Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Eve: The Night with the Lights in It

Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2009
Preached at St. John United Lutheran Church, Seattle


“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.” Luke 2:8-9


Many years ago the author Annie Dillard wrote a collection of essays on nature that she called Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In one of the essays she writes of an experience of seeing as if for the first time. “One day,” she writes, “I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it.”

“I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”

Annie Dillard’s experience of “the tree with the lights in it” is, I imagine, in a similar category to what was experienced by the shepherds on that holy night so many centuries ago.

They were out in the fields. Had they lived in the city, they might have known about the decrees of Emperor Augustus, and of the census being taken, and of the towns so full of pilgrims that there was no room in any inn. But they lived in the fields, out in the country. Not knowing the goings-on in the urban areas wouldn’t have bothered them, I don’t think. They knew their Scriptures: Nothing good ever came from a city. Wretched places, they are, full of scum and villainy. Better to stay in your own fields.

And in the fields, they kept watch. Not over the skies, mind you, but over the earth, and over the things of the earth, over the living, breathing creatures that were entrusted to their care. This was enough to occupy them, to fill their days and to fill their nights and to almost – almost – fill their bellies. It was certainly enough to fill their eyes. Or so they thought.

And then it happened. Then, Luke tells us, then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.

They suddenly saw it, saw everything, as if for the first time: The skies with the lights in them, the fields with the lights in them, even the sheep with the lights in them. There were no words to make sense of this. Only the words that seemed to well up from inside them like tears filling your eyes, words they couldn’t have made up if they tried: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.

A moment of revelation that came suddenly out of the everyday, the everynight, one moment when they saw clearly, as if for the first time, when they heard clearly, as if for the first time.

And then they were on the move, swept along by the moment toward the city, the place out of which nothing good could come. Before they could change their minds they found themselves on the road, on a doorstep, on their knees.

There he was: The child. He shone like any other child, really, like any other person when the lights are shining through them. Legs kicking, arms waving, body wriggling, and in the center of it all, the eyes. The lights shining in his eyes. I imagine the shepherds with Annie Dillard’s words in their mouths: It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen.

For a moment they stayed there, together, strangers and friends, gathered together as they were, most improbably, most unpredictably. Two or three were already finding themselves gathered in his Name, gathered around a place meant for food: a manger, a feeding trough, a table for creatures of the earth. A motley crew it was, strangers and friends, shepherds and carpenters, people of the fields and people of the streets, on very different journeys, all mixed up together, and all drawn together by this child who was making the world shine with light.

What could it all mean? I don’t imagine that at that moment the shepherds had the slightest idea. The words washed over them, announcing the new thing that had begun with this birth, that this child was somehow a king, that this child would somehow overthrow the world as it was, that this child would come out of an unexpected place to turn the world upside down, putting mangers and tables at the center and throwing imperial decrees overboard. They heard all of this, and no doubt the words already began to do their work.

But on this night there was no sense in making sense of it. On this night, I imagine, the shepherds were simply overwhelmed with the giddy wonder of seeing the world with the lights in it, lit up by the child with the lights in him. They had been their whole lives bells, and never knew it until at that moment they were lifted and struck.

“When they saw this, they made known what had been told them.” Their voices rang like bells through the night. I imagine them running through the dusty streets, shaking the hands of every person they met, like Ebenezer Scrooge after the holy ghosts helped him to see his life in a new light. “Merry Christmas!” said Scrooge, and I imagine that whatever the shepherds said it probably made about as much sense as that.

And then it was over – or at least, a part of it was over. The shepherds returned – to their fields, one assumes – and they were “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” Take note: As they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. The experience was already past. They might have lived their entire lives glorifying and praising God for the memory of that one experience, the night when they saw the world with the lights in it, lit up by the child with the lights in his eyes.

Annie Dillard writes that after that first vision,

“I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.”

Well. That’s Annie Dillard’s experience of the incarnation. Maybe yours is different. I expect all of us have different paths to the manger, to the feeding trough, to the table for the creatures of the earth. The Spirit of the Lord moves in mysterious ways.

