“So, chosen by God for this new life of love,
dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you:
compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline.
Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense.
Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you.
And regardless of what else you put on, wear love.
It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.”
In the midst of Christmas holidays, we also celebrate the Day of the Holy Family. I’ve always been fascinated by a sculpture in the Basilica of the National Shrine of Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., USA, called “Holy Family at Rest”. The sculpture captures humanity with incredible depth.
The central figure is an exhausted Mary with baby Jesus almost falling from her arms; the scene invites us to protectthe baby and not let him fall. You can see the ambivalence between the tension produced when you are running away, escaping from a dangerous situation versus bodies resting in peace, tired but confident in the divine plan. Joseph and the donkey are lying next to Mary, exhausted too, but trying to give protection to her and the baby.
This tiredness, a feeling of being exhausted, captured in the sculpture, is shared by millions of people, families of all kinds, persecuted, fleeing from their places because of war, conflict, political reasons, ethnic discrimination, gender biases, and many other reasons, hoping to preserve their safety and integrity.
I find it unbelievable how so many people want to cling to one single family model, which by the way finds itself in a profound crisis and in very bad shape. It would be difficult to defend, if you want to be respectful to the Biblical texts, that there is only one family model. Families are as diverse as cultures are and have been changing throughout the history of humanity. There is no such thing as one unique family model; there are many ways of being a family, and sometimes they are functional or dysfunctional. But what is certainly common to all families is the necessity of safety and integrity, just what the Holy Family was also seeking.
Maybe the best approach we can take today is the one of openness proposed in the verses of Colossians: “wear love,” which does not specify what a typical Christian family looks like. This approach is one of a sensible family ethic and full of humanity, not necessarily confined to Christianity. The values of the Kingdom can be lived in any type of family.
Today, with the achievements of the LGBT community and marriage equality, we know that the theme of family models is at the center of a multidisciplinary
But as so many times in the past, I know humanity will find the right approach and lead us towards what is our best contribution: respecting others in all their differences, with humility and in constructive collaboration. And it will be precisely society — humanity — which will find solutions, and not the authoritarian and arbitrary decisions of many religious institutions.
“Oh God, Father, Mother, Lover, Friend… primordial Family, f
I would like to conclude recommending a novel of the great Lusitanian writer, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, José Saramago — The Gospel According to Jesus Christ — in which he presents a very interesting view of the episode of the flight to Egypt that marked Joseph for life.
While this verse from 2 Corinthians is not usually read on Christmas Day, to me it summarizes the meaning and purpose of Incarnation, of Jesus’ birth.
Many years ago, I remember hearing an old sermon illustration: A farmer went out on a very cold, Christmas morning to feed the birds huddling deep under evergreen branches and in bushes low to the ground. As he flung the seed, the birds scattered and fled, frightened, imagining him to be a predator. The farmer felt for the little ones trying to stay warm and fed in such harsh conditions, and heard himself cry out, “If only I were a bird!” At which point, the Christmas bells from the church in town rang out, and tears streamed down his face.
A little corny maybe, but the words still resound in my heart: “If only I were a bird.”
God’s impulse in risking incarnation, taking on human life and flesh, was an impulse of pure love. The Creator of the Universe wants to undermine our bad theologies of a “God, the predator drone” and wants instead to invite us to feed without fear, to buffer the harshness of life, right the wrongs that oppress and destroy.
Our first Christmas thoughts then are of gratitude and wonder for a self-giving God who risks for love, justice and peace… and invites us to do the same.
What difference could it make to those hurt by judgmental religion, or betrayal in a church context, to have the bad theologies and harmful human practices contradicted, repudiated, overturned? We in MCC know the answer to that question — we have tried, in our own imperfect ways, to embody that answer for decades!
That difference, is of course, why they put Pope Francis on the cover of Time magazine as “man of the year.” A different Pope who wants to be a bird — or rather, who wants to be human, who says incredulously, “Who Am I to Judge?” If Francis has done anything right at all, he has followed a God not limited by religion’s rules and failings. If he can continue to stand outside the Vatican, rather than sheltered by it, he can be an ally to all those calling for faith to be aligned with love and justice, especially for the poor. It may be that those outside, on the margins of any church, need him even more than those within.
The genius of MCC has never been primarily about what we say about sexuality but what we believe about the nature of God, who reconciled us in Christ! A God of love created us, in all our beauty and complexity, including our sexuality — and that God desires, at that first Christmas and now, always, to be nearer to us. To be a God who does not want to inspire terror, but hope. Emmanuel: God one of us, God with us. Today.
The season of Christmas has many different places. Some of us will travel to places across the world, others across the street to be with family and friends. We find ourselves maybe more than we want in places like shopping centers or the checkout line at the grocery store. For many people, twelve step meetings will be a place of Christmas; for others, work may be a place of Christmas. And of course, church is a place of Christmas.
