Search This Blog

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Other Side of the Story

          Like the carols we know so well, our gospel reading of the nativity of Jesus describes the story we just love to be reminded of; the sweet baby Jesus, born in a stable, swaddled and laid in a manger, where the animals warm his little body and perhaps a drummer boy even shows up, to sing him a song. It is a story repeated in countless Christmas carols and songs. Books and cards and other beautiful artwork throughout the centuries have portrayed the nativity scene in gorgeous colors and tender depictions which have helped us visualize the scene of this holy family on this holy night. Sweet. Comforting. Reassuring.
          And so, we often gloss over the shocking, frightening, startling and improbable aspects of this story. We rarely contemplate the surprise, the terror, and the radical reality of the event. It becomes for us more like a fairy tale, and less like the history of Christ’s advent that it really is. And so I invite you to spend a little time with me tonight taking a second look at the gospel, rubbing off the familiarity so that the unexpected and mysterious good news at its heart shines out.
          You know the story that begins: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Quirinius that all the world should be registered…Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea to the city of David called Bethlehem….he went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn.
          Jesus was born into the humblest of circumstances: unwed, teenage mother, a carpenter father who commits his life to raising this child not his own, poor animals yielding space in their shelter to this child being birthed among the sights and sounds and smells of a barn.     
          Then come the shepherds, “keeping watch over their flocks by night.” Sometimes we think of shepherds as a lot like their charges—peaceable, non-threatening, maybe a little bit woolly.  But in reality, they were tough—tough enough to drive away or kill the beasts that preyed on their flocks.  They were probably cold and dirty and smelly.  They lived in the fields with their sheep, after all, and they were despised by a large segment of the society, who saw shepherding simply as a necessary evil, who thought that while someone had to do the job, the less visible shepherds were, the better. 
          And yet, amazingly, these dirty, despised shepherds lurking in the night are the people God shared the good news with first. Incredibly it is the lowliest of characters who are the first to know the miraculous news of the Christ child’s birth. The shepherds had no right, no expectation, and no hope of being singled out for such great news. And yet, God chose them and lifted them out of the mundane setting of a hillside night to witness to the dawn of God’s coming to dwell with humankind.
          And how did God share the news? Through “an angel of the Lord,” and “a multitude of the heavenly host.”  Our songs and carols often describe the angel host as a heavenly choir, which can make us forget what the word “host” actually means in the Bible— where a “host” is an army.  So if you’re going to imagine what the angels looked like as they sang out the good news, forget the choir robes and harps.  Instead, picture battle gear and war drums.
          We might imagine how the words of the angel must have sounded to the awestruck shepherds. 
“Do not be afraid—”  (Yeah, right! they think). 
“for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people.”  (Sounding good so far…) 
“To you”
“Is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  (For us? All right!  Yes!  The news we’ve been waiting for!  News fit for an angel to deliver!)
“This will be a sign for you—” (Oh good, signs!  Bring on the tongues of flame, the shining stars, the rushing winds, the invisible hand writing on walls!)
“You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  (Wait—what? Me?)
          I doubt that many of us here tonight would hold out hope for angelic visitations and divine messages to be delivered to us, personally. I for one know that if I were visited in the middle of the night by a heavenly army, lit with the light of a thousand candles and announcing this unexpected, unprecedented, incredible proclamation, I would indeed be terrified. We, too might feel that we have no right, no expectation, and no hope of being singled out to share the good news of Christ’s coming among us, and yet, it is for us that God took on flesh and blood, becoming one of us, one with us, in order that God might truly dwell with all of humankind. And like the shepherds, unlikely though we may be, God has chosen us to help tell the story of a love so strong that it has broken the bonds of evil, sin and death. God has blessed us with grace upon grace, and made us worthy to tell this story.

          The improbable, unexpected and amazing fact of the birth narrative is that it tells us that this good news is for everyone. The promise and the good news of this Christmas story is in the details. When God came, it was not to the high and mighty, the powerful, the flashy, the rich, or even the priestly. Rather, when God came to dwell it was with the meek, the mild, the lowly, unexpected, vulnerable, and weak, and those of no account, except to God. 
          You and I have much in common with these characters. We may or may not consider ourselves weak, vulnerable, or lowly. But we know ourselves to be imperfect, broken, sinful beings. We live in a world fraught with danger. The news coming from our towns and cities, from countries near and far, from the government and our schools is troubling. We ourselves know deep doubt and fear. We know failure and we know the weight of disillusionment. We know the brokenness of addiction, divorce, depression, loneliness that may surround us. We know loss, grief and the inevitability of death.
          And so, while it is true that we might feel undeserving of being singled out to share the good news of Christ’s coming among us, the truth is that if God can work in such an extraordinary way through ordinary characters like shepherds and a teenage girl and her carpenter husband from a town of no special significance, God can work in and through each and every one of us, in and through each and every one of our stories as well. 
          Like the shepherds, unlikely though we may be, God has chosen us to tell the story of the radical love that turns the tables on worldly power. Through God’s astounding, radical incarnation in a stable in Bethlehem, we are assured t

hat the blessed and esteemed of God are found not in earthly mansions and boardrooms, but in the ghetto. God has come among us not to lift up the successful but to raise the struggling, dying, thirsting ones. God is revealed in the mundane everyday places of our lives and in our world – and this truth is terrifying – for the powers that be. And it is wonderful – for us.
          In the birth of Jesus Christ God makes God’s intentions known. In taking on human form, God’s love is made manifest in an infant. God’s incarnate love, Jesus becomes the embodiment of God’s grace, and the world, and our lives, will never be the same. We are freed from all that troubles us, all that binds us. We are lifted up and blessed by God’s amazing grace, to be a blessing for the world. Through this love, we are freed to become the messengers of God that the world needs to hear. Amen.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Favor is Yours

Luke 1:26-38

“Greetings, favored ones. The Lord is with you and plans to do great things through you.” These words come straight out of the gospel text this morning, this text we associate with Mary because it does indeed tell the story of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary to announce to her that she has found favor with God, that God blesses her, that God has great things in store for her.

