The mystic magi journey: discovering a new way of seeing

The word, ‘mystery’, Paul mentions four times in the text assigned for the Day of Epiphany.[1]He calls receiving God’s grace “the mystery of Christ.”

A mystery is not something that ought to scare us. Like how we feel when reading a whodunit and murder-mystery novels so popular. We have lived in a culture that sees mystery as something bad, something to avoid, something that is opposed to a life of faith. If something is mysterious, it can’t be of God.

That, what appears on the surface, at first sight, is division, discord, disharmony, a profound and inherent disconnection in our lives and in the world.

A negative view of mystery also implies that to know God means there is nothing more to know. To claim some cerebral notions of God—we call this doctrine—and to conform our knowing with others means there is no longer anything to learn. Change, growth, diverse thinking—the consequence of something that is difficult to understand—these have been an undesired mystery.

The journey of the magi suggests we need to take another look at “the mystery of Christ.” The prophet Isaiah, from another text assigned for the Day of Epiphany,[2]encourages us all to “lift up your eyes and look around … then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.” There is apparently a great benefit in seeing anew.

Isaiah speaks as if this ‘seeing’ is more than a mere observation of what is immediately in front of you. This spiritual seeing is about perceiving a deeper reality. Some would say it is seeing with the eye of the heart, or the mind’s eye. Sight, here, is not just a biological function of the eyes, but involves deeper more subtle capacities within us.

From the perspective of faith, mystery means, “endless knowability.”[3]Mystery is not something we cannot ever know; or, conversely, some riddle that we must solve once-and-for-all. Rather, mystery is a journey of learning more, growing, a continual expansion of our awareness, knowledge and perception.

The reason Matthew includes the story of the magi in his rendition of the birth of Jesus is to describe what is true for anyone on the journey of life and faith. 

For one thing, we never arrive at the fullness of truth on this journey we are on. That was the credo of the old science, that somehow once we figure something out, it never needs to be revisited or rethought. This approach affected the way of the church; that is, once you are confirmed or become adult or affirm your faith or join the membership … well, you’ve arrived. You are saved. And you don’t need to do anything more. Or change, or grow in faith, or explore different dimensions of the faithful life.

To say, “I don’t know”, in response to a question meant there is something wrong with you and your faith or your understanding. To confess “I don’t know” according to the credo of the old science was an admission of weakness, that something was not just right, or complete, with your faith. And this was shameful.

And yet, Paul challenges such arrogance (ironically since he was an arrogant guy himself) by focusing our attention on the “boundlessriches in Christ” whose intent is “to make everyonesee … the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” [emphasis mine]

The magi of old studied the stars to gain understanding of God’s creation which included the boundless reaches of the universe. They sought the incarnation of God’s grace in Christ, and so followed the star. But when they arrived at the site of the nativity in Bethlehem—the apparent destination—was their journey over? Truly?

Far from it. Not only did they have to deal with Herod and his wiles, they continued by a different road. On earth, what is the destination of your faith? The destination of our yearning, searching, and endless knowing doesn’t mean the journey is over and done. And we have nowhere else to go. We continue on, seeking new expressions of God’s grace and God’s presence in Christ.

In a TV series called “See”, starring Aquaman superhero Jason Momoa, a post-apocalyptic humanity is blind. No one can see. Everyone is completely visually impaired (with few exceptions). The producers and actors do an excellent job of conveying to the viewer how individuals and communities arrange their lives to move and live without sight.

In a powerful scene, a ragtag group led by Jason Momoa is forging down a forest path, his sword cutting the air in front of them. It all seems to be a tranquil setting when suddenly he shoots out his arm to stop them from moving one step farther.

“What wrong?” another asks.

He shakes his head lifting his unseeing eyes ahead. “It doesn’t feel right. It is not safe.” Being physically blind has developed other, intuitive, senses – smell, the feel of the air, sound—to paint a picture of the truth in front of him.

As it turns out, they were walking into a narrow canyon ideal for an ambush. The ambushers, of course, were also blind. But as soon as they heard the subtle sounds of someone walking far below them—the scrape of a foot on stone, the crunch of dried leaves or the snapping of twig, they would aim their cross bows in the direction of the sound and shoot with deadly accuracy. Jason Momoa’s group was saved by a knowing that was deeper and richer than mere physical sight.

God has given us capacities beyond what we have known. There are unfathomable depths to our being in this universe and an immeasurable limit to our understanding. In describing a life of faith, Paul writes that we have confidence walking our journey of faith, “not by sight.”[4]There is more to it than a visual, observable certainty.

When someone asks you a question about your faith, and you find yourself saying, “I don’t know”, you need not say it as an admission of weakness. You can say, “I don’t know” with confidence because you are still on a journey of learning and discovery. Scientists today who study the stars will suggest with confidence that the universe is always expanding. New stars and solar systems are being discovered. We are endlessly knowing. The journey isn’t over. It never is.

