Pastoral Prayer at the End of Advent

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Most gracious God,

desire of every living thing,

you have lighted our way in Advent

candle by candle,

dispelling our gloom.

and now four candles shine.

The night is almost over.

The Day is almost here.

But not yet.

Promise by promise

you have cleared our sight

with words from afar,

dreams, signs and wonders,

and now the Word made flesh

Is almost appearing.

But not yet.

Grace by grace

you have kept us awake,

brightening our eyes of faith,

and now we watch only a little more.

Now on tiptoe we see

the one we waited for

is almost here.

But not yet.

At the end of Advent,

in these days of not quite yet,

look with compassion

on the pain of the joyless,

the grief of the childless,

the sorrow of the bereaved:

for not all people enjoy the season,

not every family embraces,

not every womb conceives and carries,

not every day dawns with the presence of those we love,

not every story is full of angels,

not every song is ‘Glory!’

As we tell again the story

of your coming among us,

bind our hearts to the anguish of the poor,

the suffering of the sick,

the misery of the imprisoned,

and keep us alive to the terrors of war,

too easily forgotten, too easily accepted.

Increase the joy of earth,

and help us relish with thankful hearts

every good thing that will be ours at Christmas:

every pleasure and taste,

every sound and sight,

every touch and memory,

so that in the delight of our bodies

and the thoughts of our minds

we will know and love you,

who visits us through every sense and pore.

More than anything, O God,

we ask for Christ –

to meet his love, to know his goodness,

to experience his power, to be attracted to his way.

We ask for Christ—

to make the difference, to anchor our hearts,

to lead the way, to bring us home.

We ask for Christ – for cradle and cross,

for lullaby and lament, for life and death

and life made new in him.

In hope we pray,

the spirit of Christmas leaping within us,

heartened by his almost visitation,

the words he taught us on our lips:

Our Father….

Desire

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“Like a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God… When shall I see you face to face?”—Psalm 42:1-2

Waiting is the hallmark of Advent, yet the Advent psalms and prophets speak more about longing than waiting: panting, fainting, begging, crying, desperate human need.

Waiting can be active, but it’s rarely terrible and driving. Desire, however, is visceral, like the crazed thirst of a wild animal in a parched land. God is a fierce and unrelenting need. Advent craves God.

Do you?

No, you aren’t thrashing through underbrush frantically seeking water. You don’t really relate much to that panting deer. You don’t have those kinds of experiences of God. You’re no mystic.

Although there was that moment when you heard a loon on the lake and cried, couldn’t stop, didn’t know why, but so wished you did.

Although there was that moment when you felt incomplete, a restlessness, and wondered what you were missing.

Although there was that moment when you were suddenly and completely happy, consoled without cause, and you wish you could feel it again.

Although there was that moment at the peace march or serving communion or stargazing in pure black night when you grasped it whole, the way it is, the way it’s meant to be.

Although there was that moment when your heart lurched listening to a story about someone who risked it all, who loved the way you want to, yes, you do.

Although there was that moment your defenses were down and your suffering was great when you just cried out, cried out for God, and then got scared: what if God comes?

No, you’re no mystic, no thrashing deer.

But there was that time…

Prayer: I’m so thirsty for you, O God. Like the deer. When will I see you face to face?

 

Commemoration of Saint Nicholas, December 6

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“He had to be made like his siblings in every way, so that he might become a merciful high priest… For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses…”—Hebrews 2:17, 4:15

When his wealthy parents died, Nicholas of Myra gave away a fortune and gave himself to the church. As a bishop, he acquired a reputation for generosity to the poor. After he died on December 6, 354, his fame spread beyond Asia Minor. In Europe, Christian imagination transformed him into jolly old St. Nick. Here, cartoonist Thomas Nast made him Santa Claus.

These days, many Christians are down on Santa and the commercialization of the season he represents. Aiming for a holier Advent, they point back to St. Nicholas, Santa’s prototype. We’d be a lot closer to the right spirit, they say, if we looked to the bishop, not the elf.

If only it were that simple. It turns out that the kind bishop was also a harsh bishop. Once jailed for his orthodox faith, he gave as good as he got, persecuting pagans and repressing Arian heretics. He was an amalgam of utmost kindness and fierce certainty, passions sweet and cruel, a compromised person in a complicated world. Like ours. Like us.

