Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Inn Crowd

SJF • Christmas Eve 2006
And Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. +
It is one of the most disconcerting and unpleasant experiences one can possibly have — to reach the end of a long trip, get to the hotel, and discover that your reservation has been released to someone else, and to be told that there is no room available. It appears over-booking has been around just as long as the hotel business, a lot longer than the airlines, and it looks like the innkeepers in Bethlehem were no more generous than many others before or since. They lived in the world of first come, first served, and their No Vacancy signs must have been written in letters of Greek, and Hebrew, and Latin.

So when Joseph and the very pregnant Mary — I miss that old expression “great with child” — when the weary couple arrived at the inn that night in Bethlehem, they were told there was no room for them in the inn. And so they spent the night out behind the inn, in the stable, so tradition (not the Bible) tells us — though it’s the logical place to find a manger, out in the stable with the animals that fed from it.

There was no room for Mary and Joseph and the newborn Jesus in the inn. Well who was there room for? Who was the inn crowd that cold winter night so long ago?

We have to admit that just as the Bible doesn’t specifically mention the stable, only the manger, so too the Bible tells us nothing at all about the inn or its inhabitants, only that there was no room there. You can look as long as you like, but you won’t find any further details. All it says about the inn is that there was no place for Joseph and Mary, no place for her to bear her child, no crib for him to lie in — only the manger for which tradition supplies us with a likely stable as a setting. Even the innkeeper who features so prominently in many a Christmas pageant isn’t mentioned by the Bible. He is a logical addition to the story, but as far as the Gospel is concerned he isn’t even an off-stage voice.

So, again as far as the Gospel is concerned, the people who were in the inn that winter night so long ago, all of them, whoever they were, the whole inn crowd, have been utterly forgotten, utterly lost to history, their names wiped out, the memory of them perished, all evidence of them gone, as if they never were. The inn crowd, you see, missed their chance to be remembered for ever, they missed their chance to have their names appear in the Bible along with Augustus and Quirinius, along with Jesus and Mary and Joseph.

Who were they? Well, use your imagination — another kind of Christmas gift God gives us. Who might the people in the inn have been, besides the logically necessary innkeeper. The rich couple who might have told the innkeeper, “Oh, we can make some room in a corner here — why not put some of our luggage out in the stable and let this poor couple have a corner of our room”? No — they are forgotten.

Perhaps there was another carpenter or craftsman there that night, someone who would recognize Joseph by his calloused hands. He could have taken that hand in fellowship, and squeezed in a bit on his narrow bed, or slept on the floor. But no — he has faded into mist.

Then remember, too, that the reason Joseph was on this journey was to enroll in the census, here in the town of his heritage — the town must have been full of his relations: so perhaps someone in the inn that night was a cousin, or even an uncle, someone who might do a favor for “family.” But no, in this case, blood was not thicker than water, when the well of charity itself ran dry — and if a relative was there, he or she is now forgotten.

And that innkeeper himself, so busy with his work that he couldn’t find the time to maybe offer a cot in his own room or in the corner of the bar — he is only remembered to us as an inhabitant of our imagination and our Christmas pageants, even the job title “innkeeper” is absent from the recorded text.

The innkeeper kept his inn, all right, kept it for himself and those inside it, all of them anonymous guests of an anonymous host. And all of them are forgotten. There was room for them in the inn, but no room for them in the story. And the story is important — for who of us when he or she dies is remembered any other way than by the passing down of the story of our lives? Without the story, the inn crowd is lost and gone forever.

But what about the “out” crowd? Ah, now that’s a different story. And it is a story. That’s the point. It is a story told around the world in every human tongue. It is a story told each year as the world turns under a winter moon, a story that has been told and will be told again and again until our old world stops its turning once and for all. For as long as there are children to sing, and parents to teach, and watchers to watch, and preachers to proclaim, the story of the “out” crowd will be told.

And we will adorn our altars and table-tops with crêches that commemorate that stable, and there won’t be an inn in sight. And the figures of the shepherds and the wise men and the angels will be there too, remembered in our story and song, and in our pictures and our pageants and our crêches — — all the whole wonderful crowded and blessèd world that was too big and too good and too marvelous to fit in any old inn, all the goodness and grace of God poured out from heaven on high, all the abundant blessing that couldn’t find room in an inn, — but found plenty of room to spread out on the fields in which the shepherds watched, to spread abroad in the heavens filled to overflowing with angels, to shine far beyond the horizon in the light of a star that would bring wise men from the ends of the earth to worship a child born to be king.

