Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas Wisdom: Sermon on Luke 2:41-52 and Colossians 3:12-17

I have to confess that I was torn, this week, between these two passages. Which one would I focus on for the sermon today? On the one hand, we have what someone has called “sassy-pants Jesus”—Jesus the adolescent, scaring the daylights out of his parents by vanishing in the middle of a family trip, and then instructing both them and the teachers in the Temple when they finally do catch up with him. And on the other hand, we have Paul’s instructions to the church at Colossae, lovely and poetic words of wisdom that apply to us all, whether in or out of this season of Christmastide. So, like someone who just can’t say ‘no’ to the various offerings on the holiday table, I will attempt to touch on both passages, and see if I can’t manage somehow to bring them together.

In our passage from Luke, we have the only story to be found in scripture of Jesus when he is not either an infant or an adult… it’s a rare glimpse into his lost years. That’s not to say there aren’t other stories that exist about Jesus’ childhood and adolescence. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which did not make the final cut to become a part of scripture, is full of fascinating stories about Jesus’ childhood. It tells of his fashioning 12 swallows out of clay, and then breathing life into them and watching them take flight. It tells another story of his stretching a beam of wood so that his father might be able to finish building a bed. And it tells of Jesus cursing a schoolmate who bumped into him while running; the schoolmate falls to the ground dead. (Later young Jesus remorsefully resurrects him). I am not entirely sure why that particular gospel didn’t make it into the final version of the bible, but I have a hunch. I think it was a good call.

This story did make it in, though, and every three years it is lifted up as the gospel for the Sunday after Christmas. And one is tempted to say, “Wow! That was fast!” Just three days ago we left church on Christmas Eve with the image of the newborn Jesus in his mother’s arms, angels announcing the glorious good news to the shepherds, and then the shepherds looking on with wonder and awe. Christ is born! Let heaven and nature sing! And three days later… here we are reading of a 12-year-old boy who seems to stand at the threshold of adulthood, though his parents aren’t quite ready to see him that way.

As the story begins we are told that Jesus and his parents traveled to Jerusalem every year for the Passover. To this day, that is a goal for every devout Jew—in fact, the Seder meal, when it is celebrated anywhere else in the world, always ends with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Jerusalem is the right and proper place to celebrate the Passover, at least once in a lifetime. Jesus’ family did so annually. It was “usual” for them to do so. So the story begins, right away, by telling us something about Mary and Joseph. They are devout Jews. They are raising Jesus right—observing their religion with the best practices and customs, much as devout modern day Christian parents bring their children to church, or observant Muslims ensure that their children are schooled in the Qur’an.

Another detail the story reveals to us is the fact that Mary and Joseph do these things as part of a community… they don’t travel to Jerusalem the way my children and I will travel to my father’s house this week, as a small unit of three, traveling in isolation (in our case, in a car). Rather, they travel as part of a larger community—the people from Nazareth, where Jesus is being raised. This was the safest and most sensible way to travel. In such an entourage it would be customary for the men and older boys to walk together as a group, and the women to walk with the girls and the smallest children. And we are told that Mary and Joseph had other members of their extended families who took part in the pilgrimage. It was assumed that Jesus had fallen in with a group of cousins, aunts, uncles. Mom and dad, initially, had no reason to believe they had left their son behind.

I had a friend in seminary who was the middle child of seven. On more than one occasion, when her large family traveled together, her frazzled parents left her at a rest stop. Even in her forties, the memory of being left behind did not amuse her. Of course, at a certain moment, her family did realize what had happened, and, horrified, they sped back, to find her steaming, waiting for them. Similarly, Jesus’ parents traveled for a time unaware of his absence. But a day into their journey, they realized that their child was not with the entourage headed home to Nazareth, and so they left the safety of the group and turned back toward the city in search of him.

They didn’t find him for another three days. Three days is a very long time when you are a parent and your child is missing. As I type this, there are at least two stories in the national news of children missing—under much more obviously sinister circumstances. But any parent or caregiver who has even lost sight of a child for a few minutes—in a crowded department store, say, during the pre-Christmas rush, or in a throng of people at a baseball game—anyone who has ever experienced that panic has a tiny window into the experience of these parents who lost track of their child for three full days.

Three days. Jonah was in the belly of the great fish three days. The Old Testament figure of Joseph, when he was ruler over all Egypt, threw his brothers in jail for three days. Jesus was in the tomb for three days. Three days seem to describe a time of suspense, danger, literal or symbolic death. I can imagine that parents would feel a terrible suspense, even a sense of desolation, over any period during which their children were missing. It may be that is exactly what the writer of this story wants to evoke for us… a kind of premonition of the time Jesus would spend in the tomb, except here it is his parents who suffer in the darkness.

