Originally delivered at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana
Moving here from Dallas, I’ve enjoyed such a different relationship to local, national, and even international news. There’s a much greater focus on what’s happening on the ground here, locally, in our area, rather than out there, in the greater reaches of the world. Of course, things in the past year like the invasion of Ukraine have loomed large even in our eyes and ears here, but if Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister, has had any more wine and cheese parties, I have no idea – and I really don’t care! It’s so freeing to keep the main thing the main thing in so many ways here.
But here’s my question for us tonight: would we have heard about Jesus’ birth? If Jesus were to come again in as quiet and small and unimpressive a way as he did the first time, are we in a community, in a text thread, in an environment that would have known right away about Jesus’ arrival?
Surely we would want to get that sort of news as soon as possible, right? We don’t want to be behind the ball on the arrival of God in Jesus Christ! Don’t leave us out of the news alert of this birth! But the first time around, to whom did the angels go? Where did the heavenly host appear to announce this holy birth?
It will not surprise you that the shepherds were not the, erhm, most desirable crew in the first century. They were the farm hands, the stinky, 24/7, low-wage workers. The heavenly host showed up to the farm hands. The angels told the hourly contract workers first. When God came to earth, the people on the margins knew first.
What would it take for us to be part of the communities that got this sort of news first? One way is providing coats and warm clothes to refugees. Another might be providing food for people who are food insecure. How else might we, secure and privileged as we are in so many ways, form real, lasting, sharing-news sort of relationships with people who are today’s shepherds?
It’s a big question with no quick and easy answer. But here’s my challenge to you this Christmas night. What might it take for you to have a clearer answer, an embodied practice, even, by Christmas 2023? Assuming that we want to be part of the communities that would receive the news of Jesus’ return first, how could we sit with, and learn from, and make friends with, and build relationships with, these people who may feel uncomfortable at first, but might also be God’s chosen people to reveal himself to us? How might our hearts be transformed and transfigured in 2023, if we humble ourselves just a modicum of the way that God did by coming in Jesus Christ, poor newborn of a young mother and a carpenter?
Preached at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana, December 4, 2022.
Have you ever experienced a dream come true? Perhaps you have longed for years for a child, and either of your own body, or through adoption, or through another means, your desire for a child to love and to be in your life is finally, one day, fulfilled.
Maybe you spent years, or decades, moving toward your vocation, whether as a doctor or lawyer, as a priest or a journalist, as a parent, or a spouse, or perhaps one of the most challenging vocations of all: truly believing that you are a beloved child of God.
Our collecting prayer this morning affirms that the prophets tell us the truth and share with us the dreams of God. We ask in that same prayer to have the humility to accept and live those dreams, which are the way of life and joy. And today, Isaiah preaches to us of a dream coming true. In the beginning the wolf did lay down with the lamb, the nursing child could have played over the hole of the asp with no danger, and on all God’s holy mountain, in the beginning, there was no evil or darkness or destruction, there was no division or waste or abuse or aggression.
This is a lovely picture, exactly what one might call “a dream.” But I might mean that in a pejorative sense, rather than a sincere one. We might scoff at such a dream. We might wheedle our way around a different interpretation in order to avoid the discomfort of claiming such a dream. Isn’t it just fairy-language to think of such a thing? Isn’t it just ignoring all of reality to consider such a thing to even be desired? Isn’t that what children think is possible? Not us grown ups, surely. We know. We know the ways of the world and the harsh realities of life and the awful truth of existence. What a dream.
There’s a book I love called, “Learning to Dream Again,” by the Rev. Dr. Sam Wells, out of St. Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, and he talks in that book about how so much of our hurt and grief ends up making it just too painful to dream. We even lose our ability to dream because our hurts and disappointments are so plenteous and powerful that we can’t use our spiritual imaginations in the way we are made to, since the scar tissue holds us captive.
This is a way in which I find that children are often more free. Just as their bodies don’t carry the scars of living for a long time, their spirits and souls are less affected by wounds, too. They just haven’t been as battered by the evil of the world and by disappointed expectations. They, like the children in the Chronicles of Narnia, have the temerity to hope. They have the courage or naivete to consider enemies lying peaceably together to be a possible dream.
