Monday, December 23, 2013

Yesterday's Sermon - Visions of What is to Come

We are given each year at this time of year, this incredible and beautiful story of Jesus’ birth. We are given a glimpse, an understanding of what has happened, of what has come to pass that has defined who we are as a people, as a church, as a community of faith.  Each year we have the opportunity to celebrate, to remember, and to share in this awesome and wondrous story.
For many people it remains a story of what has happened in the past.  We remember.  Kind of like at a memorial service where we celebrate and remember a loved one who has died, Advent and Christmas, for many, are celebrations of what has gone on before, what happened, the memory of that loved one we call Jesus.
But the story we read today, just like the passage from Isaiah, is not a story of the past.  It is a story of the present and a story of the future.  In this story we are given a vision of what is to come…. A vision of God coming to be with us in the most scandalous and unusual circumstances.  A vision of God’s love being so great and so full that God would come in person to share in life with us, to speak to us in a language we understand, to touch us with a physical touch, to challenge and to comfort us with words and healings and presence and an example of who and how we should be.    It is also a vision of what we are called to do and be in this world.  Yes, God came to us in Jesus.  But God’s love doesn’t and didn’t END there.  That was the beginning, and each time we retell the story, we should not simply be remembering that this has happened, but celebrating that we still have this God who loves us enough to come in person to be with us, teach us, guide us, heal us, SAVE us in this way.
I’ve read a lot of wonderful sayings this week talking about exactly who and what Jesus was…about Jesus’ coming to be among us.  Some of these we might not recognize as being about Jesus, but I want to throw a few out there anyway because they speak to the very nature of God, and in doing so, call us into that vision – not only of what has passed but of what God continues to do now and what we can look for in the future as well.
“To be like God, we do not need to place ourselves above others, but come down, come down and serve them, become small among the small and poor among the poor.”  (Pope Francis) Yes, that’s what Jesus did.
“Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check.  But that is not what I have found.  I have found that it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” (Gandalf)    Jesus was born, as we are told today amongst the real people, the “small” people, not the royal people, not those of whom power and greatness is expected.  And that is not just something for us to celebrate, but a call to us and reminder to us as well.  We, too, are called to bring about the light.  And none of us can use the excuse of being without power as we respond to that call.
        “Hold on to what is good even if it is a handful of earth. Hold on to what you believe even if it is a tree which stands by itself.  Hold on to what you must do even if it is a long way from here.  Hold on to life even when it is easier to let go and hold on to my hand even when I have gone away from you.”  Pueblo Verse.  God calls us into that close relationship with God-self that will bring gratitude and inspire gratitude in others.  We are called to follow the good, as Jesus did, and as we look for God’s coming to be with us again.
As always, it is hard to hold on to the message of what we are called to be in the face of Jesus’ coming to be with us.  We struggle with what it means for us to be Christian, to be followers of this Christ who is so unlike any other king and unlike any expectation for what it is to be a king.  I read an article the other day that was talking about the new pope.  And it said, “I hear accolades of wonder and amazement every time we see the pope reaching out to the poor, washing feet of addicts, maintaining his vow of poverty, or telling us that the church should be more welcoming and forgiving….it bothers me…Pope Francis bothers me, but not because of what we see him doing in his acts of compassion with others.  What he is doing is not great at all.  Each Christian is expected to do just as much.  The fact that we see these acts as a great achievement is troubling.  It is a signal that something is very wrong in the world.  Pope Francis is showing us not only what love looks like, but he is showing us just how unloving the world has become.”
         Gandhi put it in an even more condemning way when he said, "I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."
         We lament the diminishing of our churches.  And yet, the condemnation of words such as Gandhi’s can leave us in little doubt as to why, on a national level, our churches are in decline.  If all Christians were to show the face of Christ to those around them, all the time, our churches would look very differently today.  If we were to live as if Jesus’ birth were here now…or just about to come…in this amazing and unexpected way, what impact would our lives have on the faith and commitment of others?  Living in that way calls us into a vision that is different from any we’ve had before.  Looking for Jesus’ birth, for “God with us” as a present event, calls us to look with different eyes.
         I shared this little test in a newsletter article a few years back and thought it might be helpful to share again this morning.  There was a question on a job application that read as the following:
You are driving down the road in your car on a wild, stormy night, when you pass by a bus stop and you see three people waiting for the bus:
1. An old lady who looks as if she is about to die.
2. An old friend who once saved your life.
3. The perfect partner you have been dreaming about.
Which one would you choose to offer a ride to, knowing that there could only be one passenger in your car?
You could pick up the old lady, because she is going to die, and thus you should save her first. Or you could take the old friend because he once saved your life, and this would be the perfect chance to pay him back. However, you may never be able to find your perfect mate again.
The candidate who was hired (out of 200 applicants) had no trouble coming up with his answer. He simply answered: 'I would give the car keys to my old friend and let him take the lady to the hospital. I would stay behind and wait for the bus with the partner of my dreams.'

