Occupy God!

Luke 2:1-20

                   In the summer of 1992, I was blessed to go to the Barcelona Olympics, to serve as an editor at that great sporting and cultural events. To do my job properly, I had to lug along one whole extra suitcase filled with reference books not for sports, but for the world – because this was in the days before the Internet, when Google wasn’t even a gleam in anyone’s mind.

The summer of 1992 was the culmination of some of the wildest three years in history. The Berlin Wall had come down, the Germanies were united, and the Soviet Union had collapsed. The map of the world was changing so fast we could barely figure out who was competing for what country, how old that country might be, which flags and anthems went with which new country, and who led each new nation. I swear to you that I was the only editor present who knew that Nursultan Nazarbayev was the president of the new country of Kazakstan.

Revolutions had made the world go crazy. Everything we knew – everything we had grown up with – was topsy-turvy, and it took that extra suitcase of books just to be able to edit a basic sports story.

We thought we would never see the likes of this confusion again.

Until this year.

When once again, the world turned upside down. Starting with the death of a vegetable-cart owner named Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, we have seen the people of numerous lands rise up, dictators fall, civil wars break out – and in some cases, end – and, just like the late 1980s and early ’90s, confusion reigns.

The world once again has gone crazy with revolution, which eventually landed on our own shores, in the form of Occupy movement that started on Wall Street and spread like wildfire from city to city and across the ocean to London and cities throughout Europe and even, shockingly, to Russia.

The one thing that all these revolutions – those two decades ago, and those this past year – all have in common?

The dream of a better life.

The knowledge that life indeed can be different, that all it take is the unwavering conviction that if enough of us stand up, if enough of us band together, if enough of us can occupy the attention of the world, the attention of the powers and principalities that be, if enough of us work for the common good, we can change the world.

And isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

Changing the world?

Isn’t that why Jesus came? To show us that the world can be different, that life can be different, that it doesn’t have to be dog-eat-dog, I’ve-got-mine-and-I-don’t-care-if-you-ever-get-yours, that life itself can be better?

This is Christmas, my friends, the night when we celebrate anew the fact that God decided to become one of us. This isn’t like the 4th of July, when we commemorate the signing of the Declaration of the Independence. And it isn’t like a celebration of a birthday, where someone asks, “So … what’s it feel like to be (fill in your own age)?”

We aren’t just remembering an event that took place long ago!

This night, my friends … this night is about God making a revolution in our lives!

This is the night when God comes down to occupy the world, to occupy us.[1] As the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams, said recently,

Christmas doesn’t commemorate the birth of a super-good person who shows us how to get it right every time, but the arrival in the world of someone who tells us that everything can be different. [2]

Everything … can … be … different!

That’s the true meaning of Christmas … that God is occupying us, whispering in our ears, “Life can be different, my child. Life, my beloved, can be better.

God is willing, despite our faults and shortcomings and willfulness, to occupy us … because God loves us … each of us and all of us, wildly, incredibly, inexplicably and eternally.

It doesn’t make much sense, when we look at the world around us, when we look at how we treat that world … when we look at each other and look at how we treat each other some days.

But … despite every indication to the contrary, God still comes to us … this night … in a revolution of love, to occupy us.

And all God asks in return is that we occupy God.

Jesus came to be with us … as a little baby boy … born in a manger (which, I have to tell you, was not and to this day is not, that unusual) … so that we could, at last, see God in the flesh, see God living and moving and having his being among us as one of us, so that we could, through God’s incredible Occupy Movement, know that indeed, the world can be a better place.

If only we are willing to occupy God.

Now, I warn you, occupying God is not an easy thing to do. God occupying us? Piece of cake. God has occupied us from before time began, God is occupying us right this very second, in this very place, and God will continue to occupy us … whether we like it or not, know it or not, acknowledge it or not … until the ages of ages.

But us …. occupying God?

That’s a whole ’nother bailiwick.

Because to occupy God, we have to be willing to set aside all our own wants and needs and desires and demands. We have to be willing set aside our version of truth, and claim God’s version of truth.

If we want to occupy God, we’re going to have to let … go …

If we really want to see the great light that is shining upon us, if we really yearn to increase our joy, if we really desire to experience the endless peace that comes only from the Lord of hosts, we are going to have to move out of the darkness that envelops us – and Lord knows, in this day and age, with revolutions happening all around us all the time, we are engulfed in darkness – if this is what we really want, we are going to have to leave that darkness behind, and embrace that Light that God is sending into the world, into our lives, right here. And right now.

The salvation we so desperately desire in our own lives does not come from us. It is not ours to decide, ours to give, ours to take away. Salvation, we know – and in our best moments we do know this – salvation comes from God alone.

