Love Changed Everything

[1]Psalm 96: 11-13 Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea thunder and all that is in it; let the field be joyful and all that is therein.

A New Hope

Mary was very pregnant that night. She probably looked as she felt…exhausted. As far along as she was, everything ached. I imagine her deep and profound desire to lie down and rest. There wasn’t anything special emanating from her. She was just another pregnant person. How many other pregnant people were seen that night? How many other babies were born that night? How many children born before this one? No one in Bethlehem felt the urgency to make sure she was well cared for; no one had the time or the space to make room for her. That night, there wasn’t anything to be done but to offer up some meager space among dirty animals, trampled hay, and dirt, in crisp air of a Bethlehem night. Is this all there is for me and my baby? Exhausted eyes survey the meager estate. Nascent maternal guilt blossoms in hope’s absence, mom whispers her first I’m sorry to her enwombed beloved. I wish I could give you more

When the contractions started, Mary gave herself over to them; she had no choice, she was now in service to life. As she labored on earth, the host of heaven was still. The entirety of the divine residence of angels and archangels watched with bated breath as this woman did a regular thing: bear her first child, a son… But what the host of heaven knew was this: this regular body and this regular act of birth were bringing for this not-so-regular child…the son of God, the prince of peace, the one of ancient of days, the humble judge, the embodiment of divine love, and a new story for the world. For this child, heaven held its breath as Mary brought him forth out of darkness into light so he would be the light going into the darkness, the word piercing the silence, the divine reply to ages of human longing stuck in sorrow, pain, suffering, and captivity, those who cried out through clenched teeth and broken hearts: is there something more? Is there something better than this!? Those too exhausted to hope.

God chose this body and this regularity of being born to enter the world and identify with the depth of the pain of the human predicament. God could’ve shown up and skipped this banal and regular step; God could have come in glory and not in precarious vulnerability. However, God chose not to skip it but to embrace it, to experience it, to identify with God’s beloved from the beginning of life unto the end. It is this divine child born of Mary, this one who is God of very God, who will stand in solidarity with humanity and change the trajectory of everything with a new Word.

That night, as Mary labored, a new story was born and with it, hope.

A New Peace

Mary wasn’t alone that night, walking steadily into that event, one step at a time. Joseph was with her. This regular guy was going about his regular life before God intervened and shuffled everything. Now he was moving along with Mary, the one who was to bear the son of God into the world and he…trusted? Somehow, this was all the work of God, yet he questioned everything. But, even still, he walked with Mary. He walked with this mother of this child that was not his. Will God actually show up, like the Angel promised? Anxiety simmering pushing out peace.

The many closed doors to decent lodging didn’t help things. He was eager to get this very pregnant Mary to security, to a place where she could rest[2]she looks so tired. When the option for the humble estate of wood, straw, and animals came, it was a stroke of fortune even if not ideal. Provision. We’ll make this work, at least for tonight. He breathed. But not for long. When the contractions started, Joseph knew he must do one thing: find a midwife. (So goes another telling of the birth of Jesus.[3])

Then something altogether new and different happened while he sought this Bethlehemite midwife. Joseph was momentarily disentangled from everything, suspended in time and space as the cosmos seemed to come to a screeching halt, as if God was slowing it all down in order to set the whole thing in a completely different direction.

“And I, Joseph, was walking, and yet I was not walking. And I looked up to the vault of heaven and saw it standing still, and in the air, I saw the air seized in amazement, and the birds of heaven were at rest. And I looked down to the earth and I saw a bowl laid there and workers lying around it, with their hands in the bowl. But the ones chewing were not chewing; and the ones lifting up something to eat were not lifting it up; and the ones putting food in their mouths were not putting food into their mouths. But all their faces were looking upward. And I saw sheep being driven along, but the sheep stood still. And the shepherd raised his hand to strike them, but his hand was still raised. And I looked down upon the winter-flowing river and I saw some goat-kids with their mouths over the water but they were not drinking. Then all at once everything returned to its course.”[4]

When God steps into our timeline and into our space things do not keep moving as if it’s all normal. Everything stops. Time is slowed down and space is parted from itself making room for more and bigger and better. God doesn’t break into our realm like a thief. Rather, God takes our realm into God’s self, disrupts us, gives us new ground to stand on; God’s people are ruptured from death’s grip and ushered into the life of God’s reign, into something new, given a different story, and a different way of living in the world.

That night, as Joseph sought the midwife, a new story was born and with it, peace.

