her condition. She, a stranger, did not have the least thing a mother needs in a birth-night. There she is without any preparation, without either light or fire, alone in the darkness, no one offering her service. Luke says, in describing Jesus’ birth, that the family was painfully unwanted. Desperate.

And then I thought about my tree, in my apartment. With its lights it glows in the dark and makes me feel warm just looking at it. On its branches I’ve placed the memories of so many beautiful places and people and encounters. G’s friend came for a visit yesterday and said it smelled great. These trees, I thought, looking at the ones scattered and alone in the dark lot – they will never have that moment of beauty.

As I was standing there, a young man who had been loitering across the street from me, under the awning of the metro, sauntered across, hands in his pockets. He looked in at the trees, like I was doing. I thought at first that he had come to ask me for change. But he ignored me. To my surprise, he stepped right past me, into the lot, and up to the abandoned tree I was looking at. And suddenly there was an old truck there, pulling up to the curb, and other young people, two bearded fellows and a woman, gloves on. As I watched they began to load the trees onto the back of the pick-up.

Wait a minute, Hey, wait! I called out to the first kid. What are you doing with these trees?

We’re rescuing them, he answered, with a smile.

What do you mean?

If we leave them they’ll just go into some landfill. The City has a recycling program, but they don’t come here. So we’re taking them. Why? Do you want one?

No.

He shrugged, Okay. Better for us. We can use them. These ones are the best. They’re not plugged up with tinsel and all that other crap (actually, he didn’t use the word crap).

What do you do with them?

The young man evaluated me, but only for a second. With my hands full of shopping bags, and my Anglophone accent, it was pretty clear I wasn’t some sort of city authority.

We take them to our farm, and we grind them up, he answered. Well, not all of them. The really misshapen ones we use as bird-feeders. They’re perfect, like this guy here – he indicated one particularly straggly, ugly tree. We’ll hang bags of suet from his branches and the birds will just love to make a home in him.

The other ones – he nodded to the rest – well. He hoisted one in his hands. They’ll give their wood to mulch and their needles to the strawberries. They don’t make good Christmas trees. But they’re far more valuable for us. They’ll help new life grow, by sheltering the berries under their needles.

And then the fellow jumped in, and the truck took off, and I was left alone again. And I stood there, on that sidewalk, in the dark, and I thought about Christmas again, and about the angels above the hills of Bethlehem, and what it was they were actually singing to the shepherds. About a God who picks out – and picks up – ESPECIALLY the unwanted and the abandoned. The ones left behind. Who uses even that, even loneliness, and death, and injustice and oppression and the stripping away of beauty, as a way of bringing new life to the world. Who has never stopped, as it turns out, being the Creator. And I realized that there is more than one way to be noble. And many ways to be of service. And that the true message of Christmas is in a refugee child, leaning against a fence, forgotten but not alone, whose life means hope and whose death shelters new life, again and again, always Christmas. Always, evergreen.

candles in the snow

The Disappearing Nativity

Harburg Monument

“Now I can die,” said Simeon, holding the baby high up in the air. “For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”

Harburg, Germany, as some of you might know, is a suburb of Hamburg. In a public square in Harburg, near the S-Bahn station, there’s a monument titled “The Monument against Fascism”. Or maybe I should say that there USED to be a monument there. Or maybe I should say that if you go there, there still is a monument, KIND OF. Except that it was once there and now it’s gone. Or it’s still there. But you just can’t see it anymore. Or something.

When this monument was first created in 1986 it was 12 metres tall and 1 metre square, a tall rectangular pillar covered in lead. That’s big.

But it was also a performance piece. Most monuments are built to last centuries. “We will forever remember…” – this or that battle, or sacrifice, or person, or whatever. The typical statue, for me, is some bronze bearded guy on a horse high up in the sky with a bayonet in the air. You can see a beautiful example of that down on the corner of Rene Levesque and Peel.