And, what is more, scientists today will readily admit that there is indeed something at work in the universe that goes beyond the mere, yet important, crunching of numbers. Something they cannot put their analytical fingers on, yet something people of faith have been claiming since the beginning of time:

That our lives have purpose and meaning beyond the collision and interaction of molecules. That everything that happens in our lives is somehow intertwined, that there exists an almost imperceptible connection between ourselves, our past and our future, a connection that is leading somewhere, a connection that brings healing and wholeness to our lives.

A connection leading us somewhere eternally good.


[1]Ephesians 3:1-12

[2]Isaiah 60:1-6

[3]Richard Rohr, “Mystery is Endless Knowability” Paradox(Daily Meditations, www.cac.org, Tuesday, August 23, 2016)

[4]2 Corinthians 5:7

A sentimental Christmas?

We say that ‘Christmas is for the children’. Especially, parents and grandparents will focus much of their energies to make sure the children are happy: 

That the presents they receive will excite them, 

That the rituals around the Christmas tree and fireplace will fuel their anticipation and wonder, 

That the events in church and community the family attends will reinforce their understanding of the meaning of it all. 

And that all these efforts will bring delight to those who watch and attend them. And make it all worth the effort.

The accounts of Jesus’ birth – the Christ child born in Bethlehem – in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke especially reinforce our emphasis on children: The story of the Word made flesh in Jesus begins with Jesus the babe. The story of Jesus that ends at the cross of Golgotha and the empty tomb begins in a baby’s cries from a feeding trough in a stable for animals. 

Yes, Christmas is by the children and for the children. It is no wonder many of the annual Christmas pageants today are performed by children.

And yet, the story of faith compiled over decades and centuries into what we have in the bible challenges us. What the early Christians give us disrupts our sentimental bias in how we celebrate the Christmas season.

Let’s go back in time a week ago. First, December 21, the shortest day in the northern hemisphere, was traditionally the feast day observed for Saint Thomas, the doubting one, who was martyred in India in the mid first century. Then, December 26 is the feast day for Saint Stephen, whose violent murder at the hands of Jerusalem’s religious we read about in the book of Acts.[1]

And, finally, today, the first Sunday of Christmas, the church commemorates the ‘Holy Innocents’ – the children of Bethlehem – who were murdered at the hands of Herod trying to get at Jesus and eliminate any potential threat to his despotic hold on power.[2]

Not exactly a Christmas observance that brings the warm fuzzies. Why has the tradition included these rather violent and distressing facts about Christian faith so close to Christmas? Wouldn’t we rather put off such disturbing elements until long after the holidays when the kids are back to school and we return to the mundane realities of our lives (when we can ignore the truth of the faith)? Wouldn’t we rather preserve the genteel, Hallmark images cradled in soft-white light where all the children are squealing with delight?

The church, in its wisdom, pierces through our illusions and disrupts our escapism. In compiling the stories of the birth of Jesus, Matthew, the Gospel writer, chose to express a profound care for the children – especially those who suffered under the violent injustices of corrupt and despotic rulers. Matthew will not ignore what happened around Jesus’ birth, but will bring voice to it. Expose it for what it is.

This Christmas story is a very human, and a very real, story of life and death, sin and grace. None of it can be ignored nor dismissed, and certainly not simply in order to cradle our cocktail-numbed minds. The Gospel pours cold water on us and calls us to ‘wake up’ in the face of our reality:

That following Christ will sometimes be a rocky road, to put it mildly – as the ancient martyrs of the faith exemplified by their faithfulness and service. That following Christ will sometimes shock us onto our knees in lamenting the evil in the world – when children elsewhere and in our own communities suffer incredible injustice and violence.

That following Christ will sometimes call us into risky and urgent action that doesn’t give time for proper goodbyes. That following Christ will sometimes call for unconditional grace and acceptance of the stranger – as Egypt welcomed the fleeing holy family refugees from neighboring Judea. 

We don’t care for the children if we turn a blind eye to injustice, especially at Christmas. We don’t care for the children when we insist on avoiding the chaos and upheaval that our faith implies. Christmas isn’t just about sentimentality. It is more about taking responsibility and learning from the witness of the Gospel message.

One element of the storytelling from the Gospel today catches my eye: It is the rapid plot movement. This story reflects anything but a sedate, static tableau:

One moment, the holy family is in Bethlehem being visited upon by the magi; the next moment they are fleeing to Egypt. Then, Herod reacts, is infuriated by the magi’s deception, and sends his murdering squads to Bethlehem. Even though it would have been some time passing until Herod’s death, the story-telling doesn’t permit but a breath before another angel of the Lord comes to Joseph in a dream to ‘get up’ and return his family to the land of Israel. But not to Bethlehem where potential threat still exists, but to Nazareth. And all of this in ten short verses.

