Thursday, February 23, 2012
In a little while I'll be taking down Magdalene's Musings.
I started blogging here in the summer of 2006, a transitional time for me professionally and personally. A few months earlier I had lost my mother. I was a divorced mom, an out-of-work pastor, and in a closeted relationship with the woman who, on another blog, I called "Beloved."
Slowly, by reaching out to the already strong community of women pastors who were also blogging, I found a place and a voice for myself here. I learned that "virtual" community is, in fact, a very real community, and I found myself blessed to be a part of it.
Over time I came to use this blog exclusively for posting my sermons; that has been its primary function for the past three years. Now I feel it is time to connect my sermons to my name and my ministry.
So, I introduce to you my new blog: The Sermon Blog @ Union Presbyterian Church. Look for me there, and know that, as I try to navigate blogging under my own name, I will be forever grateful for the love and grace you have shown me.
Sunday, January 15, 2012
My preacher-friend in Portland says that when we look at today’s readings, we “find God all up in our business.” In one reading, God is waking a sleeping boy in the middle of the night to give him an important (if unpleasant) job to do. In our Psalm we hear of a God who, again, “just generally [knows] every darn thing there is to know about every single one of us.”[i] And in the passage I have just read from John’s gospel, Jesus appears to be looking right through Nathanael, who is never the same again.
This week we are hearing about the opening days of Jesus’ ministry, and here we find Jesus gathering a group of disciples around him. We throw that word around a lot, “disciples,” and I thought maybe I’d better look it up in the dictionary just to be sure I understood what it meant. (A small warning here: I went to a preaching conference this week, and nothing brings out the bible-scholar-word-nerd that I am like going to a preaching conference. By which I mean to say, we’re going to get into the words today.) The word disciple: I thought it meant, basically, “follower,” and that’s’ true, as far as it goes. But what interests me even more than definitions are etymologies—I love knowing, in effect, who are the parents of a word. “Disciple” comes from a Latin word that means “pupil,” but that word comes from two different words that mean, “to take apart.” So, a disciple is a follower, but one who has taken apart the teachings of the teacher, and found them to be sound, and is following on that basis. A disciple is someone who has done her homework.
Jesus is inviting people to follow him, to become disciples. His exchange with Philip is simple: “Follow me.” And Philip follows. Like any good follower, Philip tries to find other people to follow too—maybe he is shy about enlisting in the Jesus movement all by himself. Or, maybe, he sees in Jesus the answer to a question he knows Nathanael is asking already, a question something like, “Where is the Messiah?” Whatever his reasoning, he drafts Nathanael to come along.
Nathanael is skeptical. His skepticism has to do with what he already knows about Jesus. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asks. I have heard similar responses when I invite people to come to Binghamton for First Fridays. Can anything good be happening in downtown Binghamton? There’s really only one good answer to a question like that. “Come and see,” says Philip.
We might wonder why on earth Nathanael should be so skeptical about Nazareth. Well, let’s just say, it’s pretty much Nowheresville, Palestine. It’s small. It’s unimportant. It is not mentioned in the bible (Philip and Nathanael’s bible, that’s the Old Testament to you and me). It’s not mentioned as center of worship, or a place from where the Messiah will come, for instance. It’s not mentioned at all, until the Christian (that is, the New) Testament. Saying someone is “from Nazareth” is not a ringing endorsement.
But Nathanael goes along with Philip, little knowing the kind of person he is about to encounter. Jesus’ opening salvo to Nathanael is playful. It’s challenging. The first thing Jesus says to Nathanael is “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Jesus is playing with words here. The word “Israel” is another name for “Jacob,” whose name means “leg-puller,” as in, “Are you pulling my leg?”[ii] Jesus is telling Nathanael, “Hey, I know where you come from, and I’m not judging you.” He is implying, of course, that he knows full well how skeptical Nathanael is, and that it’s fine, it’s cool.
Nathanael is taken aback. “Um, have we met?” he asks. “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus tells him, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Now, this is the first we have heard of a fig tree in John’s gospel. And it is possible Jesus saw Nathanael under a literal fig tree at some point. But one thing we should take into consideration any time we read the gospel of John is that he speaks quite often in symbols and metaphors. In Jewish lore, it is believed that the tree of knowledge of good and evil from Genesis—the tree that got the first man and woman and serpent in so very much trouble—it is believed that it was a fig tree. And, for that reason, Jewish scholars engaged in studying scripture were said to be “gathering figs.”[iii] Jesus is saying to Nathanael, “I know you’re a fig gatherer. I know you’ve been doing your homework. I know you won’t just go along to get along, or follow along to be a pal. I know who you are, and what matters to you. And so I say to you what Philip said: Come and see.” And Nathanael does. Oh, he does.