There was no room in the inn for all of these, but there was room enough in a world that had waited long to receive them. There was room enough in hearts that were open, and there always will be. And so, tonight on this most holy night, we remember and tell that story again, we remember and celebrate those shepherds and those angels, we look forward to the arrival of those wise men, and we remember most especially the mother and the father turned away from the inn in which they found no room, and the little child that mother bore and laid in a manger, that little child of whom the angels sang, that little child whom the shepherds worshiped, that little child whom we now glorify, Jesus Christ our Lord. O come, let us adore him. +

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

Monday, December 18, 2006

In the Pink

SJF • Advent 3c 2006 • Tobias Haller BSG
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
We come to the third Sunday of Advent, the one that takes its name — Rejoice Sunday — from the words of Saint Paul to the Philippians, that wonderful phrase that composers like Handel, Purcell and Mozart have set to such bouncy tunes over the years. It is also the day on which I get to put on this rose-colored vestment — and I do have to admit that due to fading over the years it is more pink than rose. But it is special for me, because it is the vestment I wore at the very first Holy Eucharist at which I was the celebrant, having been ordained to the priesthood on the previous Saturday; today is the ninth anniversary of my first celebration of the Eucharist. At the end of that first celebration, I was able to follow another old custom for priests on such an occasion, and present my mother with a single rose— God rest her now as she awaits the resurrection to which we all look with eager hearts.

So you can see that this day is quite a special one for me, and I rejoice with you as I rejoice with Saint Paul, and Handel and Purcell and Mozart, and with Jerusalem itself, picking up that theme of celebration on this rose-colored day in the midst of a purple Advent. It is wonderful to feel so “in the pink” and filled with a spirit of exultation and joy.

But then... then comes John the Baptist. Oh my, if ever there was a party pooper, if ever there was a dark cloud on the horizon, if ever there was someone to rain on our parade — it has to be John the Baptist. For just as we are settled into a rosy-cozy pink rejoicing, here comes John the Baptist with his black-and-blue bruise of condemnation: “You brood of vipers!” he thunders at the crowds who have come to be baptized by him. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

John the Baptist certainly does come on like gangbusters — he threatens all the trees that don’t bear good fruit with being cut down and thrown into the fire. But then... then he does a turnaround himself. Perhaps John is feeling a bit in the pink himself. For after this stunning and shocking introduction, what does he go on to ask? “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” He tells the tax collectors to collect only the tax owed to them, and tells the soldiers not to extort anyone by threats or false accusation, but to accept and be content with their wages. It’s almost as if John the Baptist were trying to be, in himself, both the bad cop and the good cop — on the one hand threatening disaster, but on the other applying a modest and reasonable approach to good behavior. After all the wild apocalyptic shouting and cursing, there comes a quite reasonable and rational request.

I’m reminded of something that happened once in the days of live television. This was long before “Saturday Night Live” was considered revolutionary for going before the camera and actually performing live for ninety minutes. In the early days of television, before the advent of videotape, everything was live. And one broadcaster got the idea of presenting the horror classic “Frankenstein” live on TV with some famous Hollywood actor probably a little past his prime — I don’t recall now if it was Lon Chaney jr, or perhaps even Boris Karloff. In any case, in one of the scenes, the Frankenstein monster was supposed to burst into the room and make a wreck of it, picking up tables and chairs over his head and smashing them to the floor. Of course the tables and chairs were made of lightweight balsa wood and were designed to break apart when the monster dashed them down on the ground. However, since props were expensive, the actor understood that in rehearsal he wasn’t actually to break the furniture.

Unfortunately for the broadcaster there was a glitch in the programming schedule and word did not get through to the actor playing the monster — he apparently thought they were doing a dress rehearsal when in fact the broadcastwas going out live to millions of homes. And so those millions of people saw the Frankenstein monster break through the door, growl inarticulately, hoist a chair over his head, growl some more, and then carefully replace it on the floor; and then do the same thing with table — lifting it above his head with grunts and groans and angry growls and then putting it back in place with a delicate touch. Eventually, at the scene-break word got through to the mortified actor, and for the rest of the evening the Frankenstein monster behaved in a more monsterly manner. It wasn’t a dress rehearsal, it was the real thing.

But it was a dress rehersal for John the Baptist; and so it is for us — he knew it, and so do we. In spite of all of John the Baptist’s shouting and cursing, he knew that the end was yet to come — this was the dress rehearsal. He wasn’t actually going to be chopping down any trees, separating wheat from chaff himself. These were tasks reserved for someone else. John knew for certainty that he was the stand-in, the stuntman for the real star who was yet to shine in his brief time upon the stage of this world. And we too know that the end is not just yet — and that it isn’t our task to wreck the furniture and declare that the end has come. We aren’t the members of a doomsday cult keen on hastening the coming of the end: after all, as the prophet Amos said, Woe to those who call for the day of the Lord!