So on this night, when God comes to occupy us in the form of a little baby boy, on this night, this is what I want you to do:

I want you to look around at the people gathered here tonight … at your loved ones and your friends, at the people sitting next to you and in front of you and in back of you and across the church from you, at the choir and acolytes and lay ministers up here, at the ushers in the back … I want you to look at each person here.

I want you to look for God Incarnate – for Jesus, for the Christ child – occupying every single person here.

Go ahead.

Look.

Do you see the Word that became flesh among you? Do you see God occupying not just yourselves, but each other?

If not, look again.

And again.

And yet again.

I want you to look until you do see Jesus … occupying each and every person here.

And when you leave this place tonight, I want you to look for God occupying every single person you meet … the other people on the road, scurrying to or from a service. The FedEx and UPS folks, hurrying to deliver one more present … the clerk at the store … the neighbor whose name you do not yet know …

I want you to look at every single person you meet, every person whose path you cross, not just this night, but every night, and I want you to see God Incarnate in each one of those people.

Only when we spend our time looking for God Incarnate – for Jesus – occupying each other, only then do we truly occupy God ourselves.

It is a revolutionary thing to occupy God as God occupies us … greater than any revolution in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union three decades ago, greater than any revolution taking place this very day.

Because when we decide to occupy God, we … change … the … world. We worry less about ourselves … and more about each other. We give grace … and we get grace. We see God’s love in each other … as we give God’s love to each other … as we receive God’s love from each other.

This is Christmas, my friends, the night when more than any other night in our lives, God comes to occupy us, in the form of the Christ child.

Look for that Christ child occupying each other, look for that occupation and honor that occupation, and I guarantee you, we will indeed be occupying God.

And when we do occupy God, I guarantee you this as well, the world will be a better place.

Let us pray:

How may God’s Love take shape in our world?

                  In dreams which move us to risk compassion for each other …

                  In a vision of a community whole and peace-filled …

                  In hope, which leads us to work for peace …

                  Lord of Hosts, King of Kings,

                  Occupy us … wholly, fully, eternally,

                  So that we may occupy you … wholly, fully, and eternally in return.

Amen.

 

Christmas Eve 2011 sermon preached at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Burke, Va., 5 p.m. service (a variation of this was preached at the 3 p.m. service.)


[1] “God’s occupation of the world in Jesus Christ.” The Rev. Michael T. Sniffen, priest-in-charge of the Episcopal Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Brooklyn, New York, arrested Saturday, 17 Dec 2011, at Duarte Square (the property owned by Trinity Wall Street), along with a retired bishop, numerous other clergy, and scores of laity for trespassing. (via The Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Keaton, “No Time For Anglican Circumspection,” Telling Secrets, http://telling-secrets.blogspot.com/2011/12/no-time-for-anglican-circumspection.html

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Mark 1:1

 Good old Mark – he never misses a chance to beat us over the head with the obvious, does he?

I once sat in a theology class with one of the most respected theologians of the Church, Bishop Mark Dyer, shortly after he came to Virginia Seminary.

“The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” he intoned.

We all looked at him blankly.

“The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” he repeated, giving us one of his sterner looks.

More blank looks.

“Who said that?” he asked.

Even more blank stares.

“Which Gospel begins this way?” he asked, rather urgently.

(Now, this was before the advent of the Internet, so none of us could surreptitiously Google the quote … and none of us felt comfortable ostentatiously taking out our Bibles to check the Gospels riki-tik.)

“Mark!” he said. “Mark opens his Gospel this way! Why? So you don’t miss the point of the whole story! Jesus is the Good News! Jesus is the Son of God!

We can all giggle about this now, because we just heard the beginning of Mark’s Gospel read right here in this place.

But the fact is, when we think about the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, we think of John the Baptist, because Mark jumps right there.

The fact is, we tend to miss the beginning of each Gospel, which is a shame, because every beginning is important.

Look at those other Gospels. Matthew gives you a big boring genealogy (how many of you have ever read that? You should, you know, because there’s pretty important news buried in there, like the fact that a harlot is one of Jesus’ ancestors). Because Matthew wants you to know that Jesus is descended from the right people.

Luke? Bet you think it starts with the Annunciation, don’t you? But it doesn’t. It starts with a note to “most excellent Theophilus,” with Luke’s explanation that he’s going to write “an orderly account … so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” (I’m guessing you skip over that part, too, don’t you?) Luke wants you to know his version is true.