Of course, eventually they find do him, and, oh, what an unsatisfying encounter it turns out to be! He is sitting with the teachers in the Temple, listening to them, asking them questions, answering questions, and impressing the daylights out of everyone with his answers.

Well, he impresses almost everyone. Mom and dad are singularly unimpressed. Mom cuts right to the heart of the matter: “Child, why have you treated us like this?” Now, this is not an unexpected tack for a mother to take under these circumstances. The child has been missing, it is now apparent that he was not waylaid by scoundrels or injured or taken ill, but is exactly where he intends to be. And anger wells up in the parent who even a moment ago was frantic with worry. When I was 11 years old I disappeared for a few hours during a Christmas vacation in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I had gone to the beach. When I returned, I received the one and only slap my father ever gave me. I know now that it was entirely a product of his terror that I had somehow been abducted or drowned.

What Mary fails to realize at this point is that Jesus has not, in fact, done anything “to” her and her husband. He certainly has done something that affected her, and one hopes that, at some point on the long, tense walk home to Nazareth he might have sidled up to her, and laid his head on her shoulder, and said, “Gee, Mom, I’m so sorry I worried you!” But this is a classic moment of misunderstanding for those of us who have children: that moment at which they are on the verge of adulthood, and beginning to make choices that are surprising to us, even alarming—not because they are bad choices. But because we still see them in that golden glow that we equate with their being children. It is the moment when, in fact, they are not children any more, and we have to scramble to catch up with that fact. This is not the manger scene. This is not the nursery. Someone is growing up, and, for whatever reason, we just didn’t see it coming. Jesus didn’t do anything “to” his parents. He did something for himself—something that was a crucial part of his own development, his own self-understanding, maybe a tad self-involved and inconsiderate. But very, very important. And for mom and dad… it was hard.

Jesus doesn’t help matters with his smart-aleck answer. “Didn’t you know I must be in my Father’s house? God, Mom and Dad, don’t you get it?” And despite all they know about Jesus, somehow this does not compute to them. Despite Mary having been told about 13 years earlier that her child was somehow from God, she does not get it. Despite this couple having reared Jesus to be a devout and observant Jew, they do not get it. Despite our raising our children to be independent, it still stuns us, when they actually become independent. We do not get it.

I think this story has something important to say about all sorts of change. Whether in a family, or in a group of friends, or in a church, or in a work environment, or just about anywhere else you can think of, change can be wrenching. It can shake us up when people step out of their accustomed roles. It can be painful when people’s behavior seems different than we have come to expect. It can be devastating when we begin to suspect… we are not necessarily needed any more, or needed in the same way. Change can be hard.

And this might be a good moment, in the life of any family, or group of friends, or gathering of co-workers, or members of a church, to take a deep breath and turn to the words of Paul.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

Patience. Someone has said, Never pray to God for patience; you will quickly have more opportunities than you really want to develop it. But it is an excellent quality to nurture, a necessary quality to help us to live life around other people, no matter what their relationship with us.

13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other...

I am imaging that tense walk back to Nazareth. I am imagining the beginnings of a conversation about what’s next for Jesus. How might he want to continue his studies when he returns home? I am imagining Jesus offering to do the dishes every night for a few weeks.

… just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

All in all, I think Joseph and Mary must have been pretty good parents. Amazing parents, in fact. Jesus, for any growing pains he may have had around about the age of 12, grew into a man who embodied forgiveness and love, and taught it fervently. “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor,” the story ends. But we knew that. It was that blossoming wisdom that led him to follow his path, to see where it might lead him.

14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

I guess I think of the words of this passage as consummate Christmas wisdom, a kind of grand “therefore.” God has loved us so much, has given us this most precious gift of the divine presence in our midst… therefore. Therefore, let’s swaddle ourselves with compassion and kindness… even when those we love slip the bonds of who we thought they were and blossom in new directions. Therefore, let’s bear with one another, even when the specter of change threatens to throw our lives into imbalance and confusion. Therefore, let us forgive one another, even and especially when that forgiveness is hard. Therefore, let us swaddle ourselves with love, and do everything in our power to let it mirror the love we have been shown. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Image: Jesus at the Temple by Brian Jekel

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Making Room: A Christmas Eve Meditation

I am between services at my church. We had a lovely 7:00 service, with music by our Youth and Bell choirs, and communion. I love communion! I wish we did it every Sunday. But I'm glad we do it on Christmas Eve.

Here's my meditation. Blessings all!


"And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn." [Luke 2:7] There was no room.