God’s all up in Nathanael’s business, as evidenced by Jesus knowing, uncannily, unsettlingly, exactly who he is and what he is and what will help him to know where and how he is called. My question is this: what helps us to know who we are and what we are and where and how we are called to participate in God’s work? If we take the words of the psalm seriously, we believe that God has searched us and known us, every last darn thing there is to know about us. But how does that translate to us knowing where and what and how God wants us to be in this world?
In 1963 the Southern Christian Leadership Conference developed and enacted a campaign to show the world the unjust, inhumane treatment African American people were subjected to in the city of Birmingham, AL. But for Martin Luther King Jr., one of the chief strategists and organizers of the campaign, it was critical that those engaged in this action know who they were and what they were and where and how, specifically, God was calling them to do this work. So he developed a commitment card, to be signed by everyone who would participate. Over time, the requirements have come to be thought of as a kind of “Ten Commandments” of Christian social justice activism. Here are those ten commitments:
1. Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
2. Remember always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation not victory.
3. Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
4. Pray daily to be used by God in order that all might be free.
5. Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all might be free.
6. Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
7. Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.
8. Refrain from violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
9. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
10. Follow the directions of the movement and the captains of a demonstration.
The genius of the ten commitments is this: not only would all those involved in the Birmingham campaign have clear and specific guidelines for their own actions; they would also know who they were and what they were and where and exactly how they were called to do this work of bringing justice and reconciliation. They would be steeped in the knowledge and love of Jesus, whom King believed to be the first and most excellent culture-changer. God searches us and knows us and calls us. The Birmingham campaign workers would spend their days seeking to know God, and to live out that knowledge in their work. It’s so simple, really. Disciples need disciplines, actions to help them, daily, to take apart and put back together the heart and soul of what they are about.
“Come and see,” says Philip. God searches us, and invites us to come and see for ourselves what immersion in God’s way would mean for us. “Come and see,” says Jesus. God knows us, and longs for us to know God, more intimately, more deeply, with more real consequences for our lives and actions. “Come and see,” I say. Jesus is all up in our business, gathering disciples still, plucking us from under our fig trees and behind our desks and sinks and snow-blowers to travel along with him a while. Let’s do it. Let’s go together. Come and see. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Martha Spong, pastor of North Yarmouth Congregational Church, Portland, ME, in her introduction to the “11th Hour Preacher Party” at RevGalBlogPals, January 15, 2012. http://revgalblogpals.blogspot.com/2012/01/11th-hour-preacher-party-fearfully-and.html.
[ii] Adele Reinhartz, “The Gospel According to John,” The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), 160.
This sermon was preached on January 8.
For about eight years my children and I have been huge fans of the TV series, “Friends.” Which some of you will recognize means that we caught onto it just as the series was ending, and so we have watched the whole thing in reruns, or on DVD’s. And one of the things you will notice about “Friends,” if you’re watching the DVD’s, is this: the titles of the episodes are kind of odd. (Either that or brilliantly funny.) Every title begins with the words “The One with...,” or “The One where…,” as in, “The One with the Monkey,” or, “The One where the Monkey Gets Away.” I confess, when I started watching the show, I was puzzled by the titles. Was the title guy at NBC out sick that day? Or, was he out sick all those ten years the show was on the air?
I felt the same way, once upon a time, when I came upon the beginning of the gospel of Mark. Just to remind you, the first sentence of the gospel is “The beginning of the good news (gospel) of Jesus Christ.” Wow. Compare this with the beginning of the gospel of Matthew, in which we launch immediately into a provocative and action packed genealogy that makes bold claims about Jesus’ identity and heritage: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1)! Or, the beginning of Luke, in which we are treated to a philosophical sort of sales pitch as to why thisis going to be a most excellent gospel: “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (Luke 1:1-4).
But for my money, no other gospel can hold a candle to the opening of John’s gospel—though, come to think of it, we all held candles to it on Christmas Eve. It’s shrouded in darkness, mystery, the eternal workings of the cosmos: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
But action-packed genealogies are not what Mark is up to. Nor is he pitching his gospel, as if to get advertisers. Nor is he claiming to delve into the mind of God. Nope. Mark simply says, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” And for Mark, the beginning is not the story of Jesus’ ancestors or the story of Jesus’ birth. It is not even the story of the pre-existence of Christ, the eternal Word, with God from before the beginning. The beginning of the story is Jesus’ baptism.
And what a baptism it is! For those of us whose baptisms tend to involve marble fonts and modest amounts of water poured on babies’ sweet-smelling heads, the baptism of Jesus is a real jolt to the system. It involves a baptizer dressed in camel-skin, fresh from a dinner of wild honey and bugs, dunking Jesus bodily in the muddy Jordan River. But even that is not what catches our attention. It’s the moment after Jesus comes out of the water, sputtering and drenched; the moment when the heavens are torn apart and the very voice of God rings out or booms or whispers (I hear it’s sometimes a whisper) to speak directly to Jesus: “You are my son, the Beloved. With you I am well-pleased.” And that’s the beginning, the kickoff, the great launch of Jesus’ work in the world. ‘The One where God Comes to Earth.”