And then there’s John, my beloved John, who speaks poetry: En archē ēn ho Lógos, kai ho Lógos ēn pros ton Theón, kai Theós ēn ho Lógos. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? But it needs a lot of unpacking to understand that John is going beyond even in the beginning …

And Mark?

You don’t need to unpack Mark, because he just slams you upside the head with his baseball-bat Gospel:

The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

You know what this means, don’t you?

It means that we know, right from the beginning, that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, the one for whom God’s chosen people had been waiting.

Mark’s message: No more waiting! It’s done! Suck it up! Deal with it!

Mark makes sure that you are never in doubt as to what’s going on, never wondering what something means.

Because Mark doesn’t have time to mess around! He doesn’t bother with little things like birth stories or angel’s visits or pretty words.

He gets right to the point, so much so that he can say: “Look, Ma, no Verb!”[1]

Mark is immediate (he uses the word 42 times in his short Gospel). He’s urgent. He wants to give us the Good News – the Gospel – of Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God because there is no time to waste … so listen up!

And isn’t that what we need right now, on this Second Sunday of Advent?

Isn’t it nice to have some urgency not for buying and wrapping and partying, but for God? And for God’s marvelous news that God is with us? That God loves us so much that God is willing to be one of us, so that we can see God, and touch God, and hear God (not through the prophets but directly), and smell God, and yes, even taste God?

Isn’t it good for our souls to have someone knock us upside the head and say, Pay attention!!!

Because really … we don’t pay enough attention to God, do we? Especially right now, when society is pushing us relentlessly toward a vision of Christmas that really isn’t about God, but about ourselves, and our wants and our needs.

Mark doesn’t stand for that kind of faith. Over and over again in his telling of the Good News, Mark urgently says: It’s not about us. It’s about God.

Suck it up! Deal with it!

Just look at what happens in Mark’s story as soon as he’s delivered that Good News to us:

He starts talking about John the Baptist, whose whole message is that he must decrease so that Jesus (“the one who is more powerful than I is coming after me”) may increase.

“I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thongs of his sandals,” he announces to all those – and I do mean all those who have come out to see him – “the people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” – thinking that perhaps he was the Messiah for whom they waited.

And if John can decrease, if John can be so humble, if John can say (and this would be a paraphrase, mind you): “It’s not about me, it’s about God![2] can’t we do the same?

That’s what Advent is about, my friends. Putting God first.

So, really. Mark’s urgency is a gift to us in this season of waiting. Because we’ve more or less forgotten how to wait. We’ve forgotten how to be attentive. We’ve forgotten how to put God first in everything we do.

I know, I know: According to society, it’s Christmastime. (I’m pretty certain that the business world has no idea that Advent even exists, much less what it means.)

Let’s be honest: At this time of year, we all have a bit of the child in us, with dreams of getting the coolest gifts and giving the bestest gifts, of family gatherings that are filled with nothing but laughter and joy, of roaring fires on cold nights, and of cookies … lots and lots of cookies. It’s what we want for Christmas.

So it’s easy to get sucked into the Christmas urgency that society foists upon us.

But Mark?

Mark’s urgency doesn’t focus on Jesus’ birth story.

Mark’s urgency focuses on Jesus’ story.

Mark wants us to know, in no uncertain terms, whether we want to know it or not, whether we like it or not, that our lives were – and are – and ever will be – irrevocably changed by Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

In short, Mark is telling us repeatedly: Deal with it!

Deal with the fact that God is here among us. That God loves us. That God calls us to love one another.

Deal with the fact that God wants our attention … this day and every day.

Deal with the fact that the Jesus is the Son of God and that this is all the good news we are ever going to need.

My friends, we have 21 more days of Advent.

And in this Advent season, Mark has a message for us:

Get urgent about God.

Now.

Amen.

 A sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B, at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Blue Grass, Va., 4 December 2011.



[1] Nadia Bolz-Weber, [TheHardestQuestion], “Go Ahead, Judge a Book by Its Title,” http://thehardestquestion.org/yearb/advent2gospel-2/#more-2123.

[2] Barbara Cawthorne Crafton, The Geranium Farm, The Almost Daily eMo, “The Courage to Yield,” http://www.geraniumfarm.org/dailyemo.cfm?Emo=1371.

 

 

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Now thank we all our God …

                  In the early 1600s, Europe was torn asunder by the Thirty Years’ War, a war that began because of religious intolerance between Protestants and Catholics in the Holy Roman Empire and devolved into a power play involving most of the European powers. It was one of the most destructive wars ever in European history.[1]

                  The walled city of Eilenburg, Saxony, was a flash-point in that war. The town changed hands repeatedly, and was filled with refugees fleeing the destruction.

