Tuesday, January 16, 2018

In the Beginning

Genesis 1:1 - 2:4
John 1:1-5
Mark 1:4-11

            According to the gospel of John, what is “the Word”?  It’s Jesus, actually.  Not scripture.  The Word of God is Jesus.  And we are told that, in the beginning, this third person of the trinity already existed.
            “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people…The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.  He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
            The Word was already in the world, it was there since the beginning.  Jesus, as the Word, was there from the beginning.  And yet Jesus was born and Jesus was baptized as one of us.  What does that mean? 
            As I’ve said before, Epiphany actually has three parts, or three events.  Epiphany is the revelation or revealing of who Jesus was.  The first part of the epiphany is the visit of the Magi, their recognition of who Jesus was, through the star, through their study and wisdom and their declaration of who Jesus was by their commitment to travel, to bring him gifts, to honor him.  The second part is what we read today, the revelation of Jesus by the Spirit descending on him like a dove, with the voice that came from heaven saying: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”  The final piece of the epiphany is Jesus’ first miracle or his turning the water into wine.  The Magi represented the revelation to the Gentiles of who Jesus was.  The Baptism was God’s own naming of who Jesus was.  And his first miracle was done for his own community, for those attending the wedding, or other Jews. 
            But baptism, the piece of epiphany on which we focus today also has other meanings for us.  And the fact that Jesus was baptized shows the extent to which God, the Word, joined us in this human journey, including this, the baptism or the second revelation of God’s coming to be with us.  It was, for Jesus, as it is for us, a renewing.  It is a commitment to living in the way of Christ, in the way God calls us to be.  Mostly, it is a commitment and an acceptance of our being God’s children.  We accept God’s claiming us as God’s own and we honor and celebrate that claiming.
A seminary professor was vacationing with his wife in Gatlinburg, Tennessee . One morning, they were eating breakfast at a little restaurant, hoping to enjoy a quiet, family meal. While they were waiting for their food, they noticed a distinguished looking, white-haired man moving from table to table, visiting with the guests. The professor leaned over and whispered to his wife, “I hope he doesn't come over here.” But sure enough, the man did come over to their table. “Where are you folks from?” he asked in a friendly voice. “ Oklahoma ,” they answered.  “Great to have you here in Tennessee ,” the stranger said... “What do you do for a living?” “I teach at a seminary,” he replied. “Oh, so you teach preachers how to preach, do you? Well, I've got a really great story for you. ” And with that, the gentleman pulled up a chair and sat down at the table with the couple.  The professor groaned inside and thought, “Great.. Just what we need.... Another preacher story!”  The man started, “See that mountain over there?" he said, pointing out the restaurant window. “Not far from the base of that mountain, there was a boy born to an unwed mother. He had a hard time growing up, because every place he went, he was always asked the same question, 'Hey boy, who's your daddy?' "Whether he was at school, in the grocery store or drug store, people would ask the same question, 'Who's your daddy?' He would hide at recess and lunch time from other students. He would avoid going in to stores because that question hurt him so badly. When he was about 12 years old, a new preacher came to his church. The boy would always go in late and slip out early to avoid hearing the question, 'Who's your daddy?’  But one day, the new preacher said the benediction so fast that he got caught and had to walk out with the crowd. Just about the time he got to the back door, the new preacher, not knowing anything about him, put his hand on his shoulder and asked him, 'Son, who's your daddy?' The whole church got deathly quiet. He could feel every eye in the church was looking at him. Everyone wanted to know the answer to that question and finally, they thought they would get it because surely this kid would not lie to the preacher!  This new preacher, though, sensed the situation around him and using discernment that only the Holy Spirit could give, said the following to that scared little boy. 'Wait a minute! I know who you are! I see the family resemblance now. You are a child of God.' With that he patted the boy on his shoulder and said, 'Boy, you've got a great inheritance. Go and claim it.' The boy smiled for the first time in a long time and walked out the door a changed person. He was never the same again. Whenever anybody asked him, 'Who's your Daddy?' he'd just tell them, 'I'm a Child of God.''' 
The distinguished gentleman got up from the table and said, “Isn't that a great story?” The professor responded that it really was a great story! As the man turned to leave, he said, “You know, if that new preacher hadn't told me that I was one of God's children, I probably never would have amounted to anything!” And he walked away. The seminary professor and his wife were stunned. He called the waitress over and asked her, "Do you know who that man was who just left that was sitting at our table?” The waitress grinned and said, “Of course. Everybody here knows him. That's Ben Hooper. He's governor of Tennessee!”
In doing some background checking, some parts of that story are factual (for example, Ben Hooper, the governor of Tennessee, really was born to an unwed mother) and some parts aren’t (he did know who his father was and eventually he ended up living with his father), but regardless of the historicity of the story, it is a story that I find to be true.  If we can really claim our identity as children of God, if we can be aware of the awesomeness of our baptisms, of God’s claiming us as our own, we should be changed by that awareness, made new and humbled by the greatness of that claim. 
On this, baptism of the Lord Sunday, we remember our baptism in which God comes and claims us as God’s own.  The Spirit revealed Jesus as God’s son for all of us.  And when we are baptized, we are called to celebrate our revealing as well – God’s children, God’s chosen, called, loved into being.  Baptism of the Lord Sunday is the day when we celebrate that God calls us first, claims us first, even before we are able to ask for it, even before we are able to recognize it, even before we are able to respond.    
But what does that mean to be God’s child?  As I worked on this sermon, I was reminded of a Star Trek Next Generation episode called “The Defector” in which a Romulan (an enemy) appeared to be defecting and asking for asylum from the federation (those are the “good guys” for those not familiar with the series).  He said that he had defected in order to prevent war.  He believed his own people were taking an action that would lead to a terrible war and he wanted to prevent that by giving information to the Federation so they might stop the war from beginning in the first place.  When pushed, he kept saying, “I’m not a traitor! I love my people. I’m here to prevent a war!” As the story unraveled, it became clear that this was a man who was deeply grieving.  He did not want to leave his home, he did not want to leave his family.  “What I did had to be done. But to never again see the Firefalls of Gath Gal'thong, and the spires of my home as they rise above the Apnex Sea at dawn. It's a bitter thing to be exiled from your home.”  When it was pointed out that his people would believe him to be a villain, that they would see him as a traitor, and that because of that he would never, ever be allowed to see his children again, let alone return anywhere near home because of his actions, his response was simple, “There comes a time in a man's life…when he looks down at the first smile of his baby girl and realizes he must change the world for her.  For all children.  It is for her that I am here.  Not to destroy the Romulan Empire, but to save it. For months, I tried desperately to persuade the High Command that another war would destroy the Empire. They got tired of my arguments. Finally I was censured, sent off to command some distant sector. This was my only recourse. I will never see my child smile again. She will grow up believing that her father is a traitor. But she will grow up.”  
That kind of love, the kind of love that cares so much for the other that it is willing not only to die but to suffer humiliation, rejection, exile – that is the kind of love God had for us in coming to be with us in another human person.  That is the kind of love God has for us when God claims us as God’s children.  When we accept our baptisms, when we remember Jesus baptism, we are both accepting the love of this kind of God, AND we are promising to try to love with that same self-less depth.

