Monday, December 19, 2011

Labor Pangs

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
December 18, 2011 - Advent (4 B)
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Romans 8:18-25
Luke 2:1-6

Pang - that’s a funny word, isn’t it? Although, maybe not so much if you have felt one. A pang is a sudden, sharp, and indelible experience of pain - often associated with giving birth. Of course it can also be associated with mental anguish like doubt or remorse. Most likely, if you have had one then you know it, and you have not forgotten it.

A pang is relatively short lived, although the memory of it can take you back to its origin. So many of our soldiers coming home this Christmas will feel these in the years to come, and our response will be a test of our merit as a society. We tend to think of the initial cause of such pains to be endurable - and certainly they are. One can hardly call it a pang if one does not live through it.

Of course in Paul’s day, as in much of the world today, labor was not something everyone lived through. Birth and death were sometimes intertwined in a way that modern medicine has made seem uncommon. Yet that is the struggle that encompasses all of life and leaves us needing something more to hope for, to trust in, and to offer some sense of meaning and purpose.

In the church we express and experience the struggle between anxiety and hope through the movement of Advent. We remember the claim God has placed upon us and expressed in the line of David. Through God’s claim we become restored and aware of our true nature as God’s beloved children. As children of God we wait with expectation the movement of God in and through our lives! As we experience God’s active presence, we become aware that we are constantly moving from death into life!

So, in a sense, we are in the delivery room. We are awaiting the life that is to come. In a sense we are in the process of being born as well - over and over again.

Of course there is nothing particular about this time of year that forces or creates such an experience. It is simply the time of year we have chosen to give ourselves permission to think and feel things we neglect or deny throughout the year. Perhaps there is something about the change of seasons - some primal connection to the harvest or the lengthening of shadows - that makes us more open to the tension between hope and sorrow that is part of being human.

It doesn’t really matter, though, if we take Paul’s words to heart. “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” That’s still a hard pill to swallow when you are in the grip of illness, or without a job, or anytime that your prayers seem to fall into a vacuous void.

But Paul reminds us that “all of creation is subject to futility,” so at least we know that we are not alone. All of creation is in this with us. All of creation is groaning in labor, or at least it was. Paul said, “until now.” All of creation might still be groaning and waiting for the birth of the children of God, but it doesn’t have to be. When we act in concert with God we see all of creation as a part of God - and that includes us! When we place our trust in the things God has in store for us instead of the things we expect God to do, we find ourselves in a position of hope - and hope keeps us alive!

I think that is the allure of putting things on lay away. Certainly that can be a positive way to manage your finances, but I think it is also a way for stores to get you to give them money based on what you hope you can accomplish. That’s what it was for Thomas Coates of Omaha, Nebraska. Unemployed and hoping to make it through, he went to make a payment on toys he had on lay away.

A woman stepped forward and simply paid it for him. Then she paid for several other customers’ lay away items and carts. She said her husband had died and she did not have anyone to spend it on. She just wanted her husband, Ben, to be remembered. Apparently she is not alone. Men and women calling themselves Secret Santas are going in to stores across the country and spending up to $20,000 on other people’s lay away items. Reports of incidences like this have come in from Nebraska, Montana, Iowa, Indiana and Michigan (where it seems to have begun).

Of course you don’t have to do something like this to experience and offer hope. In some ways our basket ministry does it even better. We join with creation by blending new and repurposed items to make gifts for those who cannot give or receive them otherwise. And we did it. With God’s help and your hard work we have produced over 1,000 baskets for people in need.

That’s an interesting thing to think about - people in need. Does anyone really need a Christmas present? We need clean air. We need water, food, clothing, and shelter. We need access to resources that help us to provide for ourselves. We need medical care. Do we need Christmas presents? No.

What we need is the hope they provide. What we need is the deliverance from a life of separation into a life filled with hope and relationships. And Mary and Joseph traveled all the way to Bethlehem to bear and deliver the hope that is offered through Jesus. Say what you will and imagine what you must - but that is one road trip I would not want to be a part of!