But I would submit to you that this is God’s greeting to you and me as well. “Greetings, favored ones. The Lord is with you and plans to do great things through you. And yet as we contemplate these words, we might well echo Mary’s response. “How can this be?” Mary was challenged to accept these words, because, she thought, she was but a young girl.

We might be challenged to accept these words because of our own circumstances. Pope Francis recently said, “Today, everything comes under the laws of competition and survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized; without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”

Perhaps our challenge to believe that this blessing applies to us comes from the fact that we count ourselves among the marginalized. Or perhaps it comes from the fact that we know we are actually among “the powerful” and that knowledge convicts us and causes us guilt and grief as we consider our own culpability in the exclusion of the “masses” to which the pope alludes. How could we ever be considered “favored?”

Perhaps the challenge for us comes from the fact that deep down inside, we don’t feel worthy of such blessing. We are broken. We know it. We feel deeply the weight of our sin and our failures. We doubt, we have suffered grief, and we have caused others pain. We cannot see beyond our own needs and wants at times, and they, rather than our identity as children of God, become the driving force of our actions. For some of us, this challenge might come as we remember all the times we have tried – and failed – to live into this blessing. We bear all the scars of our human nature. As Martin Luther phrased it, we cannot, not sin.

Yesterday, in this very sanctuary, we held our first “Blue Christmas” worship service. Those who participated in the service and many who didn’t, know ambivalence and the pain and exclusion from celebrations warranted by this season of expectation and anticipation. Most have suffered losses, know grief that is all too fresh no matter how long they have held it. The joy and peace of Christmas may be hard for some of them to feel. They are not alone.

How then, can we truly be favored; how can God do great things through us? God doing something great for us, we might be able to believe. But given our human frailty, and all those realities just listed and more, how is it, truly, that God can do great things through us? These verses and the promised blessing may feel like too hard a pill for us to swallow.

Yet, the scriptures this morning point out to us the fact that God does both. The same God who created the universe from chaos and nothingness, who knows our name and numbers every hair on our head, who knows us to the very core of our being; This God loves us, in ways both profound and miraculous. In Christ, God has done wonderful things for us. God has seen beyond the obvious, and God has favored us. And now. the same God who did this crazy thing – choosing Mary, a humble, meek, inexperienced, unremarkable teenage girl to deliver into the world God’s love incarnate, chooses and favors you, and you, and you – in spite of the reality of our own “poor estate” – and in so doing, God blesses us to be a blessing to the world, because God loves us with a love beyond all knowing.

The psalm for today expresses the wonder at the core of Mary’s response to God’s blessing upon her, words that we also recognize as “Mary’s Song,” which forms the text of Luke’s gospel beginning just a few verses later:

You, Lord, have looked with favor on your lowly servant;
You have done great things for me, and holy is your name.
You have mercy on those who fear you;
You have shown the strength of your arm;
You scatter the proud in their conceit.
You cast down the mighty from their thrones; You lift up the lowly; You fill the hungry with good things; You send the rich away empty.
You remember your promise of mercy.

Before Mary’s “yes,” before she even has time to contemplate Gabriel’s words, or their implications, God has blessed Mary. In God’s “favor” God has set her apart and given her identity. God has done the same for me and for you through baptism. Before we even had time to respond, God blessed us, and God blesses us still. God has blessed us with life, and God has granted us eternal life. As we abide in God’s favor and blessing, God does great things through us. God didn’t bless Mary because of her answer, yet in trust and courage, Mary answered, “yes.”

Her willingness to trust the promises of God is the mark of true discipleship. What is it that she believes? That God favors her. That God has noticed her. That God knows her. That God has great plans for her. Her response? “Let it be. - Let it be with me according to your word.”

God has blessed us and has great things in store for us, too. And God has promised that through the Holy Spirit, God will continue a daily cycle of blessing, forgiveness, accompaniment, and empowerment, that through our words and actions, through our daily walk, God can do great things through us. As disciples of Christ through whom God blesses, forgives, empowers and loves others, may we, too, “let it be, O Lord, according to your Word.”

Blessing is a powerful thing. It is a rare thing. The funny thing is, true blessing is neither deserved nor earned; it is always a gift, a gift that in the church we often refer to as “grace.” As David Lose says, “Blessing intrudes into, interrupts, and ultimately disrupts our quid pro quo world to announce that someone sees us worthy and special apart from anything we’ve done. This is why this passage is so important… not because it lifts up Mary as the exception, but rather because it identifies her as an example of what can happen when you believe that God notices, favors, and blesses you.” The Lord is with you and plans to do great things through you. This is God’s promise and blessing for us.