     Again, finding an answer like that requires a different vision, a vision that goes beyond our normal ways of looking at life.  It requires a vision outside the box, which is what God has given us through the story of Jesus’ birth.  How unexpected was it to have God born as a baby in poor circumstances to an unwed mother?  Extremely!  And only those who could see beyond the expectations, who could open their eyes to the unexpected and unusual would be able to see it, WERE able to see it.
       Mister Rogers put it this way…"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in this world."   His mother had the vision beyond what we normally see.
         I think about Gandhi’s saying that he didn’t like Christians.  And I think that this, too, was short-sighted.  Where did he look for those Christians?  Did he, too, look for them among the powerful and rich?  Did he look for them among the preachers?  Those who earn money off of "serving" God and God's people?  Did he, too, look for them where we might “expect” to see, and fail to open his eyes more fully to where God and God’s people surprise us?  I wonder, if he were to have had the vision that we are called to have in looking for Christ, if he might not have seen with more depth and vision as well.  Because just as Christ’s coming was unexpectedly among the poor and those considered without power, there are many Christians out there – people really following the law of love in the least expected places as well.  Just as Jesus came in an unexpected place and way, Christians come often in small, unpowerful, unexpected places. And they can be just as amazing and just as wondrous.  Pope Francis is a surprise because he is acting in a Christian way even though he has the choice to choose power and wealth.  But there are others…many who quietly go about the work of Christ, feeding the hungry, caring for displaced children, watching over the widows, visiting the sick…and some of them are right here in this place.
What are we called to be and do, especially as we vision the Christ coming again?  We are called to see Christ’s coming as a present thing…to look for God in the now…and then to follow.  We are given this gift every year.  Not of remembering, but of anticipating…watching, waiting, seeing.
“While life can be understood by looking backwards, it must be lived by looking forwards.”  So look back at the coming of Jesus as a way to help us understand God, God then, God today and God always.  But don’t stop with the memories.  Don’t stop with the “memorial” of celebrating what did happen and what has come to pass.  Don’t stop with the focus on what God has done.  Instead, keep looking for what God is DOING, and where God is coming now and in the future.  Allow the vision to be for the present, as we wait again, for Jesus’ birth among us.  Amen.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Today's Sermon - Turning it all on it's head

