Archives for December 2008

Something remarkable, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2008

December 25, 2008

Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-12; John 1:1-14

One of the readings suggested for Christmas Day is from the first chapter of Hebrews. It starts out with this introduction:

“In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has obtained is more excellent than theirs.”

How appropriate it is that we leap from the birth narratives of Christmas Eve to the full, exalted maturity of the Hebrews passage overnight! It is a pity that so few of us attend services on Christmas Day, thus missing out on sermons that delve into the mysteries and wonders of the Letter to the Hebrews. This magnificent theological treatise is not studied frequently enough in the lectionary, maybe because it is so profound that it is not easy to preach on its riches.

But something remarkable happens in the prologue to this letter, or long sermon, by an unknown writer. Over the weeks of Advent, we have been almost lulled by the sweetness of anticipation and the tenderness of Luke’s and Matthew’s narratives into thinking of Jesus the infant; Jesus, born poor among the poor; born of a woman. We are sensitive and emotional and longing to give gifts of love not only to those who are close to us, but also to those we have never met but only heard about. We are overflowing with generosity, food, and images of angels.

And here comes this remarkable, brilliant writer to remind us that it is the Christ of God we should be thinking of and worshipping, not a child in a manger. With breathtaking beauty and with alliteration of explosive consonants in the Greek, the writer opens his letter to remind us in one very long sentence that the one whom we have been anticipating through Advent and adoring on Christmas Eve is God’s heir, a reflection of God’s glory, God’s exact imprint, sustainer and redeemer. We have been singing about angels, but this writer assures us that the Christ is superior to the angels.

We have been kneeling before a mother holding a baby in her arms. We now kneel before the One who was at the beginning of creation with God the Creator.

We have no way of knowing whether or not this writer knew the prologue to John’s gospel, but the two here converge. These two prologues in all their earth-shaking faith and profound thinking encompass the grand theology of the Incarnation. They are not concerned with the earthly Jesus but with Christ the Son of God. They remind us how quickly the early Church arrived at a solid, complex, and intricate theology and that the people writing of the Christ possessed not only great hearts but admirable brains; they confirm also that the doctrine of the Trinity emerged early and was not a creature of the minds that gathered in Nicaea.

Reading these two prologues, we leave the comfortable realm of storytelling as found in the birth narratives and enter the complex realm of intricate theology. These writers have already moved from Jesus to Christ. It is the glorified Christ that matters to them, the same one who appeared to Paul and changed him and the history of humanity unto eternity.

The one who emptied himself to take on human form is on this day the One who was at the beginning with the Father, the one whose word creates with the Father and sustains all things. The writer of Hebrews sees the Christ as the one who, after he has made “purification from sin,” is sitting “at the right hand of the Majesty on high,” both in control and in touch with those he has created.

We feel a tremendous sense of connectedness as this magnificent prologue and the one that opens the Gospel of John take us to the beginning of creation and lead us to this moment of acknowledgment – that the one who came as a helpless infant is the one who is superior to the angels, superior to the prophets and to Moses. He is the Logos of God, the expression of God; but above all he is the one who gave us power to become children of God.

Knowing all this, why should we be afraid? Knowing all this, why should we worry that Wall Street has fallen?

“The Word became flesh and lived among us.” What is more important than this reality that we are urged to grasp onto on this Christmas morning? Nothing! The eyewitness of John’s gospel assures us: “We have seen his glory as of a father’s only son full of grace and truth.” Let us then rejoice and be glad.

 

— Katerina Whitley teaches communication at Appalachian State University and is the author of two books on Advent: Waiting for the Wonder (Morehouse, ) and Light to the Darkness (Morehouse, ).

What’s your response going to be the next time you hear God calling?, Christmas Eve (B) – 2008

What happens when authority calls?

David, the military general, is now king, and thinks it’s time to end the military campaign. David has been able to settle down, and act like peace really has come. He’s even built himself a great palace, with pillars and beams made from those great cedars of Lebanon. So why should God’s ark still be in a tent? He’s acting with authority in that scene from 2 Samuel, and Nathan agrees with his strategy. Until Nathan has a dream that night. That dream reminds them both who is the ultimate authority and strategist, the one with a view from above. God basically says, “No thanks. I’ve been wandering around with these people from the very beginning; I’m not going to stop now. But I will build you a house, David – a dynasty that will last.”