Today, on this second Sunday of Epiphany, we are called to reflect on the amazing gift of baptism that God has given to first Jesus, and then us.  It is a gift of remembering that God calls us into relationship with God.  It is a gift of remembering that God initiates care for us, call to us, purpose and meaning for our lives, before we are even old enough to choose to respond. It is a gift that says, “because I first chose you, because I first brought new life to you, because I begin your life by giving to you every day again and again; now you are called to return that gift to all God’s people which are all people, to all creation, caring back, giving second chances to others, choosing to love and live and care for others in the way that I have cared for you.”  It is a gift, like the star of last week, that shows us the light and invites us to use it to see just how much and how deeply we are loved by God.

Friday, January 12, 2018

What did you ask for, for Christmas?

What did you want for Christmas this year?  I’ll admit I had a pretty extensive list of wishes for things that I can’t really afford, don’t need, and am just fine without.  But as I moved  through Advent I found in reading so many scriptures that tell us that the coming of Christ looks like nothing other than a turning of the world on its head, and which challenge us to love neighbor truly and fully as self, that my true wish list, my deep wish list, was not for objects or material possessions, but for more important things.  For my neighbors I wish for relationships that are honest, real, whole, healthy, positive, and life-giving.  For the people of our community I wish for healing from physical, emotional or spiritual distress.  For the world I wish for peace, compassion, generosity, understanding, grace, wisdom, courage, justice and discernment.  And then I found that I was wishing for these things for myself, too.  I wish for the relationships in my life to be honest, real, whole, healthy, positive, and life-giving.  I wish for healing for myself, my family, the church, the community from distress.  I wish for clarity in decision making, and the strength to make necessary decisions and necessary changes.  I wish for the serenity to accept the things I could not change, the strength to change the things I could and the wisdom to know the difference.  I wish for courage, justice, grace, compassion, and forgiveness both towards others and towards myself. These gifts – the real gifts that we yearn for, wish for beyond all else, these gifts come from God. 
And so this Advent and Christmas I was more intentional about praying for the things I believe we are called to pray for, for our neighbors, for the world and for myself.  And when I did, when I sat in silence, asking God for God’s guidance and reign of love to come for all people, and then listened, I found guidance.  I am not always given the strength right away to act on that guidance, but God’s timing is better than my own.  When I continue to pray, when I continue to ask, when I continue to listen, when I continue in relationship with God, the directions that I am given that I sometimes feel I lack the strength to follow, eventually become…well, not easy, but doable, necessary, inevitable.  I find myself doing the very thing that days before I knew was impossible for me to do.  I find myself stepping towards wholeness when I was certain it could not be found.  I have a little more patience with the people in my family who need my attention and care.  I have a deeper appreciation and respect for those who are trying, as I am, to live their faith to the fullest.  I see needs I never saw before, and more, I see ways to respond to those needs.  And finally I find I am able to step away from hurtful or destructive things that I cannot change, trusting God to take care of them, to heal them, to transform them into new life. 

This Advent we again offered Monday evening Taize services as a time for intentional prayer and meditation.  I am so grateful for those times of prayer and meditation and to those who joined me.  I am even more grateful to God, who also shows up every time I pray to listen, to communicate, to be present, to be in relationship with us.  Our relationships with God are the beginning of the answer to all of the desires on my real Christmas wish list.  And for that I am eternally grateful.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A new season