May you, who are highly regarded by God, favored and blessed that God may do wonderful things through you, find power through the Holy Spirit to believe in God’s promise and abiding grace. May you be guided in all you do and say, that God may indeed, bless the world through you.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Telling the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth

John 1:6-8, 19-28
          A voice cries out in the wilderness!
          We’ve heard these words before. Recently, in fact. They came to us both from the gospel of Mark, and from the prophet Isaiah in Advent II. “A voice cries out in the wilderness!” And now again, we hear these words today, this time from the gospel of John where the testimony of John the Baptist, who came to prepare the way of Jesus, is recounted.
          As we read this text on this Third Sunday of Advent, we are reminded that now is the time to Prepare! To prepare our hearts and minds for the advent of Jesus Christ – for the coming of Christ among us, even as we are reminded of the paradox that while we are preparing, the Lord is indeed already with us, working through the Holy Spirit, changing hearts and minds, and helping us to prepare. And part of our preparation is telling the story of Love that changed the world.
          Listen again to these words from today’s gospel text. In fact, I would appreciate it if you would help me out here. Fill in the blanks in the following message. (If you need to cheat a little, that’s okay – you’ll find the answers written in the gospel lesson, in your worship bulletin):
“There was a man sent from God,  whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”
          A witness testifies to what they know as truth. And in our gospel accounts, that is exactly who John is, and what John does. John, in fact is an important witness and in today’s account, you could say that he is the star witness. But John does not witness alone. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are all continually invited to share in the work of witnessing.
          As the star witness, John gave testimony for the world to hear about this light, Jesus Christ, who was coming into the world; John meant for all people to hear and to believe that this light was the light which would dispel all darkness, and give life to those languishing ones. Once again, that is what witnesses do. They tell a story. They want their listeners to understand their story, to believe it. They hope that their story will help guide and perhaps even determine the outcome of events that are playing out. John gives his testimony in the hope that he might help determine the trajectory of hearts transformed by God as they are claimed by Jesus Christ.
          Have you ever served on a jury? I have. I have to admit that I found the process of the legal system at work to be fascinating. Once the testimony began it was especially interesting listening to witnesses, presumably testifying to the truth as they knew it. Witnesses speak from their experience. Witnesses keep their answers direct and to the point. If not, they are stopped – and redirected. An important part of good testimony – is that you don’t confuse the central issue with a lot of extraneous “facts” or details. A good witness is almost invisible. The testimony is not and should not be, in most cases about them. It is the event or the person they are witnessing about that is crucial.
          Today’s gospel text reads like a testimony given in a courtroom; a testimony given in response to an interrogation of sorts. It has a lot in common with the kind of testimony I heard in court. Extraneous facts and confusing details are not welcome. The gospel writer wants to make sure that the central part of the story is about Jesus. In the verses just before these, he has already laid out the central facts: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Jesus is that light.
          Then, the action in the gospel turns to John, this messenger who points to Jesus as the light.
          The Pharisees in Jerusalem have sent the priests and Levites from Jerusalem out into the countryside to question John. Word has reached Jerusalem that he has been causing a bit of a stir. He has been testifying that a “light” has come into the world. There may have been some confusion, as there often is in stories that are transmitted word-of-mouth. What they are concerned about, is who this John is. They wonder if he is the one or if he is claiming to be the long-expected anointed one who is to come set the world to straights. Or, is he claiming to be Elijah, also a figure they have been expecting to return. They wonder if he is a prophet, sent to them with another of the kind of messages that prophets usually deliver. It is quite possible that all of these are versions of the stories the Pharisees have heard filter through to them in Jerusalem. So, who exactly is John and what is he saying? Should they be concerned?
          We don’t know exactly what John has been saying to attract so many to come to him; we don’t know exactly what has stirred the interest of the temple elite. I mean, it’s like he’s been holding Black Friday sales without a license, he hasn’t been decorating shrubs out there in the Judean countryside, creating a fire hazard in the arid olive groves with the flames of all those brightly lit candles. But we do know that people have been coming, have been listening, and have been embracing this word of hope and expectation central to his witness, and many have been baptized. All of this has attracted the attention, and perhaps suspicions, of the Jerusalem officials.
          So they send emissaries to come to see him.
“Who are you, John?” they want to know.
Instead of telling them who he is, he tells them who he is not.
“I’m not the Messiah, the Christ,” he tells them.
“What then, are you Elijah?”
“I am not,” John tells them. Like a courtroom witness, he goes no further – this is not really about him. This is about the one who is coming after him; this is about the one whose sandals he is not worthy to untie.
“Are you the Prophet?” they ask.
“Nope,” John answers them. “Not even the prophet.”
“Well, then, who in the world are you?” the interrogators demand.
“Why are you here? What are you doing?” They plead for an answer – after all, there are those they need to answer to. I think if I was John, at this point, I would have said, “You are asking the wrong questions. It is not me you should be asking about. It is the light you need to hear.”
          John isn’t there to talk about himself. He is there to point to another, to point to the one the prophets did foretell, to introduce the one the Scriptures spoke about, to witness to the fact that this light that is coming into the world is the light of one who is larger, more important than he, is in fact a game-changing light for the world. He is there to witness to the Lamb of God who embodies God’s mercy, who takes away the sins of the world. He is there to give testimony to the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire – who will transform a broken, dark, lonely, chaotic world, and will love it to pieces.
          All of our scriptures today point to the great light and hope that comes to us through the incarnation of God among us, Jesus the Christ. This Sunday, we can feel the excitement building. We see the anticipation of Christmas all around—crowded stores, too many cars on the road, long lines at the post office…and, yet, many who partake in this excitement and anticipation do not know the true story and value of Christmas. Many in our community have never had a good witness to testify to them about the light…or, they have, but it was a long, long time ago. Some of us even here in this room have perhaps forgotten about the Light changes the world – for the better.
          For many, even sometimes, for us, Christmas is about the department store and online sales. For many, you know it’s Christmastime when the lights go up, inside and out, powered by batteries and cords. It’s easy to forget that Advent is not about the countdown to unwrapping all those beautifully prepared gifts and downing the special foods and drinks you only really share at this time of year. Traditions like those may help us celebrate, but they are not what this season is about. You know it, and I know it.
          What this season is about, is a love so strong that the powers of evil a

nd even death itself are overcome. What Advent invites us to prepare for, is the power that comes from above, the Light to which John testifies, the incarnation of God in Christ Jesus, whose story is a story worth telling over, and over again. Surrounded as we are in our media and in our world by stories that reveal that earthly powers and evil are run amok, there is a powerful story of healing and love and goodness we have to tell. In the story of Jesus Christ, there is a story of redemption that has the power to touch and transform every broken heart, redeem every failure, heal every hurt, and shine saving light into every dark corner of the world. 
        Like John, each of us has a story to tell, a testimony to give. Each of us have an experience with Jesus to share, testimony that our world desperately needs to hear. John gives us the perfect introduction to the story…”
          We can fill in those first few sentences from today’s gospel, replacing our own gender and name in the appropriate places.
 “There was a man, woman sent from God, whose name is your name. He/She came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through her, himShe/He herself/himself was not the light, but he/she came to testify to the light.”
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, may we be blessed as we preach it!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

