Thursday, December 29, 2005

Christmas 2: In the Beginning was the Word

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth...” (John 1.1, 14)

“In the beginning was the Word...” I’m not talking about the opening of John’s gospel. I’m not talking about the word that God spoke that brought the world into being. I’m talking about your word and my word.

In the beginning is the word, the sound, the cry of each of us. wailing at the top of our lungs. Angry to have been torn from the safe, warm womb. And for the longest time that’s all there is. There’s just our voice. Then, gradually, we begin to recognize there are others, much bigger than us who are talking to us. We don’t know what they are saying but we figure out that if we yell and cry loud enough and long enough and frequently enough we can get them to do what we want: feed us, change our diaper, or just hold us.

And ever so gradually we begin to understand what they are saying. Before they put us to bed they put is in this stuff called “water”. And we quickly learn how to tell them if it’s too hot or too cold!!

“Milk”—now there’s an important word! It doesn’t take long at all to figure out the name of that delectable substance.

But the most important words probably come the most quickly—Mommy and Daddy. The big creatures who hold us and feed us and change us and teach us all these words that we are learning.

If there were only our own voices crying in the emptiness, if there were no voices responding to us, how could we know what to call water or milk, much less Mommy and Daddy? And if we could not name the world around us, how could we even know who we are? For it is only by responding to others, it is only in the give and take with others that we learn who we are.

We come to learn who we are by encountering others and the primary way we encounter others is through language. We talk and I learn that you like brussel sprouts and I like broccoli. You are a morning person and I am a night person. You are Jewish and I am Christian. You squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom and I squeeze from the middle.

If there were no language, no medium for communication, then how could we ever know who we are? Communication is essential for learning who we are because communication enables community and it is in community that we take on the unique characteristics that make us who we are.

And so the world goes... sometimes communication enables very good things to take place. Great artists can take words and create poems and plays and novels and reflect life back to us so that we can understand it more fully. Music is another form of communication. Mozart and Beethoven and Schubert and a thousand others take melody and harmony and rhythm and reflect an infinite variety of subtle gradations of human feelings.

But sometimes communication is used destructively. “Words mean exactly what I want them to mean”, said Humpty Dumpty to Alice in Through the Looking Glass. And so tyrants have taken words and twisted them. The Nazis called their extermination of six million Jews and hundreds of thousands of others the “final solution”. “Anti-social tendencies” was the excuse the Soviets gave for sending millions to the prison camps in Siberia. “Re-education” was what Mao said he was doing to dissidents and intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution, when he was really sending them to camps where they were worked to death. “Not one of us”, an innocent sounding phrase, is given as an excuse for excluding those of different races, religions, and nationalities from our communities. Harmless sounding phrases can be used to mask profound evil.

“In the beginning was the Word...” So, the human race went for hundreds of thousands of years talking to itself. And then, Someone else spoke. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.” Israel, a tiny and seemingly insignificant people, suddenly found its internal conversation rudely and abruptly interrupted by a word from Beyond. And so the real dialogue began. A Voice broke in offering a radically new perspective. The Voice said, “You are not alone. You did not create yourselves. You have responsibilities to me and I to you. And because I am a just God and will deal justly with you, you must deal justly with one another. And oh, by the way, I love you with an everlasting love and will never, never leave you.”

And Israel took up the challenge of dialogue with God. The dialogue was conducted through prophets—men and women who always began what they had to say with “The word of the Lord came to me...”

Like a child, Israel learned new words. They learned justice and righteousness which meant (and still means) to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, and care for the sick and dying. They learned chesed, “lovingkindness”, the quality of God’s love for them which was also to be the quality of their love for one another.

But it was difficult to remember what the prophets said, so they wrote it down. Hundreds of yards of papyrus was used to write down the words of the prophets. And weekly on Friday night and Saturday morning they read the words of the prophets. Scribes pored over the scrolls, interpreting what the prophets had said, trying to help people live according to the teachings of the prophets, which is to say, according to the words of God.