1.  I've been worrying about the changes in church demographics... worried that I would have trouble supporting my family in the difficult career I have chosen.  I've also been missing AFDA - the Academy for Dramatic Arts program that was my dream and vision and that we began in Ohio.  I'd found myself thinking that I wanted to start something like that here, and that if I did, maybe on church campus, things might change either for the church or for myself.  But I didn't know any drama people, any directors, that I could really work with to put something like that together.  And then last week, a director called me, out of the blue, to ask about how he might start a similar program in this area...
2.  I've had a dream about a co-housing situation in which people might all live in houses in a compound: each would have their own individual places, but we'd also have common places and common times.  We could share some meals, create community, be there for one another in a more concrete, less individual way.  This has become more real as I've found myself talking with six different individuals who are in challenging housing situations and could really benefit from something like that, from cheaper housing supplemented by a large community center, and I found myself thinking about tiny houses and a big/main house.  What if I had a house on a plot of land that was big enough to add tiny houses as we needed them for folk who need a place to stay, either for a while or permanently?  I shared this with a friend and found that they were really excited about the idea as well.  I'm putting it out there to the Universe to see what we might do, but I see possibilities in this.
3.  I had put work on my book down for awhile: too hard, too intense to face all of our story again.  Yesterday, despite the fear, I picked it up and began editing.  I need a real editor, so if someone is interested, let me know.  It's a book about justice, and it's our story as well.  Not easy. But the work has started again.
4.  Today we had new people come to our adult ed at church.  We've had other new people showing up at church and at other events as well.
5.  And now, just a few minutes ago, I found a set of keys I had lost over the summer.  As odd as it sounds, it felt like a sign: the tide is turning, things are changing for the better, new life is on the way. We've all been going through a tough time.  Even when each step seems a little better, there have also been backwards steps and pain and frustration, but it feels like the season is changing.  And I am seeing glimpses of the spring.

On that note, dear friends, keep calendars cleared for the week after Christmas next year... more info to follow.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Epiphany and Gifts

Matthew 2:1-12

When you hear the story of the Magi, what thoughts or questions come to mind for you?  I want to review a quiz that I gave you the first year I was here and see what you remember:
               First of all, in what book or books of the Bible do we find the story of the three kings?
               None.  There are no kings mentioned and there is no number mentioned.  Instead we are told “some wise-men” or magi from the east came to Jerusalem searching for the king of the Jews. 
               What, then, are magi?  Are they kings?  No.  Astrologers.
               About how old was Jesus when they came to see him?  Between 41 days and 2 years.  While some say it would have taken only slightly over a month of travel (one direction), others estimate that it was a year or more out of their lives that this entailed. So, then, did they come to the stable?  No, of course not.  The story says “to the house”.  They would no longer have been at the stable since we are talking between 41 days and 2 years.

               Why did they bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh?  What were these things and why were they important in this recounting?  Frankincense is often used as incense or in an anointing oil that was often used in the temple for religious reasons.  Myrrh is similar and can also be used as an oil or incense, but mostly was used to embalm the dead.  These things were incredibly valuable, monetarily, but they were also symbols of what was to come.  Symbols of a recognition of Jesus’ holiness, but also, his death.  Both are purifiers, and readiers for death, for sacraments, for religious tasks, all of which would be Jesus’ life.   The magi travelled far, took time away from families, occupation, home: significant time.  They gave most precious gifts, gifts that required all of who they were – their resources, their time, their commitments, all to come and see this baby and to bring this baby their gifts.
               What are we this committed to?  What do we care about enough that we would leave home, leave FAMILY, sell all we have to spend on a gift for someone whom we’ve never met before and may never see again? 
               I think about the pilgrims and what they gave up to start a new life here in the United States.  Many of them gave their lives, dying in the travel, with the hopes for something better.  Many gave up family, leaving them behind or knowing that they risked some not making the journey successfully.  The same remains true of many of our immigrants today.  Many of those who come here as refugees or as people escaping their countries of origin are truly risking everything they have and everything they are to try to find a better life, usually for their kids.  They make this commitment, this journey, all to begin again, to start something new.  I think about this, how they gave these most precious gifts of starting in a new place, travelling, their resources, to create a new life, new possibilities, for their children, their children’s children, their family.  But these magi, they gave these most precious gifts for the hope of a new tomorrow for Israel.  They gave these most precious gifts for strangers in a strange country, in a strange world.  For a future they would never see.  For a time they would not and could not be a part of. 
               Can you imagine that?
               God loves us in this way, giving up everything to give us the most precious gifts, of life, of Jesus, of salvation.  As Bonhoeffer said it, "God does not love some ideal person, but rather human beings just as we are, not some ideal world, but rather the real world."
God also calls us to love in return in the same way.  Of course we aren’t always going to succeed in doing that.  And sometimes it won’t look like giving up everything to follow God.  But the willingness and faith to give all we have to further God’s reign, God’s place, God’s LOVE here on earth, that is our call. 
Michael Piazza told this story: Harriet Richie, a writer from Anderson, South Carolina, wrote a story that her family had been to a Christmas Eve service that ended at midnight. After worship, her husband announced that he was hungry and wanted breakfast. Of course, it was almost 1 a.m. on Christmas morning, so none of the usual places they might have gone were open. They made their way to the interstate where an all-night truck stop was still open. A few big diesels rumbled outside. Inside a few truckers sat at the counter. A jukebox played country music. On the front window was a string of colored blinking lights. The place smelled like bacon grease and stale coffee. A one-armed man behind the counter nodded the family toward a booth. Soon a waitress named Rita sauntered over, handed them their menus and asked what they wanted to drink. Harriet looked around. She felt a little bit like a snob and out of place. Her family had just come from a beautiful Christmas Eve service. And soon they would be heading to their lovely home for the night. She thought one day they would look back with a laugh and say to each other, "Remember that Christmas we ate breakfast at that truck stop? That awful music and those tacky lights?" She was staring out the window when an old Volkswagen van drove up. A young man with a beard and baggy jeans got out, walked around and opened the door for a young woman who was holding a baby. They hurried inside and took a booth near the back. After Rita, the waitress, took their order, the baby began to cry, and neither of the young parents could quiet him. Finally, Rita set down her coffee pot and held out her arms for the baby. "Hon, just sit there and drink your coffee. Let me see what I can do." Soon it was evident that Rita had done this before. She began walking around the place showing the baby to first one of the truckers and then another. One began whistling a Christmas tune and make silly faces. Quickly the baby stopped crying and began cooing. Rita showed the baby the blinking lights on the jukebox. She brought the baby over to Harriet's table. "Just look at this little darlin'," she said. "Mine are so big and grown they don't need me no more." The one-armed fellow behind the counter brought a fresh pot of coffee, and, as he refilled their mugs, Harriet felt tears in her eyes. Her husband wanted to know what was wrong. "Nothing," she said, "just Christmas." Reaching in her purse for a Kleenex and a quarter, she said to her own kids, "Go see if you can find a Christmas song on the jukebox." When they were gone, Harriet quietly said almost to herself, "He would have come here, wouldn't he?" "Who?" her husband asked. "Jesus. If Jesus were born here tonight and the choices were our neighborhood, the church or this truck stop, it would be right here, wouldn't it?" Her husband didn't answer right away, but looked around the place, at the people there. Finally he said, "I suppose either here or a homeless shelter." "That's what bothers me," Harriet said. "When we first got here I felt sorry for these people because they probably aren't going home to nice neighborhoods where the houses have candles in the windows and wreaths on the doors. And listening to that awful music, I thought, I'll bet nobody here has even heard of Handel. Now I think that more than any place I know, this is where Christmas is. But I'm not sure I belong."
As Harriett walked with her family to the car, her husband leaned over and said, "You know I heard something earlier at church. They said what the angels sang that first Christmas was, 'Behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people.' Maybe they meant us, too." –