The pace of the story-telling itself evokes responsibility, not sentiment – not even a lingering, inert contemplation. Joseph doesn’t even have time to think, just react. And trust himself and especially trust God. The truth of the story is expressed in behavior and action.

The witness of the story-tellers of old have something to say to us, who very much like to sit-back and put-up-our-feet during the Christmas season. Perhaps this word to us is a reminder not to forget to take up the mantle of faith, to do our part in meaningful action and behavior. And be responsible, as the body of Christ, to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world today.

“For if the babe does not again take flesh in us today, the Bethlehem star is but an optical illusion leading to nothing. 

“If we are not empowered to offer a gift to the one in need, then there are no wise men searching. 

“If there is no praise or joy within our hearts, then there are no angels singing; no shepherds watching.”[3]

May these days of Christmas bring to us a deepened awareness of the care we have and express for this dark, broken world. And in so doing fulfill our responsibility as bearers of the Christ child.

This responsibility is also a gift God gives us at Christmas. It is a gift that is activated in us by the witness of all the saints of old.


[1]Acts 6:8—7:60

[2]Matthew 2:16-18

[3]Bishop Michael Pryse, Christmas Message from Bishop Pryse (www.easternsynod.org, December 24, 2019)

Meeting the unexpected

On New Year’s Eve, the roadway was completely covered in snow. All I could see in the waning light of day was the general shape of the roadbed curving slightly to the right in front of me.

I couldn’t see the customary yellow and white lines on the pavement to guide me. There were no tracks left in the snow of cars gone down this way recently. The snowfall was fresh and the road was not well-travelled.

I could control my speed, of course, but I didn’t have a lot to go on. Would I get home in one piece? First, I had to slow down. And even be prepared to stop.

The Magi were on a journey to arrive at the home of the young Christ child. Christmas cards and the popular mindset show the Magi at the baby Jesus’ side on the night he was born. But that is likely not the case.

The Gospel of Matthew indicates the Magi visited the holy family’s “house” in Bethlehem, hardly a description of a cave or stable for animals.[1]The Gospel of Luke, from which we read the birth narrative on Christmas Eve, does not mention the Magi.

The Magi were on a journey that took months if not years to accomplish. Their journey took time. Their coming to Jesus, so to speak, was not an immediate, instant, snap-of-the-fingers conversion. Their experience was slow, plodding and winding course across the deserts of the Middle East. On their journey to find Jesus, they had to have the long-view in mind. A whole lot of determination. And a commitment to the journey with all its fits and starts.

I also get the impression, reading through these verses from Matthew, that the Magi who were nearing the end of their long journey had to make in-the-moment changes to their plans. They had to check their assumptions and change their minds about initial expectations.

For example, at least half the Gospel text for today focuses on Herod. Initially, the Magi came to him in good faith, believing the Roman governor would sincerely help them. But an angel of the Lord had to steer them away, literally by a different road, and from Herod’s manipulating, plotting, fear-ridden treachery. The Magi had to trust ‘new information’ and make changes to their flight plan in mid-stream.

Then, the gifts. Three gifts: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. In biblical times, these gifts were usually given to a king or a person with highest status. Gold was such a gift. From the Hebrew scriptures, when The Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon she gave him precious gifts: “Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan – with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones” (1 Kings 10:2). The spices that she brought with her might very well have been frankincense and myrrh.

The gifts themselves are a powerful sign of what these visitors originally intended. The Magi were coming a long way to worship who they considered the true King. Not Herod. Not Rome. But the divine Son of God.

And, still, not what they expected.

The meaning of these gifts needs to be examined in light of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. For us, what is ‘kingship’ in light of Christ—certainly not what we might first assume: glory, power, military strength and victory. Jesus’ journey took him through the defeat and humiliation of the cross. That’s the kind of kingship Jesus is about.

Myrrh represented healing. Healing in the light of Christ was not so much about an instant cure to earthly disease. But rather, healing is a transformation of the inner life of our attitudes and finding wholeness and grace in every moment of life, especially in the midst of suffering and pain. The king whom the Magi came to worship was a king who, in truth, represented values and meaning that countered—were at odds with—the values of the world.

And that is why this story starts the season of Epiphany in the church. Epiphany means, Revelation. The baby Jesus is revealed as the Son of God who shows us the way of God—God’s path of transformation and salvation. The season of Epiphany invites us to participatein this way. Participating in this journey asks us, like the first Magi, to be prepared to change course and examine our standing assumptions about God and the world.

It’s the manner in which the truth is revealed that ought to catch our attention in the biblical story. And this way is both apparent by what these three gifts mean, and by the expectations we first bring to this story.