I suppose, if we were to think about it, the whole enterprise of Christmas could be seen as a great exercise in making room, and, for the most part, the whole culture cooperates. TV and radio stations have been making room for Christmas carols and programming since the beginning of November. As children you can bet we made room in our schedules to watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas”— I will confess that I learned our passage from Luke primarily by listening to Linus recite it. As an adult, I now have an annual appointment for 10:00 Christmas Eve morning to listen to the Ceremony of Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge on public radio. We make room for those experiences that tell us: It’s Christmas!

Many of us have to figure out how to make room in our budgets for Christmas—for gifts, entertainment and travel. The average American family spends about $743 on presents, the Gallup Poll tells us, though 30% will shell out more than $1000. We have to make room in our budgets in order to see an expression of delight on the faces of those we love.

And if we travel, we have to figure out who will make room for us when we get there. Will it be the Holiday Inn? Or the pull-out couch at Grandpa’s house? We make room for entertaining guests… remember Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig rolling up the carpets and sweeping away the extra furniture to host their merry Christmas Eve ball for their employees. The whole enterprise of Christmas could be seen as a great exercise in making room.

And so it was for the couple at the center of tonight’s drama, Mary and Joseph. It’s not always easy to make room for a baby. Even the most enthusiastic, well-situated, intentional parents can find it a daunting challenge. And here we have an unexpected pregnancy, at the very end of which a woman is forced to undergo an uncomfortable journey, and when she arrives… there is no room for her, despite her obvious need. She beds down among animals, where, at least, she can be warm and bring forth her firstborn son with some measure of privacy and safety. They find room, the couple, the baby, among the livestock.

Making room for the baby.. Christmas is a great exercise in making room. That counts for the spiritual experience that is Christmas, too, for the birth of Christ. Christmas invites us, urges us to find a way to make room in our hearts and in our lives for this blessed babe, the Christ child born in Bethlehem. A medieval Scottish lullaby puts it this way:

O my deir hart, yung Jesus sweit

Prepair thy creddill in my spreit!

And I sall rock thee in my hart

And never mair fra thee depart.

[O my dear heart, young Jesus sweet,

Prepare thy cradle in my spirit!

And I shall rock thee in my heart,

and never more from thee depart!]

“Prepare thy cradle in my spirit,” the singer prays, longing to receive the Christ Child in an intimate gesture of care. But what do we mean by that? Sometimes I worry that we mean the same thing Ricky Bobby means in “Talladega Nights,” when he prays his odd table grace to “Dear Lord Baby Jesus.” It is tempting to want a Jesus small enough to hold in our arms, who can’t confront or challenge us, who can’t tell us things we don’t want to hear. Who can’t remind us why he is here to begin with. It’s tempting to want a Jesus for whom we don’t really have to make that much room.

But here’s the thing: what we celebrate at Christmas is nothing less than the grandest gesture of compassion and love imaginable: God enters into humanity. God, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise, loving, just and good, chooses to throw in the divine lot with stumbling, fumbling, not-too-quick-on the uptake, us. God chooses to be with us in all the messiness, uncertainty and pain of fragile human existence… and just to drive home the point, God comes, not in power on a cloud with an army alongside, but in the most fragile, most tentative state of newborn infancy. All-power comes to us in complete powerlessness.

This is what we Christians claim about Jesus, whose birth among us we celebrate tonight. We claim he is the very love of God made flesh among us. And that truth about God, perhaps, begins to point us in the direction of how we might begin to imagine making room for God, for Jesus, in our own lives. Jesus comes to us in the grandest gesture of love and compassion we can imagine. And so, perhaps, making room for God, involves our own beginners’ attempts at learning how to make room for others.

We make room for God when we open our hearts and our hands to those in need. We make room for God when we decline to judge people, or to assign motives to them, but instead show them grace and love. We make room for God when we practice the hard art of forgiveness, or the arduous tasks of releasing anger, and jealousy, and resentment. We make room for God when we get outside the concerns of our own little worlds—my interests, my family, my circle of friends and acquaintances—and gain an interest in those whose lives we know nothing about, even those we might consider our enemies.

You may already know the story I am about to tell you. But some stories never grow old. On Christmas Eve 95 years ago, British, French and German troops faced one another across the World War I battlefield of Flanders. A brief truce had taken hold in honor of the holiday, and as the troops settled in for the night, the sound of a German soldier singing wafted across the field. “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.” Others joined in. When they had finished, the French troops and the English troops responded with their own Christmas carols.