Baptism is the beginning for us, too. Baptism is the beginning of our life in the community of faith we call “church.” Whether we were nestled safe in someone’s arms and baptized at this very font or were dunked in a pool or stream after we were “of age,” each one of us entered the stream of God’s story, Jesus’ story, the Spirit’s story, by virtue of our baptism. “The One where G. and A. Get to Meet Jesus.” And for several members of UPC, that stream has led them to this day, the day when they will be ordained and/ or installed deacons and ruling elders.
And lest we think being a part of God’s story is something ethereal or otherworldly, Mark disabuses us of that notion by including, in the space of a few short verses, the harsh wilderness and that muddy river water and those crunchy locusts and that sweet and wild honey and that aromatic and scratchy camel pelt; not to mention that tear (rip) in the heavens and the ringing/booming/whispering voice of God. God’s story is profoundly earthy, and those of us who step (or jump) into that stream are part of a story that takes place in real time with real people throughout God’s very real world.[i]
And now several of our fellow church members get to participate in “The One Where L., K., J., J., S. and P. Get to Show Jesus to a Hurting World.” Of course, we all get to participate in that. That’s the other title of our baptism story, our common calling as Jesus-followers. But on this day, in this moment, we come together as a community to confirm that God’s voice is still ringing/ booming/ whispering in the ears of those we have elected to be our deacons and elders. We pray and lay hands upon them to give our witness that the beginning of Jesus’ story continues in the beginning of our story. And then we gather around the table in our celebration meal, “The One Where God Promises to Stay With Us Through it All.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Elton W. Brown, Daily Feast: Meditations from Feasting on the Word Year B (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 79, 80.
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. ~ Isaiah 60:1
The celebration of Christmas always involves lights. Every year I am just a little thrilled on Thanksgiving weekend, when the lights begin to appear in my neighborhood. Though I almost never deck out my own house in lights, I am endlessly grateful to those who do. It feels as if they have given me, personally, a gift. For several weeks in the darkest season of the year, my West Side of Binghamton neighborhood is transformed into a fairyland, enchanted, as the lights outline houses, trees, bushes, and everything is suddenly made magical.
When I was in seminary I became aware that ordinarily cynical and hard-bitten New Yorkers became as squishy about the Christmas lights as I do on the day the tree in Rockefeller Center was lit. You’d see it on their faces—from a little embarrassed smile all the way to full-blown glee. Lights in the darkness: without them, we’d hardly know it was Christmas.
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
It is hard for us, here on the very first day of 2012, to appreciate what light and darkness meant to ancient people. Imagine a time when you not only couldn’t string LED lights on a tree, you couldn’t illumine anything without benefit of fire. Ordinary people—meaning, most people in the world—couldn’t afford candles until around the year 1800. That means that, when night fell, the darkness was absolute. And the fear of the darkness seems to be hard-wired into us. Darkness feels dangerous, frightening: “We easily get lost in the dark… we stumble around and can’t find our way… we do not know what might be going on: danger may lurk, spirits may roam, evil may be afoot…” Darkness and grief seem to go together as well… we speak of a dark night of the soul. Fear of night evokes that other primal fear, fear of death.[i]
It’s no wonder that light and fire came to be understood as something that came from the gods. From moment when Prometheus shared the secret of fire with humans, we have known it: there is something holy about light. From the time when the Romans celebrated the Feast of the Unvanquished Sun on December 25, we have celebrated it. And from the first verses of Genesis—in which God sings, “Let there be light”—to the last verses of Revelation—in which Jesus is described as “the bright morning star”—scripture has confirmed it. As one write expresses it, “No wonder glory—which means radiance, luminosity—is seen as a central quality of the sacred.”[ii]
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
In our reading from Isaiah this morning we hear all sorts of echoes that say to us, Christmas, Christmas! The glory of the Lord rising and being revealed—we read that and think, “Jesus!” The coming of kings to witness the brightness—we recognize the Magi, following the star to Jesus! Even the talk of camels and gold and frankincense—the gifts of the Magi to Jesus, plus their mode of conveyance! But this passage, in its original context, meant something very different, something that may deepen our own appreciation for the ways in which those Christmas echoes are very real.
This part of Isaiah is speaking to Jews who have returned home following the Babylonian exile. For nearly fifty years Jews had been kept from their homeland, following a terrible and bloody rout in which the Temple was destroyed. When Persia conquered Babylon, and the Persian king gave Jews permission to go home, there was incredible joy and anticipation. They imagined what it would be like to go home, to see the places that were only dimly remembered, but which had been built up in their hearts to epic proportions.
And so they returned, and guess what? What they found broke their hearts. The original, splendid Temple of Solomon was gone, and in its place something that felt more like a roadside shrine. Their sacred places were gone, their homes were gone, Jerusalem was still mostly a pile of rubble. The monarchy—the throne of David, once so regal and proud—was reduced to a tiny community still under the thumb of a powerful empire. And what was left of that community was divided, unable to choose a single way forward. Aspects of the past were, they learned, unrecoverable, irreplaceable. And their hearts were broken.