Isaiah 35:1-10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11

      The message that Jesus sent to John was that those who were blind are able to see,  Those with severe disabilities are able to walk, those with disease are cleansed, those who are deaf now hear, those who are dead now live, and the poor hear the good news.  What is interesting about all of these words in Greek is that while they do have the literal meanings of seeing, being disabled, being unclean, hearing, etc….there is also a choice in the use of these Greek words.  There are other words for sight in Greek, for example that just mean physical sight.  But the word that is chosen here means more “perception”.  The perceptions are named as false – the perceptions that what matter are material things, and royalty, and men in refined clothing (to quote vs. 8).  Jesus first reassures John and then confronts a crowd who have many in it who still cannot see.  Why are they there?  What have they come to experience and see?  Did they come to see the famous?  The wealthy?  Those with power on earth?  If so, if they have come to be part of the glorious of this world, they are in the wrong place.  But, as Jesus said to John, those who are perceiving wrong are being challenged and changed.  Their perceptions will be cleared and they will finally see and understand what is really important.  Those who cannot see the truth will finally see – wealth, popularity, earthly power – these things are not what matters, they are not what God is about.  And the deaf, those who have failed to hear the Good News that God comes to be with us not, again, as a mighty kind, but as a helpless baby who will find himself crucified on a cross, and who, when he rises, will not use that power to “punish” his enemies or to overthrow the governments, but instead will continue to preach love and peace and forgiveness – those who have been deaf will finally hear this.  And those who have been bent over with shame and pain and humiliation, they will finally find the strength to stand up for what matters and to be part of ushering that in.  And those who have been isolated by diseases that cause them to be unclean will take their place in society and refuse to allow the judgments and condemnations of others hold them back.  And those who are dead, who fail to live, who fail to find joy or meaning or purpose in this life – they will finally live, they will get that the things they thought would bring life meant nothing.
      Jesus has declared this good news.  He has declared that it is here, it is happening.  With his coming, our perceptions and our choices are changing.  Why?  What changes us?  What brings us to a new perception?  I know that there are people even today who follow Jesus who are still waiting for him to return as a mighty king who will overthrow governments and come in wealth and splendor.  Who will bring us wealth and splendor.  Have they not heard?  Have they not seen?  What will open their eyes?  What will cause any of our visions to be different, any of our visions to be opened and expanded into real sight?
     I found myself reading a great deal about Nelson Mandela this last week again.  And one of the things I found most interesting was that it was in prison that he developed his non-violent and reconciliation stance.  People were waiting for him to emerge from prison and lead them in a bloody revolution.  They expected him to lead them in fighting and to bring about change through violence.  But he came out different than that.  He came out from a living hell into the sun and preached forgiveness.  He came out claiming that he would be staying in his own prison to stay in anger or to act from a place of seeking revenge.  Mandela was changed in the least likely place in the least likely way.  Why?  Through time in prayer, meditation, prayer, study, prayer, reflection, he was changed into a person who was able to bring out a complete change in South Africa because he approached the conflict with a deeper vision of reconciliation, forgiveness and love for ALL people.  What changed him?  Prayer, study, meditation.
      Jasmyn reminded me yesterday of this line from Charles Dickens’ “a Christmas Carol” during which the Ghost of Christmas present is showing Scrooge a conversation that Bob Cratchit is having with his wife.  Mrs. Cratchit asks how little Tim behaved.  “As good as gold,” said Bob, “and better.  Somehow he gets thoughtful sitting by himself so much and thinks the strangest things you ever heard.  He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”  Is that what we would think?  Or would we wonder why the person who made lame beggars walk and blind folk see had not given Tim healing as well?  Would we find ourselves hoping that maybe through prayer Tim would be changed eventually?  Or would we step up and claim that a people whom God has led into sight, hearing and life, that we are called to help Tim walk ourselves?  And would we see that in so many ways, Tim was already walking with far more strength of purpose and love than we yet have learned to do?
What can change our perceptions?  What can open our eyes to see the God who turns it all around? who cures, and feeds and heals and brings good things to all people?  What can change that perception?
     God does.  And encounter with God.  That is the only thing that can change our perception.  But that encounter, as we read each advent and Christmas, will never be what we expect, when we expect it, or how we expect it.  What changed the people we talked about today?  The shock of a genuine encounter with God.  It was the shock of encountering God in the most disabled child calling for a blessing on the most closed hearted people.  The shock of encountering God in a prison after being placed there for trying to set people free.  The shock of God coming to us as a poor baby to a young mother, and declaring that the blind can see, the lame can walk.  The shock of encountering God as we see Jesus’ declarations actually take place before our very eyes…that those who once had nothing, no legs to stand on, no resources to support them, no eyes that could see are those who now see or ears that could hear now do hear, see, and stand tall, living lives of depth and meaning.  The shock of encountering God when our lives are turned on their heads.  Jesus.  God in Jesus.  God with us, Emmanuel.  That is what changes us.  And that is what God calls us to this Advent.
In today’s gospel, John is asking if Jesus is the one.  He asks as he, himself, sits in prison, wasting, suffering.  He asks because he needs the joy that only that shocking encounter of God’s reversals in life can give us…..the joy that says, life is not about what we think it’s about.  Life is not about the comforts of now, it is about the blessings of God which are eternal.  Life is not about the material wealth of now, but the grace of God that is for always.  In Jesus message, despite John’s suffering, Joy is to be found.
The message is the same for us.  In our hardest times, in our times of the deepest struggle, God says, that in this, there is sight for our hurting and lost perceptions.  There is healing for our aches, though it may look different than what we have thought or hoped for.  There is renewal and grace and vision.  There is Jesus.  And with Jesus everything is new, everything is different, everything can begin again.