For example: We assume and even say ‘it’s biblical’ that there were three men and they were three kings. But that’s not what the bible says. For all we know, there could have been a whole caravan of them. And what if some were women?

Although we sing, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,”, these visitors from the East were also not kings. The term Magi is a plural form of a word in Greek which means, literally, Zoroastrian priests.[2]And, maybe they earned the title ‘wise’ because of their skills in interpreting dreams and understanding astrology.

It’s as if the proverbial rug first needs to be pulled from underneath us before the truth is revealed. We don’t come to it straight on. Our expectations first need to be checked, and likely over time, over turned.

Once on New Year’s Eve when driving down a country road covered in snow in the middle of a blinding snow storm I thought I was driving in the middle of the road. I figured I best check that assumption. Thank God I did.

In a moment no other vehicle was passing, I stopped and opened the driver’s side door. With my boot, I scraped away the fluffy blanket of snow believing I would find the dark asphalt of the road and maybe even a lane marker painted on the hard top.

To my horror, I turned over stones and gravel, indicating I was already on the shoulder of the road. Had I not stopped at that moment, my vehicle was heading in the direction of the deep ditch on the side of the road.

Thank God, I had it in my mind to stop when I did, and scratch the surface of my belief. Then, I was able to change course.

The star finally stopped over Bethlehem, showing the Wise Ones where the destination of their journey lay. At this sign, “they were overwhelmed with joy.”[3]Arriving home in one piece from driving in less-than-ideal road conditions gave me a sense of joy. The joy comes because of the journey, maybe because the journey was difficult. Maybe because the journey called forth the best from you, to meet the challenges and make headway despite the journey’s challenges, pain and suffering.

The amazing thing is that God somehow brought the Magi–the Wise Ones–to the exact location of their hopes and dreams. Perhaps not what they expected at first. But this gift they surely recognized.

Here are some questions for reflection as we enter this new season after the Epiphany: What was the most important gift you received this holiday season? Did you expect it? Why is it important? How did you receive it?

God has given us the greatest gift in Jesus. Where we find him will be shown to us, on the journey. This grace continues throughout our lives.

May our trust grow in a God who has this uncanny ability to trust and have faith in us to get home. Let us pray: God, you led the Wise Ones by a star to find the Christ child. Lead us as we strive to follow you in living our faith. No matter how long it takes. No matter how winding the journey. Help us trust your promise to bring us home. Amen.

 

[1]Matthew 2:11

[2]Niveen Sarras, “Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12”, http://www.workingpreacher.org

[3]Matthew 2:10

Christmas, now

Just a couple of years before he died, Martin Luther preached one of his last Christmas sermons. In it, he challenged his 16thcentury German congregation to bring the nativity into the present moment – the present reality.

Martin Luther described the squalor and desperation swirling around Mary and Joseph arriving late in Bethlehem and not finding room in the inn, leaving them to give birth to Jesus in a small barn out back. Then, he said:

 There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: “If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the baby! I would have washed his linen!” … [Well] Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbour. You ought to serve them, for what you do to your neighbour in need you do to the Lord Christ himself.[1] That was preached in 1543.

At Christmas 2018, we are not just called to hear the story again, but to be in it, part of it.[2]

Essentially, Martin Luther was getting at the meaning of Christmas for his contemporaries. And for us, today. How can we be inspired by the children, the music, the gifts we bring at Christmas to step out of the nativity ‘play’, and into the real story unfolding around us today?

We share in the communion tonight. In the chaos, noise and crowd, celebrating the sacrament might not fit our idea of a neat-and-tidy, perfect Christmas service. It’s hard to sentimentalize the Eucharist.

But it’s important to offer it tonight. Because the sacrament brings us to the present moment. The meal tells the story of Jesus being in our hearts—not decades ago when things were golden and sweet in our memories, not two thousand years ago, not in the Martin Luther’s day, not lost in words of scripture alone—but right here, right now, in the present day, in our own experience of life in this world.

Receiving the bread and cup doesn’t mean your life is perfect, doesn’t mean you are now ready for Christmas, doesn’t mean y our life is in order and worthy of God.

When you receive the Communion, you are affirming that God is somewhere in the mess and chaos of your life. Our life. Emmanuel–God with us.

Celebrating Christ’s birth does not bring us outof history, it involves us with it—in the present time.[3]The Christmas story gets lived out by our attention and care for the dark shadows in our own hearts, as well as reaching out to vulnerable people in our world.

I heard with dismay on the local radio station last week that the City of Ottawa is putting up 230 families in cheap hotels this Christmas, where they have to live for over a year before social housing spots open up. Talk about conditions of squalor entire families, all of them poor, need to live in at Christmas. And we’re not talking about a handful. Two Hundred and Thirty families, in Ottawa alone.