And if we’re hoping to be squeaky clean in this expectant season; if we think there’s a right way to do Advent that will bring us to Christmas with bright shiny faces; if we’re striving to reach a spiritual place in our lives without defects, contradictions, and dead-ends, perhaps we haven’t yet begun to grasp the Mercy we’re waiting for, the One who reached eagerly for the compromised flesh we try to escape, entered the complicated world we try to smooth out, and loved them both to death, even death on a cross.

Prayer

On St. Nicholas Day, we surrender our compromised hearts, complicated lives, and earnest striving to you, O Mercy without end.

 

Image: St Nicholas, 16th c. Russian icon

Lectio Divina with Mary in Advent

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 First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, UCC

Lectio Divina

 Advent 2007

The Word of Scripture should never stop sounding in your ears and working in you all day long, just like the words of someone you love. And just as you do not analyze the words of someone you love, but accept them as they are said to you, accept the Word of Scripture and ponder it in your heart, as Mary did. That is all. That is meditation……Do not ask “how shall I pass this on?” but “What does it say to me?” Then ponder this Word long in your heart until it has gone right into you and taken possession of you.

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer

What Is Lectio Divina?

Lectio divina, or “sacred reading” is an ancient practice that emerged in the early centuries of the Christian church, and was widely used in monastic communities throughout the subsequent centuries. Although they did not use the term, our Puritan forebears also used a method of meditating on scripture and “inwardly digesting” its meaning that is similar to lectio.

Lectio divina invites us to approach the Bible not as an abstruse book to be studied, but as a privileged space in which to meet a living God. The practice of lectio doesn’t ask us to figure out the meaning of a text with our heads; it allows us to be met by its meaning in our hearts. Lectio invites us to know a God who wants to speak to our whole lives through the words of scripture. Through the practice of lectio, the Spirit draws us into the Word, to become absorbed in it, to ponder its intersections with our daily lives, and to be changed by our pondering.

During the season of Advent especially, lectio divina takes its inspiration from Mary, the mother of Jesus. Since the beginning, the Christian tradition has recognized her as the prayerful reader of the Word par excellence. She attended to the Word uttered in the Hebrew scriptures, the Word made flesh in her own body, the Word revealed in the ministry of Jesus, and the Word unfolding in the life of the church. Mary models what it means to be a disciple by her open, active attentiveness to her son, through whom God spoke—and is still speaking—a transforming Word. She who was “overshadowed by the Holy Spirit” at Jesus’ conception, was guided by that same Spirit to ponder the meaning of his life at every turn. This Advent. we are invited to learn from her to do the same.

Four Movements

Lectio divina can be practiced individually or in a group. Our focus in this booklet is on individual practice. It is traditionally comprised of four movements:

1) Lectio – reading God’s Word

2) Meditatio – meditating on the Word

3) Oratio – responding prayerfully to the Word

4) Contemplatio – resting in contemplation of God through the Word.

The movements of lectio divina are not fixed rules, but guidelines that also describe the way that this form of prayer normally develops. Its natural movement is towards increasing simplicity—less and less thinking and talking, and more and more deep listening. Over time, with perseverance, the words of scripture reveal the Word of God to the attentive ears of our heart.

Guidelines for Personal Lectio Divina

These four movements are traditionally practiced like this:

0) Preparation

Preparing for the encounter with the Word

Quiet yourself. Try to be fully present to God, in a spirit of expectancy. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide your reading. Don’t rush this preparation.

1) First ReadingLectio

Reading the Word slowly so that it sinks into us

Read a passage of scripture slowly and attentively. As you read, be aware of words or phrases in the text that seem to stay with you. Pay attention to a word or phrase that shimmers, disturbs, lures, or invites you. After a short pause, read the passage a second time. Then allow some silence. In that time, repeat inwardly the word or phrase that drew your attention; take it in, gently recite it to yourself, linger over it, savor and ponder it.

2) Second ReadingMeditatio

Recognizing the places where the Word intersects with our lives

Read the text again. During this reading, be mindful of instances in which the text seems to intersect with your recent experience. Ask, “Does this reading touch my life here and now, today?” “Does the word or phrase that attracted my attention connect with or illumine what is going on with me now?”

