Monday, December 27, 2010

The Theology of Carbon

Christmas 1, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, Killeen, TX, December 26, 2010, The Rev. Paul Moore

Recently Fort Hood has been doing controlled burns on the range. It is a conservation technique replicating the processes that controlled this area before extensive human settlement. I'm familiar with the healthful results of fire. The people among whom I grew up in Ecuador practiced a slash-and-burn agriculture when I was a child. They would clear out the understory of brushy vines and shrubs, and knock down the trees, and wait until the dry season when they would torch it all. The potash and carbon left in the soil acted as fertilizer for their crops. I was with a paleo-anthropologist one time when she turned up some pieces of charred wood at a dig. She got really excited.

Apparently this was left over from just such a slash-and-burn effort, and the carbon present would allow her to date it with Carbon 14 dating. Whatever your opinion of Carbon 14 dating is, it is true that carbon is ubiquitous. In fact, carbon is that one element that distinguishes life forms as we know it from forms that are not alive.

When the evangelist begins to construct his Gospel of John he borrows language from Genesis 1. But he backs up the words to refer to events that happen before Genesis 1. Genesis begins, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth..." Yes, but before that, in the beginning... "In the beginning was the Word, and the word was God, and the word was with God," And the Word created...the heavens and the earth. In theological language the Word is the carbon of all existence. One cannot understand existence without referring to the Word—the Logos—that creative, expressive, relational side of God that we call the Second Person of the Trinity. That Word came among us. The Principle of existence became an existent One, and we beheld His glory.

And that changes everything.

I remember when I first began experimenting with falconry in High School in Ecuador in the early 70's. I took a kestrel chick out of the nest, built a nest box in the dorm where I lived, and tried to learn falconry. The bird became a very cute, exotic, and sometimes noisy pet who eventually returned to the wild relatively unharmed for its stay with me, but I was unsuccessful in getting it to hunt. In retrospect, it's a miracle I did not lose it the first time I took it out of the house. There is a very essential piece of knowledge that I didn't have. Hawks want to hunt when they get hungry, and their hunger is directly related to their body weight. Manage the weight, manage the bird. I had a really fat hawk who returned only out of the goodness of its heart, and nothing more! So when you know about body weight you have the essential piece of information that allows you to practice falconry successfully. The Incarnation is the same kind of essential ingredient in our faith. When you understand the Incarnation you understand our faith, and when you understand our faith you know how to live as a Christian.

The Incarnation does two great things:

It reveals the heart of the Father. My eldest son can always find a Christmas present for you that fits you perfectly. Don't bother to give him lists or suggestions, he doesn't need them, they'd just be in the way. When he gives you a gift it reveals something profound about him: He has his eyes open, he reads you like a book. He understands you, and he loves you! When the Father sent the Son it revealed something profound about the Father. God the Father has His eyes open. He reads you like a book, He loves you and He wants to communicate with you! St. Paul writes to the Romans in chapter 1 that the nature of God is known by the things that are made, that is Creation. In John 1 we see that the creative person in the Trinity is the Son. The Son reveals the Father in creation and in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus tells Thomas in the upper room. "Why do you say, 'Show us the Father?' If you've seen me you've seen the Father." The babe in the manger is the great revealer of the Father.

It reveals the nature of our existence. Some people have clean desks, some people have cluttered desks. They say a clean desk is the sign of an empty mind. (I keep telling myself that!) I know a retired Army officer that served for a time as lay canon in the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas. He was a full colonel when he retired, he did NOT have an empty mind, but when you went to see him all there was on his desk was material pertinent to the discussion at hand. (I have no earthly idea how in the world he did it!) Under his leadership the diocese worked like a well-oiled machine. You could tell how the diocesan offices worked by looking at his desk: clear, uncluttered and to the point—not always creative or imaginative, but clear. When you know who the Father is you know what kind of world we live in.

We live in a world that is full of the holy. Recently Karisse and I visited a young couple in the hospital after the birth of their daughter. It's impossible to look on the face of newborn and not wonder at the mystery of life. Just beneath the surface lurks the numinous, God is never far away.