Have we considered that when we pray for and help in whatever way we can these people, we are serving Christ himself? After all, our Lord was a refugee himself right after his birth, fleeing to Egypt with his parents to get away from Herod’s violent and murderous intent.[4]

Popular TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie just came out with a book this Fall entitled: “Everyday Hockey Heroes: Inspiring Stories on and off the Ice”[5]

In one chapter about an inspiring Ottawa story, Bob McKenzie relays the words of Karina Potvin, a minor hockey coach. She writes: “So much about Canada is welcoming. Well, except maybe our winters, but they’re a small price to pay in order to play hockey …”

As Karina watched on the news refugees being greeted at the airport, she writes: “I knew I wanted to help these new Canadians feel at home. I just wasn’t sure how.

“A few months later I was at practice when I saw one of my fellow coaches … coming towards the bench … [he had a] new idea for Reach Out. Reach Out is a program in our hockey association that helps low income families pay for equipment and registration fees so that their kids can join our league …

“‘You know how my wife and I have been working with some of the Syrian families who have settled here in Ottawa?’ He went on, ‘We took a family to …[a] game last week, and their sons absolutely loved it. They had never heard of hockey before, but they want to play.’

Karina ended up coaching three boys—Mohammed, Ahmad and Ismael—who quickly got the hang of skating. “They’re all over the ice!”

“The three boys breathed hockey all day, every day. As did their parents. By midseason, the parents were typical Canadian hockey moms and dads.

“One Arabic word I learned was hebbak which means “I love you.” Sometimes when we were on the bench, I would turn to Mohammed and say it. He always gave me a strange look.

“’Yeah, I just told you that I love you. Because you’re playing really well tonight and listening to us coaches.’

“He shook his head, ‘Coach Karina, you’re weird.’

“’If you ever make the NHL and they ask you who was your first and favourite coach, you have to say Coach Karina.’

“’Yes, of course.’ He laughed.

“’And if you ever play for the Senators, you have to get me tickets.’ Every time I said this, he would smile and reply, ‘Yes. Yes. Yes.’”

Just imagine: The year before, these kids had been in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Now, they were playing hockey just like so many other kids in Canada.[6]

May the first Christmas story become alive and real for you, as the Christ child is born anew in your hearts thisday.

Here are the words of American writer Madeleine L’Engle in a poem entitled “First Coming”:

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine.

He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

Merry Christmas!

[1]Martin Luther, Christmas Sermon, 1543; Matthew 25:45

[2]Lcfaithinthenight.blogspot.com, 19 Dec 2018, (Lutherans Connect, @LuTConnect).

[3]Gustavo Gutierrez, cited in LutheransConnect, ibid.

[4]Matthew 2:13-15

[5]With Jim Lang (Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 2018)

[6]The full story in ibid., p.45-56

Christmas – God goes home

Were you home for Christmas?

It is customary to be at home, or go home, for Christmas. For some, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without being home. And, in this meaning, ‘home’ refers to a specific, geographic location, a space usually defined by a building: the homestead back on the farm, the house you grew up in and is still in the family, the house you lived in for many years, etc.

Bing Crosby’s “I’ll be home for Christmas” echoes in the back of our mind, providing a mantra for constructing our idea of what Christmas must be like. Being home brings comfort and a feeling of stability. To do or say otherwise might threaten our very notion of what Christmas means. In discussing whether it is time to celebrate Christmas somewhere new and somewhere different, someone will always say: How could we do Christmas anywhere else than here — at home?

I heard over the holiday the story of a childhood memory of Christmas. When this person was a young child, her parents took her and her siblings to travel from Ottawa to the Eastern Townships to be with an aging and infirm family member. Friends criticized them: “How could you spend Christmas in a motel room and nursing home far away,” they judged. “You’re spoiling Christmas. Especially for the children.”

Contrary to our nostalgic sentiments, the first Christmas story points another way: Mary and Joseph make a home where there is no home – a stable behind a packed inn in a town far away from hometown Nazareth. The recluse shepherds have to leave the familiar abodes of the fields surrounding Bethlehem and go with haste to visit strangers in town. And the magi travel great distances, following a star, from the East and arrive to visit the Christ child after some time has passed since that Holy Night.

The Christmas story is more about traveling away from home, away from the familiar and towards the unknown, the new, the unfamiliar. If we assume that being away from home at Christmas would be unsettling, then we might be surprised that the dislocation of the main characters in the Christmas story does not appear to destabilize them.[1]

Brian McLaren argues that what matters most in religion “is not our status but our trajectory, not where we are but where we’re going, not where we stand but where we’re headed. Religion is at its best when it leads us forward, when it guides us on our spiritual growth.”[2] This is the meaning of the magi’s journey:

Religion is at its best when we, with the wise men, follow the star shining upon the place of Jesus’ presence in the world today. Like Jesus’ disciples who were to “go into all the world”[3], we are called from time to time to leave places of comfort and familiarity, in order to discover the new things God is revealing to us and participate in the mission of God.