And that brings us back to the passage from Isaiah this morning, for what does Isaiah declare about this promised coming leader: “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.” This longed-for shoot of hope finds truth not in what his eyes behold in a broken earth, or what his ears hear in a war-torn world, or what his body touches in a dark and lonely place. His delight is in God, his attention is focused on the power of the Lord, his righteousness is from the truth of God’s Word, based not on anything tangible or of this world, but on the God who is known in Jesus Christ.
Isaiah did not know that God would arrive as Jesus, a baby in Bethlehem, but Isaiah was told, and did share the dream of God that peace would reign and that all things broken or destroyed or cast aside would be brought back and made whole and set together again.
I wonder if there’s a situation in your life that feels irretrievably broken. I wonder if there’s a relationship you’ve lost hope in. I wonder if there’s a person you love who has been so given up to evil that you cannot imagine what redemption might look like for them. I wonder if there’s a piece of yourself that feels unforgivable, or just gone forever. I wonder what the God in Jesus Christ might have to say about that relationship, or person, or you, when all is gathered to his holy mountain.
There’s another way in which children reveal something important to us about what it means to have faith in God. They tend to have a great spiritual imagination because they haven’t seen as much or heard as much, so they haven’t been so bombarded by the messages of darkness and brokenness that can so easily fill our vision and make our lives noisy here and now. They also haven’t been in as much schooling as we have, they haven’t read and learned as much with their knowledge-brains as we have, so their minds and hearts are easily attuned to a different sort of knowledge, what Isaiah calls “knowledge and fear of the Lord” (11:2). Children tend, because they don’t have as many facts and figures filling up their heads, to have a better sense of awe, of humility, of curiosity and imagination, than adults often do.
And I wonder if that’s part of why the Christmas season is something that’s often thought of as a season for children. The make believe of Santa Clause and the Miracle on 34th Street, and the dream of George Bailey, and the magic of snow, these all reach at and poke around the sense of awe and joyful possibility that is so natural to children.
Could it be that this is what the God in Jesus Christ calls us to through Isaiah today? God shares the dream which he has had since the beginning of creation, the dream which he, by his might and power, and by his mercy and love, will bring to fruition in the day of Christ Jesus (Php 1:6). By coming to be with us, Emmanuel, God makes good on his promise to do the impossible, and he finishes that work on the cross, when the powers of darkness intensify and the greatest bad thing ever threatens to tear God apart from the inside, and still Jesus stays. Jesus stays right through death and into resurrection. Who could have imagined such an outcome? How could anyone think up such a dream except God himself?
We know God’s dreams because he caused them to be written for our learning (Rom 15:4), and not just our book-learning, though that is how we often hide God’s Word in our hearts (Ps 119:11), but also for our soul-learning, for being formed in the awe and fear of the Lord.
One thing that children often do not comprehend is what it takes to get to a dream come true. I used to pray for faithfulness or for gentleness, or for patience. I used to expect that these virtues would tumble out of heaven on a waterslide of clouds, and fill my heart up like it was an empty bowl, transforming me into a vessel of fluffy spiritual gifts.
Now, I pray for such gifts only when I’m very, very desperate. Because I have found that patience is not something that pops up in my heart like a bubble of gum, but something that is gained inch by painful inch when my children won’t go to sleep, or when the traffic, and the grocery store line, and the doctor’s office voicemail, and the household chores all conspire against me on the same day.
Dreams are not easily won, so far as I have found. And so we live in a paradox. We live being called to not judge by what our eyes see or our ears hear, but by the truth which God tells us and the dreams which he has set out in his Word for us to believe. We also find that sanctity is a life-long pursuit and sometimes a slog, it is always more than we bargained for, but as Peter says, it is the way of eternal life, what else could we do? (John 6:68)
And so we are called to live with the awe and the imagination of children, to live with the unguarded hope which they show us. We are called to apply that hope to the dreams which God reveals in his word, clinging to the truth which is made flesh in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I preached this sermon three years ago this week — we were hardly 3 months out from the pandemic which would shake up the world. I read it this week, hoping to steal from myself for this coming week’s sermon, but I found it was a word so closely woven to the time and place in which it was first given that I cannot hope to effectively reuse it. I share it here, now, as a marker of grief for the community I miss so dearly, and as a witness to the hope I still hold in Jesus Christ.
