Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Homily

A meditation on The Nativity of our Lord--Proper II. Appropriate to the day's celebration, there was also a baptism at this service.

Gloria in excelsis Deo. Glory to God in the highest. The heavens light up, an angel choir sings of peace. Shepherds run from the fields into town. A Savior is born, and the whole world rejoices!

Many of us may be familiar with these images, and have probably had them embellished with stories of various Christmases throughout history or our own lifetimes. There is the story of the Christmas truce of 1914, where German and British soldiers had an unofficial ceasefire at many points along their fighting lines on Christmas Eve, and in some cases exchanged gifts or greetings with one another. There is the tradition of providing gifts and bringing food, clothing, and the like for people who cannot afford that on their own. There is the story of Christmas being celebrated in India by peoples of many other faiths along with their Christian neighbors. There is today’s story of celebrating Christmas with a baptism—and of hearing those promises of baptism as we remember Christ’s birth. There are probably many more stories you could tell as well from your own past and traditions.

How wonderful to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World, Prince of Peace, in this way. I sincerely mean that. I think it is amazing that across cultures and times and spaces, we have taken the initiative to celebrate the coming of Jesus with acts of kindness and peace and promise. There is something in this holiday that tends to inspire us to want to be better than we are the rest of the year, and it is more than just the idea that Santa’s coming and you have to behave. For those of us that Santa no longer visits, there is still that desire to be better as well.

Perhaps it’s that this very real, very tiny baby actually appears. God’s promise to never forget God’s people is kept in this moment when Jesus, the Incarnation, appears for the first time here on earth. Isaiah’s proclamations ring true—this is a time when salvation comes, reward with him and recompense before him. The redeemed are not forsaken. It is a gift, a true gift, a gift beyond measure—and it is a gift for all, too. At this point in the book of Isaiah, Jerusalem had been devastated, the city broken and wasted by the exile of its people. As bleak as it looks, however, the promise still holds. This is a Holy People, who are not forgotten or forsaken.

This theme is echoed in our gospel lesson as well—angels fill up the sky and announce to the shepherds. “Unto you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior, Jesus Christ, the Lord.” Unto you. Unto you shepherds—you people who have been called smelly, lowly, outcast, who have been called dishonest, unworthy, you who are unable to sleep in a house, but have for your bed a cave filled with animals as well. Unto you is born Jesus Christ. The angels of God personally invite the shepherds to visit Jesus in Bethlehem. No matter who you are, where you are, what you have done or what you do now, you are invited to Bethlehem to see this baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a feeding trough. You are not forsaken, and you are not forgotten.

It seems so simple; a baby is born, yet this baby is beyond our ability to achieve. We could never make God do this, yet God chooses to come to us this way. Simple. Vulnerable. Perhaps in this moment, in reflecting on the miracle of birth itself, of the helplessness of newborns, we begin to realize the gift is something we could never imagine or do for ourselves.

The book of Titus perhaps puts it best in these few verses, “When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, God saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to God’s mercy, through the water and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit God poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.”

And so we enter the celebration of Christmas, aware of this gift the angels announce to the shepherds as they sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill to all.” We maybe even join the whole earth in their song—Gloria in excelsis Deo! We renew our connection to the larger community of faith, perhaps thinking of those stories from around the world as we contemplate this one particular story set in what is now the Middle East.

Something happens, though, doesn’t it? We spend so much time from Thanksgiving through December preparing for it, and we do celebrate—and celebrate well—for one or two days, but then December 26th rolls around, and we go back. The Germans and the British troops did cease fire for Christmas, overturning orders and strategies, but they began shooting again. We got books or presents or toys for those people who didn’t have much, but now we don’t even remember who they were. We were better for a while. We crossed the aisle or street to shake hands, but now we’re back in our proper places. We made it. We worked towards that deadline, and now it’s over. Whew! We can go back to being just like we were for the rest of the year now.

Is that all it is? Christmas—a one-day deadline we work towards? That’s reality. We go back to work, or school, or whatever, and are relatively unchanged by the miracle that has happened. What will you do tomorrow? Monday? Christmas is a celebration, yes, and a wonderful day, but it’s also the observance of the anniversary of a birthday. Birthdays are something we tend to work from—we make wishes for the coming year and use any gifts we may have to help us live it better. So it is with Christmas. We celebrate, but also think about the coming year. We are reminded that we are not forgotten or forsaken, no matter what has happened in the past. And just as we are not forgotten, we are invited not to forget, but to grow and learn and use our gifts—and this gift of Jesus—to help us better live throughout the year.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sermon Matthew 1:18-25

Fourth Sunday of Advent texts here, audio version here.

