In part because I was ill and needed to stay home to rest, and in part because my parents are fans of Piers Morgan, we watched many of his interviews with celebrity guests in the week following Christmas Day. I admit to you I’m not the easiest person to watch television with, which is especially the case when it comes to 24-hour cable news. Whatever the programming, it provides the soundtrack for endless, and decidedly piercing, commentary by me.
One night shortly after Christmas, Piers interviewed Rick Warren, celebrity pastor of Saddleback Church in Southern California. Neither gentleman looked comfortable. Tension was evident. Piers posed probing questions, many of them related to life’s deep and abiding quandaries as experienced in our complex world. Warren, uneasy and visibly taken aback at times, offered mostly curt or shallow replies.
At the close of a segment in which his demeanor turned markedly prideful, Warren said of the prosperity he has generated for himself and others, “It’s not a sin to be wealthy. It’s a sin to die wealthy.” He told Piers he and his wife gave away 91% of their income
last year. This year 92%, as they continue a long-standing practice of increasing their giving by 1 percentage point every year. Your guess is as good as mine as to how much that is. I’m wary of anyone who defends their position in percentages. This we know. Warren’s net worth is purported to be in the tens of millions of dollars: at the upper range, 25 million; at the lower, 15 million — 9% of 25 million is 2.25 million, and of 15 million is 1.35 million.
Piers, perhaps having done the math in his head, appeared flummoxed, and suggested they turn the conversation toward those who were struggling this Christmas. People, who, for one reason or another, didn’t feel particularly joyous among the overt merriment around them.
From riches to barren tables. The sequence, the time of year and the nationality of the interviewer immediately brought to mind Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. But if we were to follow Warren’s odd twist, monied Ebenezer Scrooge would drip in joyous revelry, and be praised, not haunted, for giving Bob Cratchit nearly nothing. And Warren’s advice for the Bob Cratchit’s of the world —
the impoverished and downtrodden. His advice for the families in Newtown who served one less child a once-festive meal. For the families in New York and New Jersey who lost house and home. His advice for countless families who mourn the loss of loved ones and take on new and heavy burdens. Families who at the time of the interview, faced a fiscal cliff whose wreckage would land on their front door. His advice for young LGBT youth whose orientation he had denounced as — I’ll paraphrase — a feeling that may be natural but not good for me and who are New York City’s fastest growing homeless population. Pastor Warren’s advice for people who for one reason or another do not feel particularly joyous among the overt merriment around them was/is this: establish a new tradition; something new for people to look forward to. Perhaps something along the lines of his five-generation-long family tradition of throwing a birthday party for Jesus. “With” — exact quote — “angel food cake, not devils food cake. Ha ha.” And each person sharing his or her answer to: "What, from the past year, are you thankful to God for?" and, "Since it's Jesus' birthday, what gift will you give him this next year?"
I cannot imagine Bob Cratchit, or anyone living in poverty, doing such a thing. I cannot imagine victims of heinous violent crimes doing such a thing. Or victims of natural disasters. Or parents, sisters, brothers, children, friends in deep mourning. Or America’s employed, underemployed and unemployed. Or youth kicked out of their childhood homes by their parents when they came out to their parents. I cannot imagine any person who struggles at Christmas or any time of year finding true joy in following the advice of this celebrity pastor, even if he touts it under the banner of “The Purpose of Christmas,” as he did in a 2008 best-seller of the same name. Apparently neither could my parents, who for the first time in the 35 years of married life reached for the remote control simultaneously and changed the channel without needing to talk about which to tune it to next, so long as it wasn’t more of him. Completely unprompted, my mother announced she would throw away her copy of Warren’s “A Purpose Driven Life,” once used by their ELCA church for an adult study.
The purpose of Christmas; the purpose, the truth of Christianity isn’t some feel-good,
glossed-over, buried-deep, emotional artificiality. No, Christianity is about a God who at Christmas comes among us. Comes down from above as tears dropping from the heavens for those and to those who suffer. God who is cradled in hay, the homeless child of two unwed parents. Christianity is about a God, Christmas is about a God who refuses to see birth as something other than death. For it is in death that God acts most decisively, acts to bring new life. Christianity, Christmas is about a God who comes down to the riverside, wades in the water, sinks deep in the mud and has that stirred up silt from the river’s harsh current poured over his head by John.