What God values – we see throughout scripture – is not what we are told is important.  God does  not value wealth, does not rank people based on what they have, what they have achieved, or how much others like them or know them. Jesus was born in poverty, to an illiterate, unwed, teenage mother.  The shepherds to whom this story was proclaimed were not wealthy, high standing members of society.  These were poor people, rejected people, people who were not valued.  And that is where God chose to come, chose to announce God’s presence. 
The magi, on the other hand, did seem to have resources.  And the value in this story is that all are welcomed.  All are invited.  All are called to be willing to give all of what they have to be part of the kingdom that is coming, part of celebrating what God has done, part of bringing in what God would do.
         Of all the gifts we have to give, our time, our attention, our faith, commitment and love are by far the most important.
               Our most moving Christmas stories are all about giving.  The Littlest Angel who gives his dirty childhood box.  The little drummer boy who gives the gift of his music.  In Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Tiny Tim gives his faith and love: and later, Scrooge, when he gets it together turns around and gives his time, his love, and his resources.  In It’s a Wonderful Life it’s George Bailey who gives all of who he is to serve the people of his town and in the end, it’s their returned friendship that saves him.  The most moving Christmas stories are all about what we have to give and how we choose to give it. 
               We aren’t the magi.  We aren’t paid by kings to deliver gifts of gold, frankincense and Myrrh, or our current equivalent of gold, stocks and investment properties.  Some of us have resources, lots of them: others don’t.  What is important is not the amount that you give, but that you give from your heart the best that you have to give.  That you follow the stars to seek out God and to give to God the best that you have.
I’m reminded of a wonderful Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. 

               As we’ve done for the past two years, today we pass out stars.  Each of these has a word on it with the name of a gift or “virtue”.  These are gifts for you to reflect on for the next year, to focus your thoughts, prayers and attention for the year.  Next year on Epiphany Sunday I will ask you to share stories about how those words or stars might have touched you this last year.  They are upside down in the baskets and I ask you to pick one without looking at it first.  These aren’t “magical”, but I do think that there can be a gift in focusing on one of the many blessings God has given to each of us for a set amount of time.  I look forward to hearing how your lights will show and touch the world this year, how you will have been touched by God’s light this year.  Amen.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Being Ready for What God Brings Us