But every once in a while, she lights up the night. And on one night, many years ago, she lit up the world through the birth of a child, and struck humanity like a bell, gathering the unlikely together and making them ring.

We are still ringing, from mountain to mountain, and everywhere in between.


Friday, December 18, 2009

Advent 4C, Friday

Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. With your abundant grace and might, free us from the sin that binds us, that we may receive you in joy and serve you always, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Prayer of the Day for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2009


File under: Things that God frees us for.

Click here to see what I'm working on at the LPPO...

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Advent 4C, Wednesday

advent blues: a playlist for december

1. Stumbling To Bethlehem / Patti Scialfa
2. When I Look At the World / U2
3. The Waiting / Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
4. If God Will Send His Angels / U2
5. Sitting, Waiting, Wishing / Jack Johnson
6. Hey World (Don't Give Up Version) / Michael Franti & Spearhead
7. White As Snow / U2
8. That Was the Worst Christmas Ever! / Sufjan Stevens
9. Joseph, Better You Than Me (feat. Elton John)
10. I Believe In Father Christmas / U2
11. Light a Light / Melissa Etheridge

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Advent 3C, Sunday

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent, Year C
for St. John United Lutheran Church in Seattle, Washington, 2009


The holy gospel according to Luke.

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him,
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Bear fruits worthy of repentance.
Do not begin to say to yourselves,
‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’;
for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees;
every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit
is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”
In reply he said to them,
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none;
and whoever has food must do likewise.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him,
“Teacher, what should we do?”
He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”
Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?”
He said to them,
“Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations,
and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation,
and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John,
whether he might be the Messiah,
John answered all of them by saying,
“I baptize you with water;
but one who is more powerful than I is coming;
I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fork is in his hand,
to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary;
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

So, with many other exhortations,
he proclaimed the good news to the people.

The gospel of the Lord.


There is a scene in the Lord of the Rings…

Ok, so I know just saying those words for some people will cause eyes to glaze over, ears to tune out, but hear me out here, just hang with me for a moment. If I promise not to speak in Elvish, can you hang with me for a moment? Ok. Here we go.

So there is this scene in the Lord of the Rings trilogy that always gives me the chills, and always makes me think of Advent.

Gandalf, the white wizard, is waiting and keeping watch in a city under siege. He has no allies, no friends with him, save one little hobbit, Pippin, who, in a sudden fit of conscience signed up for the king’s personal guard but who really has no skills to offer, has no business being there.

The skies above them have darkened. The air has grown unseasonably cold. The people in the city are afraid, and huddle in whatever they shelter they can find. And the leaders of the city, the stewards, those given the task of protecting the people, are lost in a mindless despair and are no longer able to see the task at hand clearly.

The situation seems hopeless. Gandalf tries to rouse the people; he is the only one who seems to see things clearly. He pushes the paralyzed leaders aside, bypassing them entirely, and goes straight to the footsoldiers and common people, urging them to live up their calling, to be the people they are supposed to be.

But he has no illusions about what they can accomplish on their own. He knows it can only get them so far. And so he turns to little Pippin and tells him to light the beacon.

The beacon is a great pile of combustible wood, a pyre sitting at the top of the highest point in the city. Little Pippin struggles, stumbles, scrapes his knee, hides from those who would try to stop him, and then, finally, he lights the beacon that is much bigger than he is.

The camera pulls back and reveals just how small the beacon is in the wide-angle lens. At the top of a mountain it looks like nothing more than a candle, just a little spark of light, just one little tongue of fire in a vast, vast world.

And then, off in the distance on the farthest mountain peak, another tiny flame suddenly flares up, as if answering the call of the first.

The camera pans up over the mountains, and again off in the farther distance, another flame answers the second, and then another, and another, and another, until the final beacon is lit in the midst of another city faraway over the mountains, and the people in that city see it and know.

The beacons have been seen. The call has been heard. Help will come.

Gandalf, the faintest sign of wild joy in his eyes, says simply this:

“Hope is kindled.”


Today, on the third Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist preaches his hardest words yet. Last week Pastor Carol described history that takes place far from the centers of power. Now John preaches to the people who live there, people who live in the far corners of the empire, in the far corners of their society. They have no business changing the world. What could they possibly have to offer?

