Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Baby Sheep of God with a Pigeon on His Shoulder

John 1:29-42

"The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”
The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter)"

    Last Fall I was working sixty hours a week - give or take. I was working two jobs, mostly because we needed the money, but also because they provided some neat opportunities for me in ministry.  But with an infant who refuses to sleep during the night, and a four-year-old who refuses to sleep during the day, and with a husband who is working full time to find a job with things like benefits and stability and a livable wage, needless to say, a few things got lost in the shuffle and chaos. Don’t worry, we managed to keep the boys, and even the pets, fed and watered in the midst of it all. And they all are growing and healthy, but unfortunately, so was that mysterious gunk behind the faucet on the kitchen sink.  So were the piles of boots and coats and hats and leftover take-out containers and pizza boxes and junk mail and the dishes - so many dishes.

    So this year, this new year, I have resolved to keep my house in better order. I even have a schedule. Saturdays are laundry days, Mondays, I vacuum and dust upstairs, Thursdays I clean and organize the toys, and so on. So it’s the third week of January, and I’m proud to say that I’m scoring about a 65% on my new year’s resolution to keep my house a little more orderly, a little more calm.  And hey, if it were a pie, 65% would be a lot of pie... 65% more organized and orderly. 65% more under control. Can’t you just feel the calm radiating out at you from my skin?
    But this week has driven me nuts. We had that “polar vortex” and then, whiplash-like, we had a big thaw, temperatures soaring into the upper 40s and 50s right after we’d had record low wind chills. (It’s almost like the planet is trying to tell us something...)  And into the house from the great outdoors come my dogs, in comes my son, in comes the mud. So. Much. Mud.

I have realized how I’m aging, not because I just turned 35, or because I have counted five more grey hairs, but because I have impure thoughts about how nice it would be to have a mudroom in my house - a place to dump all the muddy clothes, the wet socks, the crazy hyper dogs.  But alas, I don’t have one of those, just a tiny door mat and then a tiny living room, and so, there was mud all over the house.
    Mud. Balls and piles and flecks of mud. Mud from the backyard, mud from the playground, mud from the decaying pile of leaves we walk over to get from our car to the sidewalk and up the driveway.
    So how frustrating. I quit my job, I resolve to have a cleaner, calmer, more orderly house, and all I have managed to do is sigh at my son and curse my dogs as they track mud all over the house. So much for new year’s resolutions.
    There’s just so much to clean, and organize and arrange and keep track of - and it never ends - especially with two little ones in a tiny house. There is always laundry. The kitchen floor gets dirty as soon as I clean it. The dishes pile up even though the dishwasher is constantly running. I know-- The whinings and complaints of a middle class mom. First world problems.
    But, I mean, I really would like to prevent the neighbors from calling a social worker, ya know?
    And what would his preschool teachers think if I sent my son to school in muddy clothes and ratty hair, with dirt under his fingernails? (Well, it’s a good thing they usually keep their opinions to themselves...)
    And then after one more load of laundry and one more emptying of the dishwasher, I sat down to read this week’s lectionary passage - and here he is - the wild man - John the Baptist.
    John the Baptist who wears camels hair tunics and lives in the wilderness and eats the locusts and bathes in a river.  I imagine him with dreadlocks down his back and with sticky hands from all that honey. Dirty knees from all that kneeling and repenting. A hoarse voice from all that proclaiming and shouting and calling for repentance. I’d guess he’d have a some mud caked on his pants, some of that River Jordan silt under his fingernails. I imagine he’d been scolded by a few women for tracking mud through their just-scrubbed houses.
    He’s the one God chooses to point to the messiah? To proclaim who Jesus is? This mess of a man? This filthy rugrat who seems to have rejected any credentials or lineage or rights to the priesthood that he may have inherited from his father. This man who wanders the wilderness without a savings account, or a college degree, or a home address or health insurance?
    But wait. It gets worse. ‘Cause John’s not the exception to the rule. There is dirt and mud and earth and flesh all over this passage.
    But we’ve tried to sterilize it clean. The white dove, descending. The Spirit of God hovering. The Lamb of God, taking away the sins of the world. The images we made for ourselves of Jesus’ baptism are almost cartoonish. All wonder and light. A graceful dove, symbol of purity and submission. Clear water, symbol of cleanliness and renewal.