This past week, John Cleese accepted an award at the Texas Theater, just up on Jefferson Boulevard; he’s the British comedian behind Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, but my favorite thing about him, the quotation I call upon again and again in my life, is as his character Brian Stimpson in the movie Clockwise from 1986, he says: “It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.”
It’s not the despair that will get you down, not the depression and the darkness that will sock you in the gut. We’re so used to the dark, we’re so accustomed to evil, we’re so habituated into sin — it’s when hope breaks through and when joy bubbles up, and when peace descends, that we are undone, we are broken apart, we are rent asunder.
Last week I was teaching the little ones during the sermon, but I hear that Fr. Jordan preached on death and judgment — aren’t we glad he’s headed to full-time work at the diocese in two weeks?! — so this week, I’ll preach on hope. Which actually might be more brutal than death and judgment, if we take John Cleese seriously.
Both of us, Fr. Jordan and me, are taking ques from the history of our church and tradition — last week he tackled two of the “Four Last Things,” death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Standing in the ancient tradition of millenia, sermons and spiritual devotion often focuses on these end-of-life, end-of-time matters during the season of Advent, the season of waiting — waiting for God to come in flesh, waiting for God to come again and make all things right.
A more modern take on the four weeks of Advent is to focus on Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. Sometimes, these have been interpreted as a capitulation to a squeamish and soft church that have lost their sense of urgency, of hard truth, and of austere devotion to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This pastel-tinged and sweet, fuzzy understanding of these virtues avoids the depth of these concepts — the real, fleshy, terrifying incarnation of God’s character in a man, Jesus, fully God, fully revealed of hope, peace, joy, and love, and fully man.
Advent, then, is a moment that calls us to stare back, to look full in the face, at the miracle and seeming impossibility of a life so transformed by these virtues that their identity is changed, his name is new, that she is a new creation. This happens through the slow and painful work of obedience and submission, or put another way, the work of constant, continunal openness to change, change in ones convictions, change in one’s lifestyle, change in one’s relationships, until the old is so far away as to be a different person altogether.
Isaiah picks up on this theme in our Old Testament lesson today; he’s speaking this message to a people who are in a precarious political situation, under an unjust king, divided against their brothers in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. These two parts of God’s people have taken opposite sides in a dispute with Assyria and Aram; Isaiah grieves for the people who are torn apart and who are being led into disaster. More than just lamenting, though, Isaiah trusts in hope that God will make all things right, will bring a good leader back to his people, and will somehow bring the divided family of God back together.
This poem that Isaiah delivers from the whisper of God in his ear and heart isn’t just about Jesus, which is the way we read it most often today, but was more immediately about Isaiah’s hope for the next king of his people, Hezekiah. History tells us that Isaiah’s hope was exactly realized in that man, Hezekiah, and the second part of the poem we read today hints that Isaiah himself might have started to realize that, too; as he talks about these age-old enemies, the snake and the baby, the wolf and the sheep, the calf and the lion, resting and playing not just side-by-side, but together, with one another. Isaiah describes an ultimate reunion, not just bringing together pieces of God’s people who have been divided politically into the Northern and Southern kingdoms at this point in Isaiah’s history, but bringing together created beings that have been enemies since the fall, since almost the very beginning. It’s a stunning image of hope.
And yet, what do we see when we look around us? What if we were to put a little calf into the lion enclosure in the Dallas zoo? I don’t expect that we would see them snuggling up against the cold, or grooming one another, unless it was the lion preparing his own meal. So what our eyes tell us when we look at the world, when we gaze around creation, when we experience death or when illness or infertility or poverty or anger and betrayal overcome us and our lives, is that despair is safer, darkness is more certain, at least we can count on evil, at least we know what to expect when we depend on sin.
I think that’s what John Cleese’s character is getting at. Hope is heartbreaking, because of when we see it fail in front of our eyes. And we see it fail so, so often — or at least this pessimist does. I see beloved friends with cancer, I struggle with the echoes of brokenness from my parents’ divorce when I was an infant, I watch poverty and addiction eat up children of God. It’s not the despair, it’s the hope that I can’t stand.