Spend 2-3 minutes in silence. Pay calm attention to any images or feelings that arise from pondering where the chosen word or phrase connects with your recent experience. (If some other word or phrase from the passage comes to mind and your heart seems drawn to it, feel free to go with it!) You may not immediately understand connections that emerge between your word (or the passage itself) and your life. They may not seem logical or direct. It doesn’t matter. Accept whatever comes to you, dwell with it, and reflect on it.

3) Third ReadingOratio

Listening for the Word’s invitation

Read the passage slowly once more. Ask yourself, “Do I sense this passage inviting me to do or be something? To take a new step in my discipleship? Am I finding myself in a new place? Or hearing something for the first time? Is there encouragement for me here? A challenge? If so, what is it?” If you don’t feel an invitation, you might wish to ponder, “Am I changed in any way by my prayerful reading of this text?”

Read the passage again. Then try to leave the thinking/reasoning part of you aside for a while, and allow your heart to speak to God. Let your feelings lead your prayer.

4) PrayerContemplatio

Resting in the Word’s presence

In the silence of prayer, calm down your own words and thoughts, and simply rest in the Word of God. Let God take the lead. Listen at the deepest level of your being for God to address you. The “voice” you hear may simply be a deep silence, or perhaps an echo of the word that spoke to you in the text, or some other “voice.” Conclude by praying the Lord’s Prayer, slowly and with attention to each petition. Thank God for this time of prayer, and go your way!

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Texts for Advent Lectio Divina

Here are some suggested texts for your pondering during the season of Advent. In some weeks only one text is suggested; in others, more than one. In any given week, you should feel free to meditate on all the texts. just one of them, on a few lines from one of them, or even different texts altogether! The important thing is to practice prayerful reading, and let a word of scripture burrow deep within you in this sacred time.

Week One

The Word in the Book

Christian tradition often depicts Mary as a faithful reader of the Hebrew scriptures. It even goes so far as to imagine that the young Mary was reading—pondering God’s promise of a savior in the pages of scripture—at the very moment that the angel Gabriel appeared to her to announce that she would be the mother of God’s anointed one. This idea has become a familiar motif in Christian art over the centuries.

Nowhere does the New Testament depict Mary actually reading, but it is not far-fetched to think that, like many fervent Jews in 1st century Palestine, she longed for the appearance of an anointed one who would establish justice and peace on earth. It is not far-fetched to imagine that she was faithfully attentive to God’s Word of promise, always pondering what it might mean for her people and for her own life too.

In this first week of Advent, we ponder the familiar text of the angel’s annunciation to Mary. We see Mary, steeped in the Word and faithfully to the covenant of people, at the very moment that the promise is fulfilled. How might this text intersect with your own life and faith this Advent?

Luke 1: 26-38

26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Week Two

The Word in the Body

One of the central affirmations of Christianity is that although God speaks to us in many different ways, God speaks to us in a unique way in the man, Jesus of Nazareth. In him, God’s Word dwells fully. This is what Christians call the Incarnation—the Word becomes flesh, taking on a fully human life. The Word lived among us, sharing our lot and revealing in a new way God’s will for our world.

Tradition teaches that Mary became pregnant with this Word. She carried the Word in her body. It is Jesus, her son. As the Word grew within her, her joy increased. Pondering the presence of the Holy in her very flesh caused her to burst into song, glorifying God for the salvation that was to come into the world through the power of the Holy Spirit and her own “yes” to God’s life-changing invitation to bear the Word.

In the second week, we are invited to reflect on a pregnant Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, also pregnant and full of hope. We also listen to Mary’s song of joyful praise, the “Magnificat.” How might these texts intersect with your own life and faith this Advent?

Luke 1:26-45

26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

 Luke 1: 45-56

45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 56And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

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Week Three

The Word in Jesus of Nazareth

Luke’s gospel speaks of shepherds following a star to the stable in Bethlehem. When these poor, marginalized laborers reach the crib of Jesus—the one who “lay aside the glory that was his” to spend his life as a companion of the poor—they bend their knees, marveling at the sight of him and of his mother. They praise God for keeping the age-old promise to send the prince of peace. Mary marvels in turn, and, the gospel says, “she treasured their words in her heart.”

