Thursday, December 30, 2010

Interrupting Wise Men

This past Sunday I had the opportunity to visit family and celebrate the holidays.  While away, I asked Leigh Peterson, church member and Director of C.U.P.S., to preach.  I'm sharing her sermon with her permission, though she insisted I share a knock knock joke first.

Knock, knock!
Who's there?
Interrupting Wise Men.
Interrupting Wis...
(interrupting) RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!! Herod's going to kill you, and your little baby, too!

Now back to the theological reflection you have come to appreciate: Sermon by Leigh Petersen on 12/26/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Lafayette, LA

Whew…. We made it…

We have come a far ways….

In just a few weeks, there has been so much preparation…. Hustling and bustling…. And so now, we’ve finally made it….

To Christmas….

And I don’t know about you, but I have no energy left.

I’m tired.

And then I read the Gospel account of Jesus’ birth and thought – well…. Maybe it could be worse…..

That 1st Christmas must have been exhausting for the Holy Family…

Mary and Joseph weren’t married – maybe they were engaged – and I’m learning that that has its own amount of pressures….  [Leigh is engaged and cares for a young child whose mother is mildly mentally challenged]  But perhaps that was different back then..

Anyway, Mary becomes pregnant – and it isn’t Joseph’s kid…

Luckily, Joseph has a dream that convinces him it is God’s baby and that Mary didn’t “cheat” on him…

So, he doesn’t leave her – but there has to have been some tension there for a bit…

Joseph’s dream might have resolved that particular tension…. But then they had to process what the dream said… Mary is pregnant with God’s baby..… um… so that means….the baby will be the Messiah! – ok….um… no pressure….

Can you imagine?? – as any 1st time parent can tell you, the preparation for having a baby is insane… you gotta get all the books… you gotta figure out the theme for the nursery, assemble the crib, and come up with a name…

God, trying to be helpful, perhaps – picks a name for Mary and Joseph’s child - at least they won’t have to do that….

But they still have to figure out how to navigate some treacherous social conditions… pregnancy before marriage is not going to be well-received in their world….

And just to make things more fun...

There is a census. And you have to go to the town where you are from….

So Joseph and a very pregnant Mary hit the road. Ever traveled with a pregnant woman? THAT can be stressful….

And then they get to Bethlehem and they have no where to stay… They had to go to Bethlehem because that is where Joseph is from…. He MUST have had relatives there….

My guess is that they requested refuge in the home of a family member, but weren’t allowed to stay because of the unwed pregnancy…. I mean – it would be a disgrace…. How dare they?

Can you hear Joseph’s great-aunt? – I can’t believe Joseph had the nerve to show up on my doorstep looking for a place to stay – with his pregnant girlfriend….

The holy family is Homeless…. Wandering… Outcasts….

And in the midst of this they are preparing for a birth… and preparing for any birth would be stressful enough…. But this is the birth of the Messiah….

It really makes the stress of my preparations for Christmas morning 2010 look pale in comparison….

Fighting mall traffic to find the perfect gift is just NOT as bad as traveling for days to find a place to stay in order to have a safe place to give birth….

Anyway, they end up in an inn…

And our sweet Christmas carols and beautiful nativity sets have a way of making this sound so sweet and beautiful in our heads…. But really, a stable is messy… and just sorta gross. Not a place you’d want to spend the night…

And then, of course Mary still has to give birth – also not an easy process, or clean…. Or very pretty….

I’m sure the birth was sweet and beautiful – yes. But not clean and certainly not very “silent”…. When I think of the Christmas carols and how we idealize things, it is almost humorous…

“Away in a manger – the cattle are lowing, the poor Baby wakes. But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes….” Really? A baby that doesn’t cry. Probably not.

“Silent Night”??? Really? Ever been in a delivery room. Not so very silent…

No… The birth of the Messiah. Just like every birth was messy. And loud. And probably complicated at times. And definitely exhausting.

But – also like every birth - filled with great expectations….