Eventually, the men from both sides left their trenches and met in the middle. They shook hands, exchanged gifts, and shared pictures of their families. Informal soccer games began in what had been “no-man’s-land.” And a joint service was held to bury the dead of both sides. The generals, of course, were not pleased with these events. Men who have come to know each other’s names and seen each other’s families are much less likely to want to kill each other. War seems to require a nameless, faceless enemy.

So, following that magical night the men on both sides spent a few days simply firing aimlessly into the sky. Then the war was back in earnest and continued for three more bloody years. Yet the story of that Christmas Eve lingered – a night when the angels really did sing of peace on earth.[i]

The soldiers on Flanders Field, for a few days, managed to make a cradle in their spirits for the Child whose birth we celebrate. They made room, ever so briefly, for something greater than even global hostilities: for the love and peace they knew instinctively God would smile upon. That is what Christmas is: making room in our hearts, in our lives, in the whole wide world for compassion, and love, and peace. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Jim Wallis, Sojourner’s Magazine, “Christmas in the Trenches,” 2002.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Service for the Longest Night



If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

God says, Comfort, O comfort, my people.
The Lord says, I will wipe every tear from your eyes.
But we feel like voices crying out in the wilderness.
We wonder if we are alone in the barren desert.
Let us worship the God who saves.
Let us draw near to our God, clothed in fragile humanity, like us.



Let us give thanks for the light of Christ.
Blessed are you, O Lord our God, ruler of all the universe, creator of light and darkness.
In this holy season, when the sun’s light is swallowed up by the growing darkness of the night, you renew your promise to reveal among us the splendor of your glory, made flesh and visible to us in Jesus Christ.
Strengthen us where we are weak, support us in our efforts to do your will, and free our tongues to sing your praise, for to you all honor and glory and blessing are due, now and forever. Amen.

EVENING PSALM: Psalm 88, selected verses Translation: Gannet Girl

1. A song; a melody; for a son of the Korahites.
To the leader, according to Mahalath Leannoth. A maskil for Heman the Ezrabite.

2. Lord God of my salvation,
in the day I cry out, and
in the night, before you.

3. Let my prayer come before your face;
Incline your ear to my ringing cry.

.4. For my soul is sated with troubles,
And my life touches Sheol.

5. I am counted with those who go down to the Pit;
I become like those with no help.

6. With those who have died forsaken,
as with those profaned;
Those who lie down in the grave
whom you do not remember,
for they are cut off from your hand,

7. You have put me in a pit of lowest places,
in the depths of dark places.

8. Your rage rests upon me,
and every breaker of yours knocks me down;
each of your breakers humbles me.

9. You have put those who know me far from me;
you have made me an abomination to them,
one who is shut up,
and I cannot go out.

10. My eye becomes dim from afflictions.
I call you, Lord, in every day;
I spread the palms of my hands toward you.

11. Do you do wonders for the dead?
Do ghosts rise up praising you?

12. Is your kindness recounted in the grave;
Your steadfastness in Abaddon?

13. Are your wonders made known in darkness?
And your righteousness in the land of oblivion?

14. But I cry out for help to you, Lord,
And in the morning my prayer confronts you.

15. Why, Lord, do you reject my life?
Hide your face from me?

16. I am wretched, and
I am one who has perished from my youth;
I suffer your terrors;
I am helpless.

17. Your rage has swept over me;
your terrors annihilate me.

18. They surround me like waters all the time;
They surround me completely.

19. You put far from me friend and companion,
Those known to me –


SOLO “O Come O Come, Emmanuel”

READING: “In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver

SONG: “Emmanuel”

READING: Psalm 139



ANOINTING: “I Sing a Night in Bethlehem” Vocal and Harp

HYMN: “O Little Town of Bethlehem” Verses 1-3


May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, guide our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Bless the Lord.
The Lord’s name be praised.

Meditation for the Longest Night

Last night a small group gathered at St. Sociable for our second annual "Longest Night" service. Similar to a "Blue Christmas" service, this is a quiet, meditative evening for those who are struggling-- with grief, depression, and other states of being that make the "Holiday Season" particularly difficult.

I asked Gannet Girl for permission to use her translation of Psalm 88, with attribution. You can find it here.

Later I will post the service, but for now, the meditation.

“The Longest Night”

Psalm 88, Psalm 139

December 20, 2009

I recently heard a poem: “Christmas Landscape” by Laurie Lee. It starts like this:

Tonight the wind gnaws

with teeth of glass,

the jackdaw shivers

in caged branches of iron,

the stars have talons.

There is hunger in the mouth

of vole and badger,

silver agonies of breath

in the nostril of the fox,

ice on the rabbit’s paw.