Later, when Jesus is a teenager and astonishes the teachers with his wisdom, Mary will have cause to ponder the mystery of his person again. And the mystery deepens as Jesus begins his teaching ministry in Gallilee. At the foot of the Cross, Mary’s contemplation of the Word in her son reaches new depths of mysterious and agonizing awe.

In the third week, we ponder with Mary the Word in action in the ministry and teachings of Jesus, a Word that speaks of radical faithfulness to the ultimate and absolute claim of God upon his life. How might these texts intersect with your own life and faith this Advent?

Luke 2:15-19

15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

Luke 2:41-52

\41Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” 49He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50But they did not understand what he said to them. 51Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

Luke 11:27-28; Luke 8:18-21

11:27While he was saying this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” 28But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!”

8:18Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.” 19Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. 20And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.” 21But he said to them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.

John 19:25b-27

25And that is what the soldiers did. Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

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Week Four

 The Word in the Church

The Acts of the Apostles is a chronicle of the life of the early Christian church as it takes root and grows in the Mediterranean world after the resurrection of Jesus. Although the gospels say little about Mary overall, she is expressly mentioned as being at the heart of the early church with the other disciples in the upper room, after Jesus’ farewell on the Mount of Olives. There, with Jesus’ inner circle, she waited and prayed for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Together they devoted themselves to pondering, to fellowship, and to breaking and sharing the bread of the Eucharist—the bread her son called “his body.”

Subsequent tradition would call her “the mother of the church,” which is (as St Paul would say) Christ’s body. But the most important thing about Mary is that she was the first disciple, a faithful follower all her days, and spent her remaining years—or so we imagine—the same way she lived her early life, turning over in her heart the meaning of God’s Word of promise. This is what the church is all about—a communion of disciples pondering God’s Word of promise and embodying it in our daily lives through love and service, in imitation of Jesus, and with boundless hope.

In the fourth week, we contemplate Mary at the center of the community, modeling hope, breaking bread, and still following her son through a faithful life in the church. How might these texts intersect with your own life and faith this Advent?

Acts 1:12-14

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

Acts 2:43-47

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.


Images:

Annunciation, John Collier

Annunciation, Edward Frampton

Annunciation, Jean Hey

Annunciation, Antonello da Messina

 

 

 

Zacchaeus

 

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Image: Zaccaeus, by Joel Whitehead

 An old sermon (from 2001)…

Luke 19:1-10

Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus is a story that recapitulates all the great themes of Luke’s gospel: the anticipatory mercy of God, the joy in heaven when the lost are found, the moral precariousness of the self-made and the self-righteous, the necessity of deeds to authenticate righteousness – especially the divestiture of concentrated wealth and the just treatment of the oppressed.

It is also a charming story, filled with unexpected details that make it easy to imagine. We learn that Zacchaeus was short, that he ran fast to beat out the crowd, that he climbed a tree, and that it was a sycamore. We learn that, inexplicably, Jesus knew his name, and that on the spur of the moment he invited himself to eat and even to stay overnight at Zacchaeus’ house. When we hear that Zacchaeus responded without the slightest hesitation, we imagine him flattered, flustered, happy, hopping up and down like a child.

But he was no child. He was a grown man, but exactly what sort of man is hard to say. His name means “clean,” or “pure,” but his profession was anything but. He was a chief tax collector with jurisdiction over a prosperous region, raising revenue from Jews for the foreign occupier, a collaborator consorting with Gentiles. To ordinary people tax collectors were disloyal opportunistic extortionists, Roman lackeys. Religious professionals held them in contempt as the most impious of sinners. It would not surprise me to learn that even their Roman employers despised them.

And yet…

And yet, there he is, a tax collector running after the rabbi, eager for Jesus, going out on a limb heedless of possible scorn or injury, unconditionally responsive when Jesus calls him down, illustrating another of Luke’s great themes—that only outsiders and outcasts recognize the kingdom when they see it.

Now, there are outcasts and there are outcasts. Most of Luke’s outsiders, even the morally shaky ones, elicit our sympathy. Widows, possessed people, lepers, women about to be stoned—when they fling themselves at Jesus’ feet, beg for mercy, confess their sins, or clutch his hem in search of healing and a restored life, we feel the injustice, the pity and the pain of their ostracism.

