Saturday, December 22, 2012

No Reason for Joy

Isaiah 13:1-13
Hebrews 12:18-29
John 3:22-30

As I began to write these words I became overwhelmed with a feeling of inadequacy. I was reminded of a recent comic strip that had a story inside a story. The first three pains were of a hero falling off a cliff saying to himself, “How do I get out of this? Think, think!” Then, just before impact he resigns to say, “Nope. I got nothin’.” The last frame shows someone looking over the shoulder of the author of the story and saying, “Wow. So that’s what writer’s block looks like?”

Tragedy makes us feel powerless, and we do not like feeling powerless (note comment by Angele McCord following this article). In the wake of reports from the senseless shooting of 20 innocent children and 6 courageous women, nothing seems to make sense. Social media sites exploded with reactions on every side of the issues this opened up. (Interestingly – I could not think of a non-violent term to describe the spontaneous spike in activity. Violence is simply the only way in our vocabulary to describe large scale change.)

Images and resources and videos from around the world are flooding the internet with compassion and anxiety – with fear and hope, with darkness and light. An image from Pakistan shows children lighting candles around a sign that says, “Connecticut School Killing – We feel your pain as you would feel our pain.” Meanwhile one of my friends from days gone by asked the very reasonable question, “Where is your God in all of this?!” This question is as old as the hills and is echoed in Psalm 42:9-11

9 I say to God, my rock,
‘Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
because the enemy oppresses me?’
10 As with a deadly wound in my body,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
‘Where is your God?’
11 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.

Although I did my best to respond and affirm that God is present in suffering, no one could have said it better than Robbie Parker, whose six year old daughter, Emily, was one of the victims. They had just moved to Connecticut only months prior.

According to the New York Times, “Mr. Parker said he did not regret the move, nor was he mad at the shooter, whom he described as acting under the free will that God gave him. He said that he and his family would in turn use their own free will and use the tragedy to help others.

He said, ‘Let us not turn this into something that defines us, but something that allows us to be more compasionate.’

And though clearly overcome with his own emotions, he offered his condolences to all the families affected by the tragedy, saying his family’s hearts and prayers went out to them.

Then he went further.

‘This includes the family of the shooter,’ he said. ‘I can’t imagine how hard this experience must be for you. And I want you to know that our family and our love and our support goes out to you as well.’”

That’s the gospel, folks.

Isaiah speaks of devastation at the hands of God – the great and terrible Day of the Lord! He spoke this to a people who had allowed the slaughter of innocents and the mistreatment of the poor. He spoke to a prosperous nation with systems in place that limited some and benefitted others. He spoke to the human condition of people living beyond their means in an organized society and forgetting that God calls us to another way.

And although it is tragic that a troubled man gained access to weapons he did not own and used them for an evil purpose, it is equally as tragic that we live in a nation that has enough impoverished children in it to equal the population of several smaller, developing nations.

And yet we are called to be a people of joy – especially today! We lit candles for Hope, Peace, and Joy today because one naturally flows to the other. Through our expectation of something greater we find a sense of comfort. And in that open space we find a depth of joy that we cannot fathom. It makes no sense because it does not come from a rational process. Nor is our joy in the midst of suffering something sadistic and selfish. Our audacious claim that we are yet filled with a deep and substantive joy is nothing less than the core of what is left when everything else falls away.

That is what the author of Hebrews was describing when he wrote that, “we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken.” That is what we sing about in the hymn, How Great a Foundation, when we sing, “That soul though all Hell may endeavor to shake – I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”

Yet, the book of Hebrews does say that “God is a consuming fire.” Christian teachings and tradition remind us that faith is a process of purification. In fact, last week’s Gospel text spoke of God purifying us like silver.

In that day and time silver was processed by heating until molten so that the impurities would rise and be removed. Silver was said to be pure when the Smith could look on the molten silver and see his own reflection. The heat, the removal, the friction, the loss – all of these whether we see them as good or evil will yet be used to move us toward a reflection of the image of our creator.

I firmly believe that God does not require or will tragedy and loss, but God allows it to be. And God sifts through our molten tears to reveal something ever more beautiful, leaving us to reflect something ever more pure.

John the baptist knew this. When his disciples asked which baptism mattered, he did not say that repentance was no longer important. He simply said that what came from God was more important than anything that came from him. He said, “I must decrease, while he must increase.”

In all of the holiday chatter and in the midst of the violence of poverty, the idolatry of consumerism, and the very real suffering of children from Connecticut to China to Afghanistan and Iraq, and even here on the mean streets of one of the most hospitable places on the planet – we must find a way for Jesus to increase.

Our good old neighbor, Fred Rogers, once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world."

Tragedy cannot stop you from helping – even if only by smiling, even if only by suffering with someone in sighs too deep for words. In the end, darkness cannot overcome light. Although our choices may become limited by our social contracts or by the choices of others, nothing can limit our choice to shine. I think that is why we light candles. They remind us that there is a source of light within us and beyond us. And when we come together and share our light, the softer glow that stands resolute is more powerful than the light of a thousand suns. And that, beloved friends of God, is a source great joy and power!

May God add understanding and wisdom to these words, that we may live as a people of hope in the midst of doubt, a people of peace in the midst of violence, and a people filled with joy without limit or understanding. And to God be the glory both now and always, Amen!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Are You Ready?

Malachi 3:1-4
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

Are you ready? There are only 14 days left. Can you believe it? Are you ready? And what does that even mean – to be ready? Does it mean decorations? Does it mean shopping? Does it mean relatives and visitors? What is it that you are preparing for, and where is the space for Jesus in all of this?

