Monday, December 05, 2011

How Much Greater the God We Have

Sermon preached on the First Sunday of Advent (11/30/11) at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37

O that you would rend the heavens and come down!

I love beginning Advent with these words from the prophet Isaiah. It speaks to my own longing for God’s intervention in my life. But the question I keep having to ask over and over is, just who is this God I want to intervene?

In the spirit of this question, there is a great line I read in a book I picked up a couple weeks ago. It was not a book I intended to buy, so this is somewhat serendipitous. I was buying a book written by the new Bishop of Washington, whom I am going to meet this week at my old parish. When I clicked to buy it, up popped a few other books, of course. “People who bought your book also bought these books.”

I try really hard to ignore those offerings, but a title caught my eye this time: Tattoos on the Heart. It’s written by a Jesuit priest named Gregory Boyle, who has worked with Latino gang members in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles for many years.[1] On a whim, I bought it. It’s amazing. And here’s the Advent line I picked up from it.

How much greater is the God we have than the God we think we have.[2]

I really do believe that is what Advent, Christmas and Epiphany are all about. It’s a bit of a paradox, of course. It appears that Christmas celebrates the focusing of God into an individual. God, in essence, became smaller, perhaps so that we could get a better handle on him. In actuality, what happens at Christmas is God’s entering the creation and exploding all over the world. In the baby of Bethlehem we meet the immensity of God, an immensity far greater than anything we could ever imagine.

How much greater is the God we have than the God we think we have.

Father Boyle tells the story of his experience with many gang members and former gang members, many of whom have an idea of who God is that is, in fact, too small. He believes that this small God also produces a small idea of one’s self, and that idea is bound to be one of disappointment and disapproval. Boyle says

More than anything else, the truth of God seems to be about a joy that is a foreigner to disappointment and disapproval. This joy doesn’t know what we’re talking about when we focus on the restriction of not measuring up….The God, who is greater than God, has only one thing on Her mind, and that is to drop, endlessly, rose petals on our heads. Behold the One who can’t take His eyes off of you.[3]

This may seem like a futile or even just plain wrong way to try to deal with gang members. They, of all people, need to know that what they are doing is wrong, and that, in fact, their behavior is a disappointment that more than needs our disapproval.

Father Boyle has come not to agree. He believes that as a Christian what he has to offer is simply love and so that is what he offers. He does not confuse that with approval and I suspect the young people he works with never do either.

One of the places Boyle works at is Camp Munz in Los Angeles County, a boot camp-style detention center for juvenile offenders. He tells this story.

On a Saturday in 1996 I am set to baptize George at Camp Munz. He delays doing this with the other priests because he only wants me to do it. He also wants to schedule the event to follow his successful passing of the GED Exam….I actually know seventeen-year-old George and his nineteen-year-old brother Cisco. Both are gang members from a barrio in the projects…

The Friday night before George’s baptism, Cisco, George’s brother, is walking home before midnight when the quiet is shattered, as it is so often in his neighborhood, by gunshots. Some rivals creep up and open fire, and Cisco falls in the middle of St. Louis Street, half a block from his apartment. He is killed instantly….I don’t sleep much that night….

When I arrive before Mass, with all the empty chairs in place in the mess hall, there is George standing by himself holding his newly acquired GED certificate. He heads toward me, waving his GED and beaming. We hug each other. … I am … completely wiped out, yet trying to keep pace with George’s [excitement].

At the beginning of Mass, with the mess hall now packed, I ask him, “What is your name?”

“George Martinez,” he says, with an overflow of confidence.

“And, George, what do you ask of God’s Church?”

“Baptism,” he says with a steady, barely contained smile.

It is the most difficult baptism of my life. For as I pour water over George’s head: “Father… Son ... Spirit,” I know I will walk George outside alone after and tell him what happened.

As I do, and I put my arm around him, I whisper gently as we walk out onto the baseball field, “George, your brother Cisco was killed last night.”

I can feel all the air leave his body as he heaves a sigh that finds itself a sob in an instant. We land on a bench. His face seeks refuge in his open palms, and he sobs quietly. Most notable is what isn’t present in his rocking and gentle wailing. I’ve been in this place many times. There is always flailing and rage and promises to avenge things. There is none of this in George. It is as if the commitment he has just made in water, oil, and flame has taken hold and his grief is pure and true and more resembles the heartbreak of God….

I had previously asked him in the baptismal rite, after outlining the contours of faith and the commitment “to live as though this truth was true.” “Do you clearly understand what you are doing?”

And he pauses, and he revs himself up in a gathering of self and soul and says, “Yes, I do.”

And yes, he does. In the monastic tradition, the highest form of sanctity is to live in hell and not lose hope. George clings to his hope and his faith and his GED certificate and chooses to march, resilient, into his future….

Sometimes resilience arrives in the moment you discover your own unshakeable goodness. Poet Galway Kinnell writes, “Sometimes it’s necessary to re-teach a thing its loveliness.”

And when that happens, we begin to foster tenderness for our own human predicament. A spacious and undefended heart finds room for everything you are and carves a space for everybody else.[4]

We have a tendency to hear passages like today’s Gospel reading and assume the news they intend to give us is bad. Jesus will come again and this time he will be angry, and he will judge, and many will fall short. So we should beware.

But Jesus doesn’t say, “beware,” he says, “be alert.” Keep your wits about you. What I hear him saying is this:

Your life may very well get ugly. You will be surrounded by anxiety and fear and they will infect your soul. Someone is going to want you to believe that you do not measure up, that you are not worth other people’s love and certainly not God’s. Keep your wits about you. Do not believe them. Do not make me small. Remember how large my love is and come into my arms from wherever you are in the four corners of the earth.

This Advent and Christmas let us allow the enlargement of our God. Let us know

How much greater is the God we have than the God we think we have.

[2] Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (Free Press, 2010), p. 38.

[3] Ibid., pp. 38-39.

[4] Ibid., pp. 84-87.

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