But a tax collector? That’s a different animal. If Zacchaeus is as nasty a piece of work as his contemporaries assume, it seems like just-desserts that he should be shunned in polite company and blotted out of the Book of Life. We could be wary of Jesus’ apparent approval of him in the same way that we are often upset by the characters in his parables who get a lot more than they deserve: Why the favor shown to the prodigal brat and not to the older son? Why a full day’s wage paid to the man who worked only an hour? Why eat with Zaccaheus? Zacchaeus is the kind of outcast we would feel OK about leaving out there beyond the pale. He brought it on himself.

But is he really all that bad? Consider this: when the crowd begins grumbling about what a disgrace it is that the rabbi should lodge with a sinner, Jesus, who usually delivers withering zingers in response to such judgments, says nothing. Zacchaeus is the one who speaks. He delivers a vivid self-defense. And what he says precisely has long been a translators’ debate. It all depends on whether you render his verbs, which are in the present tense, as “future-present” or “customary-present.”

The more traditional approach has been to use the future-present. In this rendering, Zacchaeus has a converting encounter with Jesus, and because of it, from now on he will behave more justly. Meeting Jesus changes him, on the spot, from a bad man to a good man, concerned with fairness and the well-being of the poor.

But in many other gospel scenes in which conversions occur, there are always dialogues of repentance and forgiveness, requests for restoration from the supplicant, and the commending of faith from the savior. None of these typical exchanges happen here. So other scholars prefer to render Zacaaheus’ speech in the customary-present. When they do, what Zacchaeus claims is that all along he has been more generous, more scrupulous, and more self-aware than he’s been given credit for. His self-defense is a simple disclosure of fact: he has habitually given half what he owns to the poor—that’s 40% above the tithe—and whenever he discovers that he has been involved in a fraud, he makes a four-fold restitution—twice what the law required.

He makes this disclosure not as a boast to God, like the prayer of the Pharisee in the temple we read about last Sunday, but as a plea for vindication, a plea that Jesus answers by recognizing him, a rich man, as a true son of Abraham, ready for the kingdom with all his household. Here, then, is another characteristic Lukan theme: although it is indeed harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye, for God, all things are possible. Zacchaeus is living proof of God’s power.

Zacchaeus’ disclosure of his generous and just practice was also surely meant as an act of hospitality: after all, Jesus is his guest, and the grumblers are ruining dinner. If Zacchaeus can correct their judgment of his own morality, maybe they’ll stop heckling Jesus about his choice of host. But I doubt he was able to accomplish that, especially if there were Pharisees in the crowd, who, fairly or not (and mostly unfairly), the evangelists depict as men devoid of irony who wouldn’t know a nuance or a compromise if one rose up and bit them, and whose notions of goodness and religious purity were not susceptible to the kind of truly human complexity we may have in Zacchaeus.

And it is human complexity in all its infuriating nuance that is on display here. Zacchaeus is a man carrying out one of those morally-dubious jobs, like designing missile guidance systems. Yet we cannot simply say that he is corrupt: the very thing he gets right in his life is the same thing God has put forward since the dawn of creation as the touchstone of authentic humanity and right worship: care for the poor and justice for the oppressed.

If “customary-present” is the better way to understand Zacchaeus’ response to the critics, it makes the story more familiar to us, and maybe even more credible. Zacchaeus is not converted on the spot—this rarely happens in human experience, and it doesn’t happen here. No, it turns out that he is neither villain nor hero. Neither consistently evil nor an exemplar of consistent virtue. But in a few important areas of his life, he is capable of acting like a man of God, a true son of Abraham, and the effects of his conduct on the world around him are humanly profound.

He is, then, like most of us, a compromised man in a compromised world, leading an ethically-ambiguous life in an ethically-bewildering human landscape. His name notwithstanding, he is unable to be pure in a world that is not pure either.

Like Oscar Schindler, a man not to be trusted with your money or your wife who saved thousands of Jews from destruction.

Like Mother Teresa, a woman supported by donations from organizations opposed to population control in India who gave dignity to the dying and hope to the sick and a new way of service to countless young people.

Like me, when I went to give a talk to some church leaders at the home of the congregation’s head deacon, a fifteen room house on eight acres in Sudbury, more house than any Christian should need or want, I remember thinking judgmentally as I pulled up to the front door, only to be greeted by seven adopted special needs children living happily inside.