What happens when authority calls on Mary? Her encounter with the angelic messenger starts in an odd way. The usual opening line of an angel is, “Fear not!” but this one begins with the salutation, “Greetings, favored one.” It could also be translated, “Rejoice, blessed one.” The angel might even be saying, “I salute you.” She’s startled by this unconventional opening, and it says she “pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” What’s going on here? This isn’t a normal encounter between angel and mortal, and it’s not a normal encounter between superior and subordinate. The angel’s not saying, “Don’t be afraid, the cavalry’s on its way,” nor is the angel saying, “Atten-hut! here are your orders.” The angel’s opening a conversation – as if between equals.

The angel’s message is about orders, but in a rather different sense than we think about them. This isn’t a military order, a command that expects immediate and almost unquestioning obedience. Military orders can be refused, if the recipient believes them to be unlawful, but the consequences are pretty unpleasant, and you can’t expect to use a defense of illegal orders and get off scot-free. There is absolutely no sense of forcible compulsion about the angel’s order.

This conversation between Gabriel and Mary is about sharing a vision, the kind of perspective a general might have. The strategy of a strategos, the general who climbs up the hill to survey the battlefield. Gabriel is offering a big picture and asking if Mary will cooperate. Sort of like the old Mission Impossible opener, “Your mission, should you choose to accept it … .” It is a choice that can be accepted or not. The strategos has other options if the answer is no.

Mary’s first response is, “Sorry, unable. The equipment’s not ready.” And Gabriel responds by saying, “Doesn’t matter. Elizabeth thought the same thing. And she’s six months into this deployment.”

Mary’s next response is remarkable. She says, “Here I am, ready to serve.” And then, what’s usually translated as, “Let it be with me according to your word,” actually starts out the same way a command does, “Let it be done.” In Latin, it’s “fiat.” She claims the authority offered her. She commands, in full cooperation with the one who has asked. She claims authority, and responds with authority.

This is a hearing, responding, and claiming, not mindlessly following orders or only because a gun’s to your head, but out of a deep conviction that this is God’s call. This is what is sometimes called submission to God – putting yourself under orders out of faithfulness to God’s larger mission.

Here is a connection that may challenge you, but it’s an important link to God’s larger mission. Mary is also revered by Muslims, who recognize her as a righteous woman, and deeply value her example of submission to the will of God. Muslims do not see her son as divine, but they do believe he was born to a virgin. The Quran actually mentions Mary more often than the New Testament does. The word Islammeans “submission to God,” and Mary is revered because she is such an important example of what that looks like. That word Islam has the same root as shalom and salaam, words usually translated as “peace.” God’s mission, the mission of the Prince of Peace, is about reconciling the world. The Christian story of that reconciling work begins with Mary.

In a very real sense, Mary is the first human being to make a Christian response. Her cooperation with that larger mission is at the root of Christianity. Faith in divine authority and claiming one’s own authority to partner with God the strategos is part of our Christian life.

We’re all people under authority. Clergy – deacons, priests, and bishops – are called “ordained” because they have taken vows to live a disciplined life, obeying the pastoral authority of others. All the baptized are under authority – at baptism we make solemn vows to give our hearts to God and live in particular ways that build up the body, both the body of our own existence and our existence in the community called the Body of Christ. Living an ordered existence is about discipline, practice, and askesis – a Greek word that means athletic training.

The ascetic practices of our faith tradition are about training for mission, God’s mission to heal this world, to build a world of peace, with justice, for all. That’s what all that prophetic language about building straight roads in the desert is about. That’s what God has in mind for David and his dynasty – to build a society where no one goes to war anymore, where there isn’t any more poverty or the violence that results, where everyone has the opportunity for meaningful work, and no one stays sick because he can’t afford medical care.

That’s what the song of Mary is about – the one she sings after the angel visits:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. The almighty has done great things for me; he has mercy on those who fear him, he has scattered the proud, cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has fed the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Mary’s “yes” is a choice to participate in God’s work of healing the world. It’s the same choice you and I get every day – to say “yes” to the free and open invitation to cooperate and co-create as part of the healing, redeeming work of God in Christ. It’s not about taking orders simply because they are written down, or spoken, or demanded. It is about a careful and thoughtful and whole-hearted decision to participate. It is about claiming the authority God has given us.

“Let it be with me according to your word.”

What’s your response going to be the next time you hear God calling?

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Written by the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. This sermon was originally delivered at Bolling Air Force Base on Sunday, December 21, 2008.