How can we expect, or hope for, anything different? How can we pretend that death doesn’t prowl and pounce and prey upon us? How can we imagine that we live in a world where we are not locked in darkness? It’s not the despair. It’s the hope that I can’t stand.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” Isaiah (9:2) said that, too. In saying so, even as he’s realizing that the next guy in line for the throne probably won’t be the great redeemer that the people need, Isaiah is reaching forward, realizing as he says it, that God’s story and God’s timeline is bigger and longer and more complex and more full than any one group of people or any one piece of time.
Just as the glimmers of light blind us after we’ve become accustomed to the dark, stinging our eyes, and burning our senses; as a people who are surrounded by darkness, by sin, and by death, the hope indeed, is hard to stand. It is hard to believe, and it is hard to surrender to. But Isaiah tells his people, and tells us today, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,” that is, out of the heritage of the great King David — who wasn’t perfect either! And this shoot, who we read as Jesus, and who Isaiah hopes might be Hezekiah, and if not him, someone else who is so full of God’s presence that he might have “the spirit of the Lord” resting “on him,” this hoped-for rescuer will do what we, too, are called by Isaiah, and by God himself to do — look at verse 3 — “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.”
We see the lion attacking the calf; we see addiction overcoming the will of our loved ones; we see cancer or illness or age wasting away the bodies of our friends; we see death prowl. But what our eyes see and what our ears hear is not the ultimate truth, is not the most trustworthy revelation, is not the reality of the kingdom of God.
And there’s a hint of it right here, my brothers and sisters, and it’s why we come to church each Sunday, to be reminded that what we see out there is not the final word, is not where our hope rests, is not the reality that we’re called to place our faith and hope in.
Look around you right now: the world tells us that people with different skin colors don’t belong together on Sunday mornings. That is not God’s reality. The Kingdom of God is made of all nations, and that is what happens here, at the foot of the cross, every Sunday morning.
The world tells us that your worth is based on what you produce, the money you make, or the art you create, or the investment you make in others, or the care you take of yourself. The Kingdom of God tells us that your age, your social standing, your marital status, your level of employment, your home address, your blood pressure reading, none of these things has any claim on your worth or your hope.
The worth of a person in the Kingdom of God is based on what God thinks of a person, and my brothers and sisters, hear the Good News of Hope: God gave his life for you. God thinks you are worth the price of his own life and breath. God’s love for you is so great, based on nothing but your existence, your creation, your breathing, that he would, and indeed, he did, die for you.
That is what we see here, it is the truth, it is our hope, and God is making those promises of his true in our midst, this very morning. Thanks be to God.
There are many questions and concerns that Christians may have about whether and how and if to practice yoga. I want to address some of these questions and concerns in a series here on my blog. If you have questions or concerns about the practice of yoga as a Christian, I’d love to hear from you. Would you reach out to start a conversation? It would help me immensely with understanding and engaging the worries and fears that are rooted in peoples minds and hearts around this practice.
It’s also important to say at the outset that there’s no reason at all that anybody, or everybody, ought to, or needs to, or should, practice yoga. I am not trying to proselytize yoga, I intend to give a witness of my own experience, and to address widely-held fallacies.
So here’s the first go: that doing yoga poses unwittingly worships other gods, and is a gateway to worshipping satan. “The movements in and of themselves are god worship practices whether we mean them to be or not.”
This is not a straw man — this is an actual objection that was put in my email inbox this past week.
As a priest with ten years of full-time parish ministry, I have seen lives fall into darkness and evil and death. I have seen people choose to be separate from God. In my experience, this has happened from pride, from willful indifference, from addiction. I have not seen anyone “unwittingly” fall into separation from God. I have seen grave concern and much ink and worry spilt over possible sin or evil that a person might fall into in ignorance, but I have not found that innocent ignorance tears lives apart or shunts one into darkness (willful ignorance — ignoring the good counsel of the faithful around you — does destroy lives and move one into darkness).
It’s a powerful idea that putting one’s feet in a certain pattern, or bending one’s knee in a particular angle, or breathing in while crouching down, could have the effect of calling upon something in a spirit world — controlling or drawing up some force greater than oneself. This is not an idea which is subscribed to in Scripture or Christian tradition (Matthew 10:28; Psalm 104:26; ).