 Peace be with you.  Amen.

Friday, December 13, 2013

an inaccurate summary of Wednesday's message on Waiting...

Matthew 11:28-30, Isaiah 40:25-31
We are told a couple of things in today’s passages.  The first is that the yoke of Jesus is easy and light.  What is a yoke?  What do you think about that?
It doesn’t really look so easy does it? or comfortable?
Another translation of “easy” here is “well fitting” – in other words, the yoke of God fits us…it is a fit that makes all of life easier and more comfortable.
I’m sure most or all of you have heard the story of the man who once met a boy carrying a smaller disabled boy on his back. "That's a heavy load you are carrying there," exclaimed the man. "He ain't heavy; he's my brother!" responded the boy.
The point is that no burden is too heavy when it's given in love and carried in love. When we yoke our lives with Jesus, he also carries our burdens with us and gives us his strength to follow in his way of love.  When Jesus yokes us to him, which he always invites, we, too, help care for the world.  But if we are doing it for the right reasons – because we love God and love God’s people, then these burdens, too will feel light for us as well.
The thing is, I think it can be hard for all of us to do God’s work always for the right reasons.  In one congregation that I served years ago, there was a woman there who did absolutely everything for the church.  She volunteered to do it all, no one asked her to.  She felt she could do it better and wanted it done right and that it was her job to do it.  But at the same time she felt resentful that she had to do everything.  She was doing it because she wanted to be appreciated.  She wasn’t doing it because she loved to serve God and God’s people in this way.  We can never earn enough appreciation for all that we do.  So if that is why we are doing something, we will become resentful.  But the truth is that we will all have times like this.  Or times when we are tired, or times when it just feels like too much.  Times when, like the second scripture tells us, even the young men will run out of energy.
And then, we are told, we will find strength in WAITING for God.
This, too, seems to be a contradiction.  Usually waiting is not easy.  It doesn’t renew us.  It feels like a waste of time and space.  It, too, can lead to feelings of rage and frustration.  Especially when we are overworked, waiting for God – to lift the burden, to give us clarify in discernment, to give us that thing we think we really need, or that healing or that relationship or whatever it is…waiting can be frustrating.
But in today’s passages we are told that taking the time to wait for God renews us, gives us strength.  That while God knows everything about us and sees our pain and our strength waning or even failing at times, when we take the time to wait for God, we are told we will find inexhaustible stores of strength.
Advent is a time of waiting.  Or rather, it’s supposed to be.  And by that “waiting” scripture doesn’t mean standing in line at the department stores waiting to purchase the gifts for our loved ones.  It doesn’t mean anxiously counting the days before Christmas, either.  That “waiting” is the waiting that we are least used to, especially during the business of Advent.  This “waiting” means spending time, quietly, with God.  Taking the time to listen, to be, to sit and wait for what God has to tell us, where God needs to lead us, what God wants for us to “have” or be.
I don’t need to tell you about all the studies that show that meditation actually leads to increased health, happiness, peace, and an overall sense of health.  I don’t need to tell you all that because it’s all over the newspapers all the time.  We, in the Christian faith, take it a step further.  It isn’t just meditating.  It is sitting with God.  And that improves our spiritual health as well.  We do gain strength.  We do feel the lightness of God carrying our burdens with us through the yoke.  We are lifted up with wings like eagles, we run and find that we are not weary, we will walk and find that we do not faint.   Amen.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Wednesday's Sermon: Invisible and Unexpected Gifts