Saint Luke tells us that only when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." To those struggling at Christmas, any time really. To those of us who for one reason or another don’t feel particularly joyous among the overt merriment around us, God’s promise is to be among us, down in the muck of life
with the rest of us. God in Christ Jesus beside us. All our baptized sisters and brothers in Christ, with us, too. It is this faithful presence, this community of water-drenched, muddied people, this pretty shabby looking body of which God is well pleased. Not because everyone is perfect, but because all rely on one another, carry one another in times of need, turn to God who turns to us.
For God, this body is like the body God created in the beginning. Formed by reaching down into the primordial mud, the goop of the earth where a stream of water bubbled up to mix with dry ground, and into which God breathed the breath of life. God’s breath. Ruach elohim. A child of God’s own making. The lectionary lops off the long section where Saint Luke makes clear what Jesus is, what we all are: muddied children of God. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph, son of Heli, Son of Matthat, Son of Levi. All the way back to Mattatha, Son of Nathan, Son of David, Son of Jesse, Son of Obed, Son of Boaz. Further still to Methuselah, Son of Enoch, Son of Jared, Son of Mahalaleel, Son of Cainan, Son of Enos, Son of Seth, Son of Adam, Son of — Child of — God.
Suddenly, Jordan’s banks look an awful lot like the banks around that river running through the Garden of Eden. And we, with Jesus, are claimed children of God, claimed as part of God’s creation — a new creation God establishes and refuses to abandon, even if it means weeping. For God weeps at the gate of the Garden of Eden, weeps at the Cross, and weeps at any dark place and in any dark time in our lives today.
If I or any non-celebrity pastor were sitting across the interview table from Piers Morgan and were asked about those who suffer at Christmas, my answer would be God’s answer: God is with you, suffers with you. And just as in the waters of the first creation, so, too, this day, God will not let you go until it is finished. Only then will God rest from labor. The seventh day, resurrection day, which always dawns in Christ.
Warren isn’t alone in neglecting the fullness of baptism’s promise. The mainstream church has done it, too. For decades it hid the vibrant truths of baptism in private chapels. Housing just a few drops of water in pretty marble bowls, sometimes shielded, protected by even
more elaborate covers. For centuries the church turned the fullness of baptism into restrictive infatuation with sin, and made of it a minimalist tradition — three drops of water in the name of the triune God, packaged it in a nice, neat ritual — and charged for it, too.
Not so at Saint Peter’s, where the whole of creation finds expression. For the font stands much as that stream stood in the middle of the Garden, in the middle of the wilderness, in the middle of our lives. The center point of the Sanctuary, Living Room, Atrium, Tower and the Plaza on which so many dirty, but holy feet trod. Water rising out of granite, as though gushing from the rock. The very bedrock of this, the city. Earth. Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes. Dry soil, watered and flourishing. This our Jordan River. At whose banks we gather. God in the midst of a city. In this midst of the glitz, and claiming its grime. In the midst of its riches, and claiming its poor. In the midst of its failures, and claiming its possibilities. In the midst of everything that separates us, and claiming inseparable community. In the very center, where things divine join things earthly; things above commune with things below. This water, a sign that God is with us.
That’s not a new tradition. It’s an old one. One that is made new in every generation. And one that washes over us as we are. Takes us as we are. With the promise of always being made new. Though suffering, living. Though dead, alive. Though overcome, victorious. Though broken, whole.
I wish Piers Morgan had asked all of you rather than a celebrity pastor about those who struggle at Christmas, at any time. For together in the midst of this city, as the people of Saint Peter’s Church we have a profound truth to share. The gift, really of God. The gift of the Holy Spirit. In water. In community. Deep in the muck of life. God is with all of us. And with all of us, is making all things new.