In that familiar story we hear on Christmas Eve from Luke’s gospel, Mary and Joseph travel to a specific place. Because of a government census, they have to leave Nazareth and go to Bethlehem, the city of King David, to be registered there because Joseph is a descendant of David. When they get there, they are dis-placed. The city is so full of people who have returned to obey the census that there is not a room to be found. So a stable becomes THE place of Christmas. The place where Jesus is born.
The fields that the shepherds were in were also places of Christmas. Those fields were the place of good news and great joy. The angel appeared to them there and said, “Do not be afraid, see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
This is the good news to all people: to you is born. Christmas is a birthing place. That birthing place is not just some event that happened long ago in a land far away. We gather in our churches week after week, year after year, to proclaim that the birthing of God happens all the time. The good news of Christmas is that God is born into our places. Gerard Manly Hopkins reminds us that we are the manger, the field, Bethlehem in this beautiful poem:
Of her flesh he took flesh:
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now.
And makes, O marvelous!
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlems, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn.
Each of us is a ‘new Nazareth’ where Christ is conceived, and each of us is a new Bethlehem where Christ is born. This is the miracle of Christmas: that God has come to us, Word in flesh appearing and that we are invited to ‘flesh out,’ to ‘give birth’ to God in our lives.
Like Mary and Joseph, some of us might be displaced. Some of us may be on the brink of homelessness, while others of us may be displaced from the country of our origin. Maybe we find ourselves displaced in our relationships or families or jobs in this season. For those of us who are struggling with illness, we may feel displaced from our bodies or from the very medical care we need to survive. In our churches or our communities, we might feel like ‘there is no room for us in the Inn.’ The good news of Christmas is that God comes to us in the displaced parts of our lives and gives us hope and courage and strength for new life.
Christmas is a birthing place — a place where God is born into our places and a place where we are born. We hear the phrase ‘born again’ a lot. The miracle of Christmas is that all of us are ‘born again, and again, and again.’ Because of God’s gift in Christ at Christmas, we are invited to a journey of transformation, which is our continual birth in God’s love.
“But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’“ — Matthew 1:18-25
An important lesson that I find in this text, especially in the Gospel of Matthew that tells us about Jesus Christ’s origins, is that not everything is guaranteed via God’s divine plans. Freedom and human will are also involved. God is always ready to surprise us, to let the best of our inner self shine. God always has the right solution and the right path to make things the way they are supposed to be.
This same situation can be found if we review the whole salvation history, starting in Genesis and going through each key moment that had an impact in the lives of men and women in the Biblical story. It seems like God’s plans are always moving on a razor’s edge.
When we review, we would realize there’s always a common denominator. In God’s plan, dialogue is always necessary. Now we witness the dialogue of the angel with Joseph in a dream. God is always adding projects to God’s creatures. I think most of us have experienced this in different personal or community situations.
Without too much looking, we all go through nights of doubts as Joseph did. Sometimes, we put many obstacles and conditions on the work of God. At other times, we try to correct the way God acts. On other occasions, we allow ourselves to be seduced by things that do not add much to our lives. We must have the courage to “let God be God” and take care of ourselves through being fully human and devoting our strength and will to God’s divine plan.
I have always been struck by the silence of Joseph, his limited presence in the Gospels, but in this passage his importance is highlighted, even in his doubt, to take Mary as his wife, accepting to be Jesus’ earthly father, and taking on the responsibility of naming him.
Mary, who is barely named in the text, together with Joseph remind us, with their attitude of faith and openness to God’s plan, that we can also be a blessing in the life of all humanity.
We as MCC have also received a very important task. We have a divine plan in our hands, that will bless and bring the good news to many. It has to be our own decision, personally and as a community, to accept this mission, seriously and with joy.
Many lives will be touched by our response, even in the middle of the night of doubts. We can contribute much, even with our silent and committed prayer for this to be a more humane and egalitarian world.
In these last days of Advent, we need to decide if we really want to do a review of our personal and community life, about how we are preparing to live the commemoration of the birth of Jesus. We need to stand firm and not fall into the temptation of the holiday season, identifying this time only as an excuse for consumerism.
The question we should ask ourselves is this: Am I going to be spending this Christmas time living in solidarity with the Divine plan?
Matthew 11:2-6 — When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?
John the Baptist had a problem with his cousin Jesus, who had turned out not to be anything at all like John had expected him to be. John had devoted his entire life to preparing the way for the coming messiah. He had made all kinds of personal sacrifices so that Jesus would be able to do whatever needed to be done to save the people and set them free.