A New Joy

That dark night was no different than the other nights. Here they were, once again, tending and guarding their flocks of sheep, chatting here and there to stay awake.[5] This life was quiet, even if deprived and rather dangerous…keeping the flock safe took a lot of work and strength and risk.[6] The census going on caused additional anxiety, fear, and made that heavy blanket of oppression draped over these humble shepherds seem a bit heavier.[7] How many more sheep would they lose from their flocks when the census was over?[8] Against this evil empire they were helpless, more helpless than against a vicious and voracious wolf.[9] Spirits were low that dark night; joy was nowhere to be found.

Then the angle showed up, out of nowhere. The shepherds were rightly terrified. Here they were, in the dark of night, doing their job, minding their own business and then: FLASH! They were enveloped in the heavenly glory of the Lord. In seconds they went from no ones to some ones, illuminated by a great light, and being addressed by one from the host of heaven…who were they to warrant such attention?[10]

And the Angel said to them,

“Do not be terrified! For behold, I herald good tidings to you of great delight for all people! A savior is brought forth for you today in the city of David who is Christ the Lord! And this will be the sign for you, you will find a newborn child having been wrapped in swaddling clothes and being laid in a manger!”[11]

Before the shepherds found their voices, they were greeted by an army of the host of heaven who joined the angel and praised God, saying: Glory in the highest to God and upon earth peace with humanity of good pleasure! And then, like it began, it was over.

The shepherds were summoned by God to come into this event, into this space…and, that night, they went. The unclean were called; the oppressed were summoned; the meek were beckoned to come and see how good God is, how much God was for them, how much God loved them. When they arrived, they found Mary and Joseph, and the divine newborn child was, as the Angel said, lying in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes. Here, these unclean shepherds stood in the direct presence of God without having to change, become pure, clean, or right. There was no shame, no condemnation, no guilt, no offerings had to be made, no rituals performed; they just came, looked, and touched the very small and vulnerable foot of God. And here the audacity of joy on a dark night bubbled forth in the space given to them to rejoice.

That night, when the shepherds arrived, a new story was born, and with it, joy.

Conclusion

All that had been was now coming undone; the savior, the son of God, was born, surrounded by wood, straw, dirt, animals, an exhausted woman of color, a humbled man, and dirty shepherds. On that night God showed up and Love claimed Love’s land and did the only thing Love knows to do: seek those who are cast off and call those who thought they were too far off to hear, too unloved to be desired, too nothing to be something…It’s here where we enter the story. As we listen in and look on, we step into that menagerie of humans and animals gazing upon the newborn child. We become a part of those also loved and summoned to witness this divine event of love in the world and to encounter God on this night. Tonight, we are invited to experience the divine disruption of a new word, a new story pointing to something better, giving us hope. Tonight, we are disentangled from what was by this new story and liberated into the realm of peace. Tonight, we are given time and space to have joy and to dare to rejoice. Tonight—by this new story, by this new word—we are found on Love’s land wrapped up in the lap of Love.

That night, as Mary labored, a new story was born and with it hope. That night, as Joseph sought the midwife, a new story was born and with it, peace. That night, when the shepherds arrived, a new story was born, and with it, joy. Because—on that night—Love showed up and changed everything forever.


[1] *This sermon is an edited version of the Christmas Eve sermon from 12/24/2021. Found here: https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/12/24/on-that-night/

[2] The Protoevangelium of James 17:3-18:1

[3] The Protoevangelium of James 18:1

[4] The Protoevangelium of James 18: 2-11 Trans Lily C Vuong (https://www.amazon.com/dp/1532656173/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_uk52Fb7QPGNMN)

[5] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher, eds. (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010). 34

[6] Gonzalez Luke 33.

[7] Gonazalez Luke 33, 34

[8] Gonzalez Luke 33

[9] Gonzalez Luke 33

[10] Gonzalez Luke 34

[11] Translation mine

Don’t Move so Fast

Matthew 3:13-17 (Homily)

Christmas is over and now we are thrust into the day to day of regular life. Entering the second week of school, it can feel as if we never had Christmas break. Everything picks up where it seems to have left off. Even for me. Even though I’ve an entirely new grade of students sitting at my desks, it’s as if they were always there. Humans are quite remarkable that way: resilient. New becomes normal quickly.

But yet, the events of Christmas did happen. The baby was born. As someone who has had a baby (or a few), I know for a fact that life does *not* just go back to normal within in a day or two. It changes. Forever. And in light of Christmas, the life of the world changes. And yet we seem to skip right over it like we’re in some cosmic competitive game of religious hopscotch.

