Thursday, December 30, 2010

Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord
24 December 2010
5:00 p.m. Festal Holy Eucharist & Carols
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Athens, Ga.

Old Testament: Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Epistle: Titus 2:11-14
Gospel: Luke 2:1-20

“Particular kinds of peace”

To my sisters & brothers in Christ at Emmanuel, to your visiting family members, to visitors & guests of all types, to seekers and sojourners passing through this place: Grace and Peace on this most holy night!

It was just over a year ago that I listened to a professor at the Yale Divinity School suggest, in a talk to a few Episcopal priests, that preachers shouldn’t, well . . . preach so much. Father Robert may well be wondering why I haven’t yet taken this to heart! The point the good professor intended to make, though, was that of keeping the focus on Holy Scripture; on ways the Church might uphold the beauty and purpose and logic and tradition that had made it holy in the first place. One significant way of doing so – this professor suggested – was for preachers to keep the commentary to a minimum and mainly just find ways to retell the story.

Scripture, he argued . . . Scripture, like that most wonderful story we just heard, is like a cathedral to be inhabited and explored and appreciated, through many visits and over long periods of time. One shouldn’t mainly appreciate cathedrals by reading books about physics & art history & the engineering of buildings, he argued, but by roaming around and exploring all the side chapels, the nooks & crannies & soaring vaults, soaking in the incredible beauty of the art & architecture, uncovering bit by bit the overarching purposes for which the structure was built, uncovering the purposes of the builder. Likewise it can be with our exploration of Holy Scripture and it’s sweeping narrative of God’s saving acts.

So when I read something called “The Proclamation of the Birth of Christ” for the first time the other day, and realized that only the folks at the later liturgy tonight would hear it – they will hear it in song, actually – I realized that you all should have the opportunity to hear THIS particular retelling of the story:

“Today, the twenty-fifth day of December, unknown ages from the time when God created the heavens and the earth and then formed man and woman in his own image. Several thousand years after the flood, when God made the rainbow shine forth as a sign of the covenant. Twenty-one centuries from the time of Abraham and Sarah; thirteen centuries after Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt. Eleven hundred years from the time of Ruth and the judges; one thousand years from the anointing of David as king; in the sixty-fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel. In the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad; the seven hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome. The forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus; the whole world being at peace, Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to sanctify the world by his most merciful coming, being conceived by the Holy Spirit, and nine months having passed since his conception, was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary. Today is the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.”

Do you hear the history in that retelling of the story? Do you here the gradually narrowing specificity? Do you hear the zooming in? Do you hear the particularity?

What I’d like us to ponder briefly tonight is the “SCANDAL of [that] particularity.” Yes, the scandal.

Because you see, to the modern mind, to the kind of cultural understanding and thinking that has dominanted Western, and certainly our North American culture for centuries, the idea that the God of all Creation would burst through the veil of the eternal, the infinite, into history; that God would deign to reveal Godself to a particular people – a tiny group at that – and in a particular place – not in the capital or a major city of one of the great empires in human history, but in a tiny village in an out-of-the-way place – and to a particular mother . . .

. . . the idea that in such a particular, material, flesh & blood, way – through the actual history of an actual group people – that the Creator of the universe would introduce the gift of Godself, the gift of salvation for all . . . TO THE MODERN MIND THIS IDEA IS SCANDALOUS. This is an affront to our cherished assumptions that, when you get right down to it, haven’t all people everywhere at all times had the same basic, universal understanding of what’s rational, what’s reasonable, of what’s right and what’s wrong? Isn’t all this religion stuff – of whatever flavor – just cover, just really powerful stories that point to greater, universal truths that any observer – if she can simply gain enough objectivity – can eventually grasp, with or without faith?

Now if you’re sitting there thinking “Well I’m not scandalized by the story of the baby Jesus!” then excellent. What this means is that you’re postmodern. You’re completely in synch with the 21st century vibe. Because what postmodern thought has reminded us, something all ancients knew without realizing it – is that ALL truth emerges from a particular human perspective, from a particular tradition, from particular times and places. Because the only way we, as mortals, can fully grasp things is in the particular, the material, the ‘stuff’ of our lived experience or the experience captured in a tradition.