But, although we’ve whitewashed it and scrubbed the images clean so that they fit neatly on bumper stickers and t-shirts and facebook memes, the text won’t cooperate.

    What we have here is a whole lot of mud. A wandering mess of a man with pruney fingers and a farmer’s tan from hanging out in the Jordan all day. And he describes the scene of Jesus’ baptism: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.” He describes Jesus himself: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

    John-the-dirty-and-wandering-mess describes the Son of God as a lamb, with a dove on his shoulder.

    Jesus the lamb. A symbol of sacrifice, surely. But also, a pretty common image. A weak, wobbling baby of a weak wobbling sheep. Sheep who are typically lost and wandering and getting into all sorts of trouble. Sheep who are covered in mud and need to be shown where the new grass is. Sheep who won’t survive away from each other. Sheep who are guided by shepherds, the dirty outsiders of the community, who sleep out in the fields and fight off predators for the sake of their always wandering sheep.

    Jesus the lamb with a dove landing on his shoulder.

    The Dove of the Holy Spirit. A dove which was used most commonly as a purifying sacrifice or as a sin offering in the temple for those who could not afford a whole lamb.
    A dove which was easily caught and killed. A dove which was so trusting and defenseless that they could be scooped up by the most vulnerable in this society and offered as an atoning sacrifice.
    Debbie Blue argues that a better image for a dove would be a pigeon, and indeed, I looked it up in the Hebrew, dove and pigeon are synonymous in the Old Testament. Doves and pigeons are the same breed of bird - of the family Columbidae. Doves were just pigeons bred to be white in color, and because of its association with the Holy Spirit, they became symbols of purity and grace. But essentially, they’re pigeons. A city nuisance. “Rats with wings.” Scavengers who poop all over our statues and monuments to important people.

    Growing up, my dad put bird feeders outside the bay window in our kitchen. And he kept them filled, even though the squirrels would risk life and limb to get at them, and even though the doves and the pigeons would come careening down upon them like B52 bombers, crashing into their plastic sides, knocking out the seed onto the mud below. Have you ever watched a pigeon land? It’s a chaotic fluster of wings flapping and spindly legs stretching and flesh succumbing to the pull of gravity. It’s not quite as graceless as an albatross, but close. And this is how the Spirit of God descends? This is how John sees the Holy Spirit land upon Jesus?

    And if you wait for the bus downtown, or look up to the tops of the buildings in East Liberty, or sprinkle your breadcrumbs on the bike trails on the South Side, you will see them, or trip over them. And the pigeons will come, vulnerable, trusting, ready to scoop up any piece of crackers or Chinese leftovers, or french fries that we have to offer them.
    These creatures we consider a nuisance and we tried to shoot with BB guns as kids and we call “flying rats” and bring peregrine falcons into our cityscapes to “control” are said by the author of our Gospel to be the very Spirit of God. These creatures who are inherently communal, who mate for life, who land with such a force as to upend our bird feeders and were considered easy food and common offerings for the poor and marginalized, these are symbols of the Holy Spirit.

    And Here. Here is Jesus. Here is the weak, muddy, helpless baby sheep of God, upon whom lands the Holy Spirit like a pigeon crashing into the sidewalk to get a piece of stale bread. Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, proclaimed to be so first by a wandering mess of a man, sunburnt, covered in mud and river silt, with matted hair and sticky, honeyed hands.

    And this is our God.
    The one who enters the mud and the muck to be with us, to be one of us. The One who is the mud and the muck that we so misunderstand that we want to scrub it out of our houses, out of our cities, off of our sidewalks, away from our rafters. 


    And a few ragamuffins who smell like fish and sun, who have dirt behind their ears and rope burns on their hands are the ones who actually see it. First John the Baptist, and then Andrew, and then Peter. They see the life and power and humanity and vulnerability and the very essence of God in the man who is like a baby sheep, a little lamb, upon whose shoulders crashes a top-heavy pigeon - common, yet overlooked -- vulnerable, yet persistent -- the living and life-giving Spirit of God.