Our liturgical calendar doesn’t help us either. Liturgically, we moved from the epiphany—the affirmation of Jesus as God incarnate, the long-awaited Christ—to the baptism of Jesus–the affirmation of the affirmation, if you will. So, it would seem we’ve all just moved on from Christmas and are thrust headlong into the descent to Good Friday.

But there’s still Christmas work to be done. This is exactly what happens as Jesus is baptized. As Jesus is baptized and he is affirmed in his divine sonship and belovedness, he leaves the Jordan and will proceed with his ministry. For Jesus, there is Christmas work to be done—it isn’t strictly about getting to the cross as fast as possible. That event will happen and in its own time. But first, there’s healing, feeding, finding, and releasing that needs to be done. African American pastor, author, civil-rights activist, and theologian, Howard Thurman,[1] writes,

The Work of Christmas

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.[2]

However, I want to highlight something that isn’t in the text: I want to add a pause for a moment before we all head out of the Jordan and out of Christmas. Before we do anything, we have to find our footing in Christmas. Before we can even begin to appreciate and understand Easter, we have to locate ourselves in the event of faith in the encounter with God in the season of Christmas. To become substantial actors and doers of the work of Christmas, we must find ourselves encountered by God in Christ born a baby in a manager; we must be encountered in a way that undoes the very fabric of our preconceived notions of the world and of ourselves. Because it is in this encounter where we are brought to the end of the selves we think we are in a world we think we know and ushered into the selves we are but didn’t know in a world we hadn’t seen but see clearly now. We must first lose ourselves in order to find ourselves. We are of no earthly good unless we come to terms with who and what we are; we can’t pull someone else up if we don’t have our own good footing in our known strength and ability.

And in order to do this, we need a moment. We need a pause. And there’s no better week than this week—a week dedicated to your wellness. Take these next few days to just be, to just exist; to feel the sensations of the miracle of breathing, the exhilaration of physical existence, and the weight of emotional life. Take time to look and see, listen and hear, touch and feel; take time to notice the beauty of your friends and of your own wonderful and absolutely amazing creation.

Slow everything down. Live. Take that deep and much needed inhale and release a slow exhale. Be present. Receive and give. Rest. Press into being. Lean. Be aware of your mind and body. Be embodied. And remember you are loved. Beloved.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Thurman?scrlybrkr

[2] https://www.bread.org/sites/default/files/downloads/howard-thurman.pdf. This poem, as well as the idea for this homily, came to my attention by mention from a colleague I was listening to recently.

The Cedar Sprig and The Baby

Ezekiel 17:22-24 (Homily)

*I don’t believe in Bible reading plans, but I do read my bible every day—a chapter on some days, a small passage on others. I take my time and meditate on what I’m reading as I go. One cold, winter morning, back in Colorado, my attention was particularly pricked as I was reading through a part of text from the prophet Ezekiel. The book of Ezekiel of the Old Testament is full of mysterious imagery and prophecy of Israel’s exile and destruction. While there is a word of hope of restoration, the bulk of the book is rather troubling. But none of that caused me to stop and contemplate. It was a portion about a tree planted on a mountain that snapped me out of my early morning mental fog.

I lived in the high desert, so maybe the idea of a great big cedar providing shade and comfort from the burning sun of the summertime or the cold wind and snow of winter sounded good to me. Or, maybe the idea of anything green and verdant appealed to me considering it was the middle of a white Colorado winter. Whatever it was, this tree caught my eye.

In this portion of our passage, God is promising to plant a great and “noble cedar” from a sprig God is going to break off from another. And God will plant this sprig, this tender one on a high mountain, so that it will become a “noble cedar.”

You know what grows on the top of a high mountain? Nothing. Well, nothing substantial, nothing qualifying as “noble.” The top of a mountain is typically bald because the environment is too frigid and the conditions too treacherous for foliage to grow let alone allow for a transplanted cutting to take root and grow and become mighty. What caught my attention that morning was God promising to plant a “tender one” on the top of a mountain; certainly, this is sure death for a cedar sapling. What a precarious thing for God to do.

In the midst of a book that is primarily [1] comprised of prophetic utterances of judgment against the current, corrupt, oppressive, militaristic, and hopeless monarchy of Jerusalem and Israel, [2] why prophesy about a great cedar on a mountaintop planted and grown from a sprig?

Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches. All the trees of the forest will know that I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.

Because the tree is the word of hope in this passage—not for the leadership of Israel but for those who are suffering under the leadership.