News Worth Waiting For

Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8     
        Have you heard the news? Just a little over a year from now, on December 18, 2015, the new Star Wars movie is debuting. Back in the late 1970s, when Jim and I had just started dating, the first of the Star Wars movies had just come out, and I think we actually went to see it on one of our first dates. Jim loved the pyrotechnics and the special effects not to mention the Science Fiction storyline, a favorite genre for him. I loved watching Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford, - and Chewbacca, of course. Every three years after that, a new episode of the trilogy was released on the big screen, each one a blockbuster in its own right. I have to confess that we made our own contribution to the billion dollar-plus draw of the franchise.
        Sixteen years later, three more Star Wars movies were released, once again, at three year intervals. Now, these movies were not sequels. They are what are  level, and the rough places a plain.” As the incarnation of God in John’s own time, Jesus will, once and for all, level all the obstacles placed before humankind to receive God’s mercy and grace; Jesus will level the playing field of people of every time and every place to take part in the glorious kingdom of God.
        Back in the 6th century B.C.E., the People of Israel, exiled for more than a generation in Babylon, needed to hear these words of comfort and promise from Isaiah. But these words, repeated by John the Baptist also fed the hope of the people of first century Palestine, oppressed and living under Roman occupation and rule. And in the 21st century world of today, we acknowledge that these are words that we, who are living in an often hostile, violent, and broken twenty-first century world hunger and thirst for as well. In the wilderness of our world, we witness and absorb acts of brutality of one person or nation against another played out daily on the local, national, and international scene. Yes, we need these words of promise, and we acknowledge that we continue to hunger and thirst for the love and grace of Jesus to dwell with us, and in us, and to abide in our world today.
        Comfort, comfort now, my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,…” For years, the people of Israel had been inhabitants of the great city of Jerusalem, with its temple, the central symbol and locus of their religion. Their status as God’s chosen people was central to their lives and to their identity, and yet, they had forgotten about their role in keeping covenantal relationship with God, had sinned appallingly against God, had neglected the poor, the widows and the children.
        And then they became a conquered people, long exiled to Babylon. A generation passed away and another came of age following the conquest destruction of their city and the desecration and annihilation of the Temple, the locus of their ritual life with God. Finally, the prophet calls out the word of the LORD, “Comfort, O comfort…cry to her that her penalty is paid.”
        Isaiah is announcing to the people that something spectacular is about to happen. God is about to come, to rescue God’s people, to lead them home. God will give them the comfort, God will deliver them from their hopelessness, and God will transform their lives. Have no fear, the messenger is telling his people – wilderness, mountains, valleys and rough places hold no threat against this coming of the LORD. God will indeed come. God will lead them home.
        What must it have been like for those people, who have languished their entire lives in this land of Babylon, to hear those words, “Comfort, comfort now my people,….The glory of the LORD shall be revealed and all people shall see it together…” What was it like, for the people in first century Palestine, living under Roman occupation, watching and waiting for the promised Messiah, the anointed one to arrive, to deliver them from their oppression, to hear the words of John, words that connected them to their backstory – to their beloved Scriptures – “As it was written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”?
        As we read these words today, I wonder if we can see the remarkable way in which they reach out and draw us into this story of God’s advent? I wonder if we can see parallels in these stories of the ages? Like the people of Isaiah’s time, we might often feel that we, too are languishing. We might feel that we, too have lost our way. Whether we are personally experiencing a rich harvest or famine in our lives, we have to acknowledge that that are so many points of connection between our story and the Israelites – or the people of 1st century Palestine – or any time in between.
        Throughout the history of humankind, we have seen cycles of conquest, exile, rebellion, and the continuing fight of good against evil. The Israelites lived it. The people of first century Palestine experienced it, and it is part of the landscape of our world today.
        Our Old Testament and gospel readings each refer to the wilderness. Wilderness can be described as inhospitable terrain, empty or pathless region, uncivilized, wild, or uncultivated state. Wilderness is symbolic of much of human life. Wild. Unpredictable. Uncontrollable, no matter how much we like to think we can and do have control. In many ways, especially when we consider its vast potential, the wilderness of our lives is barren.
        Yet it is in this barren place that we hear God’s promise. “Comfort, comfort” proclaims the prophet – our God promises and will provide, Comfort. In Jesus Christ, every valley is lifted up, every mountain and hill made low, the uneven ground is smoothed out, and all those rough places are made a plain; leveled, like a field.
        And yet, we know that the fulfillment of this promise is not yet complete. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, this leveling, this comfort, this promise is breaking through the wilderness, and we are part of its revealing. The good news of this gospel is that God is now present, now working, now comforting and consoling, now coming, now feeding empty stomachs, now clothing, now encountering, now embracing the suffering, the hungry, the thirsty and the lowly ones. In the mystery of the ages, God has come among us in Jesus, who remains with us through the power of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus will come again, bringing this promised leveling and lifting up to a complete and glorious end.  
        We are surrounded each day by images that stay with us and inform our world view. Lately, many of those images are disturbing: Violence in Ferguson, Ohio and New York, terrorism in Syria and Somalia, racial and ethnic unrest, disgraced celebrities and politicians, beheadings, massacres, innocent children suffering every manner of torment, and more. But the scriptures we have read today deliver God’s word to us that is more powerful than any worldly power or the power of evil itself. Comfort, comfort, now my people….I am sending my messenger….Every valley shall be lifted up…every mountain and hill be make low…uneven ground become level….the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.