Especially given that they arrive to find nowhere to rest but a stable. How terrifying that must have been! That is where the story leaves off today, with Mary in labor. That is where we are, or at least that is where we can be. So much of our lives are focused on control and acquisition, and yet we cannot have a life that is worth living without becoming totally vulnerable, losing all modesty, and staring life and death in the face until we are taken by one or the other.

Meanwhile, all over the world, children are peeking into cabinets and shaking boxes to try and figure out what might be inside. All over the world, children are also being sold into slavery and living in conditions we would not allow a dog to live in. In a few places, here and there, people pretending to be Santa or one of his elves are shining light into the darkness like a midwife holding Mary’s hand. In a few places, here and there, the children of God are being revealed.

Are you one of them? Surely you are. And we who are called children of God exist in the anxiety of this present darkness - because we know that life is coming! We exist in the anxiety of the present moment because it forces us to recognize that life has already come. And so we await our own deliverance from sin and death and the schemes that ensnare - because we know that it has already come.

As we look to the celebration of Jesus’ birth, let us revel in the anxiety that pushes us evermore toward hope, “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”

May it be so with me. May it be so with you - and to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What Are You Expecting?

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
December 11, 2011 - Advent (3B)
Isaiah 35:1-10
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Luke 1:26-31

Expectations for events related to Christmas have reached a fever pitch in our country. Of course it was hard to get any worse than the day after Thanksgiving - a day when someone somewhere is usually trampled for the love of a TV or toaster or toy. This year a woman pepper sprayed a group of people in order to protect her children while trying to buy an Xbox.

Between the madness of our culture and the busy pace of family and friends, it all becomes somewhat of a caricature. Sometimes I’m not sure if I feel like Bugs Bunny trying to ask fleeing creatures for direction while the Tasmanian Devil approaches or Charlie Brown asking Linus if anyone knows the true meaning of Christmas.

Tonight we will celebrate a Christmas dinner as a congregation, and one thing we will do is answer Charlie Brown’s question. In the Friendship Pads you will notice some cards. Please take one and pass it down so that everyone will have one. At some point during the service, I would like you to answer the question on the card with one word or phrase. What is the true meaning of Christmas?

Is it peace? Is it love? Is it something you can hardly describe even though you know it in your bones? Although I expect several of you will write the same word or phrase as someone else, I also expect there to be some differences. All of us have different expectations for what happens at Christmas. Some of our expectations are simply unrealistic and will never get met. I think that is part of the reason so many people are sad at Christmas time.

Have you ever heard the phrase, “We are what we say we are”? It’s the idea that language begets reality. Not that I could conjure up a pony if I wanted to - more that I am more likely to get what I expect to get. Again, that doesn’t mean that I simply have to expect a plasma screen TV. It means that I can expect to be content or to feel at a loss, and most likely the one I expect is the one I will get.

Paul tells us to rejoice always. This is not a command to deny feelings of sadness and loss. This is a command to be mindful that God is active, God is present, and God is with you no matter what - working to make order out of chaos. If that is what we expect, that is what we will get! Rejoice - don’t just be joyful but express the joy of knowing that God is faithful. Do not quench the Holy Spirit! Did you know that you could do that?

You can stand like a rock in the middle of a stream and be unmoved. The river will still flow around you. God is still going to do what God is going to do, but you do not have to get involved. That is what amazes me about God. God is the very ground of all being, the original cause of all things seen and unseen, the raw substance binding the universe and giving it purpose and meaning, the source of every blessing, and the sustaining presence in every trial - and God chooses to experience reality, to express love and kindness, and to be in relationships through you and through me.

That is the core of the story of the Angel Gabriel and his visit with Mary. This story as we have experienced it today has created controversy since its inception. In the time it was written - around 70 CE - the claim of a virgin birth was a fairly common mark of distinction for Emperors and other great leaders. A leader who was the essence of truth and social order was simply conceived by truth and order. In some ways, it would have seemed odd for the Messiah to be born any other way.

That’s why it mattered to them, but it makes me wonder. Why does it matter to us? As the church developed over time, claims by others of their virgin birth became culturally irrelevant - and Mary became venerated as having been perfect and without sin even from her own conception. The Protestant tradition, however, took a different approach. As Protestants, we have always affirmed that God chose Mary precisely because she was not perfect. God chose Mary because it is God’s character to break into the ordinary, the normal, and the mundane and demonstrate the holiness that is already here.