Yet instead of bringing fiery judgment, Jesus had been healing the sick and raising the dead. Instead of confronting the powerful, he had been comforting the poor. If Jesus was the Christ, why did he not just proclaim himself the Messiah King, destroy the power of the Romans and of Herod, and release John himself from prison? It was becoming clear to John that perhaps Jesus just might not be the one after all. His growing disappointment had led him to wonder whether Jesus would ever conform to popular messianic expectations. If Jesus was not going to be who John needed him to be, perhaps the time had come for him to give up on Jesus and look for someone else.
Who among us has not found ourselves stumbling over expectations of who we are supposed to be? It seems as though our parents, teachers, partners, family, friends, coworkers, pastors, bosses, and even perfect strangers all expect us to be and to behave in a certain way — the way that works for them. If the voices of the others are strong enough, we will even embrace their expectations as our own, as though what other people expect of us is what we are somehow supposed to expect of ourselves. If we go along to get along for too long, we can lose sight of who we really are. Once that happens, we are no longer able to become who God created us to be.
The truth is that, even when we do miraculous things, somebody is going to be disappointed. Yet their disappointment is just that; it is theirs. It is not our responsibility to pick up and bear the burden of their disappointment. We can allow others to own and to carry their own feelings about us and at the same time embrace all of who we truly are.
My prayer in this season of Advent is that each of us will come to know and to accept our own “true you” so we can become who we really are. For that miracle, the world awaits. Amen.
“He shall sense the truth by his reverence for the Lord:
He shall not judge by what his eyes behold,
nor decide by what his ears perceive.”
Jewish Publication Society, TANAK Translation
The passages read from Isaiah during the season of Advent articulate a longing and a promise of an ideal leader who will bring peace to warring nations, justice to the poor and needy, and righteousness to all creation. The longing still exists today for leaders who are authentic and have integrity — leaders who are motivated by the common good rather than manipulated by money and power.
The images of the Jesse Tree and the Lion lying down with the Lamb from Isaiah 11:1-10 have captured our imaginations and made their way to greeting cards because they symbolize this kind of leadership. These verses in Isaiah point to three key characteristics of transformational leadership that I believe MCC is being called to manifest in the world today: rootedness, giftedness and innerness.
“He shall sense the truth by his reverence for the Lord: He shall not judge by what his eyes behold, nor decide by what his ears perceive.” (Isa. 11:3) Transformational leaders lead from within. The Messiah that Isaiah anticipates will ‘sense truth’ based on a relationship with God. This inner truth is the clarity Bob Johansen speaks about in his book, Leaders Make the Future. He claims that the best leaders are seers, sensors and listeners, and that their clarity comes from inner strength and discipline. It is important for individual leaders to do the inner work necessary to know one’s strengths and limitations, shadow and light. As a community, we in MCC can offer places of safety and support for individuals to do that kind of work. We can also engage in this kind of inner work as a denomination, understanding more deeply our strengths and limitations, shadow and light, so that we might “sense the truth” that is beyond what our eyes can behold or our ears perceive.
May the leadership lessons of Isaiah guide us in this season of Advent as we engage in transforming ourselves as we transform the world.
Romans 13: 11-12: Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light . . . .
Rev. Jim Mulcahy, our church development worker in Eastern Europe, says, “I am so grateful I was able to go (to Ukraine and Russia for MCC) . . . I shed so many tears with people, Nancy, I heard so many confessions, my clothes were wet from people crying on me . . . I will never laugh or sneer at the Apostle Paul again . . .” Ironically, we in MCC are experiencing the “gospel of the heart set free” that Paul was preaching, even as others continue to misuse his words against us!
For me, these particular verses from Romans 13 are pure poetry and remind me that our faith was born in the crucible of the Ancient Near East, not the West, in a time full of apocalyptic images, political oppression, and injustice.
About 15 years ago, after more than a decade of pastoring in an unrelenting, and frankly, apocalyptic, time of AIDS deaths, I took refuge in poetry, in writing it as well. It helped heal me and gave me strength for the next battle. All of us — even pastors and Elders — need places of refuge, shelters in the storm.
Sometimes, it is art, music, and poetry that can lift us beyond the present moment, where we wait for Hope to find us, where we trust God to lift us beyond survival — to that “peaceable Kin-dom” we long for.
This first Sunday of Advent, the readings may be poetic, but they are often apocalyptic, dark, and disturbing, shaking us awake, and not very gently! They ask us to get a grip, get ready, be alert, because God is on his/her way! It is time, NOW, to pay attention! Just as the culture is seasonally seducing us on every side to be distracted, cheerful, addicted to excesses, frivolous and greedy — we must do something else:
It is Advent, and World AIDS Day, all at once — ready or not, MCC. We are asked to be awake, available, vulnerable and willing. To write poems, songs, plays — to paint a future of love and justice for all Creation. To live our calling, every day, as our gift from a good God who is, after all, “Emmanuel, God with us,” in apocalyptic or just plain challenging times. Amen.