    When they want to know where Jesus is staying, Jesus responds, “Come and See.”

    Come and See where Jesus is staying. In those things that we overlook. In the abundance and mundanity of a flock of pigeons bobbing their heads and cooing on the sidewalk. In those places we consider unclean, a nuisance, in those places of annoying abundance and desperate need. Come and see where Jesus lives, where the Spirit of God has landed -- in those muddy rivers and mud-tracked living rooms where dogs and little boys play together.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Forget Theological Maxims and Biblical Proof-texts: This Is Your Nativity Story. (And hey, this is a short one!)


John 1:1-18

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life,* and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.*
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own,* and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,* full of grace and truth. 15(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son,* who is close to the Father’s heart,* who has made him known. 

     I just put our tree away.  It’s a bittersweet thing. Wrapping up the ornaments in bubble wrap and recycled tissue paper. Putting all those memories away for another year. Rewinding the tree lights, knowing that I will curse myself next year for not taking care to organize them better.  But now, without the tree, we’ll have more room in our tiny house. The cat will no longer be tempted to bat at the precarious ornaments, and my dogs’ tails will no longer be quite the hazard they have been - at least, not in that particular walkway. We put the nativity scene away, too.  We have one that is a kind of calendar that counts down the days to Christmas, with the baby Jesus in the manger being placed as the last in the countdown, December 24th. It’s funny to me that Jesus spends the least amount of time sitting out in the open according to that calendar, but perhaps that is for another sermon. But now, Jesus is tucked back inside his box, back with the ornaments and the tinsel and the tree lights, back down in our dank Pittsburgh basement. Target has its decorations at 90% off, and dried up Christmas trees are now at the bottoms of our driveways, a trail of needles tracing back to our front doors. As my mom says, every year, at about 6pm on Christmas Day, usually sounding like a sad trombone, “Christmas is over.”
    And I’m sorry. This isn’t going to be a “keep Christmas in your heart all year ‘round” kind of sermon, because frankly, I’m pretty glad the commercial aspect of Christmas is over, even if the liturgical season of Christmas is still going on.
    We’ve spent an Advent season waiting for the birth of Christ. We’ve heard the nativity stories from both Matthew and Luke, stories of Jesus’ birth and who came from near and far to see him. We’ve dressed up our kids as bathrobe shepherds and wandering sheep, we’ve sung “Gloria” to recall the angels who came to proclaim his birth, we’ve heard the stories of the Magi who come from far away to see this infant in a barn.  We’ve arranged nativity scenes where all these characters - plus goats and donkeys and camels - all come and surround the Christ child, to witness to his birth.
    Hopefully, amidst the shopping and the rushing and the decorating and the eating - so much the eating - we’ve thought about the nativity, about who came to see Jesus, about coming to see Jesus ourselves.
    The nativity story really is a story about coming to Jesus, about travelers from far and wide, about the metaphorical traveling we must do to see him, to catch a glimpse of this baby who is the light of the world.
    But our passage today is a different kind of nativity story.  Instead of camels and shepherds and hay and swaddling cloths and the reign of Herod the Great, instead of situating Jesus’ birth in historical time among the politics and the musty stable and the swishing animal tails, we have a story that begins before time itself.
    This passage is rewriting the Genesis passage, situating Christ at the very center of the creation of the entire cosmos.
    Genesis begins: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God said that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.”
    John begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”


Both of these passages have, at their very heart, the creation of the cosmos through the  very words of God, and God chooses to create light with those first words.

    I have spent hours this week, but years, really, trying to parse through the John  passage for today. Trying to figure out who Jesus is here, what Jesus is doing, trying to determine Jesus’ identity and the meaning of the Trinity, and Jesus’ relationship with the Father and trying to understand the incarnation, and how it all fits together in some sort of complicated philosophical, theological, Christological framework.
    Like Jacob who wrestles with God himself, I have wrestled with this passage, trying to make sense of it, trying to make sense of who it is telling me God is.  And like Jacob, I come out of it with a deeper limp, a heavier ache in my side.