Most of them, stumbling up to the River Jordan to hear this hard-edged prophet, have barely enough clothing to keep themselves warm on a cold night, barely enough food to fill their own stomachs. They struggle simply to stay afloat.

Even those among them who have stable, decent-paying jobs – the soldiers, the public servants – are hardly in a position to make big changes in society. They struggle simply to get it right, day after day, in jobs that make them little more than a cog in an overpowering machine. Empire. Conquest. Profit. Success. If you don’t want to fall in line on one of these ships that you are lucky enough to be on in the first place, then you are free to get off the boat. Good luck in the water.

Any self-respecting world-changer would not start here, with these people. But they are exactly the people to whom John the Baptist goes first.

When he opens his mouth to speak to them, he doesn’t mince words. He doesn’t beat around the bush, or treat them with kid gloves, or patronize them.

He names their brokenness, their weakness.

He reminds them of God’s power, a power that can bring life to stone.

And then he tells them that the ax is lying at the root of the trees. He tells them that the ax is lying at the root of the trees.

As if the ax-wielder, the great lumberjack, were already there.

As if, in the words of the prophet Zephaniah, the Lord, their God, is right there in their midst.

No wonder the crowds ask John, “What then should we do?”

Light the beacons! he tells them. Be the lights of hope! Not just with fire and water, but with the light of your very lives!

John the Baptist isn’t worried about how unimportant these people are in the grand scheme of things. He gives everyone a role to play, everyone.

And then he gives the most important role precisely to those who seem to have the least to offer – at least by the standards of empire and conquest.

He calls the crowds, all the most unimportant people, to light their beacons. Oh yes, they have beacons. Their lives, too, can be a light. John calls them to share their meager clothing and food with one another.

Of course, the important people think, this is not possible. They have nothing to share, nothing to give.

But John the Baptist knows better. The Lord, their God, is in their midst.

And so they will break bread together. They will share their warmth. In the sharing and the caring, they will form community. And they will light the way for the world. They will light the way for us.

They are followed by the tax collectors and soldiers, cogs in the machine of empire. These are asked simply to live justly, but that is not so easy at it sounds.

It requires them to swim upstream, against the current that pushes back against them at every moment, always threatening to overwhelm. Surely no one could survive, always swimming against the current like that.

But John the Baptist knows better. The Lord, their God, is in their midst.

And so they will be fair. They will tell the truth. They will give thanks. They will not hoard what belongs to others. And in living this way, amid the counter-current, they will form community. And they will light the way for the world. They will light the way for us.


Is this possible? Is there really any hope for this?

I find it hard to believe sometimes, when harsh words speak painful truths, awakening our worst fears, opening our eyes to the wrath that is already here.

A winter chill. A silent injustice. A casual act of violence. The everyday struggle to get it right. Our sickness unto death.

But then I look around, and I see them. I see the signs of a gospel that is so wondrous, so incomprehensible, so nonsensical, so foolishly wild that the peace it brings passes all understanding.

I see the signs of the season of Advent – signs that the Lord, our God, is in our midst.

Beacons of light in the hour of need:

Hands held under a streetlight,

Food shared under flickering fluorescence,

Rooftops strung with glowing bulbs,

An open door lit by a porchlight,

A cold street warmed by a hidden bonfire,

An evergreen wreath anchoring four candles,

Signs of a hope kindled.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Advent 3C, Saturday

A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day

a poem written by John Donne in 1627

Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world's whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar'd with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
I, by Love's limbec, am the grave
Of all that's nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown'd the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night's festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's, and the day's deep midnight is.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Advent 3C, Friday

I was doing time
In Salvation Park
Up on the high rope me
Your ace of hearts
Just when I thought
I was so special
I thought I had it all
You take a wrong step
Before you fall and you're

Stumbling to Bethlehem
In this absence of light
Stumbling to Bethlehem
Don't worry darling
Yeah, don't think twice

Now there's this man
On the corner
In a long black sweater saying
"Sinners they will burn forever"
I must be guilty of something
Some price I forgot to pay
I must have done somebody wrong
Somewhere along the way
That keeps me

Stumbling to Bethlehem
In this absence of light
Stumbling to Bethlehem
Don't worry darling
Yeah, don't think twice

Now you can count up
All your blessings
You can count up every curse
But you never really know
Which is better
Or which is worse
So you try to do right
But it gets so rough
There's always someone
To remind you
That you're just
Not good enough
And you're

Stumbling to Bethlehem
in this absence of light
I'm stumbling to Bethlehem
Don't worry darling
Yeah, don't feel twice
Don't worry darling
Yeah, it's alright

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Advent 2, Saturday


In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us.