These are the people Isaiah is speaking to. And I think this heartbreak, this sense that the world has changed and we are somehow lost in the debris is something that characterized 2011 for many people. The economy continued to show only the most marginal improvement. Unemployment is at its lowest level in three years, but 25 million Americans are still out of work. At the national level our elected leaders seemed consistently to place personal and political gain above the common good. We ended two wars that were a source of controversy for nearly ten years, and which cost Iraq and Afghanistan hundreds of thousands of lives, and the US thousands. Those same wars added to our economic fragility. And, on a local level, we suffered another historic flood. 2011, even in broad strokes, was not an easy year, or a buoyant one. Many of us are left with a sense of displacement, a kind of exile-in-place.
And still, the words of Isaiah speak to us, just as they spoke to the ancient community of exiled and relocated Jews.
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. ~Isaiah 60:1-2
For post-exile Jews, this passage was a reiteration of the same promise God had been making since he’d plucked Abraham and Sarah out of their retirement community and put them on the road: I will bless you. Which translates, roughly, to I will be with you.
Which, of course, is the story behind Christmas to begin with: God pledging, “I will be with you.” A colleague from Maine tells this story: It is a long, long time ago in human terms—perhaps two thousand years ago—and God is sitting around, being God...and feeling that queasy, end-of the millennium feeling—you know the one, where, the morning after, you wonder if the whole last millennium was wasted, where you wonder to yourself, “what do I have to show for all that time? Was it worth it? Am I proud of it? Would I do it again?”
God looks around for something to write on—some sort of cosmic papyrus and a good, sharp stylus—and sighs. It's tiresome, these endless cycles of night and day, this running the universe all alone...and just look at the state of Creation, there, with all those people killing each other, as if THEY're little godlets, pretending they have the right to snuff out the divine spark of another's created life. It pushes the edges of belief. It doesn't make any sense.
Hmmm. Maybe that's the trouble. It doesn't make SENSE. You can shape a person out of cosmic dust, breathe the spirit of life into them, watch them move and act and learn, even hear their thoughts, but there's something about the human experience that their Creator has never known: embodiment, the scraped knees and bruised hearts, the ticklish toes and loving caresses, the anxious sweat, the throat-cooling rush of a good drink, the satisfying ache of honest exhaustion that comes after hard physical work... God cannot inhabit the limited bodies, the physical senses of these remarkable, loveable, wondrous and maddening creatures.
God unfurls a scroll, takes hold of the stylus, and begins to write:
1.) Spend... more... time... with... my... family...”[iii]
What dawns on us, at this time of year, more than any other, is just that: We rise up, we shine, our houses and our sanctuaries and our faces and our hearts, because God has kept that New Year’s resolution. The light of God has dawned in Jesus, God’s promise of presence with God’s people from the beginning.
We all have gotten here this morning by following this light. We are all people of the exile; we are all Magi, we are all Simeon and Anna. We follow the light and we find Jesus there. Each time we act with compassion and forgiveness we are following the light. Every time we let kindness and caring inform our behavior we are following the light. Whenever we stand up for justice and fairness… when we pour into Tahrir Square by the thousands, or the State Capitol by the hundreds, certain that there is a better way to live together, we are following the light. When gratitude becomes our way of living, we are following the light.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not, will not overcome it. God’s presence, God’s light is here to stay. The home of God is here, with us. As we begin a new calendar year, your resolutions (should you choose to make any) are entirely up to you. But I will offer this prayer, courtesy of a 5th century Irish monk. Perhaps it will resonate with you as you drive through your own neighborhood, looking at those houses that are still bedecked with reminders of this beautiful season:
“Be thou a bright flame before me; Be thou a guiding star above me; Be thou a smooth path below me; Be thou a kindly shepherd behind me; Today, tonight and forever.”[iv] Thanks be to God. Amen.
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Sunday, December 18, 2011
I’ll be home for Christmas
You can plan on me
Please have snow
And presents on the tree
Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love-light gleams
Ill be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams.[i]
Context is everything. For years I knew that song as an oldie, a Christmas standard, particularly beloved by my parents’ generation. I only learned very late in the game that the song was written in the midst of World War II, from the point of view of the soldier. Which, of course, drastically alters the way I now hear that last melancholy line: “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”
Is there any time of year that so powerfully evokes for most of us this notion of “home”? We all know what it’s supposed to look like, being home for Christmas: Snow, yes, and the large family house with the sounds of children and caroling, the fragrances of cookies baking, poultry roasting, and pine needles settling on the tree. Lights in the windows, perhaps festooned on the house itself. A fire in the fireplace. Laughter. Singing.
And the people: Mom and Dad, and Grandma and Grandpa, and children and grandchildren and friends and neighbors.
Home for Christmas. We all have a picture of what it’s supposed to look like, and it’s beautiful and evocative and perilous.