Micah 5:1-5
Luke 1:26-55

This morning we celebrate the fourth Sunday of Advent.  And today’s scriptures show us a study of contrasts.  In the Micah passage, we hear about Bethlehem.  The word “Bethlehem” means “house of food or bread.”  Interestingly, Ephrathah, the same place as Bethlehem, means “fruitlessness”.  So we have the contrast in Micah – the place where the ruler is to come, the place where Jesus is to be born, is both the place of food and the place missing food.  To put it in the context of our focus on Advent, it is the place where the bread of life is born, but it is the place that perhaps needs that bread of life most because of its lack or emptiness.  Which do the residents see?  Which do the people of Bethlehem of Ephrathah experience?  Do they see the fruitlessness, the struggles, the pain?  Or do they wait for and anticipate the Messiah who is to come? - the one who is born who is himself the bread of life, the one to feed us, and to free us from hunger of all kinds with his very being?
In today’s passage from Luke, we are also shown two women in great contrast with each other.  Elizabeth is old and, up to this point, considered barren, desperately wanting a son to legitimize her (because in that day, the only way for a woman to be “legitimate” was to birth a son).  Mary is very young, single and therefore would not be choosing to be pregnant.  We come to see and learn about both women in times that could be seen as either extremely difficult or extremely blessed.  Elizabeth, scorned by barrenness remained secluded for five months.  Mary, after the shame of unexpected and illegitimate pregnancy, stood to lose her legal and social rights as Joseph considered ending his betrothal to her. She could have been stoned to death, or simply left bereft, abandoned and without means. It is in the midst of this that they, too, have choices about what to see, and how to experience their lives. Do they focus on the scorn, on the scandals and rejections of their lives, on their fear because of their difficult situations?  Or do they wait and look and anticipate with celebration the uniqueness of their situations and God’s promised coming to each of them through the births of their sons?
This contrast, as we hear repeatedly throughout Advent, is much greater even than this.  God, we are told repeatedly, is a God who reverses the social order completely.  This, too, then becomes a great study in how God works through these contrasts.  The lowly are brought high, the high are brought low.  In the choice of both Mary and Elizabeth we see this as well.  To the religious faithful in that time, to the Pharisees, to those ensconced in the church life, it would have seemed absolutely scandalous that two women – one old and one very young; poor peasant women – would be God’s prophets in bringing in the Messiah.  This is again the radical, outrageous message of Christianity, of Christ, of Jesus, of the God that we come to know through Jesus.  Jesus shows us the God who raises up the oppressed and outcast into positions of leadership, into being God’s most highly honored and exalted people.  God chooses to work powerfully in and through the people who appear most powerless.
               When God shows up, everything that we know is challenged.  Everything that we held in priority is shaken up and different priorities arise.  When God shows up, it is God’s plans that take precedence, not ours.  And we find that the vulnerable are the ones who are made strong, the rejected are the ones whom God chooses, and the outcasts are central to the story.  As Mary herself says, “God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”  Mary prophesies, along with all the prophets to proceed her, the reversal of all we believe to be true about the world, about the ordering of society, about whom God most values, most cares for, most honors.  Mary sees herself in this as well.  Again in her own words we hear, “My soul magnifies the Lord,  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of this servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me.” 
               And in this study of contrasts, Mary, too, had a choice about how to see her pregnancy.  She could have been devastated and felt imposed upon, recognizing and experiencing the hardship and risk to her already lowly position because of her vulnerable place.  But she didn’t.  Instead, she focused on the grace of God, on the gift of God’s amazing choice of her as mother of Jesus.  Her choice, in choosing to magnify the Lord, to celebrate with joy and singing and gratitude the amazing and unexpected gifts of God is not insignificant.  It gave strength to Jesus to be who he was, to become who he was becoming, to be the “I am” of God. 
How both Mary and Elizabeth chose to see their situations, how they chose to focus on God’s coming, celebrating the amazing gifts of their sons and what God was doing through their lives, these are not unimportant choices that Mary and Elizabeth make.  To quote Jann Cather Weaver, “(These two women) sought to live radically faithful lives in response to the call from their God.  Not unexpectedly, these women lived lives like those of their soon-to-be-born sons.  Do we think John and Jesus just “knew” how to live radically faithful lives?  How to be preachers?  How to be as eloquent as the Magnificat?  How to be healers?  John and Jesus knew how to live radically faithful lives because they were sons of two women who had faithfully faced a terrifying yet expectant reality.”  As they waited for their sons to be born, as they waited for their redemption, Mary and Elizabeth chose to be faithful despite society’s pressures.  They chose to celebrate the living and real presence of God in their lives.  They chose to wait with open eyes to see what God was doing next, which they knew would be amazing, wonderful and beyond anything they could expect.