This is Zaccaheus, complex and compromised in a complex and compromised world. Jesus loves him, accepts him fully just as he is, and glowingly commends him to Pharisees, to bystanders, and to us.

As I ponder his story, I find myself thinking about the anxiety, apprehension, anger, and frustration running rampant in our roiled-up nation and our war-torn world. We have great need of unambiguous prophets, strong and fearless, who will go way out on a limb and scout a new humanity, a different way, who will speak uncompromisingly the language of peace. But I am also thinking about the hideous consequences of true believing, whether it comes from “them” or from “us,” the frightening fundamentalisms of the right and the left, about the bloody dangers of replacing our first allegiance to human beings with ideology of any kind.

I am thinking about how difficult it is to be pure without being proud. I am thinking about the need we have for truth, and the fact that truth always comes to us unpackaged, in fragments, never unalloyed. I am thinking about the wisdom, the humility it takes to know that, and still to dare.

I am thinking about our communities of faith and witness, imperfect and loved by God; full of people with strong minds and wills, fierce convictions and bright visions; deep and faithful people who are also, at the same time, weak and needy, sinful (I begin with me), plagued by mixed motives and impure hearts, who live in a complex and ambiguous world with which we compromise daily despite our rhetoric of ethical excellence and moral purity, despite the high standards we often hold each other to and the judgments we make about each other when we fall short.

I am thinking about whether we should even try to come before God in any other way except in our frank human nature, full of our ambiguity; and whether, perversely, we should be relieved and even glad that it’s hard and even dangerous to be pure.

And I am thinking gratefully of you, First Church, for if any grumblers should question whether we are an appropriate house for Christ to lodge in, we also can, like Zaccaheus, say in our own defense that by the grace of God, in the midst of our compromises and sins, we do care for the poor and we do work for justice; that at least we know that that is the thing we should be trying to get right, no matter what else we may struggle with, fail at, or fudge.

I am thinking how grateful I am, and I hope you are too, for this odd privilege of being accepted by a God who knows our dilemma, who shared our flesh, experienced our internal contradictions, was done to death by our compromises, and who loved us first, still loves us now, and will keep loving us to the end.

 

 

Saving Flesh

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“God will save God’s people on that day… They will sparkle in God’s land like jewels in a crown. How attractive and beautiful they will be!”—Zechariah 9:16-17

A good friend was in therapy for a debilitating situational depression. After a few months of treatment, there was less pressure in her chest, more songs she could listen to all the way through. But the depression was deep, and her progress was slow.

Each week she would walk to her appointment along the banks of the Charles River where on warm days Harvard undergrads lolled in various states of dress and undress, sunning themselves, tossing Frisbees, preening, laughing, and seducing each other with unapologetic sensuality.

All this she would see through a lusterless haze. Everything gray, everyone blurred, voices muffled and distorted, underwater. And she couldn’t bear them, those children, their youth and their joy. The pleasure they took in their bodies cut her. Their flesh was repulsive, a blasphemy.

Then one day she saw them, and they gleamed. Their light didn’t sting her eyes. Their laughter made her own heart sing. Their flesh was so beautiful it made her cry. And she loved them, loved their bodies and their joy, loved their life, their lust, their immodest abandon. She almost fell to her knees, adoring.

On the day she loved their bodies, she knew she was well. She knew she was whole when life in the body—in every body of every kind—became for her a parted sea, a burning bush, a holy of holies. She knew she was saved the day all flesh made manifest the Glory.

 

In the Aftermath of Horror…

In December of 2005, in the aftermath of the great Indonesian tsunami, I wrote a reflection entitled, “No, Not Now.” I’m thinking similar thoughts  today, as we awaken to the mind-numbing carnage of Nice. I post it below in a condensed and edited form, prefaced by a bracing quote from an essay  by theologian Rowan Williams that Jason Goroncy recently called attention to on his blog, jasongoroncy.com (July 13, 2016). Williams is speaking about the character of Christian moral discourse in the public arena, but I take his assertion as apt for Christian speech and practice in general.