Perilous, because context is everything. Fewer than half of all American families look like that family we still idealize. We no longer grow up, most of us, next door to our grandparents. Families are far-flung, and if they gather for Christmas they do so from distances of hundreds or thousands of miles. Families are divorced, and living in new configurations. Maybe your household has dad and papa. Or mom. Or grandpa. Maybe you live alone and happily. Maybe your spouse travels for work much of the year. Being ‘home for Christmas’ may not be possible, and even if it is, it may not look anything like the image we still see in movies and on TV and on greeting cards.
Context is everything. In our reading from 2 Samuel, David has pretty much just stepped off the battlefield—just completed the hard and bloody work of consolidating his power and defeating the remnants of those who opposed his ascending the throne, God’s anointed or not. And David has some key things going for him: he’s a tactical and strategic genius, militarily speaking. He’s charismatic and attractive—the narrative mentions his ruddy beauty more than once. He’s a natural leader. He now has his palace—though a house of cedar conjures up a ski lodge for me, more than it does Camelot. David needs just one more thing. He needs to build a house, a home, for the God who has had his back—the God who helped the prophet Samuel to pick him out of a line-up of older and stronger and more accomplished brothers. The God who urged Samuel to anoint David, and transferred the divine allegiance to him, and gave him victory in battle after battle. The God who, throughout the reign of David, was more present, more apparent to the people, than at almost any time during Israel’s history.
Building a home for the local god was a kingly thing to do. Make no mistake: David’s conscience may well have pricked him, that here he was in his cozy cedar lodge and God was camping out. But to have built God a house, to have been able to say, “I have given the God of Israel a home,” was yet another strategic move to consolidate David’s kingly power. Context is everything.
So, David makes the following announcement to the current prophet-in-residence, Nathan. David doesn’t dare to speak to God directly here. Perhaps he is looking to Nathan for guidance, for blessing, which Nathan gives. But then God speaks to Nathan, too, the royal go-between, God responds, and I love God’s response. “I’m not too good to camp out,” God says. “I’ve been camping out for a good long time, going back to the days when I was leading my people out of slavery in Egypt and they were wandering around in the desert for forty years. I like this mobile lifestyle. You think you’re going to do me a big favor by building me a temple, a house, a home. Well, I have other notions of what a house or home might mean.
“Remember,” God reminds David, “when you were literally running around after sheep a pasture, a dirty nobody of a kid? Remember how I was with you there, and I took you from that pasture to give you another job? Remember,” God says, “this battle and that battle, when I was your front line for offense and your rear guard for defense? Have you notice that, wherever you go, I shall go?
“I’m not saying a temple wouldn’t be nice at some point,” says God, “maybe built for me by some other king. But for you, David, I am going to show you a new understanding of ‘house’ and ‘home.’” And by this God means, David’s imprint upon God’s people is here to stay. The lineage of David, its impact on God’s people, will never diminish. In fact, it will grow even stronger, in new and startling ways
Fast-forward roughly one thousand years. Another nobody, this time a young girl in a Palestinian backwater called Nazareth, has something happen to her in the sixth month of somebody else’s story (those somebodies would be Elizabeth and Zechariah). Mary has a brush with God’s intentions for her, in the form of an announcement by a frightening angel (they’re all frightening, evidently). “Don’t be afraid,” says the angel (because they all have to say that). “God thinks you are pretty wonderful,” the angel continues. “God would like to… move in with you. Set up housekeeping, so to speak.” And this is where God’s promise to David takes a most unexpected turn.
The astonishing, the unbelievable, the world-overturning announcement the angel makes to Mary is this: The God who has been content to live in a tent has now decided that Mary will be that tent. The God who refused to let the beloved King David build the divine dwelling will now make Mary the divine dwelling. God has finally decided—or, more likely, God has known all along—exactly what “home” God wants to dwell in. That home is us. See, the home of God is among mortals [Rev. 21:3]. People. Humanity.
This is it, right here. The reason for the season, as the saying goes. A lot of ink is spilled (or, perhaps, a lot of pixels are rendered) over this question, “What does Christmas mean?” and people’s answer to that depends on where they are coming from. Context is everything. For those who have been looking for work for 18 months Christmas might mean some temporary seasonal employment, to keep foreclosure at bay a little longer. Or this year Christmas might mean a family’s first time in a shelter. In the lexicon of the Christmas carol, Christmas might mean the season to tell your loved ones how you feel about them. According to the commercials, Christmas means having just the right gift, right food, right clothes, right decorations so that we can celebrate in style. But I am going to tell you, right now, once and for all, this is what Christmas means: the home of God is with us. Immanuel. God-with-us.
Callow young shepherd boys and girls from nowheresville. Investment bankers and hog farmers and shoe repair men. Nursing home aides and McDonald’s employees and neurologists. Frame shop owners and college students and little boys who have just celebrated their sixth birthday. Elderly women and men in wheelchairs, with and without dementia. People standing in the unemployment line and the line in from of the Salvation Army. People living in mansions and people living in FEMA trailers. People with twenty children and people with one or none. Altos and cellists and accordion players. Cooks and cookie bakers and bartenders.