The tree will be so mighty in stature that winged creatures of all kinds will be able to find shelter in its boughs. Cedars protect those creatures who find shelter in them from harsh and inclement weather—they are the perfect safe-haven from cold winds and bitter precipitation. This particular cedar planted and nourished by God will be a beacon of hope to all who look upon it, and they will know that God is still active, that God’s power is still magnificent, and that God hears the deep cries and intimately knows the suffering and oppression of God’s people (Exodus 2:25; Acts 9:4-5).[3]

This cedar will stand as the promise of an answer to the repeated cries of the troubled, downtrodden, and the broken hearted. But even more than being a static symbol of hope for the people of Israel and Jerusalem, it’s a dynamic word for the people: God is on the move. This great tree is on a collision course with God.

That God so loved the world he sent his son into it as a vulnerable baby: a baby conceived by the Holy Spirit was born of a virgin woman; the fully divine and fully human Christ would enter the world defenseless, naked, and tender. What a precarious thing for God to do.

And just as God promised that the sprig in Ezekiel would become a great and mighty cedar, so too will this baby grow to be great, becoming the Son of the Most-High God (Luke 1:32). Through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension the cosmos receives her loving messiah, her merciful king, her faithful high-priest.

The sprig of the high mountain top and the baby of Christmas have the same fate in Easter: to be the final answer to all of humanity’s pain and suffering, to bear the weight of sin and bear life into the world, to break down strongholds and redefine justice. For this great man, Jesus, who is God, will carry this great cedar to the top of a high mountain. He will climb upon this great cedar, and this great cedar will bear the entire weight of Christ as he bears the entire weight of our sin and the brokenness of the world succumbed to the powers of sin and death; and this cedar will holdfast those three nails.

Like the winged creatures mentioned by Ezekiel in our passage, in the boughs of the cross and the limbs of our crucified and resurrected Christ, we receive our comfort and the fulfillment of our hope, it’s in the safe and protective shade of the Cross where we hear the divine “it is finished” to our pain and suffering, to our grief and fear–where the rejected are accepted, counted as God’s own, children and heirs of the long awaited great king; where the captives are set free, the oppressed relieved, the hopeless are hopeful, the voiceless have a voice, and the refugee finds refuge.

 

 

1 “Ezekiel” The Jewish Study Bible Tanakh Translation Eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler JPS Oxford: OUP, 2004. 

2 Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament Vol. 1 Trans. J.A. Baker. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961. “Jeremiah and Ezekiel look from the monarchy of their own day, for which they can see no future, to a new order established by Yahweh himself, in which the ruler appointed by him will have become a theocractic official very different from the contemporary political and military king…This opinion on the part of the prophets was certainly strengthened by the fact that in despots like Ahaz, Manasseh and Jehoiakim they saw on the throne particularly blatant examples of human self-will in hostility to Yahweh” (Eichrodt 451) 

3 “The cedar, the grandest of trees, will tower over all the other trees, and all will see the power of God, who is responsible for the fall and rise of Judah” (Jewish Study Bible). 

 

*A longer version of this homily was given at The Cathedral Advent. Birmingham, AL, in 2017.

Santa Wars

Nothing makes me prouder to be a Christian during the Christmas season than the Santa Wars. One group decrying Santa and all that is associated with him; the other group eagerly pointing out the benefits of Santa for the religious cause. Each group burdening each other with blog posts, newspaper/magazine articles, scientific data, personal experiences/confessions and the like that either attest to or detract from embracing the myth of Santa. It’s beautiful, really; judgment and defensiveness whirling about like the snow in December. Ahhh…The weather outside is frightful…

I typically just stand back and watch the battle play out. It’s got an expiration date: 12/26. So, the Santa Wars are limited and last, typically, no longer than thanksgiving to Christmas.

So why get involved? I’m 8 years into this parenting/Christmas/Santa thing and I’m just getting around to saying something now? Why?

Because, I’m a slow thinker and I’ve finally gathered my thoughts about it. Also, because I’m tired of seeing Christian v. Christian over a mythical figure. Arguing never really gets us anywhere, but I do think there are other things that have more substance that might be a bit more worth our time to argue over (if you have to argue that is…)

So here are my thoughts…the things I’d like to say:

1. We don’t do the “Santa Thing”

I think it’s important to first reveal what “side” I’m on: we don’t do the Santa thing. Why? For one main reason:

I am the worst at lying.

Like: BAD. B.A.D. BADBADBAD I have this strict moral code (one I can’t seem to do away with) that drives me to tell the truth. Trust me, it’s not a “i’m-so-righteous” thing, I actually hate it. This is the “thing” that gets me into horrible conversations with people, because I just want them to have the full truth, and I spend time either spinning my wheels in the conversation or desperately trying to pull out of death spin. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten a little bit better about this conviction, but it requires me to say nothing at all and just nod. Case in point: I met someone recently who was explaining to me that since they were Messianic Jewish they were obviously Kosher. And my inner theologian was screaming at the top of her lungs: WHAT ABOUT JESUS APPEARING TO PETER?!?! But I just stood there: “Hm, mm…I see…”

So, you can see how the Santa tradition would be a hard one for me.