Our comfort and stability come when, no matter where we find ourselves at Christmas time, we find our home in Christ. There is something true about a nostalgic portrayal of the nativity: the happy family and visitors huddle around the manger made of straw, a soft light shedding its warmth on the pastoral scene; what is right about this is that there is a home – a home whose hearth is Jesus Christ himself.[4]

As I pondered the idea of being home at Christmas, I found this wonderful definition of home: “Home is the abiding place of the affections.”[5] Home speaks of a shared intimacy, vulnerability, truth-telling and love. The abiding place of the affections is not limited to any one physical space, but is more a function of healthy relationships. Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.”[6] Whenever deep speaks to deep,[7] heart speaks to heart, that is home. And that is where God is.

In this coming season of Epiphany, we indeed discover God anew. We discover the revelation of Jesus in the world today. We discover with joy that God is at home in us and in this world.

“See, the home of God is among mortals; He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples and God himself will be with them.”[8]

Christmas means that the game for us has changed. For, no longer do we need to wait until the end of our life to go to heaven and be with God. For that matter, we don’t need to go anywhere at all.

Rather, Christmas means that God came home; that God and heaven have come to us. To where we are. And no matter where we are. For now, and forevermore. Amen.

 

[1] Cynthia L. Rigby in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B, Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008) p.118.

[2] Brian McLaren, “The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian” (Convergent, 2006), p.xi-xii, 12-13.

[3] Mark 16:15

[4] Cynthia L. Rigby, ibid.

[5] David Marine, cited in Diana Butler Bass, “Grounded: Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015) p.172.

[6] Matthew 18:20

[7] Psalm 42:7

[8] Revelation 21:3

Christmas – God comes anyway

Do you remember ‘grumpy old uncle Stan’?

Eleven-year-old Nadia couldn’t believe that her recluse uncle fell asleep under the Christmas tree during the family gift exchange. He snored louder than any squeals of joy from other family opening presents.

Nadia complained to her Mom that she didn’t want to sit beside him at the Christmas dinner table any more. His burps and other inappropriate sounds coming from him embarrassed her to no end.

“I just don’t get it,” Nadia said. “Even though we make his favourite mash potatoes every year and wrap up all sorts of yarn for his knitting projects – he still acts all weird-like.”

“We only see him once a year, dear,” said her Mom. “We need to be patient.”

Nadia took a bite from left-over ginger bread. “Yeah. I don’t remember a Christmas without him.”

“You’re right,” Mom said. “He comes every year. He has a present for each of us. He listens to us more than he talks. I think he is just happy to be invited.”

“And sometimes he will ask me questions that make me really think.” Nadia continued eating her cookie. “I missed my cousins this year.”

“Yeah,” Mom sighed. “Other family members will sometimes find reasons for not coming. Uncle Stan comes anyway. Regardless of the weather. Regardless of who does or doesn’t have colds. Even when it would be better not to come. He comes anyway.”

“Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Grumpy Uncle Stan.”

Christmas teaches us how God is present to us. I believe that everything that Jesus says, everything that Jesus does, and everything that happens to Jesus reveals to us how God is present in our life. And the way Jesus responds to the situations and people in his life reveals to us how we are to respond to God’s presence in our life.

It is in that spirit then, that I read and hear again this holy night the Gospel story of Jesus birth: When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem the time came for Mary to give birth. And probably because of all the people in Bethlehem because of the census, there was no room in the inn. And so, they had to go to a small stable where Jesus was born. Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes and put him in a manger. And he was born there out in the dark in the stable with the animals.

What does this story teach us about how God is present in our life? To me, it seems that a lesson is that there was no room in the inn, but God came anyway. The fact there was no room in the inn did not stop God from being born into this world, and that’s the lesson because that’s always true:

That sometimes in today’s world, whether it be through mass media or just the things that are going on internationally, and the way we as human beings treat each other, or sometimes just in our daily life, the hectic pace that we have to keep to just stay ahead of the day’s demands, along with the complexities of it all, it seems that there’s no room in the inn. That there is no hiatus from it all.

It’s true sometimes, not just in the world but in our own families, or sometimes just what we’re going through ourselves and all the ragged unfinished business of things. It seems that there’s no room in the inn. That it’s just all like closed up or too filled up with too much complexity and maybe things that shouldn’t even be there in the first place.

And as true as that might be we can take reassurance that God comes anyway. That God is being inexplicably born in our hearts moment by moment, breath by breath, as the interior richness of every little thing that happens to us and everyone around us.