The first expectation common to parents is that once the birthing process is over, then there will be hugs and cuddles and sweet coos with mom and dad and the baby will just go to sleep and all can rest…

And you’d think that at the end of all this, the HOLY FAMILY could at least get some rest… I mean they have been through a lot…. And this is the Messiah. Surely now they can just lay their baby down – anywhere – even if it has to be a manger, which as Zach reminded us on Christmas Eve, is a food box…. And REST. Finally….

But nope…

Here come the shepherds…. And the wise men…..

Being the parents of the Messiah, there is no time to rest….

But, sitting back and letting people come worship your child might not be all that bad…. One could get used to that…

But in Christianity, one doesn’t get to hang around and just “enjoy the glow”…

And that’s not in the cards for Mary and Joseph either….

Because Herod is in charge. And he is mean. I mean REALLY mean. Hitler mean.

He finds out that the Messiah has been born…. And so he goes after him… trying to trick the Wise Men into telling him where to find the baby…

But a dream warns them not to fall for his tricks and so they don’t tell Herod where he is…

And a dream warns Joseph that there is no rest for the weary….

So they must run… again…. Homeless…. Wandering….. Outcasts…… now, add Refugees to the list.

And it is life or death for the holy family – well, for every family in the area really.…. Herod is killing all the babies – every male under the age of 2 – in the area all around Bethlehem…. Willing to go to extreme lengths to preserve his reign and power….

The Christmas story – like most of the Bible’s stories is just NOT a friendly, happy, children’s story….

When Zach asked me to preach today, I of course, said yes immediately

But right after I said “yes”, Zach said, “um… it might be the “slaughter of the innocents” text…. You might wanna check on that. You can pick a different one if you want…. J

The “slaughter of the innocents”…. That’s what we call this text when we are being honest. In Children’s Sunday School, we clean it up a bit and call it “The Escape to Egypt” and sorta gloss over the reason WHY an escape is necessary….

And I really thought about picking a different text. I could pick something more, well, sweet and beautiful… something easier….

I REALLY thought about it.

Because, after all the hustle and bustle of Christmas, I knew I’d be tired. And I was right.

I’m tired.

I don’t wanna preach on this text. It makes me mad with God and it makes me sad at the state of the world – then and now.

And the truth is that I just plain don’t really know what to do with texts like this sometimes…

My soul cries out….moans out, really… “GOoooodddddd – why!!??!!!?”

And yet this is how the church celebrates the season of Christmas. Every year, Dec. 28th is considered a Day of Remembrance for the Holy Innocents.

Just when we are patting ourselves on the back for remembering to keep “Christ in Christmas” by coming to church to sing sweet Christmas Carols and look at beautiful nativity scenes and rock ourselves to sleep as we close our eyes to the reality of the world around us….

God send messengers that say “Don’t forget the Herod in Christmas”….

My hunch is the holy family had probably seen enough of Christmas. They must have been ready for things to return to normal--whatever that is. But, alas, they would never see normal again. This baby had brought with him a new normal.

Even the Holy Family was not given the luxury of sleeping in heavenly peace for very long.

On the one hand, there's the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes...but on the other hand, there is Rachel, close by, weeping for her children.

If Joy to the World has been hard for you to sing – much less feel this Christmas season, you are in good company with Mary and Joseph and Jesus...and God.

The Gospel today reminds us that the world in which God enters is not perfect…

And the good news of the birth of Jesus does NOT magically erase all the bad news in the world….

The Good News is not that suffering has ended.

The Good News is not that we will never be sad.

The Good News is not that there is a Santa Claus-type god in the sky granting wishes to those who are good and sending coal and trouble to those who are bad….

The Good News is that the Creator of the world - The Creator of the Good and the Bad is WITH US.

Jesus enters into the messiness of our world….

Fulfilling God’s Promises….

Fulfilling is one of the “buzz words” in Matthew – it shows up 3 times just in the passage we read today.

In Mathew, God is busy – full-filling…

FILLING this world FULL of grace and peace and truth and mercy…

The text in Isaiah this morning is a communal lament….