               I talked a few weeks ago about my experience of waiting on mission trips. Each time that we have gone we spend more time than we could anticipate waiting.  We wait for the host church or host site to tell us what we need to do and where.  We wait for the “experts” to show up and tell us how we are supposed to accomplish whatever it is that we are doing.  We wait to get the materials we need to do the job.  We wait some more for new materials, or for the materials that didn’t work to be replaced by ones that do.  We wait for the time, the situation, the opportunity, the tools…all of these things - we spend an incredible amount of time waiting.  This is hard and frustrating for all of us.  We are there to work.  We have a job to do and we want to see it done.  It can be easy in those moments to focus again on the challenges and struggles.  We struggle not only to figure out how we can get the jobs done in the short time we have when we are encumbered by delays and waits and other challenges.  We also struggle at times to understand why we are there when we know things are so hard for the people we are struggling to help that it is hard to see how our little jobs can really make a substantial difference in their lives.  And we ask the harder questions: Why do we bother fixing the floor when the roof is leaking?  Why do we paint the walls when the building should frankly be torn down and replaced?  But as I mentioned before, the waiting was also an opportunity to talk to the people we were helping, whose homes we were fixing, and to talk to each other.  Through listening, through working together, through being together, we were given glimpses of God’s deep grace.  We heard each others’ stories and saw God at work in the lives of those who struggle so deeply.  We heard our own stories anew as we shared them with strangers.  We waited for God’s coming in different ways – sometimes through our own hands as we built and listened and created relationships.  And like Mary, we, each of us, experienced moments when we were touched by the awe of God having chosen us to be in that place at that time, helping God usher in and create something new as we were given the gift of being bearers of a bit of God’s grace to those individuals we met and served.  That choice on our part, too, was not unimportant.  When we chose to serve in joy, rather than focusing on the frustrations of the waiting, of the stumbling, of the jobs that just aren’t done 100% perfectly; our choice to see God’s hand and to look with eyes of gratitude and grace inspired others to do the same.  It inspired those we helped, too, to look more deeply at their lives and to see God’s hands at work.  It inspired them also to give back, to pass forward the gifts of God.  And our choice to look for God’s hands and feet kept us going through the times of waiting until we did have the things we need to build, to work, to be part of bringing in God’s realm in that little corner for that little bit of time.
One day a young man named Tim who had wild hair, wore a t-shirt with holes in it, and no shoes made his way into a very conservative, well-dressed church. He walked into the church with his messy appearance, a little late. Since the service had already started Tim walked down the aisle looking for a seat. It was Christmas time, so the church was completely packed and he couldn’t find a seat. By now, people were really looking a bit uncomfortable, but no one said anything. Tim got closer and closer and closer to the pulpit, and when he realized there were no seats, he just squatted down right on the carpet. By now the people were really uptight, and the tension in the air was thick. About this time, the minister realized that from way at the back of the church, a deacon was slowly making her way toward Tim. The deacon was in her eighties, had silver-gray hair, and a beautiful suit. A godly woman, very elegant, very dignified, very courtly. She walked with a cane and, as she started walking toward this boy, everyone was saying to themselves that you couldn't blame her for what she was going to do. How could you expect a woman of her age and of her background to understand some dirty young man, a kid really, sitting on the floor? It took a long time for the woman to reach the boy. The church was utterly silent except for the clicking of the woman's cane. All eyes were focused on her. You couldn’t even hear anyone breathing. The minister couldn’t preach the sermon until the deacon did what she had to do. And then they saw this elderly woman drop her cane on the floor.. With great difficulty, she lowered herself and sat down next to Tim in order to worship with him so he wouldn’t be alone. Everyone choked up with emotion... When the minister gained control, he finally said, 'What I'm about to preach, you will never remember. What you have just seen, you will never forget.'