As much as we may think it is all up to us – the good work we do, the important, business of our lives, striving after all that we believe is important – then come times and circumstances in our lives that confound and disrupt our self-inflated, self-constructed, neatly-tidied world –

A sudden death, a broken relationship, health problems, some failure, job loss, bad news, an unsolvable problem – and our neatly-packaged lives unravel.

And so, the Christmas message is really for those who seek more comfort than joy at this time of year. Some mercy. Some grace.

The Christmas message is for you who have tried oh-so hard to make things right but do not reap nor see the benefits of your toil; to you who by no fault of your own find yourselves in the middle of heart-ache; to you who continue to flounder in fields of despair when it seems there is no end in sight, no light at the end of the tunnel; to you who carry on, lifting head high despite the significant impairments of your lives. The Christmas message is for you. So, hear this: God comes anyway.

Christmas is not an escape from those hard realities, an escape we must engineer somehow by all the numbing stimulations of holiday ‘cheer’. But that God comes right into the midst of the darkness of our lives.

But here’s the thing: In order to discover the presence of God, we have to leave the hurly-burly of the inn, the superficiality and the chatter of it all, and find our way in the dark, back to the stable. That is, we have to enter into the humility and the simplicity and the patience and the delicate nature of what’s unfolding in our heart to discover where God is being born in our life.

And in this kind of prayerful attentiveness we are then asked to bring that delicate simplicity back out into the hurly-burly of the world. “It would be so much easier if we were asked to live a simple life in a simple world. But we’re asked to live a simple life in a complicated world.”[1] And I think this is how God is born in our hearts: In simplicity of heart we do our best to live with integrity in a complicated world.

James Finley relates one of his earliest memories of Christmas: His mother would take him to mass on Sunday and they always sat right up in the first couple of rows, off to the side altar. He was maybe three years old. He knew it was Christmas time because there were Christmas trees up in the sanctuary and there was a nativity scene.

He remembers the church was very crowded and a little baby started to cry near the back. And he remembers whispering in his mother’s ear: “Is that the baby Jesus crying?” His Mom leaned down and whispered in his ear, “Yes, it is.” And little James believed her. And today at 74 years old he still believes her. Not in the naïve way that a small child would believe it. But knowing that in Christ it is revealed to us that every child is worth all that God is worth.

And the truth is, for all the complexities and things of which that simplicity has been buried under, these so many things, there is in our heart this childlike purity, this childlike God-given Godly nature of who we simply are because God loves us.

And so, for us Christmas is us being awakened to this birthing of God in the simplicity of our hearts, in the depths of our life; and, into the awareness that despite the complexities of whatever each day might bring, we can take reassurance that God comes anyway.[2]

[1] Katagiri Roshi, Contemporary Zen master.

[2] I’ve adapted his words to my preaching context and am ever grateful to James Finley, “An Advent Meditation” (New Mexico: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2017), for sharing and emphasizing the Christmas Gospel message, that God comes anyway.

An installation sermon for a twin pastor

I wrestled this week with whether I should have my hair cut. Normally I wear my hair much shorter, especially during the winter months when ‘hat head’ poses fashion challenges. The reason I didn’t was I looked forward to playing up the twin thing once again; I know that my twin brother usually wears his hair much longer than I do.

And I’ve eagerly anticipated standing before you today, and asking: Are you sure you have the right twin as your new pastor? How do you know that your pastor is actually David, and not Martin? How do you know which one you are installing? After all, you’ve only had your new pastor a couple of months — do you really know him that well already?


Just one word of advice: If you believe you see Pastor David in Conestoga Mall or walking in Stanley Park in Kitchener or skiing at Chicopee, please, please don’t right away presume it’s Pastor David you are meeting.

One of my all-time favourite, yet awkward, twin-pastor experiences, almost always goes like this: I’m in town (Kitchener-Waterloo) either visiting David, Patricia, Sarah & Susie, or at some Synod meeting and going out by myself to the mall or restaurant when — it never fails — someone I do not know or maybe even know a little bit comes up to me and launches into quite a personal conversation; the person before me reveals information of a confidential nature.

I am caught in a conundrum: Do I carry on listening empathetically, nodding my head with pastoral attention and care? How soon do I break in with the news: “Ahh, excuse me, I am Martin, Pastor David’s twin brother; did you think I was Pastor David?”

At which point, the person’s jaw usually drops, the blush factor intensifies, and eyes pop. “Noooo! Really!?!”
“Yes. Really!”
“Pastor David, you are pulling my leg!”
Then, I have my passport and other photo ID handy, just to prove my identity.

Most non-identical-twins in leadership, I have come to covet, have lived relatively scrutiny-free of their public persona without ever having to ‘prove’ who they are. And here’s a twin secret: Both David and I know who we are. And we believe that there are differences between us; I don’t confuse my own identity with David’s. In fact, it has often surprised us why people can’t notice the distinct differences between us.