Tonight has no moon,

no food for the pilgrim;

the fruit tree is bare.

the rose bush a thorn

and the ground is bitter with stones.

Those of us who are acquainted with upstate New York winters recognize this kind of night. Unrelenting cold. Oppressive darkness. Even the simple action of breathing becomes an agony.

Except in the most sensationalized way, it is rare for so honest a depiction of cold and darkness to make its way into the popular depictions of the holiday season. We are usually shown smiling people playing in the snow, making snowmen, throwing snowballs, falling in love by the fire while the storm swirls outside. “I really can’t stay…” “Oh, Baby, it’s cold outside!” The relentless, killing cold is not one of this season’s more marketable qualities.

But this poem taps into a truth that lies at the heart of the Christmas story—the real Christmas story. If we peel away the layers of commercialization, and the layers of tradition, and even the layers of faith, beneath it all, the story of Christmas is about the birth of a child to poor parents who were members of an oppressed religious minority in an occupied territory. The child is born into a world that is almost unimaginably harsh.

And that is the first point of entry for us, we who gather on this cold night, almost the longest night of the year. This story already resonates with our stories, if we come into this season with pain or grief. Why gather on this longest night? Why take note? We gather because of that very dissonance—the dissonance between what the culture believes to be at the heart of the celebration of Christmas (and, depending upon which commercials you listen to, that could be food, or drink, or shiny, pretty presents) and what truly lies at its heart—the audacity of hope even in the midst of pain or grief that is harsh and unbearable.

It seems appropriate this night to read from the book of psalms. Those of you who have gathered here on Sunday mornings have heard me say on more than one occasion: there is no emotion a human being can have that is not found somewhere in the book of psalms. That makes it a handy and ideal prayer book for us. In the heights of joy, in the heat of rage, in the warmth of gratitude, and in the depths of sorrow and despair, somewhere we can find our emotions mirrored in the book of Psalms.

I read tonight from Psalm 88. It is a good companion to that poem whose opening stanzas I’ve just read. Just as the poem describes unrelieved cold and darkness, the psalm describes unrelieved spiritual darkness and alienation. Of all 150 psalms, Psalm 88 is the only one that does not, at some point, find its way back to praise, thanksgiving, or hope. It is the only psalm that describes what it is to feel utterly alone and disconnected from God and community.

I don’t know how many of us find ourselves in that position tonight, feeling, with the psalmist,

…my soul is sated with troubles,
And my life touches Sheol.
I am counted with those who go down to the Pit;
I become like those with no help.” (Psalm 88:4-5)

Grief and depression can make us feel as if we can’t reach anyone, not God, not our loved ones, not our friends or community. Though I love this season, certain painful memories associated with it nevertheless have the ability to pull me down, memories sweeping over me, like a flood. I am grateful for a prayer that doesn’t pretty it up, for Psalm 88, which says to God, “I confront you with my grief. I confront you with my prayers.”

But then, I find I need to turn to Psalm 139.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.

You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

In contrast with the one praying the first psalm, this writer seems to have a sense that God is there—no, God is here. While the first prayer seems uttered from a place where God is impossibly distant, in the second, there is a recognition that God is close by, hovering, never leaving the pray-er alone. This I think expresses a deep truth about God.

Here’s the rest of that poem I started with:

But the mole sleeps, and the hedgehog

lies curled in a womb of leaves,

the bean and the wheat-seed

hug their germs in the earth

and the stream moves under the ice.

Tonight there is no moon,

but a new star opens

like a silver trumpet over the dead.

Tonight in a nest of ruins

the blessed babe is laid.

And the fir tree warms to a bloom of candles,

the child lights his lantern,

stares at his tinseled toy;

our hearts and hearths

smoulder with live ashes.

In the blood of our grief

the cold earth is suckled,

in our agony the womb

convulses its seed,

in the cry of anguish

the child’s first breath is born.

The birth of the blessed babe does not heal our grief. The nearness of God does not send the cold or the darkness scurrying away—not tonight, at least. But the nearness of God is real, whether we feel it or not. The nearness of God can be depended upon, if not experienced. Even if we feel that the darkness will swallow us and all the available light—as if our sadness were some imploding star with infinite mass—even the infinite darkness is not dark to God. The night is as bright in God’s all-seeing eyes as the day.

Perhaps the audacity of hope is this: even in the deepest darkness, when our tired and searching eyes cannot see their way to the light, we can rest in the arms of the One whose eyes see clear through to eternity. We don’t have to see it ourselves. We can simply know that it is seen—light, at the end of the darkness, a thin and pinkish dawn after what feels like an endlessly long night. God blowing on the ashes in our hearts, to make them smolder again—not for a bonfire, just the faintest promise of warmth, glowing, even before we feel it.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday Five: Soon and Very Soon!