    But after pages and pages of commentaries, books and books of academic analysis, after sermons and talks and reflections from theological and spiritual giants, after prayer and struggle and fear and misunderstanding, I think maybe I’ve missed the point.  This passage really isn’t a clear definition of who God is.  This passage is beautiful, and true, and contradictory and poetic and bewildering.  But I don’t think this passage is meant to be a proof text about who God is. This passage is a song about who we are. Who we really are.  To our core. In our inmost being.
    This passage isn’t really the story of Jesus’ birth. It is the story of our birth.  This is the story of our nativity.
    Instead of a story about who comes to see Jesus, this is a story about God, through Jesus, coming to see us.  Instead of a story about a star shining in the sky to light the way to the Christ child, this is a story of the light that points its way to us.
    This hymn sings about the creation of the cosmos, a cosmos full of light “that enlightens everyone.” And this hymn centers on us. To us has been given the “power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”
    Can you hear it? Through Christ, we are born. We are born of God. This is our birth story. This is our nativity story.
    The writer of the Gospel of John says, “And the word became flesh and lived among us...”
    The Word comes to us. Literally, in the Greek, “eskenosen” - the Word “pitches his tent” among us.
    And John continues, “and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
    The Word comes to us, sets up his tent among us. And we are invited to see the glory of a dusty, leaky, oh so very human, pitched tent.
    In the Greek, “The Word” is “Logos.” But unlike the Stoics and other philosophers who claimed that the world is based upon a logos of abstract reason, this Logos is spoken, active. This Logos is a revelation - “not so much a divine idea, but a divine communication.” And like that riddle about the tree falling in the forest, God’s Word is nothing unless it is relational, unless it’s set in the earth, pitched into the ground, interacting with dust and sweat and heat of humanity.
    The Word creates, speaking all things into creation. The Word creates, speaking us into being.
    And we are the story that God is telling. This is our nativity story. The story of our birth. And God is still speaking, God is still creating, God is still sending the Word out into the world.

    This week I’ve been thinking a lot about resolutions.  About the start of a new year and trying to do better.  Like everybody else, I want to exercise more and drink more water, and do better with my time and keep a cleaner house. I want to find ways where I can encounter Jesus, where I can find Jesus in that manger in a stable surrounded by the donkeys and the sheep and the shepherds and the singing angels.  But you know what? Just like every year, I’m going to get tired of all the striving.  If I’m lucky, I’ll last through sometime around mid-February and then the winter doldrums will hit and I’ll skip one day of exercise, and then I won’t see the harm in just one more cookie, and I’ll rush from one thing to the next and say to myself that I’ll be sure to spend time with God tomorrow. I will forget about my promise to keep coming back to the nativity scene. I’ll get overwhelmed by the violence and hatred in the news and in Pittsburgh and on TV and feel helpless about all the hungry people in the world and in my neighborhood, and I’ll stop trying to find Christ in the world. I will get so so tired from all the striving and the working and the aching and the confusion. I’ll stop worrying and struggling and thinking about the meaning of the Trinity and stop trying to determine who Christ is or the meaning of what he has done for this world.  I’ll get cynical. I’ll get lazy. All of these things. I will forget about the nativity stories of how, like the shepherds and the wise men, we are called to come see the Christ child for ourselves.

    But my failures aren’t the end of it. We get a nativity story, too. A story that describes who we are, who God made us to be, a story that tells the tale of God coming to see us, of God pitching God’s tent among us?
    A story about God coming to us?
    A story that’s not about our striving, or our faith, or our commitment to travel miles across a desert on a camel, but a story about the Word creating us. Forming us into being. Making us out of his own light.
    Just amazing.
    It’s God who does the initiating, God who does the creating and God who invites us to participate in that creativity.  So when our resolutions fail, when we forget the nativity story and the huge importance of the birth of the Christ child, we are still here, and God is still speaking, and the Word has pitched his tent among us. We are still the story that God is telling. God is coming to us, all the time. God is still speaking us into existence. Proclaiming us as God’s own.
    And we are invited to participate in this new creation. To remember our nativity. To know from whom we come. To know of what we are made. To remember who came to us, in the flesh, full of grace and truth

Thanks be to God.