And so, I would like to leave you with other images today…images from just the past week: Pope Francis I and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I  of the Eastern Orthodox Church embracing, and the pope bowing for blessing by the patriarch in an historic moment of reconciliation; white police officers embracing young black men; black women holding the hands of white officers and praying with them and for them; lists of names published daily in the local paper, of people in our community who have contributed to a fund to help the needy; piles of Christmas gifts forming in my office, donated by Grace members to provide Christmas for poor families; people of many backgrounds coming together to contribute to the needs of refugees; there are so many more.
        In our text from Mark, a messenger has come once again. John the Baptist delivers the good news that God has entered human history in an amazing and unprecedented way, and the same message is given, “See, I am sending a messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” WE are part of the good news of the advent of Christ. May we be comforted in our work and in our lives. May we be inspired to daily acts of loving kindness and reconciliation. May we pray and daily support peaceful resolution of worldwide conflict. And may we, who live yet in the wilderness, find our rest in Christ, the one who came, is coming, and will yet come again, freeing every captive from every thing that binds us. Amen.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Apocalypse - It's Not Just a Blockbuster Movie

Mark 13:24-37

        Waves taller than skyscrapers pound and rush toward the shore. With sheer power and force the water brings with it an annihilating maelstrom. It is relentless and leaves absolute destruction in its wake. In moments, every manmade structure, every single one of the massive witnesses to the creativity, power and wealth of generations are reduced to nothing more than twisted metal and rubble. Malevolent skies swirl above, lightning and thunder ceaselessly crashing to the earth below. The sound is deafening, flashes of light blinding.
        The earth begins to quake and tremble. Aged mountain ranges shake and crumble. Soon, they are reduced to dust. Countless grains of sand lining the desert floor shift and fall into an ever-widening chasm, every plant, dune and oasis swallowed up in an instant. Nothing is spared in this torrent of catastrophic, total destruction.
        Popular apocalyptic visages like these, snapshots of the phenomenon known as “end times” prey on our fear. They witness to our helplessness. Books, disaster movies and “rapture” storylines like the “Left Behind” series of books and movies have described what some of us may imagine it will be like when the world is brought to a swift, terrifying and absolute end. And although we may seek to be entertained by the computer generated graphics and special effects of these fictional stories that describe the apocalypse, most of the time, “the end” is the “last thing” (no pun intended) that we want to think about.
        In our gospel today, however, Mark tells us that we must think about it. These verses, in fact, make up what is known as Mark’s “little apocalypse”, which has parallels in the other two synoptic gospels. These are texts in which the gospel writers each present a vision of the final return of Jesus, bringing the world and the kingdom of God to its fullness, and they implore us to watch, to wait, and to be prepared for that time when the Son of Man comes again, “in the clouds with great power and glory.”
        What will it be like when the end of the world arrives as Christ comes again? How will Jesus judge the living and the dead, the worthy and the unworthy, the alert and wakeful versus the sleeping ones? According to Mark this apocalypse is not something to ignore, forget about, or take for granted (as in, “it hasn’t happened yet and we’ve been waiting a really long time – it’s not about to come now”). Rather, in this text and the others like it, Jesus himself tells us, “Beware!” “Keep alert!” “Keep awake.” “Be prepared.”       
        What a way to wake up and discover ourselves in Advent. Yet here we are on this first Sunday of Advent, with Thanksgiving just past and visions of Christmas cookies and carols and trees and gifts swirling in our heads, these scriptures plunk us down totally unprepared, in the middle of Armaggedon. It’s as if we fell asleep to the sweet sounds of Silver Bells ringing the news that another angel has earned its wings in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and awakened to Scrooge’s “Ghost of Christmas future” – before George C. Scott’s great epiphany.
        Advent invites us into a new kind of awareness and hope. It opens its arms and invites us to participate, prepare, and to be truly alive and awake. It invites us to open our hearts and minds and to know Christ’s presence and to be alert to the ways we encounter him during this in-between time of the already-but-not-yet of the kingdom’s coming. “In those days,” says Jesus, “after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”
        Peter, a friend of mine, is all too aware today of what it feels like when the world as we know it abruptly ends, when the sun is darkened and the moon as well. Just a week ago he and his family were celebrating the baptism of his infant daughter and among those participating in the celebration and sharing in the joy of new life was a long time and beloved friend. Two days ago Peter received news that his friend was dead, killed by a drunk driver. In the blink of an eye, with the ringing of a telephone, the world came crashing down.
        Many of us know what it is like – the split second that irrevocably changes the future, brings dreams to an end, shatters our innocence, and destroys our world. The end may come with a devastating diagnosis, a sudden illness or the senseless loss of a child to violence. The end may come with the betrayal by a loved one; it may be experienced through the sudden loss of a job or home, or in any of the myriad of ways in which we find our world to be suddenly spinning wildly out of control.
        “We may be tempted to believe that the ending of an individual’s personal world is not the same as The End of the World that Jesus describes in our gospel reading,” writes Jan Richardson. “Yet the first Sunday in Advent invites us to recognize that these endings are connected; that the Christ who will return at the end of time somehow inhabits each ending we experience in this life.”
        Each year, right at the start of Advent, on this first Sunday of the church year, we are called and invited to practice the apocalypse, and to experience the hope embedded there by God; to look for the presence of Christ, who enters into our every loss, who accompanies us through each ending we experience in life, who comes to us in the midst of devastation, who gathers us up when our world has shattered, and who offers healing that is the foretaste of the wholeness he is working to bring about not only at the end time but at this time, and in this place. 
        Ms. Richardson knows personally of this kind of life-ending loss and this kind of healing as she has come to count on the presence of Christ in the midst of her own personal apocalypse. Following the sudden and unexpected death of her husband just one year ago, it felt to her like her world ended. Through her grief and in the midst of her journey, she wrote this poem:
Blessing When the World is Ending.
Look, the world
is always ending
the sun has come
crashing down.
it has gone
completely dark.
it has ended
with the gun
the knife
the fist.
it has ended
with the slammed door
the shattered hope.
it has ended
with the utter quiet
that follows the news
from the phone
the television
the hospital room.

it has ended
with a tenderness
that will break
your heart.