Matthew 1:18-23
Joseph discovered Mary pregnant and wanted to call off their engagement.  Maybe the specifics of this are hard for us to understand these days. But I do think that there are times when someone does something that we just can’t accept.  We can’t accept what they have done and we then have to make a decision…do we end the relationship all together, or do we figure out a way to accept, live with and grow from our experience of disappointment, or humiliation, or hurt?
The thing is, people will always disappoint us.   I was talking with someone this week who was sharing with me about their daughter who has become a born-again Christian and how difficult it is to be in relationship with someone who is constantly telling him that he is going to hell.  Still, he chooses the relationship, though it appears the daughter may stop after awhile.  We hear of stories of people who discover they have a child who is gay or lesbian and they have a hard time handling it.  What are some of the things you have a hard time handling?  Personally, I have a really hard time handling lying.  And yet, everyone exaggerates on occasion, or stretches the truth or tells a white lie.  What lie is too big?  What lie is too much?
I’m reminded of Fiddler on the Roof.  Reb Tevye is faced with the challenge of choosing between deeply held values and his relationships with his daughters.  His first daughter wants to marry a man within the tradition, but one whom she has picked out for herself, challenging the tradition of the use of the yenta.  The second daughter decides who she will marry and her fiancĂ© does not even ask for Tevye’s permission.  This, too, he accepts.  For the first two of his children he chooses his daughters, letting go, though it is ever so painful for him, of needing them to follow, agree and support his beliefs and values.  But for the third one he cannot do the same.  When the third daughter elopes with a man who is not Jewish, he cuts her off.  The challenge to his beliefs and values pushes him too far.  And in the face of his choice between those beliefs and values and even his daughter, he chooses his values.
For us, too, we may come to a point where we feel pushed too far.  What values do we hold that go beyond the possibility of reconciliation, healing, and even the possibility of loving the other?
We all have these.  We all have “conditions” on our love, on our commitment to our relationships.  And yet, that is not the way of God, it is not the way of Christ.  We are called to choose love again and again, despite our hurts, despite our anger, despite our disappointments.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for actions, but it does mean that we still have to choose to do what is most loving, for everyone involved, in the face of our values, our decisions, and our experiences.
I think about Joseph in today’s story.  He had strong values.  We are told he was a “righteous” man.  Because of those values he almost chose to dismiss Mary from their engagement.  We know that his judgment, his thinking about leaving Mary was based on a misunderstanding, but I’m not sure it matters too much.  He had values, and it appeared that she did not meet those values.  He had a tough decision to make in the light of that.
But he was also a man who was open to listening, hearing and responding to the Spirit.  And the Spirit had a different word for him.  An angel came to him in a dream and told him that he did not understand the situation, and that he was called to do something different than would usually be done.   He was called to put aside his usual understandings, his usual vision, the obvious vision, and to take a different path.  As a result he chose a path that did not leave Mary destitute, did not leave him without a wife, allowed him to father Jesus, opened a path for him that without the listening and following he would never have known.
We are constantly invited into gifts that are not what we expect, not what we could imagine for ourselves or for others.   And as always, the goal, the gift, the challenge, is to keep our eyes open for God’s coming among us through those gifts.  That is especially true during Advent when we are called to wait and to watch.  Wait and watch.  Wait for God’s coming.  Watch where God will come to you today.  Where is God today?  Where is God showing up in your life today?  In whom do you see God’s face this evening as you look around?  What gifts surround you, even in the challenges, even in the struggles, that God is giving you?
A friend sent me a song this week that I want to play for you.  I don’t usually like rap music, and I apologize that it is, in part, a rap song, but I invite you to listen to the words.

When we open our hearts with gratitude, we open our eyes to see.  Let us give thanks this day and everyday for God’s coming to be with us.  Amen.

