Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Shepherd's Story: Sermon on Luke 2:8-20

Listen—I don’t have long—I simply must tell you what I must tell you.

You know me. You know my brothers and me, and how we watch our father’s flocks of sheep and goats. We are shepherds. You know what that means. We are not people who are given to flights of fancy. We are not dreamers and we are not romantics. Our lives and our responsibilities are very real: We rise in the morning before the flock becomes restless. WE take a quick count—assuming the person on the night watch didn’t fall asleep—to ensure that no wolves or coyotes decimated their ranks in the night. Then we move them, with the help of our dogs, across the mountain terrain, to the stream that runs south-southwest of here. We let them drink. Then we move them, again, across the rugged land to a place where they can pasture. While they eat we keep a watch for predators—as you know, that is the most important work we do. We protect the flocks. There is no one better with a staff than my brother Ezekiel. He killed a stalking leopard with one stroke last summer. He left a would-be poacher maimed the year before. Still, no one, not even Ezekiel, enjoys the attack. But this is our life. It is very real.

And you know that, our ancestor David notwithstanding, shepherds are not held in the highest esteem. We are needed. Everyone wants our lambs and kids to adorn their table. Everyone wants the sweet milk of our goats to drink and to make savory cheeses. But no one much wants a shepherd around. We do a job everyone acknowledges must be done. But everyone would just as soon we stay out of sight.

What I am trying to say is... I don’t know why this happened to us. I don’t know why this happened to me. I only know that it happened. It happened to us. And we will never be the same.

There we were last night, keeping watch over our sheep on the cold mountainside. They had settled down. Two of my brothers had curled up in front of a small fire, the end of a long day taking its toll on even the youngest and strongest bodies. Ezekiel and I were keeping watch. We were settling into the silence of a starry night, and the ground was beginning to cover over with a light frost.

Suddenly there was someone right in front of us—no warning. He had not walked to us. He had not run to us. We had not seen him coming—he was right there!

But that is not what I meant to say. The thing was this: we couldn’t look at him. We couldn’t bear to look at him. He was so bright—it was as if the brightest lightning shone a hundred times in the same spot, for many minutes. It was what it is like if you stare and stare into the brightest firelight for a long, long, time, and then turn your head and try to see something in the dark. All you see is the light.

There he stood, burning, radiant. Though I could not properly see him, I had the sense that he flowed and moved about even as he stood completely still. Were they robes that swirled in front of me? Were they... wings? Ezekiel and I fell to our knees. We knew what we had before us. You know what we had before us. A messenger from Ha Shem, Adonai, the Lord. A messenger from God can mean only—death. We knew our time had come, and so we fell to our knees. It was an instinct: the instinct to beg for our lives.

Then he spoke, and his voice was like the sound of rushing water. He spoke in our language, but he made it sound so beautiful... not the way my brothers and I speak at all. He sounded a little like a rabbi, only more beautiful, and more—filled with authority.

“Do not be afraid,” he said, “for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savoir, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

The sound of his voice had awakened my sleeping brothers... I could see them out of the corner of my eye, huddled together like children, trembling. All I could hear at that moment was the sound of my own heart, beating, thump, thump. The messenger regarded us silently. Then there was a burst of sound as we all began to talk at once, our voices tumbling over each other.

“Good news...” “The city of David... that’s Bethlehem... that’s just a few miles from here...” “A Savior... but that’s what the Gentiles call their Emperor!” “How can a nursling babe be anyone’s Savior?”

Ezekiel had been silent until now. Then he spoke. “The Messiah? The one who is come to save our people? David’s son? The son of the shepherd?”

We were all silent again. The messenger swirled and swooped and somehow stood still. The voice like water burst forth again. “This will be a sign for you: you will find the child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” He waited a moment to see that we had taken in these words. Then the sky exploded, as if a hundred clouds had collided and issued a hundred thunderclaps, and we were all on the ground, covering our heads in fear. The flock, quiet until that moment, burst into bleating and stirred and stamped. I looked through my shaking arms and saw an army of a hundred—no, a thousand messengers, each as brilliant as the one who had spoken to us, so that the sky was no longer dark, but bright as a sunny noontime.

The messengers were calling to one another, and it was like rushing water all around our heads. It was like music. It was like the crackling of fire. They were yelling. They were singing! “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace, good will among people!” The noise was both exquisitely beautiful and painful to hear. It was as if there was too much beauty for this shepherd’s heart to take in at once. Finally we rolled onto our backs, looking and listening and gasping for breath, and laughing at the amazement of it all.

I don’t know how long we were there. But eventually the last messenger ascended into the starry heavens, and we were left alone with our bleating flock. We lay there for a few minutes, struck dumb by what we had witnessed.

Then my brother rose. “Up!” said Ezekiel. “Up! You heard him! You heard them! We have to go! We have to tell! We have to see!” Then he stopped, and a broad smile came over his dark face. “Did you hear what he said? He said, ‘To you.’ To you is born a Savior! To us!” We all stood breathless, as the truth of the words dawned. This Savior... this was not someone for the rich and powerful only, like the Roman Emperor. This was someone who was coming to us, for us. Shepherds! The lowest of the low! We knew what it meant. If we were included, everyone was included.

And now I have paused as long as I dare. My brothers have gone on ahead of me, and I will have to run to catch up. But I wanted you to know. I had to tell. And now I have to see, this child of God, this son of David, this baby shepherd who will save us, who will save us all. I have to go. I have to go! Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Home for Christmas: Sermon on 2 Samuel 7:1-16 and Luke 1:26-38

I’ll be home for Christmas

You can plan on me

Please have snow

And mistletoe

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

Our Unsettling Cousin: Sermon on Mark 1:1-8

I only just realized that I never posted my Advent 2 sermon. (Advent 3 saw a delightful Christmas Pageant at our church, so no preaching for me.)

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.