Monday, November 30, 2015

Sunday's sermon - Reading the Signs and Thanksgiving

Reading the Signs
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Luke 21:25-36

In today’s lesson from Luke, Jesus is talking about a new day coming.  He is announcing what that will look like when the new earth begins.  But the pictures that he draws are not pretty.  “On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea.   People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.”  These catastrophes, these crises, these traumas, they are the sign of the new world coming, a new life coming.  They are the sign that things are changing. 
Do we experience these things now?  Of course we do, as did the Israelites in their time as well.  People are scared, people are angry.  We hear a lot about fear, anger, and hate.  At some level this happens in all times, but right now it seems particularly acute once again.  And the scriptural message to us is two things.  First, when horrible things are happening, these are invitations for us to rely more fully on God, to trust in God knowing that God is with us in these changes, in these challenges.  And second, these difficult signs and hard times are actually fertile ground for new birth, for new life, for a resurrection that comes again and again, and again.  These hard times provide an opportunity to approach life differently, to do it again, right this time, to truly seek to live in LOVE rather than fear or hate.  To work towards good rather than towards polarization and enmity.  Again, to live as we are called to do, in gratitude, hope, and love rather than in anger and fear.
Today we begin the new church year.  Today is our New Year’s day in the church.  And we begin the new church year with anticipation of the new life that is coming, as we look towards Jesus being born anew into our lives.  We remember that out of whatever chaos we have and do experience, new life will come.  And yet, Advent is not the time when that new birth has happened.  It is a time of waiting for the birth of Christ.  We wait for God’s presence to show us how to live and what to do.  We wait for God to come anew among us.  We wait for the new thing God is doing.
Waiting is hard.  We aren’t a people who wait easily.  In our instant gratification society, it is especially hard to wait.  We don’t want to wait for food so we get “fast food”.  We don’t want to wait for the mail, so we do our correspondence instantly through email, or even faster through texts.  And yet, advent calls us to do exactly that.  We start the year by doing the thing that is hardest for us to do – to wait.
I can’t think of a more appropriate thing to do when the world is in chaos.  I know we want answers now, we want solutions NOW.  We want it fixed now.  But wisdom does not come instantly.  The beginning of the church year teaches us, right off the bat, that there is great learning to be done and great gifts to be found in being patient, in waiting for God to come, as God does – at Christmas in the form of a baby, but among us as well, in many, many forms.  Waiting does more than this as well.
Jack Shriver shared with us at lectionary group this last week that according to Buddhism there are really only two emotions and we have to choose which one we go with.  There is fear, and there is love.  There is a reason that throughout the bible God’s angels say, “do not be afraid” again and again and again.  It is in our scriptures over 100 times, and  out of Jesus’ mouth over 20 times.  Why?  Because when we are in fear, we cannot love.  We cannot have compassion.  We move towards anger, which moves towards hate, which causes suffering, as Yoda would say.  But when we are in love, we see with eyes of compassion, of grace, we see with an effort to understand the other rather than judge the other.  We see with eyes that move towards wisdom and deep solutions. 
When we are in fear mode we tend to be reactive.  Psychology tells us that when we are afraid or angry, certain parts of our brains, in particular the higher thinking, actually get shut off.  There was an article out about that just this week of a study done at Bangor University that showed this to be the case.  Do you not experience this yourselves?  The stupid things we say tend to only be said when we are angry or afraid.  The really dumb things we’ve done tend to be done in times of fear and anger.  As a side note, for some reason this doesn’t come up in conversations about easy access to weapons and it should.  It isn’t just mental illness that causes people to react in violence.  There was a story out this week about a waitress shot to death after asking a man to not smoke in the Waffle House.  He got angry. And when people become fearful or angry, those higher processes that say, “don’t do this really stupid thing” - they literally turn off.  The angrier or more afraid we become, the more fully they turn off – for ALL of us! Obviously we all need to work some on anger and fear management, but we will get angry, we will become afraid.  And in those times our higher thinking will shut down.  That is not where we want to be when we are making the difficult decisions about how to deal with crises like we are facing as a world today.  But those feelings of fear and anger cannot be turned off immediately when we are in crisis.  It takes time, and often prayer and meditation, or quiet listening, to still our hearts and minds to the point where we can move more towards love and from there make good decisions.  In other words, waiting, the call of Advent to WAIT, allows us to move out of our fear and into the more rational, logical, helpful, loving and wise parts of our brains.
There is an old Cherokee story in which a man told his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all.  One is Evil.  It is anger, it is hatred, under all of that it is fear, and from those places it does evil.  The other is Good.  It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, compassion and truth. and from those places does good.”  The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?”  The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”  Waiting is taking the time before feeding either wolf to listen for God, to be led by wisdom, to watch and hope. 
I like very much that Advent follows immediately after Thanksgiving.  Because I think that wisdom and waiting also have to begin with gratitude.  Being grateful, focusing on the good, remembering that God has blessed us with so very much in every day also quiets the heart and mind and stills the fear. 
            Some of you, I know, have begun gratitude journals.  These take different forms.  In one gratitude practice, at the end of each day you are asked to list 5 things for which you are grateful.  In another there are specific areas you look at each day over 30 days in which you name something for which you are grateful.  It doesn’t matter how you do this.  A recent study showed that taking time each day to be grateful improves our overall outlook.  It improves our sense of well-being.  It makes us calmer in the face of crises.  It lifts depression.  And it increases our ability to make good decisions rather than panicked, fearful decisions.
            It also reminds us to live in hope.  We don’t just wait.  We watch and we hope. 
            The God we wait for, the Jesus that we anticipate coming came to give us LIFE so we could LIVE.  He called us not to live in fear, but to aim for love in all things.  Gratitude helps us to wait, to watch, to be hopeful.
            Psalm 140, translated by Nan C. Merrill reads like this:
Deliver me, O Giver of Breath and Life, 
from the fears that beset me; 
help me confront the inner shadows 
that hold me in bondage, like a prisoner 
who knows not freedom. 
They distract me from all 
that I yearn to be, 
and hinder the awakening of 
hidden gifts 
that I long to share with others.
For are we not called to make Love 
conscious in our lives? 
You are the Light of those 
imprisoned in darkness. 
Surely You will guide us 
into the new dawn, 
that we may live as co-creators 
with You.
        Jesus was born into a chaotic and broken world as a baby, helpless, innocent, gentle.  But we are not at the birth yet.  As we begin our new year, I invite all of us to begin again, and to begin again by being still, by waiting, by watching for what God is doing and where God is leading us.  I invite us all to start with gratitude and remember all the good that God has done in each of our lives.  We can trust in those blessings, that they are there every day for us, that they will come every day.  We can have the wisdom to not live in fear, but to live in love.  We can take the time to wait for wisdom to come, as God comes all the time, as Jesus came to us at Christmas.  We can watch for where God is coming now, and we can being the year with Hope. It is, after all, what we are called to do on this the first Sunday of Advent.