But, listen,
this blessing means
to be anything
but morose.
It has not come
to cause despair.
It is simply here
because there is nothing
a blessing
is better suited for
than an ending,
nothing that cries out more
for a blessing
than when a world
is falling apart.
This blessing
will not fix you
will not mend you
will not give you
false comfort;
it will not talk to you
about one door opening
when another one closes.
It will simply
sit itself beside you
among the shards
and gently turn your face
toward the direction
from which the light
will come,
gathering itself
about you
as the world begins
– Jan Richardson
        The light toward which we turn is the light of Christ who has entered our world, the Messiah, yet born a child; the King of Glory, yet laid in a manger, of all things; the Prince of Peace who poured out his love for the world even as he was nailed to the cross. And the earth quaked, the sun darkened and the powers of heaven were shaken. And in his resurrection, he brought about the redemption of the world. Therefore, we are blessed to hope.
Apocalyptic writings such as the gospel for today offer hope to those who are suffering; hope that out of tribulation and destruction, God will bring new and better life. Into failure and heartache, God will bring love. Indeed, God, who transforms death on a cross into the victory of resurrection, who uses a powerless babe to transform the history of the world, will transform the chaos and darkness of this world into new life as a new heaven and new earth transform the broken world into paradise.
Where do we see glimpses of God? Where do we experience God’s presence in our daily walk, our daily struggles, joys, and encounters? Not in a glorious temple, but on a cross; Not in wealth and power but in the comfort we receive through angels sent to us at times of pain and devastation. The promise of Christ’s apocalypse is not a promise only for the future, but a promise that Christ is present at the pinnacle of our lives but also at the crossroads between the hopes and dreams we harbor for the future, and the pain and need of today. God does the most unexpected things in the most unexpected of places.
Friends, God will bring creation, God’s beloved creation, to a good end. The time to be prepared is always the present time.  Knowing that Christ will come again, we prepare for him as we daily live out our lives in the world that God has made.
Keep awake, Jesus tells us. Keep alert – see the presence of Christ in everyday things. Watch for the opportunities God offers for blessing and mercy.  The Scriptures tell us that no one will know, not the even the angels or the Son will know when the “end” will come. We cannot know when Christ will come again. But we do know that life in Christ is here. Life in Christ is now. And this savior for whom we prepare this season remains with us all the seasons of our lives.
Can we keep from being distracted by Christmas while we’re still in the midst of Advent? Can we keep alert for Christ as we minister to the poor and lonely this season? Can we keep awake for opportunities to be Christ for any and all who hunger for the light?
I wonder, as we wait and watch and prepare ourselves to welcome these sightings and experiences of God this Advent, as we wait and watch and prepare ourselves for the ultimate return of Jesus Christ, if we can avoid skipping ahead to the ending, and live in the quiet expectation of one who has already won the prize? More accurately put, I wonder if we, as the beloved children of God, might immerse ourselves in the gift of being found, formed and claimed by God, through the grace of the cross.