It is a cry from the depth of a grieving community….

And we read it today and add the griefs we experience in the broken world we find ourselves living in today –

for there are still tyrants who kill to maintain their power….

There are still people who will manipulate the truth to “save face”….

There are still children who are killed way too early.

There are still parents who grieve

There are still families who must run for safety

There are relationships that are broken…

There are Countries at war…

There are still people who are Homeless…. Wandering…. Outcast…. Refugees…..

But lest we too quickly gloss over things…. All of that isn’t just what is “OUT THERE”… it is in us…

And when we let it, this story can tug at that place deep in our hearts… Causing us to look at the parts of our own personal lives that we like to gloss over…. We sing sweet beautiful songs, but under that…

maybe we are like Rachel, weeping in grief

maybe we are like the wise men—seeking and finding, but inadvertently bringing harm to so many

maybe we are like Herod--fearful of losing power and position and relentless in our desire to keep it

maybe we are like Joseph--dreaming, trying to be obedient, running from place to place

maybe we are like Mary – just following along, feeling tossed around by the circumstances of life…

But maybe – just maybe… we are like Jesus--the one who was saved ... to save….

Isaiah says…He became their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them. In his love and in his pity he redeemed them. He lifted them up and carried them all the days of old…

God doesn’t come into the world promising to fix anything. Or to grant us all our wishes. Or to eliminate evil. Or to end suffering.

God comes promising to be our savior in all our distress. Promising to be with us… God with us… Emmanuel… now and til the ends of the ages….

With us in our distress… carrying us… redeeming us… saving us.... and the world around us…. Moment by moment…. Eternally…

Christmas means that Darkness comes… but there is a Star to follow.  Blessings!
~Leigh Petersen
Director of C.U.P.S.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Advent Conspiracy Report: Love All

First Presbyterian – Lafayette, Louisiana
December 19, 2010 – Advent A4
Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-2,7 (sung with cantor)
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

As we begin the last sermon in this series, let’s remember where we have been before moving forward. So far we have considered the challenge to “Worship Fully” – to become aware of God’s presence in our private and public lives and respond to it with our decisions and actions. Next was the challenge to “Spend Less” on things that do not matter and to give gifts that impact individual lives and communities. And last Sunday we were challenged to “Give More” by taking the time to be with others and understanding all relationships as the sacred ground where Christ enters in.

I have suggested that the reality of Advent should change the world, and I am hopeful that your world has been changed in some small way by this season of preparation. In fact, I would even say that if you do not allow God to change your world in some way, you can not be part of the changes that God is instituting.

That is a pretty big claim, so I want you to know one small way that I’m trying to embrace it. You may have noticed my hair. Well, as an act of worship I decided not to spend money on a hair cut. Instead I buzzed it myself. I saved some money, and I’m going to spend some of it on memorial gifts from our giving tree. I’m going to put the card from these gifts in the hands of each of my grandmothers and let them know that because of their faith I have contributed to the Building Fund and to C.U.P.S.

Now, that was the easy part. Viewing every relationship as sacred and loving everyone is something I’m still working on. Love all? Terrorists? Jihadists? Love All? That’s madness. There are some natural boundaries in the world – oil and water; Cajun and Creole; Roman Catholic and Protestant. Within our denomination there are those who just can’t let go of the debate over homosexuality while many others have realized that a sexual ethic that ignores injustice is just bad theology. Then there is the web of confusion between personal responsibility and true human limitation that results in addiction, sexually transmitted diseases, and homelessness.

Love all? Lordy, Jesus, help us. We all have our own experiences and biases. This congregation has experiences and biases. We need something more to help us. We need scripture, and not just the words of God. We need the Word of God, the Divine Logos.

So, like children shaking boxes to find what truth lies in store we turn to Isaiah to be reminded that God’s promise of presence has come in a virgin birth. Without getting to deeply into mythology here, it should be noted that the idea of God in human form was not as alien to the ancient Hebrews as it is to us today. Great leaders of many cultures were said to have power and authority from beyond human action because they were born this way.