See, God’s home is among us. I’ll be home for Christmas, God sings to us, in that melancholy basso profundo of his. Only, this is no dream. God will be home for Christmas, whatever your home and mine look like, whether we have carols playing or hip hop, whether we are watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” or anime. God will be home for Christmas, because God’s home is with us, and in us. I’ll be home for Christmas, sings God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Copyright 1943, Kim Gannon and Walter Kent.
Saturday, December 17, 2011
Last week we read the first part of Luke’s gospel, telling the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth and the angel’s visit to announce that they would have a son in their old age. This older couple finally has the baby boy they had dreamed of and prayed for. Imagine their joy. Imagine their delirious, unforeseen, through the moon joy!
Then imagine dinner, oh, 16 years down the road.
In walks John, a surly teenager in a rather unusual outfit, even for the year 16 AD. His mother speaks.
“No. No. Not that thing again. If I’ve told you once I’ve told you a hundred times. I will not have that stinky camel-skin thing at my dinner table.”
“Mother, I’m a prophet. Like Elijah. Haven’t you ever heard of Elijah?”
“And look—Zechariah look. He has fleas. Fleas! They’re getting all over the table cloth.”
Zechariah tries to intercede: “Son, really, I think your mother…”
“Dad, I’m sick and tired of you two not getting it. Don’t you see? This is the way he’s described in scripture!” [2 Kings 1:8].
“I don’t care, young man! I want that nasty camel-pelt out of my dining room!” John leaves and returns a few minutes later in a traditional man’s robe, and slumps down at the table. His mother puts a plate of lamb and pita bread and cucumbers in front of him, but he just pushes it around on the plate.
“What’s wrong now?” sighs Elizabeth.
“Do you have any locusts?” John asks.
It takes a moment for Elizabeth to find the words. “Locusts? You mean—as in, those horrible, buzzing, flying things that are the stuff of biblical plagues? No John. No, I don’t have any locusts.”
John looks hopefully around the kitchen. “How about some wild honey?”
Well, Zechariah and Elizabeth can’t claim they weren’t warned. The angel told them pretty specifically what they could expect in their son—that he would be great, that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit, and that he would prepare the way of the Lord. They were also told that John would pretty much be channeling the prophet Elijah, thus the unusual garb and eating habits.
John is trying to help the people to prepare, to get ready for an encounter with God, which, as it happens, is much the same thing we are trying to do in this Advent season. We are using this time to prepare for an encounter with God. How do we do that, precisely?
It’s easy to think John had some kind of advantage. Which makes sense, his being Jesus’ cousin and all—according to Luke’s gospel, that is. I mean, they probably had play dates, right? Mary and Elizabeth and the two boys, hitting the parks in the hill country of Judea? Doesn’t it make sense that they grew up knowing one another, at least a little bit?
Even so, I don’t think that knowing which card games Jesus liked, or how do slip an inside curveball past him, necessarily helped John in the work God was commissioning him to do. Being related to Jesus did not, for John, equal “having a relationship with Jesus.”
John had it right, out in the Jordan River, surrounded by all those people looking to be baptized. We prepare for an encounter with God through repentance.
Now, it bears saying, Advent is not Lent. We are in the midst of a season whose focus is preparation, readiness, and it has a joyful flavor to it. There has been some serious hanging of the greens around here lately, and this sanctuary is not a place that is being made ready for things that are somber or painful.
And, as I’ve pointed out before, we all tend to come to the word “repentance” with our own history, and images, and associations. I shared with you once about a street preacher I saw in Times Square. He didn’t make me want to repent so much as run the other way.
But repentance is still a part of Advent, and to understand that, we have to understand the root meaning of the word, which for bible nerds like me, means, the original-language-meaning. Repentance is from the Greek word metanoia, and metanoia means, literally, turning around. Turn around, John says, or you will not see Jesus when he gets here. Turn around, I have something very cool to show you. Turn around, or you will miss the good stuff.
It is to my distinct advantage, I think, that one of my strongest associations with John the Baptist is the play “Godspell,” to which I was introduced at about the age of 13 when my cousin took me to see it at the Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC. (And yes, that’s where Lincoln was assassinated, during a production of “Our American Cousin.”) For those of you who have never seen the play or the movie, let me try to describe John’s first scene. He pulls out a shofar, an instrument made from a ram’s horn, and blasts a loud note on it, several times. Then he sings, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord,” which starts as a solo, but quickly develops into an up-tempo ensemble piece. In the movie, we see people leaving their jobs behind—a waitress and a garment industry worker and an actress and a cab driver, for example—and following the sound and rhythm of the music to a fountain, where they all jump in, get washed up and change their lives completely, all in the space of a two minute song.