We cannot unwittingly worship a false god by moving our bodies into a push-up position, even if it is a posture that is part of a series called a “sun salutation.” To consider our bodies to be such dangerous weapons, to be ignorantly discharged in innocence toward such destructive ends, makes one wonder what the creator of such a dangerous tool might be thinking.
What if we were to run a race without sufficient thought and glory to God? What if we were to lift weights with ourselves in mind? What if we were to garden for the sake of commercial gain? Are all of these activities sown with such danger to our eternal lives?
The stretches and strengthening of yoga, the poses, and postures, and series, and repetitions, have served me to observe my inadequacies and overindulgences. Yoga practice has been a way that God has communicated to me when I am avoiding the message he is seeking to bestow, or the duty I have been given to undertake, or the work to which I’ve been called. Yoga practice has been a way that God has shown me the goodness of my body, the strength and resilience of this creation he has made and given me for my care and responsibility.
It is absolutely true, and I do not seek to obscure the many threads of yoga’s origin in various world religions. I am personally unconvinced or convicted that it is an irredeemable practice which intrinsically leads practitioners to darkness, evil, and death.
We know that in physical training, or in learning to read, or in perfecting the skills of a new job, that repeating the same work over and over helps us become more adept, helps us move our skills toward muscle memory, helps us master our craft.
Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hour rule, my high school track coach made us run 200 meter dashes 20 times in an afternoon, experiencing the same disagreement with my husband over and over has started to teach us how to communicate with one another better.
I’m finding the same is true with babies, and maybe with the things I read and filled my mind with during pregnancy, too.
This is the third newborn I’ve cared for, the third trial-by-fire-first-two-weeks-of-life. I keep hoping for a birth story that doesn’t include medical hurdles, but I haven’t been granted one yet. They haven’t turned out to be major or scary (no heart defects or babies stopping breathing), but each one has helped me to be more equipped for the next.
My first was put in the NICU about 12 hours after birth for rapid breathing. He spent almost a week there, and it was heartbreaking to leave the hospital without my baby when I was discharged. But no cause or problem was ever found. He came home, and by the time he did, I didn’t feel anxious about having a newborn alone at home, I felt so eager to finally bring my baby to our family.
My second spent an extra day in hospital, with me, and then, 12 hours after being discharged, spiked a fever and we ran back to the ER in the middle of the night. His fever raged for another two days, and then he was fine. He came home, too.
My third, this one born two weeks ago, was exposed to COVID in the first 12 hours of life, and I ended up catching it. He’s had a cough and congestion, though he hasn’t tested positive. I’ve been so grateful for the experience of keeping a little one’s airways open, the “reps” I’ve gotten in with long nights and monitoring baby breathing, the practice I’ve logged with nursing. I can come to this maybe-COVID journey with what feel like tools, like confidence, like trust, to walk with this baby through his illness (and mine).
This reflection made me wonder, too, about the reps I’ve been getting in with Julian of Norwich this year. I’ve spent most of 2022 reading and wondering and writing with Julian and her own themes (maybe they’re repetitions — training — too). She repeats over and over that our perspectives are skewed and veiled, we cannot ever see the whole picture that our God has before him, and our work is to trust the hand that created and sustains us. She tells her readers again and again that our trials and suffering are real and present but that they are not the whole story, she urges her disciples to regard them as lightly and as little as possible. Julian reminds us continually that we are glorious creations of the living God, dwelling places for the Divine, made to be light-filled particles of the image of God.
Often when I was writing and recording my podcast episodes, my mind would visualize the hospital where I’d give birth. I’d never been in it, but, if you’ve see one hospital room, you’ve seen them all, right? I’m not sure why my mind kept bringing that image up as I sat with our teacher Julian, but I wonder if it was a way that Julian, as one of the communion of saints, through the power of the Holy Spirit, was able to pray with me over the birth and infancy of this little boy, whatever trials may arise.
The episodes from my podcast from the first weeks of this month (May) speak especially to Julian’s views on prayer; I encourage you to take a listen if you’re curious about what prayer might be, and if you have questions, leave a comment here, and I’d love to talk more.