So, by the time we get this letter to the Romans, Paul is responding to a cultural idea of the divinity of the emperor. It was not uncommon for an emperor to claim the title, “Son of God.” How else could they take life or spare it at whim unless they had the authority of God to so. Besides that, the empire crossed so many cultures and divinities that people prayed to anything that seemed to work. Of course the emperor was a god!

What is so radical about Paul is that he is claiming that the power of Jesus is not about life taking – it is about life giving! Our passage ends with the invitation and acknowledgement that we have already received the gift and the power of God through Jesus Christ! “Grace and peace – to YOU,” he says.

And as the Gospels are written the story of the virgin birth adds to the authority over death proclaimed by Paul to further prove the divinity of Jesus. Usually we think about Mary in this story, but Joseph is the focal point in Matthew’s gospel. Joseph finds out his beloved is with child. All we know about this story is that he is a righteous man and resolves to leave her quietly.

Joseph is a righteous man. He had the power to have her stoned to death, but he had already made up his mind to respond with kindness. Suddenly the story explodes with promises! An angel appears and acknowledges the promise of the line of David. The promised Holy Spirit becomes the means of pregnancy. The unwanted child becomes the fulfillment of prophecy, and his name is Jesus. His name means, “Justice.” I’ve always wondered how it goes immediately from Emanuel, God with us, to Jesus, justice, and I think I’ve come closer to figuring that out this year.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Peace is not the absence of violence, but the presence of justice.” Justice, by our standards, usually looks a bit more like retribution or comeuppance. Not so by Biblical standards. Not so for Joseph, for he was a righteous man. Justice and righteousness went hand in hand in the law and the prophets. Justice tempers righteousness even in the conception of Jesus, and Joseph is the model for our response. That is what loving all is about. It is about witnessing to the presence of God through righteousness tempered by justice.

Biblical righteousness is about basic morality. Biblical righteousness is about doing the right thing in any given situation or relationship. Biblical justice is about power and powerlessness. Biblical justice is concerned with lifting up those who have no power or who believe themselves to be powerless.

We do a pretty good job with that around here! We have emergency food bags for the hungry with other community resources to share. We just distributed 500 baskets to needy families who would not have had Christmas presents without you. We operate as a control center for the Meals on Wheels program and gather peanut butter for the United Christian Outreach.

It is good to celebrate our efforts as a congregation and to name and claim what we do for the Kingdom of God! Yet all that we do here is simply the beginning of the work that must be completed in our lives. I cannot tell you what to do in terms of the people you find difficult to love. I can only tell you what it means to love them, and that we are called to do so.

One thing I have found is that the first place to work on when challenging bases of power is within myself. There are centers of power and powerlessness in each of our lives, and only the One who has true authority over life, death, and the life that is to come can bring about justice within us.

It is then, and only then, that we can find a way to say with the authority and conviction of Paul, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!” Christ is coming to make all things new. May the life giving presence of justice be born in you this day, that you might the one to offer it to someone else. And to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Candle In The Window

These words are for anyone who is having a tough time this Christmas because they have lost a loved one. It could be a recent loss or one from years past. My hope is that these words of scripture with my thoughts added to them will meet someone in their place of need. May the peace of Christ be with you.

1 Corinthians 15:50-58

A candle in the window has long been a symbol of hope. It lets us know that someone is home, waiting up for us. Inside there is warmth, shelter, and sanctuary. A candle in the window is a symbol of hope from the inside out as well. It is a beacon offering a siren call to the one we miss who is too long away and never forgotten.

We light candles now, even though we do not have to. There is something about the limited glow, the warm feeling, and the wisp of smoke that signals a departure that connects with us deep inside. We light candles in community, or in the longing for, or anticipation of, someone coming to enjoy the glow with us. Yet sometimes our anticipation is answered with silence.  Sometimes we are left with the knowledge that he or she simply is not coming back. So we light candles in the defiance of darkness, even though we know it will never go away.