Thanks to “Godspell” and its particular vision of John the Baptist, I grew up associating him and his message with joy and exuberance and fun. “Prepare the way of the Lord” was something you did singing, and it described a moment of possibility, of leaving behind something that was burdensome to you, and turning around to see what new thing Jesus was going to show you, like all those people on stage and in the movie, who were clearly having the time of their lives.
Jesus’ unsettling cousin John had a message for the people of ancient Judea and he has the same message for us today, in our Advent season of 2011. That message is “turn around.” So, we need to do some pondering. What, exactly, do we need to turn away from in order to be able to turn toward Jesus? When you turn around, you turn your back is to one thing even as you turn to face another. As we prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts, in our lives, what are we turning from as we turn toward Jesus? It’s a question filled with joy, and possibility, and leaving something burdensome behind. It’s a question I invite you to place at the heart of your prayer and reflection this week. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Monday, November 28, 2011
I find Year B, the year of Mark, the toughest Advent year for preaching. And yet-- full disclosure-- I have yet to grapple with all the gospel lections offered by the RCL.
At any rate, the prospect of delving into the character of Elizabeth and her story, and how it might speak to the Advent project, was just too tempting. So I did it.
What can we say about Elizabeth?
We can say that she was a woman with a pedigree, a member of a particular kind of religious aristocracy—a descendant of Aaron, the very first of all the priests of Israel. And the priests were those who were literally closest to God—they served in the Temple, for ancient Jews, God’s home on earth. Priests were the only ones who could venture into that holiest of holy places. Of course, only men could be priests. And so Elizabeth was not only descended from priests; she was also married to one, Zechariah. Elizabeth was a priestly woman.
We can also say that both Elizabeth and her husband lived up to the expectations of that pedigree. Luke says, “Both of them were righteous before God…,” blameless. Elizabeth was a righteous woman.
And we can say that Elizabeth was “middle-aged”—at least, that’s how we would describe her today. In her day, an era when life expectancy at birth was not even thirty years, she was probably close to fifty. In her day, Elizabeth was an old woman.
And we can say this: Elizabeth did not expect to have a child. Luke calls her “barren,” a dreadful word conjuring up desert wastelands which was applied to women who had failed to fulfill what was, in that era, considered a woman’s primary duty: to have a child. Specifically, to have a male child, so that her husband’s lineage might continue. Of course, the word betrays an understanding of reproduction that is intent on placing blame, always on the woman. Something so problematic it would take ten sermons to begin to unpack. For now, we will just have to say, Elizabeth was a “barren” woman. We will use quotation marks to stand in for all we cannot say about this label in this sermon.
A priestly woman, but an old woman. A righteous woman, but a barren woman. These are the things Luke tells us about Elizabeth. He would have weighed these attributes, finding in them counterbalances to one another, in an effort to answer the questions: Should we care about Elizabeth? Is she worth our notice? And, in particular, why read her story on this first Sunday in Advent?
My answers to these questions are: Yes, we should care about this woman who teeters in the balance of these weighty adjectives. Yes, she is a woman who is worth our notice. And we read about her because she is a part of an important family history, the history of Jesus of Nazareth. As we prepare this Advent to celebrate his birth and to anticipate his return, I think it’s a worthwhile project to acquaint ourselves with this particular one of his forbears. Just as my family history doesn’t begin with me, and your family history doesn’t begin with you, Jesus’ family history begins long before his birth, or even his conception. In truth, it begins long before this priestly/ old/ righteous/ barren woman comes along. But since the gospel begins with her, we’ll start there.
We no sooner meet Elizabeth, and receive Luke’s fourfold assessment of her, than everything in her world is turned upside down by the announcement of an angel. Gabriel appears, not to Elizabeth, but to her husband, while he is at work, no less. Gabriel, an archangel whose name means “God is my strength,” appears in the sacred writings of Christians, and Jews, and Muslims. We Christians know him as the great announcer—he appears, in Luke’s gospel, first to Zechariah, and then to Mary, in both cases forecasting very unexpected arrivals.
Gabriel tells Zechariah that his wife—his priestly and old and righteous and barren wife—will have a child, a son, and he goes on to describe that son’s remarkable life at some length. The son, whose name will be John, will be great in the eyes of God, and a very particular vessel for the work of the Holy Spirit. Our Monday 5 PM Bible Study has just finished reading Luke’s other book, the Acts of the Apostles, and everyone in that group can tell you this: the Holy Spirit is arguably the main character in Luke’s writing. Everything important that happens does so by the power and activity of the Spirit. To say that John will be such a vessel is an amazing statement, one that ought to give Zechariah pause, make him fall to his undoubtedly arthritic knees in gratitude and humility and awe and joy.
That’s not really how this scene unfolds, though. Evidently this announcement is so dubious that the priest, rather than being overwhelmed by the way in which God is smiling on his family, says the equivalent of “No way.” Or, perhaps, “Prove it.” Everything except, “Yeah, and I have a bridge in Berea I want to sell you.”
