Saturday, December 27, 2008

Lectionary reflection – 1 Christmas 2008

The images collide in a disturbing way. Santa Claus with a gun? The Christmas Eve killings in Covina, California, are shocking in so many ways. The numbers alone, ten dead and two wounded. A peaceful home invaded, a holiday celebration turned to mayhem. And Santa Claus, that icon of good cheer, and generosity, possessed by vengeance and dealing death.

Yet those are not the only colliding images. On the one hand, the prophet Isaiah foresees his nation’s restoration, where only extravagant poetry will begin to evoke the joy of this hoped-for deliverance. The nation and its people are envisioned as a bride and bridegroom, dressed in their finest, with garlands and jewels, the best possible for the best possible occasion. And the long-sought vindication, for which the people burned, is described as a burning torch.

Perhaps it is more shocking because we know people like these, we recognize the house they live in. The killer was a church usher who had recently lost his job. The dreams of bride and bridegroom had turned to ash, as he and his wife were near the end of a costly and bitter divorce. It is yet another domestic violence murder, in a year where this ugly reality has been much in the news.

Not only is it simply the images that are jarring, the killer becoming an anti-bridegroom, the torch of hope becoming a homemade blowtorch of destruction. But that what the prophet seeks – holy vindication burning like a torch – is uncomfortably close to what the killer seemed to be after.

Immediately after hearing these words of weddings and torches, we will proceed to voice a hymn of over-the-top praise to the Lord God, with all creation called to sing along: “Hallelujah! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise God in the heights. Praise the LORD, all you angels; sing praise, all you hosts of heaven” (Psalm 148:1-2).

Sometimes it is the words of scripture which are jarring. It may seem hypocritical to sing praise to the Lord when around us we see so much still in need of redemption. Israel’s holy writings give ample testimony to the gap between the Lord’s goodness and deliverance, and the wrecked reality we too often inhabit.

The amount of lament in scripture might well suggest to us that many times lament and protest is the proper offering. While we may hymn the Lord’s goodness, we should never forget the brokenness of the world which the Lord seeks to transform.

Perhaps an image from the gospel is an appropriate balancing point. The old ones, Simeon and Anna, have seen much. By virtue of their age we know they have seen their nation conquered by Rome. It takes no imagination at all to know they have seen loved ones die, the text tells us so explicitly for Anna.

Yet they are not so old and worn that they have lost sight of the great hope they have in God’s promise. We find them in the house of the Lord, just as we find some of our old ones. They keep coming not because the religious institution is perfect, but because they still hunger for the touch of God and for the promise of redemption.

When they see a sign – and sometimes all it takes is a tiny thing, like a little bitty baby – they touch that hope, praise God, and begin to speak about the redemption that God has promised, that God has delivered, and that God is still working to bring forth.

For God’s people, praise is not optional, because praise not only roots us in our community's history with God, it helps us remember and envision the world that is to come.

For more information about the prevention and response to domestic violence, see especially the Faith Trust Institute (especially good for clergy and congregations). To report or seek help with suspected domestic violence, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 800-799-SAFE, can connect you to local resoirces. The Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network (RAINN - 800-656-HOPE) will automatically transfer you to the rape crisis center nearest you, anywhere in the nation. It can be used as a last resort if people cannot find a domestic violence shelter.

Photo: "A family friend of shooting victims...near the crime scene in Covina, California." AP - Jewel Samad

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas greetings

Best wishes and thanks to you for fellowship this year, and in hope for the year to come.

Christmas has a marvelous way of focusing on what is most important. Peace on earth. Good will. Gifts given from God to us, from one to another. And that tiny little baby, a sign of light and life.

May your Christmas be blessed with peace, and Immanuel.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas - God in human flesh

I heard on the radio this morning about comments made by Pope Benedict that gay, lesbian, and transgender identity and sexual behavior are threats to the survival of humanity.

Reuters, Deecember 22, 2008:
Pope Benedict said Monday that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behaviour was just as important as saving the rainforest from destruction. The Church "should also protect man from the destruction of himself. A sort of ecology of man is needed," the pontiff said in a holiday address to the Curia, the Vatican's central administration. International Herald Tribune

The Daily Telegraph:
Pope Benedict XVI has denounced gender theory, warning that it blurs the distinction between male and female and could thus lead to the "self-destruction" of the human race. Daily Telegraph

This comes on the heels of the announcement that Rev. Rick Warren will be giving the invocation at the innauguration of Barack Obama to be the 44th President of the United States of America. This selection has drawn criticism because of Pastor Warren's and his congregation's opposition to gay rights, and reported prohibition of membership to gay and lesbian people.

At Christmas, when the church celebrates the birth of its Lord, it is sad indeed to so grievously miss the point of the Incarnation. The Gospel of John said it in a way that has resonated for centuries, an ecology of humanity that has long been the Church's proclamation:

The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory... John 1:14

Not male flesh nor female flesh. Not Greek flesh nor Jewish flesh. Not slave flesh nor free flesh. Not black flesh, white flesh, red flesh, brown flesh. Not gay flesh nor straight flesh. To the evangelist, the one announcing good news, the important point was that God came in human flesh.

Quoting again from published reports:
The pope said humanity needed to "listen to the language of creation" to understand the intended roles of man and woman. He compared behavior beyond traditional heterosexual relations as "a destruction of God's work." He also defended the Church's right to "speak of human nature as man and woman, and ask that this order of creation be respected." International Herald Tribune

But we must clear on whose order the pope is seeking to have respected. Benedict and anyone else has a right to speak of human nature. But the right to speak is no guarantee of right speech.

We should "listen to the language of creation." Unfortunately, the pope misunderstands creation as revealed through Biblical faith. In the Bible, creation is not study of the natural world. In the Bible, creation does not precede humanity and human society, despite those wonderful tales of Genesis.

Creation in the Bible and in Biblical history is a theological word spoken in response to the human experience of chaos and oppression. The God of Genesis 1 speaks, and order springs forth from a chaotic world. The Genesis 1 creation story itself is an antidote to the violent creation myths of Israel's captors.

The good-news text most Christiams will read on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day says something very similar. Yet God's order, which brings power and transforms relationships, is foreign to the order of a world disfigured by violence. In a world enmeshed in the darkness of sin, and in confusion about what the true God is up to, God's Word is hard to recognize.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. John 1:10-13

Now, people on either side of the great gay debate will argue about God's plan for creation. But God has always been in the liberation business. And with God taking on human flesh, that means taking all human life as holy.

Any "order of creation" which leads to the subjugation and oppression of people as made by God is UN-holy, and is not God's order, but a fallen one.

It is an ancient rule of the the church that worship, praise, and prayer is the crucible of doctrine, not the other way around. There is a simple African hymn often sung at this time of year:

     He came down that we may have love,
     He came down that we may have love,
     He came down that we may have love,
     Hallelujah forevermore.

There are many verses, as the word love is replaced by others: life, joy, peace, and more. But I have never heard anyone sing that God came down that we may have order. The Christmas story, the Jesus story, the resurrection story in fact deconstructs the order humanity has made which is contrary to God's order of justice and harmony.

May God grant each of us a peaceful Christmas.