Whether you believe in the virgin birth or affirm it because others you love believe it, I don’t think it matters to God. What matters is that we are open to becoming God bearers just as Mary was. What matters is that each of us hears this story of the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary and say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your will.”

What matters to God is that we become expectant of God’s will working in our lives. What matters to God is that our lives be recognized as pregnant with opportunities for grace and mercy to come forth!

Pregnancy is no small thing. I once proclaimed to my sister that Treva and I were pregnant. She, in her wisdom of having recently given birth, informed me in no uncertain terms that I would not be the one making space within my abdomen - amongst a list of other things - in order to make space for another living creature.

So it is no small thing to suggest that we become pregnant with the possibility of bearing God’s presence into the world. It means that we may have to rearrange things that are vital to our survival. It means that we must let go of expectations about presents we give and receive and instead be consumed by the presence of God. It means that we become expectant that God is doing something that requires our participation and is yet beyond our ability to control or manipulate.

We cannot do anything about what God has done or will do. We can only receive God’s presence, respond to God’s presence, and expect to share the very presence of God - Emanuel, God with us - with others. Sometimes we do not see what God is doing until we are in the midst of it.

Just the other day I was talking to Leigh about her need to clone herself to be in three places on Saturday, and I told her I could help. The task she assigned was to pick up a box of food and take it to a family out in Crowley. When I got to the Church Without Walls I was not surprised to see Robert Nash already there. We loaded food into 150 boxes and worked hand in hand with Christians of every stripe. I finally got my box, but I realized that I had gotten a little more.

That morning I had gotten the chance to stand before the Angel Gabriel and hear him speak of miracles beyond my comprehension. It sounded like children tearing apart a roll of bags to make room for fresh produce. It sounded like a man and a woman I met who used to be clients and now rejoice to serve God through C.U.P.S. It sounded like a woman named Casey who spoke to those needing patience while we “wasted our morning” waiting on the food truck. She said, “I don’t pray for patience anymore because I know what that gets me. Now I just pray for God’s will to be done in my life.”

You don’t have to be loading food in a truck to have the same experience that I did. In fact the most abundant opportunity is with the people you are closest to. Every one of us already has a host of opportunities to experience God in our neighbors, our friends, and our families.

Lest we forget, Isaiah tells us that when we become open to God’s presence:

A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray.

The Holy Way can be found here at the table and font. I have seen members walk this way by sharing in the abundance of our basket ministry. I have seen members walk the Holy Way by picking up trash and caring for God’s property. More importantly, I know that many of you are walking this Holy Way in ways that I will never see.

It does matter what we do as a community of faith. It does matter that our actions match our words. It does matter that we have a corporate witness that shines an even brighter light into the darkness. But without individual lives that receive, respond to, and express the love of God we cannot expect our corporate witness to do the same.

This Advent, may we become more expectant of the presence of God than anything else. If we can do that - I bet we’ll get it!

May it be so with me. May it be so with you. And to God be the glory both now and always. Amen.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

All Shall Be Well

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
December 4, 2011 - Advent (B1)
Isaiah 40:1-11
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

"All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well..."

Julian of Norwhich wrote these words in the 1400’s after a near death experience in which she claimed to have received them from God in a series of revelations. I believe these words to be a summary of the scripture lessons we have read today.

"All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well..."

One of my favorite examples of this phrase in action is from a scene from the movie Men In Black. A giant alien cockroach has just grabbed the female lead and jumped up into a window that is a good 20 feet off the ground. Will Smith’s character holds up a gun and tries to sound authoritative while saying, “Don’t worry - everything’s OK!” She responds, “What part of this is OK?!” He readjusts, “It’s gunna be OK!”

How many of us have looked up from a miserable situation and wanted to slug someone for telling us that everything will work out alright, when we know it wont. Kind of reminds me of a friend telling me the other day about being seasick. He said, “At first you ask God to keep you alive, and then you become afraid that he will.”

And yet we have this message of hope today that says, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well...”