Rather we know that we, like John, are called upon to build up, to challenge and be challenged to do the right thing: not to wreck the furniture but to share a coat with one who has none, to share food with those who hunger, to take no more than we need or are owed, and above all not to bully or berate others.

For we too are stand-ins for the star who is coming. We too are not worthy even to untie his shoes. We may baptize with water — we do it on a regular basis right over there in the font! But the one who came and is to come — Jesus our Lord, the star of the show, baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Only he is qualified to separate the wheat from the chaff. As eager as some in the church are to declare who is wheat and who is chaff, who is bearing worthwhile fruit and who isn’t, they are presuming mightily and getting well beyond the role they are meant to play. All of us in the church are extras, stand-ins, and understudies — and none of us should dare presume to step into the spotlight and take the leading role.

And you know what? That is good news! That is something to rejoice about. We don’t have to play God’s part — and that’s good news because none of us are that good actors! We don’t have to save the world — if we simply do the ordinary things that justice and love demand it will be enough. If we have two coats, to share with those who have none; if we have plenty of food, to share it with the hungry. To take no more than our share, and to share what we have when we have it. And that is good news, isn’t it? It is the good news that John the Baptist preached and proclaimed to the people, with many exhortations. It was good news then and it is good news now — as we continue to rehearse for the great performance that is to come.

We don’t have to save the world! Someone else did, and will do so again. We only have to do what he said in the meantime: love one another as he loved us. So let us rejoice, brothers and sisters, in the knowledge that what God asks of us is within our capacity to do. Let us continue in prayer and supplication and thanksgiving, doing what God asks of us, and has empowered us to do. All things come of God, and of God’s own we return to God and share with our brothers and sisters. And in doing this God’s peace, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and our minds, in knowing that we are doing as God wills, and in accordance with the will of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Monday, December 11, 2006

All Dressed Up

SJF • Advent 2c • Tobias Haller BSG
Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting.
I’m going to start my sermon today with a question. I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I do want you to be honest with yourselves when I ask it. Ready? How many of us here have ever made use of the snooze button on our alarm clock or radio? How many of us here — if any — can honestly say that when the alarm clock goes off in the morning we pop right out of bed like a firefighter ready to jump into the boots at the foot of the bunk, strap on the uniform and slide down the brass pole?

Or put the shoe on the other foot: how many of us here haven’t stood at the foot of the stairs or down the hall, calling for the third or fourth time to a son or daughter or niece or nephew or grandchild, “It’s time to get up!” And how many of us have been on the other side of that call — enjoying the extra few moments in bed even more than the whole night that went before?

Well, I don’t think I am alone in this! It is, after all, a law of physics — Newton’s First Law, no less: a body at rest tends to remain at rest unless some outside force acts upon it. And in this case whether the force is an alarm clock or an insistent elder who has made breakfast and is beginning to threaten applying a most definite force to your most recumbent body — there comes a time when you know you actually do have to rise and, if not shine, at least feebly glimmer.

The next thing is that you have to wash and get dressed. And if it is Sunday, you know that you will be expected to put on, not just lounging-about-the-house clothes, not just everyday work or school clothes, but your Sunday Best. You will be expected not just to get up and get dressed, but to get all dressed up.

Nations and peoples act the same way as individuals, of course. Nations and peoples are, after all, just collections of individual people — prone to the same errors and bad habits; the same laziness and reprobation and backsliding — and sometimes the number of people can multiply the problem rather than correct it.

When someone comes along and says to the people, “It is time to get up and get dressed,” it is a rare thing indeed for the people to respond the first time around. It takes repeated calls and repeated warnings before most nations will rouse themselves to do what is right, to do what is just — to do what God calls them to do.

We see this clearly laid out in our Scripture readings today. Baruch calls on Jerusalem to put off her widow’s weeds, to arise and get herself ready and put on her party clothes — assuring Jerusalem that the path is going to be cleared, the hills made low and the valleys filled in, to bring about restoration and rebirth, a new life to the sorrowful land.

But, of course, Baruch wasn’t the first prophet to use such language. Years before, Isaiah spoke in exactly the same way, calling on Jerusalem to awake and arise and put on her beautiful garments. He also described God’s massive earth-moving plan — leveling mountains and filling valleys to prepare the way for a grand procession.