But it was still difficult to remember, much less to do, what God had said to the prophets. You had to be able to read and few could do that. Or you had to go to the Temple or the synagogue and that was difficult to do every week. And the Israelites were like us. They had their own agendas. There were other gods who were less demanding, who asked no more than a pinch of incense or an occasional lamb on the altar and a quickly muttered incantation. So, the prophets spoke less and less frequently and their words grew faint and people neglected to read the words on the scrolls.

So if you were God, what would you do? You or I would probably try to speak more loudly. If we had divine powers we might borrow the booming voice of the thunder and speak in that way. That would get people’s attention, but that would only work for a short time. People would get accustomed to that and tune that out, too. We might send earthquakes and natural disasters to underscore the importance of what we had to say. That gets people’s attention for a while, and then they go back to doing whatever they were doing before the catastrophe.

So God spoke in an entirely different way. There had been enough words, and there had been enough flashy miracles. God’s strategy was brilliant. It was counter-intuitive. We expect an announcement from God to be like an announcement from the President. “We now interrupt this program to bring you a speech from the Oval Office...” Or we expect a word from God to be announced like the announcement of a dire catastrophe. “There will now be a test of the emergency broadcast network...” Or at least there would be a legion of trumpeters and drummers and maybe even bagpipes preceding a major announcement from God.

But instead God slipped quietly and unobtrusively into the world. God’s message came wrapped in the flesh of a baby born to an unwed mother who had travelled far from her home and could find shelter only in a cattle shed. Talk about counter-intuitive!

Oh sure, there were some shepherds who saw and heard a few angels, but who believed them? There were some astrologers who found a strange conjunction of stars and set off for Bethlehem. And even Joseph and Mary were somewhat unsure of what God was trying to say.

A popular phrase of the 1960s expresses exactly what God was doing: “The medium is the message”. God’s message was not just what Jesus said; the life of Jesus was the message of God. The message was that this is how God chooses to love. God’s love is vulnerable and non-coercive. The message is that we have several choices. We can ignore it, and that’s what most did. There weren’t many who had “ears to hear”. We can scoff and condemn: “This man receives sinners and eats with them”. Or we can follow: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men. And immediately they dropped their nets and followed him”.

We can also take God’s love and betray him and give him a mock trial and turn him over to the authorities and nail him to a cross and watch while for six hours he dies and then take God’s love and put it in a borrowed tomb and then we can all go home to our houses and think, “Well, it was a lovely dream, but it wasn’t very realistic, was it? The world is a tough place. God should have sent his love in a stronger package. Maybe next time God should try sending a warrior or a king or something big and flashy that will get people’s attention. God needs to send a guy who’ll knock a few heads together. The human race is a pretty tough audience. Maybe God learned his lesson this time. The very idea of sending a baby who grew into a man who never owned a home and who hung out with lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors.... what was God thinking?”

But then God’s love burst out of the borrowed tomb. God’s love showed that it was stronger than Roman legions; stronger than the thousand year Reich; stronger than the Iron Curtain; stronger than death.

The laugh is on us. We had to learn we were still infants when it comes to learning God’s language. We had to learn that there are some kinds of weakness that are stronger than what we think of as strength. We had to learn that life is about more than just accumulating things and pushing to the front of the line and looking out for number one. We had to learn that you can’t kill God’s love. It comes back again and again and again.

Above all we had to learn a new meaning for the word love. Love means reaching out to and including lepers and the homeless and persons with AIDS and persons who struggle with addiction. Love means giving without expecting anything in return. Love means trusting that God who clothes the lilies and feeds the birds of the air will care for us, too.

And what happens if we put our trust in God’s love? What happens if we take the radical risk of loving as God loves? Well, God left us a story about what happens if we do that and we heard the beginning of that story tonight. If we really love as God loves then what happened to Jesus will happen to us. A few will listen; most will be indifferent; and a few may try to kill us. But the story also tells us that those who love as God loves can never, never be separated from God.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Christmas needs more Jesus

Note: This article by my friend Rabbi Jonathan Miller appeared recently in The Birmingham News, and I am reproducing it here by his permission.