I’m also lazy. I don’t have the energy to even begin to perpetuate the myth and stand in lines to see him, and talk about him, and build the suspense.

The other influential decision is this: my husband and I decided that we just didn’t want to offer anything false around something that is true and is by far the hardest thing to wrap your mind around. An Arch Angel with a prophesy to a young, single woman? God being born? Almighty God now a vulnerable infant? There’s nothing “unmagical” about that story that we felt we needed to add other aspects. The story of the incarnation of Christ demands A LOT of trust; we just didn’t want to have to deal with: oh yeah, we lied about Santa, but NOT JESUS WE ARE TOTALLY SERIOUS ABOUT JESUS! So, early on we just decided we wouldn’t do Santa.

2. Both of our boys believed in Santa at one point or another

At some point, both boys, typically when they were in Kindergarten, came home and professed their belief in Santa. I loved it. They were pint-sized Santavangelists. Part of me–when I wasn’t panicking about how I was going to deal with their new found “faith” considering I’m a rotten liar–was impressed with them. They would come to the dinner table and explain why and how Santa was real. Oh really? We would say. Yes! They would reply, and they would go on and on. When I stepped back from the event and looked at what they were doing I some some really cool things: 1. they felt free to come to us and talk to us about their belief in Santa even though they knew we didn’t believe in like they did. 2. they were firm and held-fast to their beliefs. Zooming ahead 18 years, I saw two young men standing for their faith; I saw two young men feeling the freedom to talk about different ideas that they have from their parents; I saw a family discussing ideas and concepts, all of us having different twists and takes on those ideas and concepts; I saw a family interacting in the framework that is created by the freedom of the Gospel.

It was really cool.

3. I don’t think Santa is Evil

I think at this point you  might be thinking that I look down on those (Christian) parents who do do Santa…Well I don’t. I don’t think Santa is evil nor are you “bad” for doing the Santa thing. I don’t think your child will be scarred when they find out that Santa isn’t real and that you’ve been playing along and so they wind up rejecting the Christian story; but I also don’t think that your child will have an easier go at believing the Christian story than mine. Case in point: both my brother and I were raised with Santa; I’m a Christian and he’s an Atheist–possibly the most “unspiritual” person I know. Faith has no correlation to potential receptivity of abstract myths; faith is a gift (period) From God (period) Received through the hearing of the proclamation of the gospel and not because one believed the Santa myth or because one’s parent’s never lied to them about Santa. The only thing we can do to help our children *toward* faith is to both (fervently) pray for them and keep telling them the old, old, good, good story.

4. So, HAVE FUN!

I think Christians forget that one of the hallmarks of the Christian life is joy. I don’t mean some sort of church mouse joy where we confuse contentment for joy. I mean JOY! FUN! LAUGHTER! The doctrine of the justification of sinners by faith alone ceases the every present desire to self-actualize (read: defend why I do or don’t do the Santa thing). We don’t have to spend (read: waste) time defending ourselves and our actions because our self is no longer tied up with our actions and is determined (actualized) in the declaration from Christ: forgiven, brother/sister. When we embrace the need to defend why we do or do not do Santa, we are looking for how our choices, our works justify us. (I’m doing the right thing, I’m making the right choice, so I’m good, right?) So, joy in life is a tangible manifestation of the working out (or the working in) of your justification by faith, of your *real* freedom.

So, if you do the Santa tradition, DO IT! You are free to have fun and enjoy the whole aspect that is the Santa Tradition. You are free to talk of the hooves on the roof that woke you from your slumber with your son the next morning. You are free to remember fondly waiting to sit with Santa at the mall, and enjoy when you see your daughter’s face light up as she, with the same awe and admiration you had at her age, slowly walks up to the jolly man, dressed all in red, who is waiting to hear her heart’s desires. When she looks back at you, enter in with her. And I dare someone (anyone?!!?) to give their kids coal addressed from Santa and then become the heroes of your own story as you unload present upon present on your children: good thing we love you unconditionally, just as Jesus loved us! I mean, seriously, this would be an amazing L/G moment for the whole family. Have memory building fun!

For those of us who don’t do the Santa Tradition, let us have fun, too! Have unrestrained, unlimited fun! It is the season for Joy. True and abounding joy: for Emmanuel has come and has ransomed captive Israel!