When I was about fourteen years old, I was driving my brother and me to school—now I know some of you won’t get past the fact that in North Dakota you can get your license at fourteen, but I promise there’s more to this story. I was driving my brother and me to school, and as I backed out of the driveway, I didn’t watch the nose of my parents' massive 1976 Chevy pick-up, and I knocked over the mailbox at the end of the driveway…a quality brick structure, not some little mail order tin thing on a stick. I put my head down, looked up, and saw my mom standing at the door to the house, watching the whole thing.

The feeling I had at that moment can only be described as a mixture of panic, guilt, and inexplicably wanting to become invisible. The sort of feeling that causes your stomach to sink right down to your toes…your hands go numb, and you’d maybe cry and your cheeks would flush if all the blood hadn’t drained from your face just a few seconds earlier. There are many levels to it and lots of causes.

It doesn’t have to be necessarily knocking your mailbox over—or being fourteen. Perhaps for you it’s seeing those flashing lights in your rearview mirror when you know you’re going too fast. Perhaps it’s letting it slip that you voted against something your political party wanted, because you thought something else was actually more right. It’s probably a little radical to even mention that—voting. Oh, I can feel the tension rising—it’s almost crackling in the air. You’re maybe starting to wonder what angle I’m going to work next. What’s going on now. What I’m going to say next. What I’m going to say is I think maybe now you know the feeling I mean...that "oh no, now what?" feeling.

Maybe now you have an idea of the feeling Joseph would’ve experienced in our story today. Mary’s pregnant, and he knows he’s not the father. The law is pretty clear about what should happen in these situations. Deuteronomy 22:23-24 states that the punishment for this is to bring the pregnant woman to the town gate and throw stones at her until she is dead, and by doing so purge the evil and cleanse the community. Joseph knows the law; being a righteous man, this is what he should do. There is another way out, however. Since Mary is technically Joseph’s property, he disown her by presenting to her a writ of divorce, and let her go quietly—disgraced but alive. Whatever he decides, the law and the social expectations are clear—he is to have nothing more to do with her, and both of them are in big trouble.

Something happens, though. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream and speaks to him. There is no mistake in this, because angel calls Joseph by his name and heritage—Joseph, of the house of David, the royal line—do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. The angel takes the situation and names it for what it is—fear. Fear—undiluted and unrestrained fear.

The angel then sorts out the truth of the matter, saying this is not just some random child, but the Son conceived from the Holy Spirit. Pure and simple education—knowing the facts rather than assuming the worst—sorts this mess out. The angel points out that it is what the child will eventually do that is important. Jesus, Jeshua, will save his people from their sins. Fear is turned to hope.

As Christians, we understand everything through this life story. We say that Isaiah points ahead to it, that Paul’s letters—like Romans, reflect back on it. In Scripture, then, we have both prophecy of and affirmation for the significance in Jesus’ life. In worship, we confirm our belief in it. In our daily lives, even our calendar has been set to it. And in a little town halfway around the world, it depended on one man’s rejection of society’s expectations. All I can say is, God must have known what God was doing in choosing Mary and Joseph. Mary had to accept this life, and Joseph had to protect it.

Joseph wakes from his dream with the angel, and (in my opinion) a miracle happens. He is given the faith to believe the angel’s words, and the courage to let his faith show through his actions.
What will the neighbors think? If Joseph had brought Mary out to be stoned, they might have pitied him—thought him righteous for upholding the law. They might have even been grateful to him for cleansing the community. If he had dismissed her quietly, they might have respected him—thought him betrayed but somehow kind in spite of it by letting her live at all.

But Joseph marries her! He is foolish, stupid, an idiot in the eyes of the neighbors…and worse—he ignores the law! What is going on? Joseph takes Mary as his wife, thereby protecting her from death and exile—he acts as the advocate for this woman who would be condemned. Joseph goes even further, though, claiming the child as his own by naming him Jesus. In naming him, Joseph steps up to take this role as Father, protector, guardian, Dad. You thought talking about voting was radical—this is insane!

And maybe, just maybe, there’s a lesson for us in there as well. We hear the Christmas story over and over again, until the Good News becomes Old News. Most of us are not like the Romans being addressed in the Second Lesson, when they articulate their faith for the first time or send greetings (as Paul does here) that retell the entire story of Jesus. We don’t need to be told, like Joseph, how important Jesus will be by an angel in a dream.