Nor, as we see from our Gospel today, was Baruch the last prophet to use such language. For here is John the Baptist, once again a prophet arising in that old tradition, dressed in the garments of Elijah, announcing once more the promise of God’s highway construction plan — and calling on the people to open their eyes to see the coming salvation of God — and if not to get dressed, at least to prepare for it by the washing of baptism, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Israel needed to hear this wake-up call over and over. For it seems to be a part of the prophet’s fate not to be listened to — hence the need for repetition. People don’t want to listen to the prophets’ warning: remember what happened to John the Baptist! Try too hard to shout-out God’s wake-up call and you’ll get your head handed to someone else on a platter!

Yet Israel desperately needed to hear that repeated wake-up call. And we do too. That is in large part why we continue to hear these passages of Scripture year by year, every Advent hearing anew the call and the promise: the call to rise and shine, and the promise that the new bright garment of grace is there ready for us to don when we have washed away our sins, repenting our past ways and preparing for the great time that lies ahead. We are told that the way is clear — mountains leveled and valleys filled in — not just for God to come to us, but for us to go with God.

The question is — are we ready? Have we risen and washed, and are we dressed? Or are we still lying in the warm cocoon of slumber, with a pillow over our head to shut out the light? Well, we’re here in church — it’s true! But we all know how just as a body at rest tends to remain at rest, a body in motion will tend to stay in motion once it gets moving. So what I want to challenge you and me to ask ourselves this morning is: are we really awake and ready, or are we only sleep-walking? We are dressed up — but have we someplace to go? Are we truly motivated, or only going through the motions? Do we take advantage of this Advent time to examine our hearts and minds, to dig down deep and clean out the rubbish of old habits; to rub the sleep from the corner of our eyes, sweep up the old sins we’ve gotten accustomed to, or the old ways of the world we’ve come to accept as given?

For the world and its peoples love inertia — love to stay at rest, or move along predictable pathways, running downhill instead of mounting the heights. I was listening to a BBC reporter grill UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan earlier this week; and much as I admire Annan, I must say the BBC reporter was playing prophet to his Jerusalem — again and again asking, What use is the UN if it can’t actually do anything to stop the genocide in the Sudan? The powder-blue helmets look very nice, but what use are peace-keepers who don’t keep the peace?

And I would amplify that question, as the genocide continues there in the Sudan, and Northern Uganda is torn with violence, and civil strife is brewing in Nigeria. Do we ever learn? What use is it to say, “Never again” when the powers of this world just press the snooze alarm and say, “Just once more, please”; when the prophets call upon the powers of this world to lay down their swords, and the nations say, “How’s that again?” How many genocides does it take for the world to realize that if it keeps going that way there will be no one left?

The Secretary-General was not without his answer, however, and it was a good one, a realistic one, if not an optimistic one. He said that the UN can only do what people are willing to do. It is not an all-powerful force that can bend the world to its will. As I noted earlier, just as the world is made up of people — and since people are fallible the world makes mistakes — so too the UN is just what it claims to be: it is made up of all those nations, and if those nations individually don’t have the will to act — they will not act collectively. Bodies at rest will remain at rest unless an outside force is applied; bodies in motion, in motion — headed down the same old valleys of disaster.

And this is why, in the final analysis, we will not be able to solve our problems on our own. We will not because we cannot. An outside force is needed, just as Newton said. So this is why, in these last days, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born for us to be with us, born among us — but not merely one of us, but also the power of God incarnate, his way prepared by generations of prophets repeating the same message. Only God in Christ can finally and perfectly rouse us from the slumber in which we lie, even as we seem to be awake. Only he can truly waken us with his bright light, and wash us with the cleansing power not only of water but of his blood, and of the Holy Spirit’s fire. Only he can strip us of the robes of sorrow round us, and clothe us anew with the wedding garment we were meant to wear from before the foundation of the world.

And then, how can we not follow through? How can we not join our voices and raise them, calling out for Righteous Peace and Godly Glory. How can we not call for justice and work for justice, demand that peace be made, and that the innocent no longer suffer — we who have wakened, and who are called upon to rouse our sisters and brothers who still slumber in a world of violence and mischief, a world of hatred and fear, of ignorance and rebellion?

Sisters and brothers, a voice cries out for us to prepare the way of the Lord. A voice calls us to arise and shine and put on our festival garments, to climb to the heights to proclaim what we see. That voice has been calling for a long time, through Isaiah and Baruch and John the Baptist, and countless other prophets since. They point the way to the one who was, who is, and who is to come — the great External Force that can move all our bodies from rest — even from the rest of death — and put them into motion for his purpose, who has called us not merely servants but friends, and clothed us for the wedding banquet.

Let us then this season heed the prophets’ warnings, forsake our sins, be clothed with the garments of righteousness, and greet with joy the coming of our Redeemer and the Redeemer of the world, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+