We live in the world that is moving toward an end. 3000 years ago this area looked entirely different than it does now. Enormous herds of bison moved through the area. They were preyed upon by prairie wolves and small bands of Indian hunters who moved from one hunting-ground to another. 30,000 years ago it wasn't the bison we know now but enormous beasts that weighed as much as an elephant, with horns that spanned 6 feet. They were preyed upon by dire-wolves that stood almost 4 feet at the shoulders and weighed over 300 lbs., and small bands of wandering human hunters who moved from one hunting ground to another. The world is headed has a beginning and it has an end. Until it reaches its end it is incomplete, under construction and destined to change. God is always, constantly, continuously involved.

We matter in the world. The world today doesn't even look like it did 3000 years ago. Instead of bison we have people and cows. Instead of wolves we have coyotes. Instead of prairie we have city and forest. We have an impact on our environment, and we have an impact on our society. The decisions we make become the building blocks of tomorrow's world. When we make decisions that fall in line with the nature of the Creator we build up life, when we make decisions that contradict the nature of the Creator we destroy it. God the Creator takes us seriously. He has entrusted to us an almost godlike power to create tomorrow's world. When we create as He creates we make Him present once again in creation. We continue the Incarnation.

Just like carbon, the Incarnation turns up everywhere you look. It is at the heart of God's revelation of Himself, it is at the heart of God's redemption of the world, and the Babe in the Manger makes all the difference.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Holy Child, Holy World

Christmas Midnight Mass, December 24, 2010, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church    , Rev. Paul Moore

There are two icons of Christmas in my home. They inhabit opposite sides of the same room. On one side is a 6-foot artificial Christmas tree. For convenience' sake it is pre-lit, and if I had my druthers, now that the kids are out of the house, it would come pre-decorated. There are delightful legends of how the Christmas Tree began being used as a symbol of this day that come from northern Europe, but they are not in my head when I set it up. I set it up because across the street my neighbor has his tree up, and the neighbors to each side. I don't want to feel out of place. There are no illusions of symbols of life in the midst of the death of winter, no, the tree is where we put the presents. It has become, as I am sure it has for you, a cultural icon of our society's manner of celebrating this holiday. We call it crass materialism.

On the other side of the room is a stretch of display about 6 feet long. It begins low, and builds up to the highest part in two sweeping paths. At the bottom is the town, with all the townspeople in it, along with dogs, chickens and ducks. At the top is a large crèche, larger than the whole town itself. All the people in the town and along the path are headed toward the crèche. Tonight the Baby Jesus will appear in the manger, and the wise men will begin a 12-day journey up the path. It is not an American cultural icon, it is an Ecuadorian one. Existing as it does, outside its context, it is in a sense stripped of its cultural baggage. We do not put presents under it. We use the same figurines year after year. It is a statement of faith, nothing more and nothing less, using material things. I would like to think of this as holy materialism.

Ivan Illich has rightly noted that as Christian Americans we are not materialistic, And Christmas is not a celebration of crass materialism. If that were so we would not throw away the precious material things that we acquired last year, we would carefully and reverently take them out of storage and display them once again. No, Christmas as the world celebrates it is anti-materialist. The ads for the last three months on TV have been asking us to acquire. What we do with last year's acquisitions is immaterial, most of us take them (as we did this year) to the Good Will. (And herein is the proof. We make a multimillion dollar industry of disposing of our acquisitions in a way that lets someone else acquire them, and we call it "Good Will.") We do not worship material things, we worship the act of acquiring. It is not materialism, but consumerism. We quickly dispose of and acquire everything in life: houses and cars, jobs and careers, husbands and wives, children and cousins.

But what we celebrate this night is not consumeristic, it is materialistic. Jesus was not born so He could go to Wal-Mart and buy strawberries in November and apples in April. We've almost forgotten that strawberries bear in the Spring and apples in the Fall. To buy strawberries in November and apples in April they are imported from Chile and Argentina. Many locals don't buy these nutritious food items because the prices we are willing to pay put them out of their reach.