-Luke 1:78, from the appointed Psalm for the Second Sunday of Advent, 2009


Our Psalm for the week is actually from a Gospel - Luke - which would be weird except that it is indeed a song, the song of Zechariah.

Remember Zechariah? He was the father of John the Baptist, whose ability to speak was taken from him when he couldn't stifle his skepticism that God could bring new life from two elderly people. This song, our appointed Psalm for the day, is the first recorded thing that comes out of Zechariah's mouth once the silence-spell has broken.

It is also the Gospel Canticle for Morning Prayer, what we sing as a response to the gospel during daily prayer in the AM. (Come to think of it, the Gospel Canticles for Evening Prayer and Night Prayer are also from Luke, all of them coming from the mouths of people standing on one chronological side or another of the birth of Jesus.) In short, the Song of Zechariah is the Morning Prayer song. Liturgically speaking, it is for us as for Zechariah the first song that comes out of our mouths when they are reopened for a new day.

Here in Seattle we've had several mornings of heavy fog. When I looked out the window this morning I couldn't see across the street. After an hour or so, though, the sea level cloud began to dissipate, and by the time I left the apartment it was clear enough to see... what?

People. People chattering about happily, hanging green boughs and garlands everywhere, along the railings, along the windowsills, along the rooftops. I waved hello to those I knew and continued to our car, which was covered in the most beautiful paisley-patterned frost. (I know what you're thinking, but frost really can be a happy thing when you're moving at a leisurely Saturday-morning pace!) No snow yet, but as I turned down Market Street the snow-capped Olympics came into gorgeously dramatic view, the perfect backdrop for the little neighborhood shops of Ballard.

I guess what I'm really trying to say, with all of my 21st-century words, is this:

In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high is breaking upon us.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Advent 2, Wednesday

A reading from Malachi.

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me,
and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.
The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight -
indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.
But who can endure the day of his coming,
and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap;
he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver,
and he will purify the descendants of Levi
and refine them like gold and silver,
until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.
Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD
as in the days of old and as in former years.

Word of God, word of life.

First Reading for the Second Sunday of Advent, 2009


The Mountain was out this morning. We could see it on our drive to work. As we turned right onto 15th Avenue, there it was, a grey shadow towering over the Seattle skyline, making the Space Needle look like a toothpick beside it. It was breathtaking. The Mountain is out so rarely these days that you almost forget it is there.

When I arrived at work, and turned to see if the Olympic range was visible, I gasped. There it was, clearer than it has ever been, and topped with majestic snow like a vertically stretched and inversely colored ice cream sundae. Most mornings here, you must understand, are so overcast that you give thanks for the good rain and and the plentiful inland seas and leave it at that. But then, every once in a full moon, there are mornings like these, mornings so filled with beauty that you just want to stand there grinning like an idiot, taking it all in for as long as you can. Today, I thought, today is going to be a very good day.

Now, hours later, the sun sets. Was it a good day? As usual, I didn't accomplish nearly as much as I'd hoped. I still feel more restless and unsettled than I'd like to. I've decided to retire the word "frustrated" for at least the season of Advent, which should tell you something about how often I've been using it lately.

And yet, despite it all, it was a good day. It was a beautiful day, a gorgeous day, filled with good conversation and good work. Despite it all.

Is a good day a sign that the Lord of hosts is coming? Is a fleeting view of the Mountain a messenger, at least for today? Did it confirm the covenant that God is still here, and that grace incarnate is on her way?

Maybe. And maybe that is enough, for today. Satis est.