We forget sometimes that the challenge of Jesus’ ministry began long before his first miracle or even his baptism. Even before his birth, Jesus’ very existence challenged a family to act outside of the social expectations and beyond the status quo. There had to be an advocate for the condemned but not guilty people. We still need that. There are a thousand and one organizations I could name here or situations I could suggest, but you likely already know them. If you don’t, I’m more than happy to go through a list of them with you later. The point is, there are still people condemned to being cold, being hungry, having no control over wages, housing, marital status or life situation not by their own fault, but because someone higher up in the system decided that they don’t get a voice. The point is, we need to see what happened here not as happy news, but as good news that was costly to all involved. The point is, we need to stop being afraid of what the neighbors will think and just do what’s right.

I wonder what the world would look like if we were all a bit more like Joseph when discerning the truth—if we listened to the facts rather than jumped to conclusions. If we heard the Christmas story every year with new ears and saw this humble—humiliated—family and tiny baby with new eyes. If we saw the system not as something we should try to get the most from for ourselves, but as something that should support and advocate for all—especially those without power. If we recognized justice rather than status. If we had courage to show our faith through our lives outside of these walls and make our lives ones ruled not by the fear of what might happen, but by the hope of what could be. The angel says, “Do not be afraid,” and so we too may listen and live our lives with courage and hope. Amen.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What about Joseph?

This week I'll be preaching on the story from Matthew 1:18-25. The lessons for the day can be found here.

Though many lectionary texts have common themes, and some seem to be randomly thrown together, it's reasonable to suspect that these particular lessons were intentionally put together for a reason. Isaiah's verses are referenced as being fulfilled in Matthew, and Paul's recollection of Jesus' life seems to affirm the story foretold by the angel. Essentially, both lessons point to the Gospel reading.

I wonder about the possible portrayal of Joseph as an advocate who does what is right regardless of the social stigmas of the day. There is a large emphasis on doing what is correct according to the law and what is acceptable according to society (today as well as in the Scripture reading). Most commentaries I've looked at have paid close attention to the laws and expectations of what a man was to do in ancient Israel if his betrothed was found to be pregnant. Not surprisingly, death by stoning and/or divorce are at the top of the list.

In our current culture of fear (fear of being hurt/attacked nationally, fear of losing our lifestyle, fear of 'the other' or unfamiliar, fear of disappointing those whose opinions we value, etc.), the angel says, "Do not be afraid!" I wonder what that means for us today.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Anna's Story

The reading for this sermon is Luke 2:27-38:

Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." 33 And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed-- and a sword will pierce your own soul too." 36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Today's voice comes from Anna, the prophet mentioned in the last few verses of our text today. Anna, who, if she were here, might say...

This is ridiculous. I really shouldn’t be here--I'm nobody. Honestly. I'll prove it to you. Nobody famous ever came from Asher—Oh sure, there was Pagiel who organized the military to help Moses, but we didn’t even defeat the Canaanites in the land, so we had to live with them. How embarrassing is that?

There were a few names in the record books, but mostly it was the other tribes that got the big names out there…David from Judah, of course, Saul from Benjamin, Elijah the Tishbite, Deborah in Ephraim…Next to all of them, Asher is pretty insignificant when it comes to the people of Israel.

Even among the tribe of Asher, I am a very low person, status-wise. I’m a woman, for starters, and a widow, and old. You think eighty-four years is a long time in your world? Try eighty-four years in ancient Israel…some people thought I was cursed or blessed to be so old. Haha. When those people come around, I usually just smile and tell them that I guess those Kosher laws were there for a reason…

All this insignificance is why I really wasn’t expecting anything terribly important to happen in my lifetime. Especially something like this…especially to someone like me. I mean, we had been waiting so long—prophets had been talking for ages about this new vision of God’s world, one in which God’s dominion stretched from one end of the earth to the other. Israel had been expecting this deliverer for ages, and then it just happened. It was just a normal day…I was at the temple as usual—not really fussing over anything. I think the shirt I wore had perhaps been washed a week ago, so at least it was somewhat fresh.

Then Simeon started shouting about something—well, I’m old, I know, and sometimes the hearing gets a little fuzzy, but when Simeon makes a fuss, you can’t really miss it. He was over by the families waiting to dedicate their sons, and then there He was…just a little baby! It was so strange with all of the pop-culture versions of the visions from the prophets…you expect it to be, you know, different. Chariots of fire breaking through the clouds with angel warriors to take on the Romans and all that. Once I saw Him, though, there was no mistaking it. The Son of God, a little baby.

