Who Do You Say That I Am: Servant

“Christ at Rest”
Hans Holbein the Younger, 1519
Berlin State Museums

Scripture Passage:  Philippians 2: 5-11
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

We are accustomed to hearing Jesus described as a servant, even a suffering servant.  But, to be honest, we sort of cringe.  We don’t like the words “servant” or “slave”.  They uncomfortably remind us of that horrible centuries-long blotch on our nation’s [not so]-otherwise pristine history.  And the idea of our being asked to follow Jesus down that road is probably even more uncomfortable.  It goes against our nature.  We like to be in control.  In fact, we pride ourselves on being in control of our lives.  And now we are told that taking on the form of a slave is the way that one is exalted.  This just doesn’t make sense.  Surrendering is not the way you win or get ahead, is it?

This passage depicts “being in the form of God” as opposite from “being in the form of a slave”.  Essentially, Jesus emptied himself and became dependent upon God, fully surrendered, a servant of God.  He became fully human by surrendering himself to the Divine.  He surrendered self-advancement and instead became fully human, fully made in God’s image, became what he was called to be by God.  He surrendered himself and descended all the way to Golgotha.  But Jesus was not a victim.  He surrendered himself.  That is the difference between this blotch that we think of when we hear the word slavery and the notion of Jesus (and us) being called to become a servant.  God does not force or coerce us into slavery.  God does not take away our control, take away our choices, take away our ability to walk freely wherever we desire to go.  God doesn’t even, to be honest, tell us how we are supposed to believe or how we are supposed to understand God.  The Divine does not do that.  In fact, true humans do not do that.  That is done by us when we allow ourselves to become and act less than human, inhumane, when we become less than who God calls us to be.

So Jesus, with all knowledge of what it entailed, with every molecule of his being, freely and deliberately chose to surrender, chose to forego those things that trap us humans, that convince us that we’re something different than we are, that, at their worst, compel us to be less than human.  And in choosing to relinquish control to God, Jesus was exalted.  And we are called to do the same.  We are created in the image of God.  But an image is not “like God”.  (We are not now nor will we ever be “godly”.)  An image of a thing is not the thing.  But a good image reminds us of the thing itself.  Jesus as fully human surrendered his life so that others might see God.

So, then, how does that help us?  How can we relinquish control to God and still stand firm in our belief, still be persistent in our faith, still be strong in our passion for peace and justice for all?  Shhhh!  Just let go.  God is calling you to do all those things.  But they’re not about you; they’re about God.  God does not need us to work for God.  God is perfectly capable of it all.  But God’s greatest desire is that we choose to follow, choose to become the people of God, choose to be with God in every step of our journey.  God’s desire is that we freely choose to follow the Way of Christ.  It probably has a lot more to do with attentiveness than anything else.  To whom do you pay attention?

So, on this thirty-third day of Lenten observance, be attentive.   whom do you pay attention?  Who do you follow?  What in your life is more important than being with God?  Then let it go…the time is almost here.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Maybe This Night Will Be The Night

“The Nativity”
Lorenzo Lotto, 1523
National Gallery of Art
Washington D.C., USA

Luke 2: 1-14 (KJV) 
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.  (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Mary and Joseph have arrived.  The crowds are almost too much to take, pushing and crushing as the couple makes their way through them.  Mary doesn’t feel well.  She really needs to just lie down and rest.  And when you don’t feel well, the last place you want to be is somewhere that is not home, somewhere foreign, somewhere so crowded, so unwelcoming.  They need to hurry.  There is not too much time left. 

They stop at a small inn up on the hill overlooking the shepherds’ pastures down below.  Joseph leaves Mary for a moment and goes to make arrangements for a place to stay.  But when he returns, his face looks frustrated, almost in tears.  He tells Mary that the inn is full.  In fact, the whole town is full.  There is no place to stay.  There is no room.  But he tells Mary that the innkeeper has given them permission to at least go into the stableroom to keep warm.  He’s freshening the hay now.  Well, it will have to do.

You know, I think the innkeeper gets a bad wrap.  I mean, was he supposed to kick someone else out?  And consider this:  This was not the Hilton.  It probably wouldn’t even qualify as a roadside motel.  It was probably just a couple of small beds in the innkeeper’s home.  And first century houses were often just a room or maybe two of actual living quarters anyway.  The second or third room was attached to the house and used to house the animals that were so much a part of their life.  No one in this small town would have owned a large “ranch” estate. The stable probably wasn’t “out back” the way we think.  It was part of the home.  So the innkeeper was possibly, on some level, bringing Mary and Joseph, bringing strangers, into his home. What that means is that the Divine came into the world because someone acted human.  Isn’t that amazing?

So Mary and Joseph entered the stableroom and, surrounded by animals, tried to get some rest.   They could still hear the crowded city outside.  They could hear the Roman guards yelling as they tried to control the crowds.  It made the place feel every more foreign, even more foreboding.  But directly overhead, was the brightest star they had ever seen.  It was as if the tiny little stable was being bathed in light.  So Mary laid down and closed her eyes.  She knew that the time was almost here.  She knew that the baby was coming into the world.