So somehow, in the very particular, very specific story and proclamation we heard tonight, on this holy and blessed night, God uses the particular to God’s universal, or better, to God’s ultimate purposes. A powerless young woman from a rural village in ancient Palestine gives her assent when she understands God to be asking her to become a mother of a very special child. A simple but honorable working-man bucks his initial intuition and proceeds with plans to marry her and become a father earlier than he’d expected to. The always onerous and untimely edicts of a distant, imperial government force this unlikely pair to travel , and to a crowded village where no vacancies remain.

The particulars go on from there, of course, all the way to the bitter end. We’re reminded of this even when we recall, on virtually a weekly basis, that Jesus’s execution was ordered by one Pontius Pilate, a minor official within a vast Roman bureacracy, a person who otherwise would not merit mention in a single line of a single history book – yet one who was so integral to the uncovering of God’s truth that he has played a part in the creed Christians everywhere have recited for 1,700 years.

So tonight, here in Athens, Georgia, how do we pick up the story? If the Truth we proclaim once again at this glorious feast is not abstract, not some essence, but one that comes to us in the particular? If it’s something we must inhabit, a story in which we must search for and find ourselves, then how are we to connect? How are we to make our habitation within the stable in Bethlehem?

Remember the angels’ proclamation of “Peace and goodwill toward humankind” as they announce Christ’s birth to the shepherds? We know from other parts of the story, after all, that this is the Prince of Peace lying in a manger. That in this child: in who he is, and what he will do – the love he will shower on all humanity – the peace that reigns in heaven is made manifest on Earth. Can we have access to this peace?

Isn’t it when we think about the particular desires for peace in the world, the particular peacemaking that we can cite, and the particular peacemakers we can cite, that we begin to see the connections between our everyday struggles and hopes and dreams and the ultimate peace of God, Christ’s peace, the Peace that passes all understanding? That is, not in the generic, feel-good, universal peace of the type cited on ‘holiday’ cards, but actual, flesh & blood reconciliation between people or peoples, actual flesh & blood encounters between people in the street, in their offices, in their homes, that bring us face to face with what God has done and is doing in Christ.

---There is the particular peace sought by tens of thousand of our brother & sister Christians in southern Sudan – many of them, like us, Anglicans through their historic connection to the Church of England – who are about to vote in a referendum for independence, after 50 years of civil war & the genocidal terrors of Darfur? That is, there is the peace of swords beaten into plowshares, in part through the work and the prayers of the Church in The Sudan.

---There is the particular peace still sought on the Korean peninsula, in part by goodwill ambassadors of Christ like our neighbor Don Mosley, a counselor on reconciliation to globetrotting former presidents and a regular visitor to Communist N. Korea, yet a man who normally lives on $15 a week, the produce of a small farm, and the kindness of strangers, while helping to care for refugees on a small piece of land just up the road outside Comer, Georgia.

---There is the particular peace in the Holy Land sought by Israelis & Palentinians of goodwill, aided and abetted by 12, 13, and 14-year-olds from the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, who sign up every summer to be “Kids 4 Peace,” spending two weeks hosting Israeli and Palestinian kids: Jews, Christians, and Muslims living & playing & praying together and forgetting the ways of war as they build flesh & blood friendships, hour by hour, peace-pal to peace-pal.

---The particular peace sought by Iraqis & Afghans of goodwill, aided by our American brothers & sisters & friends & cousins who serve in the Armed Forces – trying to do the right thing – trying to suppress violence and to forge space for civil society – with the place, tools, and mission they’ve been given.

---The particular peace of a stable, loving family environment longed for by the children of our community who are cared for by ChildrenFirst, who will soon do their ministry from a cottage up the street.

---The peace sought after by homeless folks taken care of by Churches all over Athens via IHN, that simple peace of a quiet evening to rest & recuperate, with one’s children safely in the hands of friends, after a long day of work or a day spent pounding the pavement to find work.

---The particular peace sought after by many in this community, even many in this room, as we seek to mend broken relationships in our homes, extended families, and workplaces; as we seek to do the right thing by our kids; and as we seek to treat anyone we encounter with respect and integrity.

You see, in the scandalous world of the truth that shines from the stable at Christmas, there is a place in the story – and good work to be done – for all who seek God’s peace.

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