Here is Williams:

‘The weightiest criticisms of Christian speech and practice amount to this: that Christian language actually fails to transform the world’s meaning because it neglects or trivializes or evades aspects of the human. It is notoriously awkward about sexuality; it risks being unserious about death when it speaks too glibly and confidently about eternal life; it can disguise the abiding reality of unhealed and meaningless suffering. So it is that some of those most serious about the renewal of a moral discourse reject formal Christian commitment as something that would weaken or corrupt their imagination. It may equally be that a Church failing to understand that the political realm is a place of spiritual decision, a place where souls are made and lost, forfeits the authority to use certain of its familiar concepts or images in the public arena’.

—Rowan Williams, ‘Postmodern Theology and the Judgment of the World’, in Postmodern Theology: Christian Faith in a Pluralist World, ed. Frederic B. Burnham, 106–07.

And here is the reflection from 2005:

Watching the news coverage of the tsunami, I saw a stunning piece in which a reporter is interviewing several survivors, some of whom lost their entire families. They tell their stories, some with unnerving stoicism, others wailing and striking their heads with flat hands. Suddenly, a muzzein starts calling the faithful to prayer, as if reminding the whole flooded world that no matter what, God lives, and that to pray is just what one does, what one must do, for everything to make sense.

The reporter asks the men if they’re going to the prayers. Some nod, yes. Some get up to go. But one man, who has just told us that twenty-four members of his extended family are dead, shakes his head. Through a translator he says, ‘No, not now. Now I do not have it in me to pray.’

When I heard the muzzein invite everyone to come to the good God and find salvation, my stomach lurched. My mind filled with age-old Big Questions. What is it that one could possibly pray for in the midst of such misery? And why would one ask anything of a God who stood by and did nothing while it unfolded?

My ‘good’ theology failed me. It didn’t work to affirm that God isn’t responsible when plates collide and the sea floor rises and displaced water needs somewhere to go. It wasn’t enough to assure myself, in C. S. Lewis’ words, that God is not a “cosmic sadist” or a “spiteful imbecile.” I needed to be able to say something more affirmative than that, to be able to say not only where God was not, but also where God was.

And I couldn’t. At least not honestly. In the face of all that carnage, everything that came to mind—God was close to the suffering, weeping with them, for example—was repulsive. Each pious thought left me emptier than the last. It was not until I heard that poor man say, ‘No, not now. Now I do not have it in me to pray,’ that my soul untensed. What he said rang true.

There are times when we are unable to bear the thought of God, unable to pray or give ourselves to God in trust, unable to accept that there is any moment but this awful moment, unable to feel that anything that exists outside our loss, unable to believe that anything that can be done but to endure it.

And I began to think that if we are not at least that honest, our piety will shield us from reality, our prayers will make nice, and our faith will separate us from our own humanity. Whether we contemplate the ravages of a tsunami, the cruelties of war, the carnage of a mass shooting, or the intimate catastrophe of a loved one’s betrayal, what matters is not so much our particular beliefs about God, but rather our capacity to be in our truth and allow every question to rise, even if for some of us that means that what used to pass for faith in us is lost, and what replaces it is a permanent open-ended question.

I have no quarrel with people who turned to God that day as one who saves. But I found greater relief and blessing in one grieving man’s refusal to worship God ‘now.’ I also found relief and blessing in his implicit refusal to rule it out for later. Above all, I found relief and blessing in his simple confession that it isn’t up to him to know how and when and whether the conversation between him and God may be renewed. All he knows is that it isn’t now. Not yet. Now he does not have it in him to pray.

We Christians often overwhelm the great human questions—those vast empty spaces and terrifying silences—with hope-filled murmuring about God’s love and confident declarations about God’s abiding presence. We’re people who count the resurrection as the core of our faith. For us, hope is second nature, nothing is impossible, death is not the end. But there are times when Easter comes too quickly, when we get Jesus off the cross and into glory with unseemly dispatch. Perhaps, as Anthony Padovano once observed, this haste is why Easter is doubted by so many.

There are times when the God of the lilies of the field and our carefully-counted hairs must repulse us. Times when, in the face of the vulgar horrors of our world and the intimate tragedies of our hearts, an all-caring God is inadequate. Times when light is premature, when it hurts our eyes and does not heal. And we need to allow this, to say so, to avoid facile accounts of the inexplicably tragic, to construct a Christian lexicon that’s more serious, less evasive, and harder to pronounce in the face of vast unrelieved pain, unrepentant cruelty, and truly senseless suffering. Sometimes, to be human, we have to say no. ‘No, not now.’