But the statue in Harburg is very, very different. It was built precisely so that it would disappear. So that it would bury itself. Two artists, Jochen Gerz and Esther Shavez were responsible for the idea. Like I said, the column was (or is, depending on how you look at it) huge: 12 metres tall, one metre square, and covered in lead. Germans especially, but also people from all over the world were invited to sign their names on the monument, as a sign of their commitment to the ongoing struggle against Fascism. It was also supposed to represent their memory of what the past held, especially in Hamburg, where after the war everything was rebuilt as if those terrible years had not existed.

The artists provided two steel pencils so that people could mark whatever they want onto the obelisk – their names, their commitments against fascism, their losses, their hopes and dreams and their struggle against the forces that take away our humanity. It was supposed to be about memory and commitment. As it sunk, it was also supposed to be about how much of something we let go, or SHOULD let go, or not, and how much is permanently with us, or should be.

So here we are, barely three days after Christmas and where a few short days ago you couldn’t find a place ANYWHERE to get away from Christmas carols and songs, now you can’t hear them anywhere. We’re busy burying Christmas right now. If you’re like me, you’re thankful that recycling day is right after Christmas because it’s perfect – you can just get all that paper and cardboard right out of the house, pronto, and make everything clean again.

It’s amazing to me sometimes how big we make Christmas, and then how quickly after December 25th such a massive celebration sinks right out of sight. This is one of those times where the difference between secular society and the teachings of the church are the most glaring. In the church, I always feel like we’re saying: “not yet, not yet, not yet” BEFORE Christmas when all the ads are on TV and they’re having the Christmas parades in early November and cutting trees in October and putting up angels before the snow has even hit the ground. And then from December 26th on, when everyone else is rapidly forgetting the whole thing like it was some kind of overindulgent party, here in the church, we’re saying “wait, Christmas is not over yet!”. Hold on for January 6! The gifts are barely out of the wrapping before everything gets packed up again and the world is talking about New Year’s Eve and Retrospectives of 2014.

FORGET Christmas. That’s where most of our world is right now. But you and I are still being invited to gather around the cradle in Bethlehem.

When I read the Song of Simeon, or I think about the Slaughter of the Innocents in Bethlehem, and I think about the statue in Hamburg, it’s hard not to think that there is an unhelpful way for Christmas to disappear, but maybe also a faithful way to let Christmas go.

The unhelpful way is to to turn away in disgust from the commercialism and all the debt and buying and overindulging and to say: thank God we’re done with that. Or at least: thank God until we all go crazy again next December. Learning from Simeon, the faithful, grace-filled way to remember the Nativity would be to let it enter us in a more permanent way.

That image of that statue of lead sinking into the earth is extremely powerful. I remember a woman from one of my former churches telling me once how she accidentally stepped on a pin, and never had it taken out immediately. Over time it sort of healed over, and now for years it’s been embedded permanently in her foot.

For me, that’s what the Hamburg memorial represents. A needle in the flesh of the earth. It’s not really gone. That’s what the artists wanted. It’s there – and we can either forget it, or not. It’s a memorial beyond fading, because it forms part of the very fabric of the earth that we walk on.

And I think that’s what CAN happen, also, to the good news the angels sang. For some Christmas can just sink out of sight. But if take some time – in and even AFTER this season, to remember the Baby, and Simeon, to think about how life and death and justice are wrapped up in this story, then it can become more like that Memorial. Maybe it can sink into the unconscious working out, day by day, of our faith, no matter who we meet or where we go in 2015.

Simeon was content to witness the good news and then let it sink into him. “Master, let your servant now depart in peace,” he says, “for my eyes have seen this amazing salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.” And he knew it wouldn’t be easy, either, for the people around Jesus. Why else would Luke have him turn to Mary and say, “and a sword will pierce your own soul also”?

Whatever else you can say about a baby, anyone who’s ever been close to one knows that once they arrive, whether you are a mother or a father, a grandparent or an aunt or uncle, the family is never the same again.

And Jesus, in particular, was to be a life that would forever change the world. Starting with the babies the Gospel of Matthew says were slaughtered by Herod, Jesus would turn out to be the kind of new life that resulted both in violence AND peace.