Mark’s Gospel gives it to us straight. Here is where the good news begins. It begins with herald of the Messiah. It begins with an unorthodox itinerant Rabbi baptizing people in public, outside of the city, outside of Holy places - but in the river that Elijah parted with his robe before being swept into heaven by a chariot of fire and wearing an Elijah costume (2Kings 1:8)!

First Century Jews receiving this Gospel would have had trouble not seeing John as Elijah - the prophet who was supposed to return and announce the Messiah, God’s anointed One, the One who would save them from the bondage and oppression of the Romans. Surely this is the one spoken of by Malachi.

"Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse." (Malachi 4:5-6)

And so, "John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." (Mark 1:4)

Repentance - literally to turn around or away - from sin. That is the beginning of the Gospel. Our hope begins in our ability to turn away from sin. Who would not agree that turning away from doing bad things would be good? But that is not exactly what is meant here. Sin is an orientation toward self and away from God and others. Usually that results in doing bad things, but the core - the deeper issue - is the direction of our hearts.

The purpose of the prophet is to turn parent's hearts to their children and children’s to their parents - to prepare us for the coming of God. The purpose of the prophet is to announce that something better is on the way, and we must be prepared to receive it or we just might miss it!

It makes me wonder, what preparations are you making for Christmas? Have you decorated - put up a tree? We’re in a different house this year and I have not yet figured out where to put the tree! The holiday village may just have stay in boxes this year. There just isn’t enough space - or time. But maybe that doesn’t really matter. Maybe preparing for Christmas has nothing to do with boxes and bags or presents and tags. It is not simply about love and affection either.

Preparing for Christmas is about examining your life and deciding what needs to go - deciding what is in the way of knowing and experiencing God. Sometimes that has to do with stuff. We have hundreds of gift baskets upstairs to prove it - and we’ve already given away quite a few. I spoke with a lady the other night who was receiving a basket. She said that she’d had a terrible day - and I could tell that she meant it. Her body and her voice trembled as she spoke. One of our elves simply encouraged her to receive - honoring her frustration and offering providence. The really marvelous thing I noticed between our elves and our guests last night was that those who gave were every bit as grateful for the chance to give as those on the receiving end were in receiving.

Sometimes the barriers to experiencing God have to do with stuff, and sometimes the stuff can also be an opportunity. Sometimes the barriers have to do with attitudes, relationships, and commitments. Sometimes they have to do with the way we deal with our basic reality of being limited creatures.

That’s the place that repentance seems confusing. When difficulties are thrust upon us - illnesses, job loss, friendships and relationships that are filled with tension and pain, the memories of times shared with a loved one - how can these be connected to repentance?

Perhaps an English Mystic who was never fully recognized by the church but beloved by Christians might shed some light. Julian of Norwhich is said to have believed that sin was not so much about being wretched creatures as it was a product of being finite, limited beings. For her, sin was part of the process by which we learn of God’s love and providence.

Suffering, then, is simply a means to understand that God was with us in the suffering of Jesus. Suffering is simply an indicator that things are not yet what they will be.

"And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well..."

Now, I’ll admit that 2 Peter’s version of “all shall be well” is a little more intimidating - the idea that everything is going to be dissolved. Yet I think the important thing is not to get caught up in the fear but instead be consumed by the hope of a new heaven and a new earth where righteousness will be at home. For that, we are both waiting and hastening.

I think the “bumper sticker version” of that text would be something like, “Everyone look busy - Jesus is coming!” That’s what religious practice feels like sometimes. We form committees. We complain that we can’t form committees because no one will step up. We lament not being able to do what we once did - and we completely forget what we are doing here and now to glorify God.

And so we wait...

We wait for God to do something, for God to come and set things right, for coming of the Lord. This Advent, I pray that you are able to wait with patience for the gift God has given! This Advent, I pray that you might find ways to live as a person filled with the hope of restoration that has been promised by God! This Advent, I pray that your actions of generosity, your prayers for and with others, and your relationships with others - from chance encounters to deeply meaningful - will hasten the coming of the Kingdom of God!

Where "all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well..."

May it be so with you. May it be so with me. And to God be the glory, now and forever. Amen.