Entitlement gone wild

I flew on an airplane this week.  As I always do, I chose a window seat, which is normally not an issue.  I'm a fairly small person, and the window seat allows me to look out the window (obvious, I realize), which I thoroughly enjoy.  However, this particular day, after I sat in my seat, a man sat down in the aisle seat next to me (this was a puddle hopper, so only 2 seats next to each other).  He was not a large man, but he put his arm on the arm rest between us in such a way that his elbow was actually poking into "my" space, he sat spread legged, with one of his feet under the seat in front of ME, and basically, my alternatives were to be in constant physical contact with this obnoxious stranger, or to squish myself into as small a ball as possible in the corner of my seat.  I chose the latter.  A few minutes later, one of the flight attendants came by and informed him that he had to put his bag under the seat in front of him, not keeping it just on the ground between his spread-eagle legs.  He said, "oh, okay!"  And made a movement to put the bag under his seat.  But as soon as the flight attendant then moved on to go sit down in her own seat for take-off, he stopped attempting to stow his bag and went back to just keeping it between his legs.

I took a second flight.  We were told that we needed to put all of our phones in airplane mode, and again, the person next to me continued to ignore the flight attendants and just kept on texting.  The flight attendant came by and asked my seat-mate to put her phone in flight mode.  She, too, said, "oh, okay", made it look like she was going to, and then continued to email and text on her phone for the duration of the flight, simply hiding her phone whenever a flight attendant came by.

Entitlement.  Why is it that there is this so much entitlement in our culture?  People feel that they deserve to take up whatever space they can.  People believe they are the exceptions to the rules and don't have to follow them.  People feel that they "deserve" whatever it is and our ads and commercials help emphasise that misconception..."you deserve that chocolate."  "you deserve that $100,000 car." "you deserve that $10,000 vacation to Hawaii."  No, we don't deserve these things.  They are amazing gifts when we have them, but we don't deserve them.  I can't think of anything anyone has done to deserve having that kind of luxury while there are others in the world who are starving to death.  They don't deserve to starve, and we don't deserve to spend that kind of money on ourselves while others suffer so intensely.

This sense of entitlement injures not only those around us, whose rights and sometimes very existence are threatened because of our choices to spoil ourselves, but that sense of entitlement also deeply injures our own selves.  First of all, it takes from us a sense of wonder and gratitude for the amazing gifts and blessings that surround us each day.  If we feel they are "no more than we deserve" then we fail to look with eyes that see that every breath is a gift, every bite of food is nothing less than a blessing, every smile from a stranger is a kiss from an angel.  That sense of wonder, of gratitude, can carry us so deeply into the vision and heart of God!  A failure to recognize those gifts can carry us only further into a sense of entitlement, and resentment when those things we believe we "deserve" do not come to us in the way or time that we expect.  Second, I think that sense of entitlement desensitizes us to the needs of others.  We start to mistakenly believe that we have what we have because we deserve those things.  Therefore, what others fail to have (even basic necessities like food, shelter, health care) that they therefore don't have them because they don't deserve them.   We stop seeing that our wealth is "luck of the draw" - where we were born, who raised us, where we went to school, even our intelligence and talents and creativity are gifts we were given at birth, not things we can develop or earn.  We didn't "pick" our parents or our life situations.  All are gifts that have been GIVEN to us that may allow us to accumulate more than others.  None of it, therefore, is ours - all is lent to us by God.  Luke 12:48, "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked."  Or to put it in non-religious terms, "along with privilege comes responsibility".  But when we start feeling entitled to what we have, we lose the larger vision that says that because we have so much, we have a responsibility to give back - to our communities, to those who have less, to creation and the world.

We injure ourselves through our lack of entitlement.  A friend shared with me this video that I think is really relevant here:

I am not immune to the irony in this.  I started this whole blog post, in a sense, by complaining about my own plane trips...  But I think it just illustrates my point once more.  All of us, ALL of us are so used to certain rights and expectations (in my case, the right to having the space in the airplane that my ticket paid for), that we fail to see the greater gifts - I was able to travel quickly, easily and comfortably across a large area of space in the air.  That IS amazing.  And that should have been the focus for me, too.  But our feelings of entitlement creep in, they are so part of our culture and our understanding that we focus on things that seem to impinge on that, rather than on the gifts.  Today I strive to take this to heart.  I hope that you can, too.  Because the gifts in learning to see the blessings around us, rather than focusing so much on broken expectations of entitlements we assume, can bring us joy, wonder, and the sense of the amazing well-being that fills our lives this day and every day.