               God does work in mysterious, wondrous ways.  As today we being the celebration of Christ’s coming to us, as a beautiful baby, but weak, innocent, helpless and poor, we don’t only celebrate but we also anticipate Christ’s coming anew, I pray that all of us might have Mary’s eyes to look with trust, and joy; with hope and celebration, with gratitude and faith for the amazing thing that God is doing next.  Thanks be to God!  

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Good News is Coming

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
John 1:6-8

Today is the third Sunday in Advent and so we continue the process of waiting, of looking, of searching to see God coming anew into the world.  But today I want to focus on how we witness this for others, how we share the Good News of Advent with a world that has a hard time seeing the Good News, and certainly doesn’t want to spend the time waiting and looking, but instead jumps into Christmas – this year even before Halloween.
Today’s New Testament passage talks about John as a witness to the light.  As I just read, “John came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.”   
That is our call, too.  And again, especially during this time of Advent, of preparing, of looking for God’s coming anew, we are called to witness, to prepare a world for God’s entrance, to help people to walk with eyes open to seeing God’s coming.  That’s not to say that bad things don’t happen, too.  But as Christians, as Advent people, we are to look for and usher in the Good News.  Our focus needs to not be on what is going wrong in the world, except in our commitment to changing and confronting it.  But instead, our focus is ushering in the Good News, announcing the Good News that has come and that is coming anew.  Our job is to make the joy of Christ among us real for the world around us.
But how do we do that?  I don’t think it is enough to just talk about our faith with others.  I do not believe that we witness to Christ’s coming simply by saying that we are Christians.  I also don’t believe that we witness to the Good News by trying to scare people into faith with the threat of hell.  That’s not really Good News, first of all. How could the idea of an angry, wrathful God who punishes with hell be Good News for anybody? But second of all, and more importantly, fear based faith is not permanent – it is only as strong as the fear.  When another voice offers a bigger fear, a bigger threat, and offers a different faith as a solution, a fear based faith will alter course to what feels “safest.”  Third, and most importantly, perhaps, every time in scripture that an angel of God appears, the first words out of the angels mouths are “fear not”.  Our relationships with God is not supposed to be about fear.  I posted on FB a wonderful article that talked about how the Peanuts Christmas special has a profound moment in it in which Linus is reading from the beginning of Luke.  He is reading the Christmas story.  Linus, as always has his blanket, his security, his source of comfort with him.  But at the moment in which he reads, “And the angel said, ‘fear not’”, he drops the blanket.  He lets go of his physical security and instead rests, without fear or the need for those material securities, in the love of God.  Fear has been misused a great deal lately to try to push through decisions that are hateful, that are unjust, that are damaging to “the least of these”.  But our faith is clear about this: there is no room in Christian faith for that fear. So preaching a gospel of fear to people is not what we are called to do.
No, to really bring people to the light, we have to show them what that light is.  And that has to start, not from a place of fear, but from a deep place of gratitude that comes from faith.  We are called to show the world that that light makes a genuine difference in our lives, frees us to live lives where we can risk radical LOVE, and calls us therefore to act and live in the world with actions of care for others. Isaiah shows us what that looks like.  According to Isaiah, the coming of God looks like the oppressed being lifted out of that oppression, the brokenhearted being supported and healed, captives and prisoners being released and freed, those in mourning experiencing comfort.  That is what the Good News looks like – that is what we are to witness to, and to bring about through our lives and through our actions.  Isaiah continues, “they shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines.”  In other words, God’s entrance is radical.  It is not calm, it is not quiet, it is not unimportant and it is not ineffective.  It makes a difference – a big difference – in the lives of strangers as well as friends, in the lives of enemies as well as those we consider our own.  We are called to be part of that, by being God’s hands and feet in the world, by sharing it, by reflecting the Good News of God with us. 
The children have a wonderful book that I shared at our Christmas Day service and that I want to tell you about this morning as well.  It is called the Fourth King, and it tells the story of another Magi who didn’t end up making it to the stable.  He set out, like the other Wise Men, following the star with presents for the newborn king.  But as he traveled on his journey he heard a little girl crying out in a sand storm for help.  So he stopped and carried her through the sand blizzard until he found her parents.  He started out again, but came across a merchant caravan, lost without a map.  He led them across the desert and to safety, but then found himself even further behind in following the star to Bethlehem.  Next he came across a wall that was being built by a tyrant using child slave labor.  And he stopped to try to free the children, ending up becoming one of the slaves himself until the wall was completed and he was able to help the children escape.  Finally, he ran into some shepherds who told him about Herod’s plan to kill all the children.  And when he met  a family trying to escape from Herod’s devastation, he could not help but stop and help the family to safety.  At every crisis that he met, he realized he had a choice.  At every juncture he said “What was I to do?  What was I to do?” Should he go see the baby, the thing that his heart most desired?  Or should he help the people in front of him – God’s people, in need.  At every step he chose to follow in the way – not the way that he wanted – not the way that led him to actually meet the baby Jesus in the stable – but the way of God, the way Isaiah talks about.  In the end, he did finally make it to the stable and he found it empty.  The book continues, “We were too late!  Our journey had been in vain.  I fell to my knees and wept.  And then, in the depths of my despair, the most wonderful thing happened.  I heard a voice speak softly, ‘King Mazzel, you have not come too late!  You were always with me.  When I was lost, you showed me the way.  When I was thirsty, you gave me water.  When I was captive, you freed me.  When I was in danger, you saved me.  You were always there when I needed you, and I will be with you forever.’ ”
Lyle shared with me a story that Michael Piazza wrote about.  He wrote about Bishop Leontine Kelly’s father, who also was a Methodist preacher, and who was assigned to an inner-city church in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Apparently, the church was an amazing, Gothic structure building with stained glass windows and a huge crystal chandelier. The parsonage was also amazing and included an old, huge boarded up cellar. As the children were exploring this cellar one day, they found a hidden passage that led to a tunnel which they shared with their father. The tunnel, it turned out, ran under the church and then led off toward the Ohio River, which flowed just five blocks away. Apparently, these tunnels had been part of the Underground Railroad and had been used to help move escaping slaves to freedom.  Bishop Kelly’s father said, "Children, I want you to remember, as long as you live, that the greatness of this church is not this huge Gothic building, but those tunnels. We are on sacred ground because these people risked their lives to do something great for God and good for our people."
This particular hummingbird decided it would do something. It swooped into the stream and picked up some drops of water and went into the forest and put it on the fire. Then it went back to the stream and did it again, and it kept going back, again and again and again.
All the other animals watched in disbelief; some tried to discourage the hummingbird with comments like, "Don't bother, it is too much, you are too little, your wings will burn, your beak is tiny, it’s only a drop, you can't put out this fire."
And as the animals stood around disparaging the little bird’s efforts, the bird noticed how hopeless and forlorn they looked. Then one of the animals shouted out and challenged the hummingbird in a mocking voice, "What do you think you are doing?" And the hummingbird, without wasting time or losing a beat, looked back and said, "I am doing what I can."
John 14:6 says, “Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  Notice that this does not say we come to God through belief.  Jesus says he is the way, the truth, the life.  And we are called to come to God by following in that way, by living in the way.  It is through our following in the way – through our ushering in of the way of Christ, a way of setting at liberty the oppressed, raising the valleys and making the mountains low, by feeding the hungry and visiting the sick, this is how we know God, this is how we live the Good News, and this is how we witness to the light for all those around us. 
We will be saying this poem as a prayer of confession in a couple weeks,written by Ann Weems, but I want to read it to you now because I think it very much applies:     
“What concerns me, what lies on my heart, is this: that we in the church papered and programmed, articulate and agenda-ed are telling the faith story all wrong, are telling it as though it happened two thousand years ago or is going to happen as soon as the church budget is raised.  We seem to forget that Christ’s name is Emmanuel, God with Us, not just when he sat among us but NOW, when we cannot feel the nail prints in his hands.”