Posted by Sophia at RevGalBlogPals:

It's the last week of the semester here so I offer another very simple Friday Five in honor of the past, present, and eschatological dimensions of this powerful season of the church year.... Please share five ways that God has come to you (your family or friends, your church or workplace, our world) in the past year, that God is coming to you right now, and/or that you are longing and looking for God to come. Marana tha! Come Lord Jesus!

1. In the past year, God has come to me most powerfully in, first, the quiet suggestion, and then the booming imperative, that it was time to come out to my congregation. I stood at the edge of a precipice, and God said, Leap! (The evolution of my thinking/ God's speaking to me can be found at my other blog, [un]closeted pastor, beginning in February. It was a Lent thing.).

2. If God said "Leap!", then my loved ones and congregation caught me, most profoundly. God came to me (and continues to come) in the affirmations and support I have received from nearly everyone in my congregation, and from all my friends, family and Beloved, without exception.

3. God comes to me in the early darkness of Advent. I have long loved this season, a whispered and candle-lit time in a minor key. It pulls me back to center, despite the crazy/busy nature of the way the world wants us to prepare for Christmas.

4. God comes to me in the reminders I receive daily that my work is not "all about me," but rather, like John the Baptist, a pointing upward. In reading the article about which I blogged here, I recognized a dangerous tendency in myself to assume total responsibility for the way things are going at church-- especially when they go awry. God comes as I am able to let go of that particular form or idolatry, and focus on the business of putting the Good News in front of my congregation.

5. God comes in relationships. Beloved, Petra, Larry, peacester, Little Mary... you know who you are. I am constantly amazed to see and experience the depths of love that are available to me. Thank you God.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Another Sermon

This past week I had the opportunity to preach to a gathering of folks from my denomination. This is my offering.


Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
~ Rev. 21:1-6

In Advent, we are reminded of what it is to live according to God’s time. I love God’s time, and I also fear it. According to God’s time, endings are also beginnings. The cone that fell lifeless to the forest floor reappears as a living and fragrant young pine. The triumph of Christ returning to judge and heal the world gives way to the flutter of angel wings outside a Nazorean girl’s bedroom window. God’s creation, called into being from the formless void, passes away, and behold: a new heaven and a new earth, all in God’s time. According to God, endings are beginnings.

In one sense, the Revelation to John is a book about endings. It reflects John’s attempt, as a pastor, to help his community to heal. The devastating loss of the Temple, the complete destruction of Jerusalem, the countless loved ones consumed by the relentless military might of Rome… all these losses and endings shocked Christian communities, broke Christian hearts. But each ending contained the seeds of a new beginning. Each moment of destruction was an opportunity for God to make a new creation.

We are intimately familiar with the landscape of endings and losses. Each person who settles in a pew or a chair on Sunday morning, no matter where your church, no matter what your statistics on attendance or growth… each one of us is an expert on change. We may have experienced the change that comes with dwindling attendance, as the community around the church changes, and people relocate, and the makeup of the congregation is altered. We may have experienced the change that occurs when a congregation begins to grow, or to attract a new demographic, and what was cozy and known becomes a little foreign, a little alien. We may have experienced change in familiar ways of worship along with changes in pastoral leadership. We may have experienced the loss of identity associated with a congregation finding a new vision for its communal life. None of these things is bad in and of itself… but each change reminds us of how elusive stability is, what an unlikely situation permanence is. Nothing is permanent. Every pastor is an interim. How do we find our bearings when it feels as if we are standing on the deck of a ship as it pitches and rolls?

We find our bearings, as did those early grieving Christians, in Jesus Christ. In our passage the voice of God thunders from the throne that is heaven: “The home of God is among mortals.” In Jesus Christ, in his advent, in his coming into our midst, God makes a home with us, a home that is utterly permanent. The Word became flesh and continues to dwell among us. God is not going anywhere that we are not. We cannot go anywhere that God is not, including, the Apostle’s creed reminds us, the very depths of hell.

In Jesus, God makes a home with us, a permanent dwelling. I’ve lived in my home for about 15 years. It’s a nice old house in My Town, built in 1905. I think it could use a paint job next spring. What I’d really like to do is remodel my kitchen. At the time I moved into the house I had lived in 10 different places over the course of about 15 years, and I had pretty much had it with moving. I am finished moving, I announced to anyone who would listen. I leave this house, when I leave it, feet first, in a box. That was my attitude. I was longing for permanence, and this home, I felt, was it, the place I would stay. When we call a place “home,” whether it is where we lay our bodies down to sleep at night or where we stand to sing songs of praise in the morning, it is our intention, most of the time, to make it our home forever, or at least the foreseeable future. That is what we mean when we call a place “home,” when we make it our dwelling.