And on this night of nights, into a cold, dirty stable in a small town filled with yelling and pushing crowds, into a place occupied by soldiers, into a place that did not feel like home, into a world that had no room, God comes.  The door to the Divine swings open and God and all of heaven burst into our little world, flooding it with Light and Life.  And yet, the child in the manger bathed in light, the very Incarnation of the Divine, Emmanuel, God With Us, the Messiah, is, still, one of us.  God takes the form of one of us–just an ordinary human–a human like you and me–to show us what it means to be one of us, to be human, to be made in the image of God.

God comes into a world that is unprepared for God, that has no room for God.  God comes into places that are unclean, unworthy, unacceptable for us, much less for the Divine.  God comes into places that most of us would not go, out of fear of the other, out of fear of the unknown, out of fear of the darkness. And there God makes a home.  The Divine begins to pour into the world and with it a vision of the world pouring into the Divine.  This night, though, is not the pinnacle of our lives but, rather, the beginning.  God comes, bathed in Light, in the humblest of disguises immagineable, into the lowliest of places we know, into the darkest night of the soul, that we might finally know that all of the world is of God, all of the world is bathed in the Divine.  God comes so that we might finally see life as we are called to see it and live life as we are called to live it, filled with mercy and compassion and awareness of our connectedness to all the world.  God comes so that we might finally be human, so that we might finally make room. 

Perhaps the world will never be completely ready for God.  If God waited for us to be completely prepared, God would never come at all.  But this God doesn’t need our preparation. This God doesn’t need to come into a place that is cleaned up and sanitized for God.  Instead, God comes when and where God comes.  God comes into godforsakenness, into a world that is occupied by foreignness, where the need for God is the greatest, into a world that cries out for justice and peace, and there God makes a home.  God comes into the darkness and bathes it in light.

The time is almost here.  In just a few hours the door to the Divine will swing open and God and all of heaven will burst into the world.  If you stop and listen, just for a moment, you can hear the harps eternal in the distance as they approach our lives.  Can’t you feel it?  Doors opening, light flooding in, the earth filled with a new vision of hope and peace.  Maybe, just maybe, tonight will be different.  Maybe this is the night that the world chooses peace and justice and love.  Maybe this is the night that the world takes joy. Maybe this is the night when the world realizes that it is already filled with the Divine.  Maybe this is the night when we become human.  Maybe this is the night that we make room.

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
(Phillips Brooks)
On this night of nights, give yourself the gift of making room for God.  Give yourself the gift of being human.  Give yourself the gift of making this night the beginning of God’s coming into the world.
Merry Christmas!
Shelli

Putting On Shoes



God became human.  Well, sure, God can do that if God chooses, but why?  Why would the Divine CHOOSE to become human, CHOOSE to live a life that includes suffering and fear, CHOOSE to live in this imperfect world?  It just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  I suppose it’s part of that mystery thing.  And the truth is, we struggle with it.  We try to justify it.  You’ve heard it all before:  “God was the perfect human,” “God was only posing as a human,” or “It was part of God’s plan.”  Really?  God PLANNED to be born into poverty, PLANNED to be born into an oppressive society, PLANNED to struggle, PLANNED to be disliked, and PLANNED to die?  I don’t really know if that was all part of God’s plan or not.  Is it so hard for us to accept that God just CHOSE to be one of us?  After all, part of being human is being subjected to a certain randomness of order, to a life that, as hard as it is for us to imagine, is beyond our control, and to not only the free will of ourself, but also the free will, the choice to do right or do wrong, that others around us have. Being human means that not all of life is a predictable pattern, not all of life is planned.  But, nevertheless, God became human.  After eons and eons of trying to get our attention, God put on shoes and walked with us.

“Incarnate” literally means “taking on flesh.”  It means becoming tangible, real, touchable, accessible.  It means becoming human.  It means putting on shoes. In the book Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr calls it God’s “most dangerous disguise.”  After all, taking on flesh, becoming tangible, becoming real, touchable, accessible also makes one vulnerable and that is incredibly dangerous.  God put on shoes to show us how to be vulnerable, to show us how to give up a piece of ourself and open ourself to the Divine.

The Shoe Heap, Auschwitz, Poland

More than a decade ago, I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz, Poland.  I expected to be appalled; I expected to be moved; I expected to be saddened at what I would fine.  I did not expect to become so personally or spiritually involved.  As you walk through the concentration camp, you encounter those things that belonged to the prisoners and victims that were unearthed when the camp was captured–suitcases, eye glasses, books, clothes, artifical limbs, and shoes–lots and lots and lots and lots of shoes–mountains of humanity, all piled up in randomness and namelessness and despair.  This is humanity at its worst.  This is humanity making unthinkable decisions about one another based on the need to be in control, based on the need to be proved right or worthy or acceptable at the expense of others’ lives, based on the assumption that one human is better or more deserving than another.