Gabriel is not amused, and rather than put up with such a disbelieving retort, he tells Zechariah he can just stay in his room and think about what he’s said, and no dinner for him tonight. Or, rather, the biblical version of this: no talking for you, Zechariah, until that baby is born. Which is no sooner than nine months from now. The words out of your mouth doubted the Holy Spirit. Fine. Therefore, your voice is silenced. For now.
After those days, Luke tells us, Elizabeth did in fact conceive—Elizabeth, whose name in Hebrew is Elisheva, which means “My God has sworn.” Indeed. Elizabeth’s God, the God, evidently, of the priestly and the old and the righteous and the barren, has sworn. And so it comes to pass. By which I mean, God does it. God makes it happen. And then, as soon as we have met Elizabeth, she disappears from the narrative for a time—there is another announcement, and another pregnancy for Gabriel and the Holy Spirit to orchestrate. It’s time for Elizabeth to be alone for a while.
I’m interested in sharing Elizabeth’s story with you for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s a story the lectionary doesn’t really give us a chance to experience and enjoy. For another, it ties in with one of the great overarching themes of Advent, the theme of hope.
We are given only the tiniest window into Elizabeth’s heart, and her few words speak volumes. At the end of our passage, five months pregnant, she says, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” Disgrace is a powerful word, and a word that seems to signal an absence of all hope. To be a disgrace is to be in a state opposite to a state of grace, that free and unlimited gift of love. For Elizabeth, at the beginning of her story here, there is no free gift of love. But at the end of the story, she can say that God has taken away that disgrace, and, instead, looked upon her with favor. The road from disgrace to favor is a road whose traveler knows intimately what it is like to be without hope, and to then have that hope restored.
The loss of hope can creep up on us, silent as a little cat, so stealthy we do not even know it has curled up under our feet. We simply awaken one day and realize that we no longer look at life as having possibility, the promise of joy. The absence of hope leaves room only for despair. If hope is the “thing with feathers,” despair is the sure and certain knowledge that we are grounded, and will never rise again. Despair is the understanding that there is no grace for us, not now, and not ever. Despair is what Elizabeth experienced prior to the events of this story.
When we leave her, Elizabeth is five months pregnant, secluded, and, for those of us looking for the hope to be found in Advent, she is a model we might consider. In order to be open to the real experience of hope, we have to remember what it is to have none. When have you found that little cat that is despair curled up in your heart? Maybe, like Elizabeth, it had to do with the expectations you couldn’t quite fulfill, whether they were your own, or your family’s, or society’s. Maybe your experience of losing hope had to do with what felt like an unending and terrifying job search, or perhaps having a job you dreaded day after day, when walking into your workplace felt like sinking in quicksand. Maybe your experience of losing hope has to do, not with your personal situation, but with something you see around you… the interminable and hateful deadlock we witness day by day in our government, the way people on both sides of any given debate shout past one another, never really hearing one another. Elizabeth is a model to consider because she has truly lived in the pain of her despair, and now she is living in the pregnant expectation of hope’s restoration.
In Advent we are asked to become willing to gestate hope in ourselves. One writer says,
In Advent we are a people, pregnant. Pregnant and waiting. We long for the God/Man to be born, and waiting is hard… [But] waiting, because it will always be with us, can be made a work of art, and the season of Advent invites us to underscore and understand that… state of being, waiting. Our… world wants to blast away waiting from our lives. Instant gratification has become our constitutional right, and delay an aberration. We equate waiting with wasting… waiting is unpractical time, good for nothing, but mysteriously necessary to all that is becoming. As in a pregnancy, nothing of value comes into being without a period of quiet incubation. Not a healthy baby, not a loving relationship, not a reconciliation, a new understanding, a work of art, never a transformation… Waiting could use a new look. The discipline of delayed gratification—not celebrating Christmas until the twenty-fourth of December—and the hope-filled rituals of our Advent preparations will give value to the waiting periods in our lives.[i]
We find Elizabeth a disgrace, as she describes herself. And we leave her filled with grace, and hope, and waiting for what God will unfold next in her life, and her house is very, very quiet.
What if we were to expect God to break into our lives over these next four weeks just as radically as God broke into Elizabeth’s life? For most of us, the next four weeks will be busy. They will be filled with preparations for the celebrations of Christmas at home and school and work and church. But for every one of us, these weeks are an opportunity we are offered each year, an opportunity to find a tiny oasis of quiet even in the midst of the busyness, to lean into our own experience of hopelessness and listen for that tiny thing with feathers. We are all Elizabeth; our God has sworn that we will not be left in our despair. We are all Elizabeth; still waiting, but knowing that we can cling to God’s promise even as the days grow darker. We are all Elizabeth; capable of gestating a hope that God will make it happen, in ways we can’t even yet imagine. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Gertrud Mueller Nelson, To Dance With God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration (New York/ Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1986), 61-62.