And Jesus was not born so that He could come back and be born again, only this time bigger and better, at 25% off, or with 30% more in the package, or even so He could come back green and earth-friendly. He was born because God looked at His creation at the beginning of time and said, "It is good." And it is good—not entirely good, it got messed up, but God believes it is worth trying to redeem rather than recycle, and so Jesus is born. Jesus is born so that the stuff of our earthly lives can become holy, that the material in which we are all cast in this existence can be in relationship with God.

What does that mean? It means that the presents under your tree are worth more than their depreciation value. I knew a woman who said that the forks in her kitchen "lived in THAT drawer," –funky and strange, but strangely, theologically accurate. If God can make bread and wine into the food of our spiritual pilgrimage from earth to heaven, then all material things have the potential of communicating Him to us.

It means that the people around your tree are more valuable than the things under it. We look at a babe in a manger and we see the perfect icon or image of God. We look in one another's faces and we see that same visage, painted in different colors and shapes, to be sure, but there, nonetheless. If our relationship with this human being, this babe in a manger is holy, then all relationships have the capacity of reflecting God to us.

It means the world around you is worth doing something about. If God has so valued the material creation that He became part of it to redeem it, and if your materiality is holy before God, then that part of the material creation that you inhabit is caught up in your holiness. The way you handle your materiality and your material world speaks about how you feel and think about God. If creation has the capacity of reflecting God to you, it also has the capacity to reflect your heart back to God.

It has been said that what is important about the economic recession is not how we can get out of it, but how it will change us. Equally, this Christmas season is important, not for what we can get out of it, but for how it will change us. Can we begin to value the material world in which we share and which we have received as a holy gift? And can we begin to treat the world like the sacrament of God that it is because of this babe this night?

Christmas All Year Long

Christmas Day, December 25, 2010, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, Rev. Paul Moore

We all love our bodies. Well, some of us would like to change the way our body looks or works, but none of us wishes we didn't have one. More than having bodies, we are bodies. We cannot think of a disembodied existence without a sense of profound horror. Bodies are the aspect of our being that locate us and make us accessible to other people. This is why the Incarnation is so important to us. In the Incarnation God becomes a human body. The angels sang about it, the shepherds went and saw it, Mary bore it and Joseph worshipped at its manger cradle. St. Paul, in his great hymn to the Incarnate Christ in Philippians 2 talks about God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, coming and being made in the likeness of you and me. The Incarnation makes God accessible—God with us, Emmanuel.

I recently watched a show on the National Geographic channel about the resurrection of Christ. Funny thing to run during this season, really, but then, it's not, really. This season is all about a very important Body, one in which we recognize not just ourselves as bodies, but God as the maker and redeemer of bodies. The issue with the resurrection, of course, is ultimately about a Body. Like a who-done-it, the question is, where's the body? What happened to the body? The show, of course, was not willing to admit that perhaps a dead body was delivered to the grave, and a living body left it, but it was fair to us Christians in our belief in the resurrection.

For us Christians, however, the question of "Where's the body?" is not solved by the resurrection. It is solved only after the Ascension. In one sense the Incarnation ended at the Ascension, in that God embodied is now back in heaven, where we will one day be. But in another very important way it did not. St. Paul says, "Don't you know that you are the body of Christ?" Augustine of Hippo in a great sermon to converts about to take communion for the first time, cites this passage and explains that when we take communion we are partaking of the Body of Christ, and that body is us.

Once again, this is why the Incarnation is so important. In the Incarnation God became one of us, joined His own creation as a creature. In the Ascension God transferred that bodily presence to us creatures. The Incarnation has not ended, it goes on and on. In continues in the Body of Christ, the Church Mystical.

Sometime during this Christmastide you have or will hear schmaltzy songs about living Christmas all year and not just in December. They are, of course, a call to generosity of spirit and warmth of affection for one another and that does not entirely miss the point at all. However, we Christians are called to live Christmas all year in a very concrete way: Every time a Christian acts like a Christian God is present in a body. In fact, any time that anyone acts like Christ, no matter where or when or how, Emmanuel has returned.

O come, o come, o come Emmanuel!