From the time it was first created in 1986, because of the incredible weight of all of that lead, and also because of the location the two artists chose, the Monument Against Fascism began sinking into the earth. This was what the artists wanted. You can see the thing on the internet, and see how it lost height every year as it sank into the earth. By 1993, seven years after it was built, the last of the signatures and the graffitti at the top of the column sunk below the surface. Apparently, if you go by that square in Harburg now, you will only find a plaque with a text in seven languages, reminding visitors of what was once there.

There is a text that the two artists put at the very top of that 12 metre column, and now it’s the only text you can read on a sign by where the statue USED to be. It says this: “In the end, it is only we ourselves who can rise up against injustice.”

We ourselves. You and I are in a world that would now like to forget the Nativity and move on. And in that context we are the living monument, the ones who have signed this remembrance and must now keep it alive. May the child born in swaddling clothes, the God made flesh, and the Word who came to his own even though his own knew him not, help us to live out the true message of Christmas. May we, as we should, become LIVING Christmases, embodying, as did the Messiah, God’s love in our lives.

The Pregnancy We All Have to Go Through

veiled in Chicago three

Do not be afraid Mary, said the angel Gabriel, for you have found favour with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb…

Now: I’m a man. And if I’ve learned nothing else, in my earlier years, from having spent quite a bit of time around pregnant women, I’ve learned that for a man to talk about what it’s like to have a baby is a dangerous thing! How can ANY man really know? I’ve been fortunate enough to rub pregnant bellies. I’ve watched bellies grow, put my ear to a belly and listened to heartbeats, put my hand out and felt a belly kick while a tiny little arm or head or bum inside is moving around. I’ve done all that.

But I’ve never ever owned that belly that’s full with child. I’ve never ever had all that blood and amniotic fluid sloshing around inside me, never felt the water retention, the sore feet, the growing breasts, the relaxing ligaments, the stretching and pulling and fatigue and hormones. I’ve probably been almost as close as most men can get to a pregnancy. But I’ve CERTAINLY never been pregnant.

The fourth Sunday of Advent is the Sunday of pregnancy, and I am a man. What’s more, it’s the Sunday of the Virgin Mary, what the Church Fathers called the Theotokos, and I am a Protestant.

But despite that, I believe there’s something for all of us in this story of a conception and pregnancy. It’s no mistake that the last Sunday before Christmas is the most pregnant Sunday of all, not just literally, but also figuratively. Somehow, this particular day in the church’s calendar, just a few days before the most brash and crazy and hyped and frenetic and overadvertised and overstressed and yet somehow, we hope, one of the most holy – of all festivals, you and I are supposed to sit for a minute, like pregnant women who have to put their feet up. Today we’re supposed to consider what it means to be growing, like Mary, the Christ child within us.

In one sense, the story of Mary, placed as it is right now just before Christmas, is a call for some common sense about all births, but this Birth in particular. You can’t have a baby without a pregnancy, the Bible is saying. Right? Right. Of course! And we shouldn’t expect to have a real, meaningful Christmas without something growing and developing in us, either. In our world of instant everything, there is no disposable Nativity. I can hang out my Christmas lights at the last minute, but not my spirituality and my faith. If we think we can pull out love and joy, peace and goodwill like pulling the Christmas ornaments out of a box in the basement at the last moment, we’re sadly mistaken.

Babies don’t come from nowhere (now there’s a line!). They take nine months – sometimes awkward, sometimes difficult, sometimes joyous, sometimes frightening, sometimes even painful months, to develop. The same is true of a real, meaningful celebration of love and peace and justice.

This last week has been more horrific than most. The gunman in Australia who held hostages, resulting in deaths, in a Lindt café in Australia. The poor children murdered in Pakistan. North Korea hackers cause the shutdown of a Hollywood film, jurors deliberate in the Luc Magnota case right here in Canada.

Can you and I celebrate peace in the next few days? That depends: have we made a commitment in a hundred small ways to living peacefully and in justice from day to day with our neighbors and our family and children or whomever, throughout the year? Have we felt the growing pains of peace?

The same is true of love. Can we celebrate love born in the manger? That may depend on whether we’ve been willing to go through the hard slogging of loving each and every day, fulfilling the joyous commandment to love even those who do not love us.