Grief is like that. It never truly goes away. We want to believe that there are a set number of stages that if we work real hard and check them off the list we will be done with it. We can get over it. We can move on with closure. Yet I would suggest that grief is a little messier than that. I would also suggest that it is a little more valuable than that.

A friend once told me that she felt grief was like a walk on the beach. The sound of the surf is always there. Sometimes it calls to you, and you have to let it roll over your toes. Sometimes the tide comes in when you least expect it and knocks you over.

The holidays can be like that. A box opens up and old wounds become new. We summon up our courage and we smile, but not without a wince of pain. Yet for those who believe, somehow the Christ enters into this space that has been opened inside of us. He does not come like an elf or a fairy that takes the pain away. Instead he enters in to help us bear it.

Paul’s words about imperishability remind us that we must put on that which does not go away. The joy, the sadness, the unspoken words, and the words we wish had never been said - all of these remain imperishable. That is actually a good thing, and I’ll tell you why.

It has been said that sorrow carves the cup that contains our joy. That is why grief is so very valuable. Grief is a testimony to the depth of affection we have felt and to our capacity to love. In the end, only love remains. Only love allows us to experience the imperishable.

So we, in our earthly, perishable forms may put on imperishability through our knowledge that there is something of our loved ones and our losses that remains. We, in our earthly, perishable forms may put on imperishability when we pass from this life because of the forgiveness we have in Jesus Christ! We, in our earthly, perishable forms have hope in the knowledge that we will once again be joined with our loved ones in such a way that grief itself becomes an item in a scrapbook to cherish and remember.

For death has certainly lost its sting, and the work of bearing our earthly sorrows has an end. For now we carry them with joy, full of the knowledge of Christ’s redeeming love, and to God be the glory, now and always. Amen.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Advent Conspiracy Report: Give More

First Presbyterian in Lafayette, Louisiana

December 12, 2010 – Advent A 3

Isaiah 35:1-10

James 5:7-10

Matthew 11:2-11

Once again I come before you with the need to report on the activities of the Advent Conspiracy that is going on in this congregation and in others throughout the world.  By now you have probably figured out that there is nothing particularly new about the idea that Advent can be a subversive force of change in the world.  I have to admit that, for most of you, I don’t know if that is a new thought to you.  I don’t know if it bothers you.  I don’t know to what extent you have decided to join this conspiracy, or even if you believe that the church should be an instrument of social change.

It’s not because of anything you have or have not done.  It is because I simply have not asked.  That is, I have not asked until now.  I have not asked because I have been too busy with the “busy-ness” of the church.  I have not asked because I am not sure that I want to know.  I don’t want the discomfort of hearing that you disagree or just don’t understand.  I don’t want to deal with the difficult side of relationships.

None of us really do.  Sure, some of us try to “call it like we see it” and be known as a “straight shooter.”  I have found that even that can be a way in which I can keep from getting into the nitty gritty of compromise and the vulnerability that comes with it.  That’s the heart of the idea of giving more this Advent, as I see it.

I imagine many of you look at that title and say, “Give more?  Good luck with that!  I’m spent.  I’m tired of every non-prophet and commercial enterprise in the free market trying to woo me, or guilt me, into debt.  I barely have time for myself anymore.  Give more?  I have nothing left, and if I did I would need it to survive!”  Of course there are others that would say, “I would love to give more.  I just can’t.  I can’t do the things I used to do, and I can barely take care of myself.”  And still there are others who find themselves trapped by busy schedules, and commitments that just can’t be avoided.

Enter into the wasteland of postmodern life, the prophet Isaiah, James the martyr, and Jesus as remembered by Mathew.  Isaiah reminds us that freedom is coming, and that the promise of redemption is worthy of hope. 
James, I feel, always offers practical suggestions.  He’s the one who often speaks to me the way I do to my children. “Calm down.  Take a deep breath.  Let’s focus on the important things here.”  The Lord is near.  Follow the example of the prophets.