What struck me most were the child’s parents—they were as insignificant as I was! Well, maybe even more so since they were buying birds instead of the “preferred” lamb for the dedication. And let me tell you, there is nothing prestigious about their story, either. Giving birth with a bunch of barn animals wandering around—that’s just gross—and having your first visitors be sheep herders coming in from the fields. Seriously? The first visitors to this ‘king’ aren’t diplomats or royalty or even family, but a bunch of smelly herders…servants to the more comfortable, mostly. You know, those people who can afford things like houses and extra sets of clothing.

The Son of God, a little baby. How silly is that? How ingenious is that? I couldn’t stop talking about it for days. Well, I still can’t, if you can’t tell…anyone who’s willing to listen gets an earful from me. If I’d have known this was going to happen on that day, I probably would’ve prepared a bit more—written something hymn-worthy like Simeon…or at least have one of the Psalms ready in my back pocket…something more than the rambling words of an old woman. I’m just not as good when I do this ‘off the cuff’ stuff.

I guess my only real regret is that I won’t get to see how this little life turns out. I know I’ve been blessed with enough years to see this day finally come to Israel, but I wish I could see a bit more now. I mean, this is the Son of God, so you know it’s going to be a big life. I guess I’ll do what I can in simply telling as many people as possible what I know. This news has to be passed on to the rest of the country—it’s too good to keep all to myself. Oh, I know Simeon started it all—maybe I should just let him tell it. I don’t know…I thought that way for a while a few weeks back there, but I guess I sort of decided that I can still tell my part, no matter how small, and try to let a few people know about it, anyway.

As I look back on my long life, I wonder how many other stories are out there...I know my own time has been filled with stories. I look around at all the people around me now, and think of all the people to come, and I wonder how many of them will have stories like mine, of Jesus, I believe, is his name, entering into their life here or there and really changing it. And how many of those people might think that their story pales next to someone else’s, and, like me, consider not telling it, because they don’t think it’s as powerful?

I don’t expect most people will remember my name or part in the story—it’s not even that big of a deal, really. I saw Jesus in the temple as a child and kept on telling people about it until they told others. Now I know they eventually told this Luke guy, I guess, who decided to put a few verses of it in his book—a small part, easily overlooked…no wonder, the way I ramble…there’s really no possibility of getting a good quote from me, is there? I do hope that the story itself will continue to be told…the story of Jesus entering people’s lives. I wonder what that will look like, will sound like, I wonder how my story will be woven into the larger picture of this event.

I hope you—whoever you are, wherever you’re at on your journey—do take the time to remember and retell those times that Jesus entered your life, too. If it’s like mine, you know how amazing it is to you. The only way we continue to keep the story going is to share it. I’ve noticed that with something like this, if you keep it to yourself, it fades away, and becomes just as small as you think it is, but share it, and it joins with other stories—weaves together with them—until there is more to it than you ever imagined. And then, if we get enough of it, we might see a bit of what the Hope of the World really does look like.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Anna's Story--It's a short one!

This Wednesday I'm preaching for the Advent midweek service at church. I'll be preparing a sort of monologue-style representation of the prophet Anna, who appears at Jesus' naming and dedication. The text for the day can be found here.

Fortunately and unfortunately, the commentaries on this pericope focus largely on Simeon or the significance of the naming/dedication of Jesus. There is little said about Anna herself, other than her tribe and familial connections. I'll be looking further into her heritage (i.e. the tribe of Asher) and such to hopefully develop a faithful presentation of her.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sermon Nov 27-28

Matthew 24:36-44

Something is happening. Something big. The whole world is buzzing. Jesus compares the coming of the Son of Man to the days of Noah—when the whole world was essentially wiped out. There are many possibilities for the implications of such a comparison, but whatever the background reason for the analogy, the parallel of the actual event is clear—it is sudden and unexpected. This isn’t Y2K, when the world waited for a technological meltdown, or a comet racing towards us that we have to go out in space shuttles to fight off after months or years of planning. It will be sudden and unexpected. As our text says, before the end, people were eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage. Pretty normal stuff—I know I ate some cereal and drank some coffee this morning just before I came to church. Never mind cereal and coffee, Thursday I cooked a whole turkey for my family to eat.