And yet, God CHOSE to be human.  God CHOSE to put on shoes, temporarily separating the Godself from the Holy Ground that is always a part of us, and entering our vulnerability.  God willingly CHOSE to become vulnerable and subject to humanity at its worst.  But God did this because beneath us all is Holy Ground.  God came to this earth and put on shoes and walked this earth that we might learn to take our shoes off and feel the Holy Ground beneath our feet.  God CHOSE to be human not so we would learn to be Divine (after all, that is God’s department) but so that we would learn what it means to take off our shoes and feel the earth, feel the sand, feel the rock, feel the Divine Creation that is always with us and know that part of being human is knowing the Divine.  Part of being human is being able to feel the earth move under your feet, to be vulnerable, to be tangible, to be real, to take on flesh, to be incarnate.  Part of being human is making God come alive.
  
In this season of Advent, give yourself the gift of being human, being vulnerable, and knowing the God who is Divine. Take off your shoes and feel the earth move under your feet.  God is coming!  The earth is beginning to move!

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

    

ADVENT 3B: Bending Light

Lectionary Text:  John 1: 6-8, (19-28)
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

Once again, we encounter John, who we now call John the Baptist.  But he’s really John the Witness.  Here, we are told that John is but a witness to something bigger.  He is there to point to the light of Christ that is coming.  But what makes John’s message uncomfortable is that he is always pointing to that which the light illumines.  For the writer of the Gospel According to John, the Logos was the true light bursting forth into humanity.  Rather than an angel announcing the birth of a baby, the writer is using John as a witness to point to that light as well as the purpose of that light.  We love the image of light but sometimes we are uncomfortable with full illumination.  I mean, here’s John, running around like a wild man in the wilderness preaching repentance, calling for us to change, and just being really loud.  Our reaction in this season is to respond with:  “John…shhhh!  You’ll wake the baby.”

After all, this is the Season when we celebrate the birth of Christ.  This is the Season when we want to give gifts to each other and spend time with our families enjoying a veritable plethora of high-sugar baked goods.  This is the Season when we want to decorate our houses with festive reminders of the joyous season and get dressed up and go to parties to celebrate the same.  This is the Season when we want everything to be joyous and beautiful and perfect.  But this John character just gets in the way, doesn’t he?  Doesn’t this come later in the Scriptures?  Doesn’t this come at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry?  Why do we have to think about this now in the middle of the birth stories?

The reason that we read about John is because it’s not about John.  He knew that.  Scary as he sometimes is, you can’t help but admire him.  He did not stand on convention and he really didn’t care at all what people thought.  He had one purpose.  He was to point to the Light.  In fact, when you think about it, he seemed to TRY to deflect attention away from himself.  Maybe that’s the point.  He was not the Light; he was the deflector.  It was his purpose to turn the attention aside and recast it toward the One who WAS the Light.  God created the Light for us so that we can see the Way, so that we can feel God’s Presence in our lives.  God created the Light that it might shine into our lives.  But God also created us in the image of the Godself that we might be able to also shine the Light away from ourselves, to deflect the Light back to God.  If we do nothing but bask in this incredible Light, we are surrounded in shadows.  But if we become a deflector of that Light, then the Light illumines even the darkness.

In this Advent season, we, too, are called to be witnesses of the Light.  It is not about us.  We, too, are called to turn God’s Light back toward God.  We are called to be Light-benders.  And you know what?  The baby’s already awake.  We just need to turn the Light toward the Christ that we might realize that.

In this season of Advent, give yourself the gift of turning the Light away from yourself that you might finally see the Glory of God.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

(And if you’re interested in the full notes from the week’s lectionary passages, check out http://journeytopenuel.blogspot.com/ )

Do You Have God in Your DNA?

There’s a church that I pass most mornings in my neighborhood (unless I go a different way so I can buy coffee!) that has one of those ever-changing metallic letter boards with messages or sermon titles or just passing whimsies–I’m not sure which. This week the message is this: Do You Have God in Your DNA? Now often the messages on this board strike me as a little trite or unrefined, but I think this week’s poses an interesting question. After all, as humans, we associate DNA with the very basis of our individuality, our makeup, the thing that makes us who we are. Now I don’t really think that God has “DNA”, per se, but what would it mean for God to impart divine individuality or eternal order and makeup into who we are. Well, of course, God has. After all, we are “made in God’s image”. God has made us who we are and who we will be and breathed a part of the Godself into us.

So what does it mean to make one in your image? I think it means to imagine what they will be, to impart a piece of your own self into them (much like an artist or a composer putting all that they know and all that they have and all that they are into a masterwork). I think that’s what God has done in creating each of us–imparted a piece of the Godself, a piece of the Divine into us, a DNA, if you will, that is not of this existence, but of one to come. God did not create us and then leave us to our own devices. We are not inventions engineered to certain specifications. We are, rather, artistic and musical renderings that are affected by time and space and the definitive input of those who cross our path, those who play us or repaint us or just enjoy the fact that we’re here. But somewhere deep within our being is a part of God, an image that is not our Creation, an order that is not our doing, and an individuality that we share only with the One who breathed us into being.

So go forth and be the image buried deep within your DNA…

Grace and Peace,
Shelli