But we Malinas won’t make it simple. Add to that, we both end up being pastors in the same church. So not only do we look alike, we wear the same clothes on the job.

In the walls of the church, we may know who we are all about. We have our own social fortresses to hide behind; we gather with our own kind, in familiar places and spaces. We have our own rules and norms of behaviour in our brand of a more progressive, Lutheran church. Yes, we may know who we are.

But does the world know who we are? And perhaps this is the challenge for the church today.

Installations of pastors, or as the Anglicans call them, ‘Inductions’, are tricky events for us. Yes, we celebrate a new relationship between pastor and people, here at Christ Lutheran Church in Waterloo. That celebration tends to focus on the pastor; and, I’ve played into that in the first part of my sermon today!

I suspect that the traditional culture of the church has tended towards seeing ‘ministry’ as the sole purview of the pastor — and that Installation services tended to be viewed somewhat like launching pad for the pastor’s dazzling display of skill, leadership prowess and charisma.

In contrast, the relationship between pastor and people, which an Installation service signifies, is really about acknowledging the true meaning of the word, ‘liturgy’ — the work of the people. The pastor doesn’t ‘own’ the ministry of the church; it belongs to the people to which the pastor joins in supporting and enlivening it with his or her particular gifts, interests and passions.

Yes, leaders must be given permission to lead. Yes, you have elected Pastor David to be your leader. Yes, good leaders need to give themselves permission to lead. And yes, good leaders also need good followers. So, role clarity is vital. Setting and maintaining personal and professional boundaries are important.

It is also important to live collectively in this work. In the words of Martin Luther, we all comprise the ‘priesthood of all believers’ in the exercise of our vocations as Christians, ordained or not.

It’s not just about the pastor. It’s not just about the people. It’s not about pastor or people. It’s about pastor and people. We are not lone-rangers; we are not entrepreneurs or independent consultants in the business of selling faith to the world.

Because it’s about doing it together somehow. Praying together. Being responsible together. Not spectating the practice of faith, but participating in it. Figuring it out in the doing it — in the mystery, ambiguity and paradox that are central to the character of our faith.

I appreciate the Gospel text offered in this service today (Mark 4:3-9). I am drawn towards conversations about this text that focus on the identity of the sower, in Jesus’ parable. Who is the sower? Is it Jesus? Or, does this role fall exclusively on the ordained, set-apart, folks of our church — the pastor? Or, someone else? You, perhaps? We know only of the work the sower does.

I’ve also been looking at the Gospel text for this Second Sunday after the Epiphany (A), where Jesus calls his first disciples (John 1:29-42). There are two people accompanying John the Baptist when he identifies Jesus as the “Lamb of God”. Only Andrew is named. But the other one remains anonymous to us (v.40).

Perhaps both Jesus, who does not name the sower in his parable, and the writer of John’s Gospel who does not identify the second disciple, do so intentionally. Perhaps the anonymity we encounter in these stories is meant to engage us, the reader / the listener, in order to invite each of us / all of us into those roles — as follower of Jesus and sower of the Word.

Pastor David told me the little, liturgical scare you had here prior to the first Christmas services: Of course, it is appropriate not to have the baby Jesus in the manger during Advent and the weeks leading up to Christmas; after all, Jesus has not yet been born.

But it was just before the Christmas Eve service, I believe it was, when Pastor David expressed some anxiety about the missing infant. Where is Jesus? We’ll have to put him in the nativity sooner than later. Or, have we lost Jesus? Has Jesus already left the building? How can you celebrate the Word made flesh with no baby Jesus in the creche? This was not looking good.

Much to Pastor David’s delight, and surprise — I might add, not only did one baby Jesus appear in the little manger on Christmas morning, but two, identical baby Jesuses!!!!


I’m not going to suggest that Jesus had an identical twin brother, otherwise Dan Brown might have another best-selling fiction on the shelves in no time.

Nevertheless, the image is significant. Because, Christianity starts not with a one-person-show but a three-person Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit). Christianity is inherently relational, and so is the work of God.

Following Jesus and sowing the Word is not exclusively the work of the Pastor. Can we envision this work collectively? Not just for one individual to do or be responsible for, but as the Body of Christ in the world today. Perhaps we can get at the identity of the sower or the disciple by observing and starting with what the sower and the disciple do. And how it is done:

When the work of compassion and justice expands beyond the walls of this space, we plant seeds. When the work of loving and forgiving involves the young and the mature doing it together, we plant seeds. When the risky following leads us out there and no one doing it stands alone, we plant seeds. When the work of the church is done together, as diverse and multi-faceted our individual identities in the Body of Christ are, we plant seeds.

And then the world will know who we are.