In Jesus, God’s home is with us, God’s dwelling place. Those words, “home,” “dwelling,” they are meant to remind us that it is God intention to be with us, in our midst… because, remember, this promise is to a community, not to individuals. God will be with us, not just me. It turns out, though, if we peek behind the English translation and look at the original language, we find that that word that is translated “home” or “dwelling” sounds startlingly impermanent. The word, rather than evoking something like my house—something of wood or brick or concrete—actually means something more like a tent or a tabernacle, movable dwelling. The King James Version has it exactly right in this case: Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men. God doesn’t come among us intending to take up residence in a Temple or even the most beautiful or functional church building, something nailed down to the ground that can only be moved by being destroyed. That’s not what God does. God pitches a tent with us and among us. The tent of God is among mortals. The Word became flesh and pitched a tent in our midst.

We love and worship and pray to a God whose commitment to us and love for us is so fervent, he is willing to rough it with us, just in case we do what we always seem to do: make changes, pull up stakes, make a move. Tomorrow we might decide that we don’t really need this church building any more, we’d be just fine nesting in with our neighbors. That’s fine. God will be there, with us. Tomorrow we might decide our church was meant to serve the homeless and so we want to convert our sanctuary into a dormitory and worship out in the tool shed. That’s fine. God’s tent is movable; God will be there. Tomorrow we might realize we need a huge and fabulous new structure to make room for the thousand people who flock to our worship services each weekend. That’s fine. God is tabernacled with us. God is Ruth to our Naomi: wherever we go, God will go.

In Advent, we are reminded what it is to live according to God’s time. According to God’s time, endings are also beginnings. The cone that fell lifeless to the forest floor reappears as a living and fragrant young pine. The triumph of Christ returning to judge and heal the world gives way to the flutter of angel wings outside a Nazorean girl’s bedroom window. The relentless march of the darkness yields to a burst of light as the Son of God returns, and look: a new heaven and a new earth. And through it all, God is with us. Immanuel. God is with us. Wiping away every tear. God is with us. And thanks be to God. Amen.

Signs of Readiness: Sermon on Malachi 3:1-4

This is a re-purposing of a sermon I wrote six years ago, in my first call as an interim associate pastor.


When we think of “preparing” for Christmas, I wonder how many of us share the kinds of traditions embraced by Luther and Nora Krank, the lead characters in John Grisham’s little novel Skipping Christmas. Faced with an emotionally difficult holiday the Kranks reconsider their Christmas traditions, which have, in the past, included the following: decorating the house with a 7-foot tall plastic Frosty the Snowman; sending out about 100 Christmas cards; hosting an elaborate party; and buying gifts for friends, family and acquaintances alike to the tune of more than $6000. When all that is accomplished, the Kranks are ready for Christmas!

Even those of us who are committed to honoring the spiritual significance of Christmas have to be honest with ourselves. Christmas does, at times, seem to be all about the cards, gifts, parties, decorations, and social obligations. But as the couple in the novel discovers, the holiday season can seem particularly hollow if all we have to sustain us in the face of sadness or transition is the triumph of the perfectly catered cocktail hour or the elegantly turned out tree.

Scripture has very different ideas of “preparing” for Christmas. An orgy of spending and eating, getting and having, is simply not an adequate context for such an event. As one writer has described it: “…you cannot just walk into such a blaze of glory without preparation… you must creep up to it, think about it, count the days, watch the signs, and prepare.”[i]

How do we do it? How do we enter into this Advent season? In the face of real lives, real situations that fly in the face of the jolly, jolly “Ho Ho Ho” of it all, how do we even begin to think about the meaning of Advent? The natural world prompts us toward a kind of preparation that flies in the face of what we have been schooled to participate in. One writer describes the way in which nature and scripture come into alignment at this time of the year:

It is Advent and, along with nature, we are a people waiting. Far out of the south, the winter light comes thin and milky. The days grow shorter and colder and the nights long. Try as we may, we cannot fully dismiss the fundamental feelings that lie deep at our roots, a mixture of feelings dark and sweet. Will the sun, the source of our life, ever return? Has the great light abandoned us? We are anxious from the separation and feel an obscure guilt. We know there are vague disharmonies that keep us at odds. But our longing for union is passionate. This year we want our Christmas to be different.[ii]

I want to suggest something that might sound a little scandalous to us. I want to suggest that the best way to prepare for Christmas may be not to prepare. The best way to ready ourselves for Christmas may be to let God make us ready.