It’s always seemed to me, as a man, that pregnancy is partly the baby starting to make its presence felt with the parents even before it’s out of the womb. At the very moment of the annunciation, Gabriel is already saying to Mary what kinds of things to expect: you will name him Jesus. And he will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

I find several things illuminating about this passage. It’s also more than a little strange that the angel Gabriel shows up in Mary’s private apartments. During that time, and in that society, for a young woman of Mary’s age to be caught with a visitor in her private space would be extremely scandalous. And dangerous.

And so: I’ve always wondered if, especially for a woman, there isn’t just a touch of irony in what Gabriel tells the young woman: Greetings, favoured one. The Lord is with you.

To be a thirteen year old, scandalized young child, pregnant and under suspicion? Some favour, and we who are Christians should keep this in mind when we think that we want to be God’s favoured ones. God’s favour is a difficult road. By the way, notice that it’s a woman who hears first the “good” news of the incarnation, and a woman who bears the pain.

This is God’s favour for Mary: she was about to become pregnant out of wedlock, risking losing her future husband and with him her chances for survival. She was about to live, for her whole life, the stigma that Jesus was an illegitimate child. She would never live down the accusations, and then when Jesus got old enough to go on his own and teach, he would almost deny her by saying that whoever listened to him was his mother and sister and brother. And then, finally, she would see her own Son, the one for whose sake she had already suffered so much, nailed between his wrist bones to the wood by the Romans for a crime he did not commit, there to die a most horrible death.

And Gabriel says that this is good news.

Mary seems much more realistic. She was much perplexed by his words, it says, and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

In these last few days before Christmas, we would do well to ponder the message that we are also hearing this morning in these lessons. Because I believe that the Gospel writer wants us to consider Gabriel to be talking to us as well.

God would like us to be messengers in our world. But think of Mary – pregnant and unsure of what would happen to her. We are to be a new type of messenger – not just communicating with words, but also by growing a new way of life, a more Christ-like way of life, within our very bodies and homes.

Some people cannot have children of their own, but what this Gospel talks about is the kind of life we can all bring to term, whoever and wherever we are.

Being a man, I don’t really know ‘from the inside, as it were’ what pregnancy is all about. But even from the outside, I can tell you one thing for sure – clearly, even when ultimately it’s joyful, it’s never easy!

May you and I, wherever we find ourselves this blessed season, learn from Mary to be realistic about what God wants to do with our lives, and still have the courage to say: “May it be done with us according to your will”.

Did Jesus Flirt?