Hmmm… things didn’t always end well for the prophets.  In fact, Jesus is sending word to John, calling him a prophet, but John is in prison!  If we look to Luke’s gospel we find that prison did not go well for him, either.  Yet we are being called to look toward the prophets for our source of joy today.  We are even directed toward the anticipation of John the Baptist in prison.

Jesus responds to John’s anticipation in two ways: first he confirms the truth about him; then he confirms the truth about John.  Jesus is the presence of God’s activity and John is the evidence.  John calls Jesus the Messiah, the anointed one, and it is interesting because he is the one who anointed Jesus!  Well, at least from a human perspective.  John did baptize Jesus.  So he wants to know, “Did I get it right?  Is it true?  Was my work worth it?”  And Jesus answers him, “The lame walk, the blind see, lepers are healed, and the poor have good news.”  The proof is in the pudding. 

Jesus goes on to talk about the significance of John, even calling him Elijah!  John, so it seems, offered more than prophecy.  He was more than a truth teller.  John’s proclamation became the new reality that made the experience of God incarnate a possibility.  John gave more.

Those words drop like a gauntlet placed in our path.  John gave more.  Resistance screams into our conscious.  John gave more.  Before guilt creeps in, I want to add the phrase, “and so do we.”  I’m not talking about what we used to do, could do, or should do.  I’m talking about our character as a congregation.

Demographically, I think there are some similarities to our congregation and John – waiting in prison.  We feel that our freedom and ability has been taken away by our size and activity level, and we look toward the past and say, “Was it worth it?”  Without question, the risen Christ points to our successes and says, “Yes! In those times and places where you have allowed me to bring hope and healing, I have done it.”  The obvious question is, “Could Jesus have done those things without us?”  The obvious answer is, “Yes.  Just as God could have done it without John the Baptist, God could enter in without us.”

So, instead of getting hung up on what God can or cannot do, I think we need to celebrate our giving.  I’m not talking about money here.  I’m talking about relationships.  I think we need to name our giving habits and claim them in a way that allows the Kingdom of God to enter in.  Not because God needs us to, but because we do.  You see, I know someone who, after attending worship here, began visiting strangers in the hospital.  I know members who take meals to others and treat them as God’s own children, holy and beloved.  I know about members here who pay light bills for neighbors, drive out of their way to get a coat for a stranger who is cold, and members who spend countless, thankless ours in more than one community outreach.

Even so, giving more is not about putting on capes and pretending to be super Christians who save the world.  Giving more is about living in a way that alters your vision and makes your hands follow so that you can participate in God’s action of saving the world.  There’s a song that’s been out on the Christian radio stations for a while now by Brandon Heath.  He sings about a city street.
All those people going somewhere
            Why have I never cared?
            Give me your eyes for just one second
            Give me your eyes so I can see
            Everything that I keep missing
            Give me your love for humanity
            Give me your arms for the broken hearted
            The ones that are far beyond my reach
            Give me your heart for the one's forgotten
            Give me your eyes so I can see

So often we are blinded by our defenses, our expectations, and our experiences.  Yet Jesus sneaks in.  He snuck in yesterday when a family that came to receive became personal shoppers, giving to others through CUPS.  He snuck in last week when two homeless men asked a member to help someone else.  He sneaks in and says, “By the way, when is the last time you invited someone to church?”  He sneaks in and says, “You are blessed if you are not offended by my presence, by my offer to heal and restore, and by my insistence that you give more.”

Giving more is not about money.  In fact it is the opposite, for there are times when we give money because we do not know what else to do.  There are people who have used guilt to manipulate us, and our money has only helped maintain dependency. 

Today let us hear clearly Christ’s call to give more in ways that make it possible for him to enter in and become the source of blessing for others.  Let us hear clearly the call to look toward our relationships and casual acquaintances as a chance to offer the most precious gift there is, and that is the very presence of God, through Jesus, the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ! 

We have something amazing to offer this world as a community of the faithful, God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.  Let’s celebrate the gifts we have been given, and let us give more!  And to God be the glory, both now and always.  Amen.