We are called to witness to that truth of Emmanuel, God with Us, now, as we look to the coming of Christ through this Advent Season.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Crying Out

Isaiah 40:1-8
Mark 1:1-8

Clementine Von Radics said this, “You silly (person), you think you’ve survived so long that survival shouldn’t hurt anymore.  You keep trying to turn your body bullet proof.  You keep trying to turn your heart bomb shelter.  You silly thing.  You are soft and alive.  You bruise and heal.  Cherish it.  It is what you are born to do.”
               Living is hard.  And so, it is no wonder that we have Isaiah’s words for us today…  “Comfort, O comfort my people.”  We are all looking for that comfort, for that reassurance in hard times.  We are all looking for a sense of peace in the face of adversity.  We are all looking for salvation from whatever we are struggling with.  I saw a post the other day, “If Comedy is tragedy plus time, I need more time.  But I would really settle for less tragedy to be honest with you.”  I think especially this year as we struggle with what is happening in our communities, in our country and around the world, as we struggle with climate change and racism, sexism, heterosexism; as we see increased violence and hatred, as we fight among our families and as we polarize more and more.  As we know people who've lost their homes to fires, to hurricanes, to disasters, to shootings...How do we face it all in this time that is supposed to be happy?  We ask for comfort, we ask for Christmas.
               But even as we yearn, we want, we ask for comfort, for Christmas, Advent is the time of waiting.  The comfort doesn’t come right away, we aren’t healed instantly, the resurrection comes in steps, over time, sometimes so slowly we don’t even see it.
               The journal, “spirituality and practice” lists several things we can do during advent to signal our willingness to wait, our commitment to waiting during this Advent time.  These are:  Let God sit in the director's chair.  Give up your fantasy timetables and go with the flow. Do not try to push the river; all will happen in God's time.  Let go of any negative images you carry around about waiting.  Have faith that all good things come to those who wait patiently.  Grow through periods of waiting that entail darkness and dread.  Work to reduce your anger and frustration about waiting.  Always be a person animated by hope.  Take time during periods of waiting to count your blessings.
               These are great suggestions (if a little na├»ve: all good things don’t come to EVERYONE who waits, and “blessings” take many forms, for example). Still, I admit from a personal perspective that I don’t wait well.  I get really impatient and easily frustrated. This week showed a perfect example of this.  I’ve had my computer for about four and a half years now, which is in itself an amazing thing since I seem to zap computers as well as other electronic devices, as many of you know.  But it has been a long time and so now my computer appears to be in full-collapse mode.  It runs extremely slowly, and it freezes up on a regular basis.  I’ve taken it to get help many times over the years, at this point mostly from David, though I’ve also taken it into the Geek Squad.  When Geek Squad “fixes” it, it usually it comes back with more problems than when it left.  When David works on it, it’s fine for a while (after all, he’s managed to keep the thing running for 4 and half years which is the longest I’ve ever been able to keep a computer working), but that “while” is becoming shorter and shorter.  Again, this is typical for me.  My electro-aura simply zaps anything and everything electronic, and since I use my computer a lot, it tends to develop problems quickly.  Being in a close relationship with an IT guy though can actually make the problems worse in that the computer usually works for him.  Just not for me.  This week my computer developed a new issues.  I was working on my sermon and wanted to use some internet resources that I had bookmarked and set aside for this Sunday.  But as I tried to pull up those pages that I had bookmarked, they failed to load.  I sat and watched as my lap top connected to the internet, disconnected from the internet, connected and disconnected itself in rapid succession.  I ran the “trouble-shooter”, which told me the problem was not with my computer but with the router.  But since we currently have a plethora of computers, smart phones and other devices that connect themselves to the internet and none of these were having issues, I knew that no, despite the computer’s desire to blame something else, the problem was once again with my lap-top.  I became extremely frustrated, impatient, did not want to wait until things could be fixed or redone or set up in a new way.  I did not want to borrow someone else’s computer since my sermon was partly written on my own already, I did not want to DEAL with the waiting.  I wanted things fixed NOW.  Can you relate to that frustration and struggle with waiting? 
               More seriously, if you have ever been on a mission trip, you may have found that the hardest moments are those of waiting.  In all my years of leading mission trips, I have found a pretty consistent pattern.  We go to do work, to fix up houses, to help people with their disasters and their homes.  But part of the process of these trips is that we go, evaluate what exactly needs to be done, and then need to purchase the materials.  That involves waiting for people to return with the materials, often discovering they aren’t quite the right ones, waiting for our local carpentry expert to return with ideas and the trailer to go pick up more materials.  There is a great deal of waiting.  When we have traveled far to make a difference and we have limited time to be there, the waiting is extremely hard.
               But as with every challenge, when we have eyes to see we can choose to look at everything that happens as blessings from God.  My moments without internet access have been a gift, if only I would choose to use it in that way, because they did call me to sit still, to wait, and to think about the lessons in that waiting, for me, in that moment.  The article from Spirituality and Practice that talked about the commitments we can make to waiting during Advent also talked about the spiritual gifts that come from the practice of waiting.  These include developing patience, giving up control and accepting what IS, learning to live in the present, compassion, gratitude, humility, and most of all, trust in God. They are invitations to take time to pray, to cry out, if that is what we are feeling, in the frustration and impatience of the moment.  These moments and weeks call us to take the time of waiting as the gift that it is to talk to God, to rest, to wait. The moments of waiting at the mission sites invite us to spend time talking with the people we are helping and with each other.  Those conversations and the building of relationships are so much more important, frankly, than the physical work we do anyway.  Those create opportunities to learn as well.  Why are some people in these situations while we are not?  What have lives been like that have given some so many more advantages and privileges than others?  These opportunities for relationship are also invitations to grow.
               Our culture has become more and more an “instant gratification” culture.  There is very little opportunity for us to learn patience, to learn to give up control over our surroundings and the things that happen to us, to learn to be wholly present in each moment, despite whatever we have or don’t have right now.  There is very little opportunity, as we depend on our things, and on our toys and on the internet and our instant access to information, communication, resources, etc to learn to trust God for what the next moments might hold for us.  With all of that, is it any surprise that people are not as interested in faith issues?  For those who have not experienced needing to rely solely on their trust of God, and finding that that trust really is enough to carry us through, that God really is with us, why would we trust God?  If we haven’t experienced God in this way, how can we trust that God will be there for us in those times?  It is something we are called to practice: to practice reliance on God. 
               Waiting is hard.  But God gives us this gift, and we have the chance to grow from it.  John the Baptist came paving the way for Jesus, inviting the wait before Jesus’ began his ministry.  Isaiah proclaimed the coming of justice, of comfort, of release from oppression.  And he wrote that in a time of exile for the Israelites.  They weren’t home, but exiled to a foreign land. Isaiah’s declaration of God’s promise was sound.  They were returned home.  But none of that was instantaneous.  The Israelites had to wait decades.  These things were coming.  These passages were and are calls to live into hope while we wait.  To trust in God, while we wait.  To let go of control, while we wait.  To learn patience while we wait. 
               I think we will find that there are gifts even beyond the Spiritual gifts I already listed in the waiting.  I found this quote as well from AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh:   “Well, said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think.  Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.”
                I think it’s called “Advent”.
               There is something deliciously wonderful in the anticipation of the good that is about to come.  There is something amazingly wonderful in the moments before you open that first Christmas present, in the moments before you see your new baby for the first time, in the moments before that visitor you’ve waited for has come.  There is something incredibly life-giving in the hope and anticipation of Advent.  Experience it, live it, enjoy it.  For it is a gift from God.