It sure wouldn’t be Christmas without the trees strapped to the tops of SUVs. It sure wouldn’t be Christmas without crowded parking lots and lines at the cash register. It sure wouldn’t be Christmas without a month of the same music year after year wafting its way down the aisles of the SuperCenter or the shopping mall or the grocery store. And it sure wouldn’t be Christmas without the specter of some kind of Grinch who is out to spoil the holiday fun.

As a rabbi, I don’t celebrate Christmas. Christmas celebrates the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus, the Messiah of all the earth. Jews don’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah of all the earth, and neither do Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus or Atheists nor any of the other people in our country who are not Christians. Even the Eastern Orthodox Church, a large part of the Christian world, does not celebrate Christmas on December 25. So Christmas, although it is ubiquitous here in America, is not universally observed.

That doesn’t mean I don’t like Christmas. I do, really. I like the lights, the food, and the return of hope and promise that permeates our society. I enjoy listening to some of the less campy Christmas music. I even smile as I find myself humming Christmas melodies. Even as I watch from the sidelines as everyone scurries around to get everything in place for their perfect Christmas day, most people have good cheer and hopeful spirits, and they share that with everyone. And I like that, I really do.

But this year, I have turned on the television and the radio and read about Christmas in the newspapers, and I have learned that suddenly I, because I don’t celebrate Christmas have become this year’s Grinch. I don’t like being the Grinch. I really don’t.

It seems that some of the more mean spirited people in our society are picking on people who don’t celebrate Christmas. After all, what is Christmas without a Grinch? These Grinch hunters take great offense at the people in the stores who tell their customers to have a happy holiday without specifically mentioning Christmas. They feel as though we non-Christmas celebrators are removing the baby Jesus from our society. But we haven’t done anything new. Last year we non-Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas. And next year, no matter how much hollering there is, I don’t suspect that we will be celebrating Christmas even then.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t like Christmas. It means that we don’t celebrate Christmas. The non-Christians I know are rooting for Christmas. Deck your halls, by all means. Put up your lights and your mistletoe, enjoy your hats and stuff your stockings, be generous to the people you love and to the poor among us. Open your hearts to the joy and the hope that your belief brings you, and let some of that joy and hope permeate your lives all year long. What a blessing you will be as good Christians to all of us! Only don’t make me your Grinch.

I am not at all offended if some store clerk wishes me a “Merry Christmas”, and neither should anyone. I know these people are wishing good things for me, because Christmas is good for them. I have taught my children to say, “Thank you” to those who wish us a merry Christmas. But what could possibly be offensive about anyone wishing anyone else “Happy Holidays”? Christians know that that means Christmas. And others know that that means, “Even if you happen to be different from me, I wish you the very best at the festive season.” Those are hardly fighting words. They actually seem like Christian words. These words should represent the Christmas spirit that all Christian believers cherish. Even a true Grinch, (not me!) would be offended by someone saying, “Happy Holidays.” A true Grinch would be offended by anyone saying happy anything!

Like some of you, I am concerned that there is not enough Jesus in Christmas. I am also concerned that there is not enough Jesus in Christianity. I am concerned this year that non-Christians are made to be society’s enemies. I can’t believe that Jesus would endorse this view. I am concerned that some Christians see their numerical majority as the right to bully the rest of us. I can’t believe that Jesus would endorse this view. Jesus was kind and was open and was generous in spirit. At least that’s the way I have experienced him through the eyes of true Christians who have shared their faith with me. And true Christians, I have learned, don’t need a megaphone to make their faith known. If these media bullies are really concerned about Jesus and Christmas, let them call to task those Churches which plan to close on Sunday morning, December 25 because too many Christians will choose to stay home to open their presents. Let them call to task those who buy for themselves and take for themselves, but do not share enough from their bounty with those in need. Let them emulate Jesus’ generosity of spirit, which curiously they seem to lack this year. Christians, please bring Jesus back to Christmas. And if this wish makes me your Grinch, well I guess that is the burden that I bear for you. And I do it with love.

Jonathan Miller is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham, AL. He has served congregations in New Zealand, Los Angeles, and Birmingham.