Friday, November 21, 2014

China and Linens

Matthew 25.14-30

I find the concept of the “witness protection program” fascinating. You know the program I mean, don’t you? It’s a program meant to offer life protection to certain individuals and their families. These individuals are witnesses, who have vital information – usually of a criminal nature – about powerfully connected people – think, “mafia.” The information they have must be protected. Both before and after they are finished testifying, the witnesses that possess this information and their families, must be protected. Through this program they are given new identities and a new life. To keep witnesses and their families safe, all of this is done and information about them is kept in absolute secrecy.
In my family of origin, we had a “witness protection program” too. It was called “the china closet.” And when I was growing up, it held and concealed a particular treasure - my grandmother’s tablecloths and china. Today the tablecloths must be over seventy or eighty years old, and truth be told, age in and of itself has had a toll on them. The china is at least that age, probably older. But most of the time, when I was growing up, the china closet hid it all away for its own protection. It was so well hidden, in fact, that I often forgot it even existed. And yet, these items had stories to tell, and by keeping them hidden, the story stayed under wraps as well.
When we had family celebrations, or the holidays like Christmas or Easter came, our treasures were sometimes allowed out of their protective prison cell.  On those occasions the place settings for the adults would include this valued treasure, while we children still ate off the everyday melamine dinnerware. Treasuring these things meant keeping them safe, protecting them and preserving them. And so they were kept, protected, behind the china cabinet doors, for decades.
Although they testified to family celebrations and the stories and people that went with them, many of whom were no longer with us, we couldn’t use these items, because something might happen to them if we let them out of the china closet. This was our own “witness protection program.”
I’m reminded of that china when I read the Gospel for today. Here, the master has gone away but before leaving he calls forth three of his slaves. Now, he knows very well the capabilities of these slaves. And so, when he gives them talents to care for in his absence; to each one he gives amount that he knows he or she can handle.
While in today’s context we might think of talents as those skills, gifts and abilities we possess, in Jesus’ time and in his world, a “talent” was the largest unit of currency or coin. It was a large sum of money, each one perhaps equal in value to about 15 to 20 years’ wage. So a slave who received five talents would be like a millionaire, and even the slave who was given the one talent would be handling quite a lot of money.
The master gives these varying amounts, not because he’s playing favorites here; rather, he knows them well, and is giving each one only what they can work with without being over-burdened. Yet when he returns, he expects to see that they’ve worked well with what he’s given them – and in this case, success means growth of that gift.
In fact, each of the first two slaves doubled the amount they had been given. They knew that someday the master would return and they wanted to be able to show him evidence of their faithfulness. They wanted to make their master proud and to please him. Perhaps they were even motivated by a sense of gratitude. The master had put a great deal of trust in them, and they did not let him down.
Yet the story also has a sad twist to it, too. Because this third servant, while given an amount he had the ability to care for and grow, just like the others, failed to do anything at all with the money. Either out of laziness or fear -- he hid the talent he was given away, for nobody to see. Maybe he eventually forgot it was there. Whatever it was that caused him to bury the talent and hide it away, when the master returned all he could show him was the same talent the master had given him. Unchanged. With no growth, certainly no better off than when he received it.
God has given each of us gifts to use for the benefit of the Body of Christ, and for the kingdom of God here on earth. It makes sense, then, that when we welcome the  newly baptized we say to them, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” We’re not told, “here is the light of Christ, now quick, go hide it and keep it safe, lest somebody try to blow it out.” Rather, we told to shine into the world. News flash! This is no “witness protection program” – we’re not supposed to hide this treasure away and keep it safe! Instead, God trusts us to grow the treasure – and the only way to grow it, is to use it – to share it with others!
The story that goes along with this gift – the gift of life in Christ Jesus, is a story we are meant to tell! Not only as individuals but as a church! As the Body of Christ in the world, we are sent out into the world, to shine our collective lights, and to shine into the darkness! And Jesus goes with us.
Friends, WE are the witnesses that are sent out into the world, to testify to the good news of the salvation of Jesus Christ for the world. We are the witnesses who, rather than being closeted away, are sent into the world to witness to the great and wondrous news of God’s mercy and grace through loving acts of generosity and kindness to others. We follow the commandment Jesus himself called the “greatest” - sharing the love of Jesus Christ with our neighbor and with the world. Jesus gives us this mission, and equips us to do it. Jesus knows our gifts and abilities well, and we are asked to do only what God knows we are able to do. Through the Holy Spirit, God has provided all we need to prosper the kingdom of God in the world, to build up the treasure of God’s kingdom.  
Sharing this treasure is sometimes a risky thing to do. It is sometimes a scary thing to do because we’re not sent to go out just a couple of times a year, and to be choosy about who we share this with. We are not only to share it with certain people as the china and tablecloths at the table of my childhood could only be shared with the people who knew how to treat them and keep them safe.
We are called and gathered to share the treasure of faith in Jesus Christ, the Messiah, with one another here, and to take that message out into the world, to grow and prosper the kingdom of God on earth, knowing that Jesus goes with us.
Sometimes, when we share who we are as children of God, things get messy. There are some who may not be ready to hear this good news. But by God’s grace we are ready, and we are given the gifts and talents necessary to share it. We are strengthened and fed for this work by God, every time we come together to share Word and Sacrament. We are prepared for it each time we join in song together, sharing our heritage and our hearts.
God enriches our knowledge and trust in the story each time we confess our faith, when we declare, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth! I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord. We believe Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried,” for our sake.
A few years ago, I decided that as often as we could, we would use the “good” china. Those linens, so faithfully, stored are fragile and holey now – and I don’t mean blessed – they now have lots of little holes in them, where the natural fibers are losing the battle of aging. You see, not using them, and storing them away didn’t exactly protect them. They needed to be used, to be seen and appreciated and enjoyed.
So today, when we use the china, we are reminded of the people who are no longer with us. We are reminded that they, too had stories to tell even if we don’t know them all anymore. But we are reunited with them in a way, by letting these things out into the light of day to shine and to share in their goodness.
In just such a way, when we let our lights shine, we are reconnected with the great cloud of witnesses that went before us. We are growing the kingdom of God on earth and preparing it for Christ’s return. We are reminded of God’s creative presence in the world, God’s dynamic presence that is still at work, where one day, all things will be made new and whole once again. 
Until then, let’s join together with our brothers and sisters in Christ, opening the doors to the china closet wide, opening our hearts and our imaginations, shining our lights into the dark corners, and daring to risk ourselves for Jesus’ sake. And, at Christ’s return, may we stand tall as we hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”



Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Amazing Grace

Matthew 22:15-22  
The Pharisees Question Jesus by James Tisson
        Did you hear that final sentence in our gospel this morning? “When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.” What was it about what Jesus said that amazed these disciples of the Pharisees who had been sent to Jesus to try to trap him? Was it that he saw through their thinly veiled guise, through their conniving and treachery? Was it the way that Jesus turned their words and intent around, in fact ensnaring them in a trap of their own making? Or was it simply the authority with which Jesus spoke?
        As we seek to answer these questions and those others that we might add, it is important to place this reading in its appropriate context.        This story occurs during what we know of as Holy Week. The shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David” have all but faded away as Jesus enters the divine space of these few days between his triumphant entry into Jerusalem and his tragic crucifixion.
        The temple leaders are trying in earnest to trap Jesus and fulfill their mission to destroy him. They have one goal in mind – to be rid of this man who is causing so much trouble with his cross-cultural message. But they have also been taking great care in planning his downfall, because they fear the crowds.
        The 1st century Jews and everyone living in the Roman territories are required to pay an Imperial tax, the one being referred to here. Of all the taxes that they must pay, and there were many, this tax is without a doubt the most despised because this is the tax with which the people of Israel pay their oppressors to do the very work of oppressing them.  
        Jesus avoids the trap that has been laid for him by his questioners, by asking a question of his own, “whose head is this, and whose title?” Someone pulls a coin from his tunic. They answer, “the emperor’s. Perhaps it is at that moment they realize their folly. And they are amazed. Because Jesus knew. He knew they would reveal their divided loyalties by carrying this Roman coinage into this holy place, the temple. They knew that this money was idolatrous, bearing on it not only the face of the emperor but also an inscription that declares him divine or the son of a god.
        Jesus’ response must have cut them to the quick. “Give, therefore, to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”. Jesus doesn’t accuse them. Rather, he calls them to a higher fidelity than they had ever imagined; he calls them to live in a relationship to God that bears evidence of their faith and understanding, that everything belongs to the one true God, the Holy One of Israel.
        We, too are called to a higher fidelity than we can ever truly understand. Our gospel text raises questions for those who surrounded Jesus in the temple that day. It raises questions for us today. While Jesus raises these questions, he doesn’t give us pat answers.
        Instead, Jesus issues an invitation to another kind of life, where we acknowledge that although we do have responsibility to render certain elements of our lives to the world order within which we live, we also identify our deepest self as belonging to God. Jesus has made the amazing promise that no matter what we do or say, regardless of where we go, no matter what may befall us, we belong to God. We are and will always be, first and foremost, God’s own beloved children. Therefore, the simple truth found within this text has profound implications for how we live in the world, for the choices we make, and for how we value and conduct the various parts and parcels of our lives.
        One day, when I was about five or six years old, I got mad. I don’t really remember what was wrong, but on that day I decided to run away.
        I carefully and selectively packed my bag. Into my little suitcase I placed my favorite pajamas and a frilly dress my mother had just bought for me. I packed a sweater and my favorite stuffed animal, Andy the Panda Bear. Then I set out on my own.
        One of my neighbors must have seen me and ratted me out because I didn’t get very far before one of my parents caught up with me. I returned home for “The Inquisition.”
        “What were you doing?” I was asked. “Running away from home,” came my reply. “Oh, I see,” my parent responded. We may or may not have discussed the reason for my flight away from our home and family. I don’t really remember. But what happened next is forever etched in my memory.  “So, what do you have there?” they asked, pointing to my suitcase. I opened up and revealed the few treasures I had taken with me.

        Well, my parents told me. They would be really sad to see me go, they had really gotten used to having me around. But if I must go, I must. However, the suitcase would have to stay. In fact, they said, everything would have to remain here, because as my parents so eloquently told me, “you arrived in your birthday suit, and if you leave, you will have to leave in your birthday suit.” I guess it was our own, “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” kind of moment.
        I got their point. I elected to stay.
        You might say that my parents strong-armed me that day. Perhaps they did. They certainly shocked me. And sometimes that is what we need in order for us to see the truth. Perhaps, sly fox that he can sometimes be, that is what Jesus did that day as well.
        Remember the final sentence of our text, “When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.” Perhaps that conversation with Jesus was a sort of watershed moment for those men. We don’t really know. We don’t know for sure where they went afterward, or what they did.
        But I wonder, might hearing those words and considering the import of them for our lives today be a watershed moment for us?
        We reflect on those words of Jesus: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Exactly what is God’s?
        We’re going to take just a few moments now, and I am going to ask the ushers to give each of you a dollar bill. This dollar bill is a gift. It is a gift from me to you. It may seem like a crazy thing to do, for the pastor to give each of you a dollar bill, and out of her own pocket, no less! But you know what? That dollar bill really was a gift to me in the first place.
        The ability to earn it is a gift. In fact that dollar bill, multiplied by however many people worship here today pales in significance as only the tiniest portion of all that God has given me. Like the belongings that I placed into my suitcase that day when I was five, none of these dollars is truly mine except by the grace of God. As a precious gift to me, I am called to care for them, to use them wisely and appropriately. My use of them should bear out the fact that I belong to Christ.
        And so, my brothers and sisters in Christ, once you get your dollar bill, I invite you to take just a moment and look at it. Examine it closely, and then talk for just a moment or two with your neighbor. Tell your neighbor what you see in the dollar bill. What symbols are drawn on it? What words written upon it? What do they mean to you? What does this dollar bill represent for you?
        Next, I invite you to imagine what this dollar bill might buy. What kind of work might it do for you, either alone or combined with other money you have in your possession?
        I invite you then to do with this dollar bill what you see fit. There were no strings attached when you received it. If you need it, keep it. You can choose to give it away to a worthy cause. You can decide to put a portion of it or combine it with other dollar bills and place them in the collection plate. You can take a pen and mark it with a cross, then tape it to your bathroom mirror or carry it in your wallet to remind you that you are a child of God and everything you possess, from every moment of your day, to the very body you were given, your loved ones, to your last dollar, and finally your very salvation is a gift from God, given for you through God’s everlasting love and mercy. It is, quite simply, amazing!
        What would it mean then to see everything as coming from God and belonging to God? It means that you fulfill certain civic responsibilities because God made you a citizen with a homeland. It might mean that you see your role in creation through new eyes, and determine to become a better steward of the environment. It might be that the concept of the tithe takes on new meaning for you.
        How hard is it to see everything as belonging to God?
Christ on the Cross by Carl Heinrich Bloch
        Not long after this confrontation, Jesus will live out the kind of sacrificial giving that none of us will ever be able to truly appreciate on this side of the cross. In Christ, God risks everything. God knows the risk of the grace bestowed on us, and God gives it freely, anyway. That is the core of God’s grace. God is the one who takes the risk. God is the one that gives it all, in order that we might all have eternal life that begins in Christ Jesus.
        May the grace of God call us to the kind of amazement that stays with us when we leave this place today, and colors all the rest of our days.