Listen again to the words of the prophet Malachi: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple… but who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.” (Malachi 3:1a, 2-4)

This is a time of preparation—but what a preparation! The refiner’s fire! You know, not one person I’ve talked to this week, myself included, is interested in being refined—being put into the fire by God or by life’s circumstances. And yet, we know, we all have times in our lives when that seems to be precisely what God has in store for us. Our feet are to the fire, or we have jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire—the heat is on! If we can’t stand the heat, we are told, get out of the kitchen—but life isn’t really like that, is it? When we are in the fire it never has to do with choices we would make in a perfect world. It always has to do with the messy reality of life as fragile, fallible people living among other fragile, fallible people. People hurt us, and we hurt them. We are faced with irreconcilable choices that we don’t want to make. We take the heat for something we didn’t do, or for something we did do—I don’t know which of those is worse. We experience a loss, a death—whether the death of a loved one or the death of hope itself. We are a people in the fire.

And we have a choice, when we are in the fire. We have a choice as to whether or not we will allow God to use that time as a preparation. We have a choice as to whether we will allow God to use fire-time to do a new thing, to make a new space in our hearts, to show us new vistas as yet unimagined.

A group of women in a bible study were looking at this verse from Malachi, “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver” (Malachi 3:3), and they wondered what on earth it could mean. One of them decided to find out about the process of refining and purifying silver, and promised to report back to the women in the Bible Study at their next meeting.

That week, the woman called a silversmith and made an appointment to watch him at work. She didn’t mention anything about the reason for her interest beyond her curiosity about the process of refining silver.

As she watched the silversmith, he held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat up. He explained that in refining silver, one needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest as to burn away all the impurities…

She asked the silversmith if it was true that he had to sit there in front of the fire the whole time the silver was being refined. The man answered that yes, he not only had to sit there holding the silver, but he had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire. If the silver was left a moment too long in the flames, it would be destroyed. The woman was silent for a moment. Then she asked the silversmith, “How do you know when the silver is fully refined?” He smiled at her and answered, “Oh, that’s easy—when I see my image in it.”[iii]

If God is the refiner, and we ourselves are the silver, we can trust in a few things about this fiery process of preparation we are going through. First, we can trust that, like the good silversmith, God doesn’t throw us in the fire and abandon us to our own devices. God holds us while we are in the fire. God watches us while we are in the fire. God hovers nearby, unwilling to let us be destroyed by the inferno. We are precious in God’s sight, far more precious than silver or gold, and it is God’s hope and intention that we emerge from the fire, not just unscathed, but unbound.

Second, when God’s gaze upon us is returned by an image of God’s own self—when God can see the divine image in the creatures over whom God is hovering—God knows that we are becoming the people God wants us to be.

At the same time we are preparing for the popular cultural festival that is “Christmas” we Christians are also preparing for our encounter with the blaze of glory that is Christ’s Advent among us. If the prophet’s image of meeting the refiner is still daunting—if, like me, you are still squirming at the thought of time in the fire—remember this: We can rest assured that the One who loves us when other loves fail, the One who is with us even when we feel lost and alone, the One in whose image we are made, will prepare us for that meeting, face to face. Amen.

[i]Mary Reed Newland, The Year and Our Children.

[ii] Gertrud Mueller Nelson, To Dance With God.

[iii] Posted to Midrash Discussion List, 2003.

Friday, December 04, 2009

A Most Disturbing Idolatry

I came across this article at Theolog, the blog of the Christian Century. It is titled "Salvation By Pastor Alone."

Whoo boy. Have I known churches like this. And they are not necessarily churches full of "bad people", per se. But they are, in my opinion, churches practicing a form of idolatry, and they can be churches totally unwilling to take responsibility for working out their own salvation with fear and trembling, for taking on the ministry of the gospel. Which, last I heard, is not the sole responsibility of the person who is getting a paycheck out of all this.

Churches that do this can get into some disturbing patterns, including dissatisfaction with pastor after pastor as no one fulfills their fantasy. Or, they can actually become vampire-like, in the way they consume the pastor who is simply trying faithfully to place the gospel before them.

I've known these churches. I do not believe St. Sociable is such a church, though I remember what someone on the search committee said: "We just know that everyone will love your sermons so much it will just fill up the church." Um, not so much, at least, not so far. And even though I recognize the pitfalls in this kind of thinking, I think it takes superhuman acts of will and faith to avoid falling right into the kind of trap of believing it's all "my responsibility."

Fight the false faith, people!