Baby Jesus Grapes Cranach

There are just some things that we don’t imagine Jesus doing.
Even though, technically, the church holds to the doctrine of what is called “incarnation” – that is, Jesus was completely and fully human – still, we don’t think, or even LIKE to think, of Jesus engaged in some activities that are just part of every day for the rest of us. There’s nothing particularly edifying, for instance, in imagining Jesus with a sore back! Or getting up in the morning and shaving.
But Jesus was fully human. And one area no one touches, if you’ll pardon the pun, is a part of being human that’s actually quite important: our sexual identities. IF Jesus was fully human, then he had a sexual identity and sexual feelings. They might have been very important in his life or less important, we don’t know. But every human has them. No theologian – and certainly no pastor who wants to keep his or her job – would ever discuss this. I’ve seen a couple of treatments, but mostly from fringe thinkers and crackpots.
So…I would like to say, right from the beginning, that I will, for the most part, be a coward on this subject too. My point is not to talk about Jesus as a fully sexual being. But it is to at least indicate something that perhaps has been missing from some discussions of the so-called “Woman at the well” story. According to John’s account, Jesus is traveling on his way to Galilee and goes through Samaria. He stops at Jacob’s well, and the disciples go off to find something to eat, leaving him alone. A woman comes, oddly enough at noon, to fetch water. It is a man and a woman alone, a Samaritan and a Jew. There are charged lines of ethnicity and politics and theology here, all at once, as the discussion soon points out. But there are also charged lines of gender.
Jesus is the first to cross the line. But then he seemed to be good at that. Instead of just ignoring her, he says: Give me a drink. Not so much as a “please”, either. To which the woman doesn’t just say “yes” or “no”, although she should have. Right from the beginning we see that this Samaritan is no ordinary individual. Now how is it, she asks – and you can almost see her one hand on her hip, her tone of voice slightly accusing – how is it that you, a Jew, can ask that of me, a Samaritan? “How dare you?” Like some people would say: “no respect at all”.
Jesus then says, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water. And the woman answered him back: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?”
I think what’s going on in the Gospel this morning is actually a flirtation of sorts. Maybe not overly sexual – although it is between a man and a woman. But at the very least a verbal flirtation, in the sense that each of them is gently teasing the other, and each enjoying the matching of wits. For all of the interesting people Jesus meets in John, I think this individual is the most interesting and that’s part of why this story is there in the Gospel. There’s a word game. A kind of “He said – She said”. The Samaritan woman starts by using the literal meaning of words and Jesus starts by using the symbolic meaning, and then, just when you realize what they’re doing, they both switch and do the opposite. It takes two people to do that, and to enjoy it. I can almost imagine Jesus smiling at the joke when the woman talks to him. And her smiling back.
In short, maybe these two liked each other.
Give me some water, says Jesus. Clear enough. He wants the wet liquid. You’re a Jew, she answers. Theological. She’s stalling. If only you knew, I’d give you living water, he says. Wait a minute – all of a sudden we’re not exactly talking about H2O anymore. Give me some of that living water that ends thirst, says the woman, and I won’t need to haul it up the hill. Making fun of Jesus and his flipping back and forth…just a little. Water, water, water, and water, but not the same meaning each time. Literal, figurative, symbolic, real – lots of the double entendres that are characteristic of flirting, and all in only a couple of verses!
Jesus and the woman at the well weren’t talking TO each other. They were, on purpose, talking past each other. Having a little fun in a really serious way. And I think that the Samaritan woman, so low on the status ladder that the disciples wouldn’t even talk to her, if she was dumb, was dumb like a fox – she wanted to misunderstand Jesus. But he also knew what he was up against, as did she, and that’s the reason that despite all the intentional misunderstanding, there’s also more real dialogue in this encounter than in many that Jesus had with supposedly more important people.
Flirting with Jesus is not something we would normally think of as what pious people should do. Good Christians  pray, we worship, we learn from, we study – but flirt with Jesus?
Don’t we? In its purely negative sense, don’t we sometimes purposefully ignore the plain truth of what we hear, while pretending to understand? Like the woman at the well talking about water, when the Bible talks about justice, or about our attitudes to the outcast and the marginalized, sometimes it seems as if we’re only listening enough to hear the words and not get the real meaning behind them. We ignore what we don’t want to hear. We’re coquettish. We wink at the hard teachings too much.
But that’s the negative sense. I believe that the flirtation, if there was one, between Jesus and the Samaritan woman was much more good-natured than that. Quite natural. And perhaps here, too, we have something to learn.
Christians are so EARNEST. If God created a sense of humour in us, it’s to be used, and maybe especially in serious situations. We need, sometimes, to take what the Bible says with more of a sense of humour. We can look at the situations we get ourselves stuck in and say: now that’s funny. Or we can show by our own sense of self-irony that we know we’re just not as important as all that.
Eventually, at the end of the debate, or the flirtation, or whatever it is, Jesus himself brings home the point. And this is how he does it: he comes clean about who he really is.
In other words, how do we really finally know what words signify? We know in relationships. As soon as the Samaritan woman, smart as she was, gave up her defenses and really MET Jesus, and as soon as Jesus also gave up his word plays and revealed himself, that was it. Words take on meaning in relationships. The point of conversation that becomes serious is a testing of trust and intimacy.
People are funny. We can pretend to speak the whole truth to each other and miss the point completely. Or like Jesus and the woman at the well, we can barter with each other in half-expressions, while both knowing what is going on, and what is at stake. May you and I learn how to start with our relationships, to each other and to God, so that we can learn the truth, as Luther once said in a different context, in, with, and under what we hear. Maybe we should all be doing a little more of this kind of banter with the truth of the Spirit. And as we do, we might find that the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will then truly keep our hearts and minds in a joyful play of love with our maker and redeemer, and with the world God has made for us to walk through.