The point is no one knows the day or the hour. Jesus said that even the Son doesn’t know. Why would we be so arrogant as to suppose that we could know? People have been thinking the world’s end is imminent for thousands of years. The book of Daniel in the Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls (a collection of sacred and secular texts collected up to the Jewish revolt in the year 73 not quite two thousand years ago), writings of our attributed founding theologian, Martin Luther, even today’s movies—2012, Armageddon, Deep Impact, etc.—all contain evidence that humans throughout the ages have often thought the end was near. It could be right around the corner right now, too. I’m not rejecting that possibility. But rather than having Apocalyptic tunnel vision, we need to open our eyes and see what’s really going on. Paul tells the Romans that this is the time to wake up—put on the armor of light against the darkness and the temptations of the dark. A fixed date isn’t mentioned, but he says that salvation is closer than when they became believers—that’s true for them, and true for us too. Every day we are closer…every day we grow and learn and go deeper in our faith walk with God.

Jesus also tells us to keep awake, stay vigilant. We know something is coming, but we don’t know when—only that it will be at an unexpected hour like a thief in the night. So we have to always stay alert. We have to prepare ourselves for any time. How do we do that? The tragic flaw of the people in Noah’s time wasn’t that they did ordinary everyday things—there are tons of rules and regulations about ordinary everyday things throughout the Bible from the time of Adam onward—but rather that they became consumed by them. They fell into an obsession with the world. The account of Noah’s story in Genesis states that all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth, that earth was filled with violence—so much so that they ignored God. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus said that one cannot be the servant of two masters. That is likely the warning that we should be hearing as well. We have these same cares—some of us (myself included) do stress about what or how we will cook for Thanksgiving or Christmas or lunch tomorrow. If we become consumed by those cares—what we will eat, what we will drink, what we will wear—we run the risk of forgetting who we are and whose we are.

However, this isn’t an excuse to ignore the world that God has created, either. Look at the lesson—two will be working in the field. This isn’t a call to give up on the earth or quit living to simply sit and wait for the end. If both are working in the field, if both are working at the grindstone, then this is not a call to stay out of the workings of the world, or to dispose of it as quickly as possible so that the end will come sooner. That’s not up to us. Rather this is a call to continue caring for God’s creation—for our neighbors, for the earth, for the air, for the waters, for the animals, for our brothers and sisters as citizens of humanity. It is a call to pay attention to what we are doing, and to what God is doing, so that we may be ready and may continue to be ready for days, weeks, months, or generations to come.

We’re living in the meantime. This is the time when the Kingdom of God has been glimpsed by us in the concrete historical life of Jesus and in the everyday moments of light we experience in the world. This is also the time when the true fullness of the vision of that Kingdom has not yet been realized. We are still living in that broken, imperfect world where we are still human and still retain our sinful nature.

This is the First Sunday in Advent. There’s a huge temptation to skip over this season in our culture and go straight to Christmas with Santa Claus and cookies and carols. Personally, I think I’ve seen the Christmas goodies out in the stores since Halloween was over…and I’m sure I’ll hear more carols in those stores during this season than I will in all four of our Christmas Eve services combined here at church. I’m not saying that we don’t need to or shouldn’t prepare for Christmas. Actually, Advent is a season of preparation, so that is quite appropriate. But it is more than just that. It is also the season of waiting, of watching, of reflecting on what it means to be getting ready for Jesus as a community of faith.

If there is a cultural theme for this whole season, it might go something like this “You need to be good because Jesus is coming!” but that doesn’t work, either. We can’t be like kids being good for Santa Claus in order to get better presents at Christmas for two reasons. One—while we have a deadline for Santa’s arrival, we have no idea when Jesus is coming. Two—there’s nothing for us to earn.

This is good news on both accounts. We don’t know when this will happen! Hallelujah! Do you realize what that means? It means that right now is all we know about…right now is what we are able to act in. We can look around us—open our eyes—and see God’s people and God’s work in the world without wondering, without predicting, without obsessing about Y2K or 2012 or the like. We get to live today. We get to work to find and reflect God’s light right now.

We also don’t have anything to earn. We don’t have to worry about who will go where or what will happen then. Jesus sorted that out for us. Since we don’t have to worry about that, what are we freed up to worry about? I often wonder about that—if my ultimate salvation is no longer to be a concern to me, what is? Should I worry about how Jesus will find me rather than about what he will do? I don’t think that’s even the point. It’s not a fear or a worry that drives us at all, but a freedom. A freedom instituted by the Son of God.

Something is happening. Something big. The whole world is buzzing. It will be unexpected and sudden—coming like a thief in the night. Until then, we get ready. Until then, we are in the meantime, constantly reminding ourselves we must live in the now even as we anticipate the not yet. Until then, we do our best with the freedom we have been given. Until then, we wait, we watch, and we live. Amen.