Toward the end of the war, in 1636, Swedish forces laid siege to the town. Famine and plague soon added to the miseries of the people. According to history reports, “there was a tremendous strain on the pastors, who conducted dozens of funerals daily.” Finally, all of the pastors died but one, a Lutheran named Martin Rinkart.

“During the height of a severe plague in 1637, Rinkart conducted as many as 50 funerals per day;” he performed more than four thousand funerals that year, including that of his wife.[2]

“When the Swedes demanded a huge ransom, Rinkart left the safety of the walls to plead for mercy. The Swedish commander, impressed by his faith and courage, lowered his demands. Soon afterwards, the Thirty Years’ War ended.”[3]

Rinkart was known as a writer of hymns – when he found time, I have no idea. You would think that he wrote hymns of lament, hymns of rage against God, hymns of desperation. But he didn’t. Instead, he wrote one hymn in particular, that was a celebration of God, that was a hymn of praise, a hymn of gratitude.

(Sing)

Now thank we all our God,

                  With heart and hands and voices,

Who wondrous things have done,

In whom the world rejoices …

“Who wondrous things have done?”

“In whom the world rejoices?”

Really?

After surviving decades of war … after burying four thousand people in one year … after burying his own wife Rinkart wrote a hymn that celebrates God’s wondrous acts?

(Sing)

Who from our mothers’ arms

Has blessed us on our way

With countless gifts of love,

And still is ours today.

Rinkart is the author of the hymn we still sing today, the hymn we sing especially today, on Thanksgiving, celebrating all the good things in our lives, all the bounty, all the blessings.

He didn’t have much to celebrate, when you think about it. He had seen a terrible war, had survived the plague and famine, had buried thousands in one year alone, had buried his wife ….

And still … he thanked God.

As we gather today for our celebration of Thanksgiving, Rinkart serves as a model of what it means to truly place God at the center of our lives, the center of our celebrations. He teaches us how to praise God, even in the darkest moments of our lives.

We live in what many are calling dark times, my friends. War, the economy, unemployment … uncertain about our future together, and our futures individually.

We live in a time when we aren’t certain we can see beyond the next few days and weeks, when the next few months seem opaque, and the new few years seem … well, we can’t even see that far, can we?

And because of all this uncertainty, because of all our anxieties, our fears, our anger, our frustration, we find it hard to praise God. We find it hard to thank God.

We are so much more comfortable raging against the fates and each other, aren’t we? Just listen to talk radio and partisan TV … listen to and read about the candidates running for public office, and those who already are serving, none of whom can seem to pass up a chance to attack each other, to denigrate each other, to make sly comments about each other.

We have Occupy Wall Street and K Street and Oakland and Portland and dozens of other places, demanding reform in this country for the 99 percent … and so many of us are in that 99 percent … but where’s the outrage for the rest of the world? Where’s the acknowledgement that we who are the 99 percent in this country are the top 15 percent (or better) in the rest of the world?

We feel besieged …

And in that feeling, we lose sight of God … of God’s blessings … of God’s love … of God’s grace.

Until we listen again to the words of a Lutheran pastor who truly was besieged in a walled city in Saxony in 1637, and who despite the atrocities he witnessed, still found the time, the heart, the voice to praise God.

I want to remind you today: We are Anglicans, and as Anglicans, we pray what we believe, and we believe what we pray.

Meaning: Even in our darkest hours, we are called to thank God (even when we can’t identify that for which we are grateful).

We are called to give grace, even when we don’t feel grace-filled.

We are called to receive grace, even when we are not certain grace is being given.

If we at least say we are grateful, one day, we will be thankful.

If we at least say we are giving grace, one day, we truly will give grace.

If we at least say we are receiving grace, one day, we truly will receive it.

And if we remember nothing else this day – because of our uncertainties, our fears, our anger – if we remember nothing else, remember this:

We are blessed.

Because we are loved.

The God whom we frequently forget to thank? Still loves us.

The God against whom and to whom we rage? Still loves us.

And not only does God love us, God loves everybody else as well.

At the end of the Thirty Years’ War, Martin Rinkart had little to celebrate. His friends, his family, his congregation, along with thousands of others, were dead. But still … he gave thanks.

Because he knew, in his heart and in his spirit, that God was with him, and that God loved him.

On this day of Thanksgiving, I pray we can remember the lesson that Rinkart gives us, the lesson that says, despite all the darkness, there is the light of God’s love in our lives, because

God truly does love us. Every single one of us.

And for that, we truly can give thanks … this day, and always.

Amen.

A sermon preached on Thanksgiving Day, 24 November 2011, at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Burke, Va.

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