Last night my family went to LARC’s Acadian Village light display. We were skipping and running around the displays, and we almost ran right past an outline of the Holy Family. I told my kids that they almost missed Jesus. One of them doubled back in reverence and the other said, “Squirrel!” Because there was an illuminated squirrel running up the tree.

How much are we all like that during this time of year? How much space do we leave open for Jesus? How easily distracted are we by the spectacle of Christmas.

Today we hear from one of the spectacular characters in the story of Jesus. In fact, all of our readings are somewhat spectacular. By that I mean that they offer a word of comfort that is also a word of challenge. At the same time, it’s pretty easy to side step these passages because we think we know what they mean. At least, those of us who have grown up with the story of Christmas generally assume that these stories are all wrapped up with a nice bow and a tag that says, “Don’t open until Christmas” – because they’re about Jesus, right?

It’s like the story of the Pastor leading Children’s time and playing a guessing game. He tells the kids that he is thinking about something furry with a bushy tail that loves to gather nuts. After some silence a child raises her hand and says, “It sure sounds like a squirrel, but I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus.”

If we think about it from someone else’s perspective, we might just find that there is a little more to these passages than we expect. Suddenly I am reminded of the first time, as an adult, that I was asked what we are really celebrating on Christmas. I was 25 and working as a waiter. I was excitedly getting my side-work done to leave early for the Christmas Eve service. A co-worker asked me to tell her the story. I did so, and I felt like an idiot – fumbling through the more incredulous details.

I think that was because the story that we assume to be the backdrop of Christmas is really only part of the story. The story that I told – the one we expect the shopping malls to proclaim – is really only a cultural reflection of the real story. The story that we want to place in a certain time in history is actually a story that has repeated itself again and again throughout the whole of human history. The story of Christmas is a story that we can’t really tell without hearing and responding to a call to repentance.

Malachi’s announcement came more than 700 years before John the Baptist was born. It came in a time when the idea of salvation as life after death was still relatively new for Jewish believers. For these believers, they understood God’s actions to be more directly distributed as punishment or reward. Repentance was not something that was done individually, or in silent prayer. Repentance was done through relationships. Repentance and devotion to God were demonstrated through the quality of life for the lowest members of society and the practice of worship devoted to God.

That’s the backstory of our Gospel reading today. It’s not that Malachi gazed into a crystal ball and saw John. Instead Malachi was announcing the natural consequence for a people in a relationship with God. At some point God is going to blow the whistle and let us all know that we are out of bounds – and it is not going to feel good.

And so John jumps right out of Luke’s Gospel today – this wild itinerant preacher – reminding us to prepare the way of the Lord! He asks us, “Are you ready? Do you even know what we are getting ready for? What are you doing to make space for the presence of God in your home, in your school, in your place of work, and in your spare time?”

Of course, our reading spares us the accusation that we might be a ‘brood of vipers,’ but we all know that the implication is there. We all know that the church is both human and divine. We know that we live both in and out of time. That is why it was so important to Luke to locate the event of John’s proclamation in time. He wanted us to know when these events took place, because he wanted us to know that no event or prince or principality or priest could ever define the love of God.

In fact it actually works in just the opposite way. Instead, the love of God rips through our reality of power and governance and religious practice and demonstrates something new. But before we can see that, we have to get ready. And again I ask you, what are you getting ready for? Are you getting ready for another party, for out of town guests, or for some event? Are you getting ready to numb yourself from the anxiety of the end of another year? Or, are you getting ready for the coming of the Lord?

Sometimes I wonder if we even know how to get ready. Then I hear “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Of course that is the way the NRSV translates it. Others have noted that it might just as easily be translated, “A voice cries out – in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.”

You see, God meets us in the wilderness. God meets us in the wilderness of the shopping mall. God meets us in the wilderness of social obligation. God meets us in the wilderness of selfishness, doubt, and suffering – and God offers us life eternal that begins with our realization that we have it, with our confession of selfishness, and with our transformation into selflessness.

This Christmas there will be parties to attend, presents to buy, and obligations to fulfill, yet there is still an opportunity for something greater. There is still the opportunity of repentance. There is still the opportunity to turn your attention away from self and toward God and neighbor.

Last week in our Advent Conspiracy study we talked quite a bit about the opportunity to give and to encourage gifts that support a particular cause or ministry. One of the comments led to a discussion about things we can do all year long, instead of just for Christmas. We got into a dangerous space – a threatening space. It was a space that threatened us with the prospect of new relationships. It was a dangerous space that encouraged becoming something new because of those relationships.

Over the years, this congregation has experienced the dangerous space of changing relationships. That is something that will only go away when our mission is complete – and that means that either we cease to exist, or Jesus has come back. And although I refuse to try take away the ability of Jesus to return in some final, cosmic battle, I also refuse to believe that a final, cosmic battle is the only way he can return. So, as we continue to respond in love to the dangerously transformative space of new relationships, let us remember to make space for God to enter in. Let us remember to take the perspective of the other, to look for God in the wilderness, and to expect God’s active presence to continue making us more and more into the image of God.

That way, we can have the attitude and expectation of Paul. We can truly thank God for one another, even when we disagree. We can truly expect “love to overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight...So that in the Day of Christ we may be pure and blameless.”

The Day of Christ may come any moment. It may be terrible, or it might be terrific! One thing is for certain, the Day of Christ requires transformation, for who can stand in the presence of God and not be changed? That is what we are getting ready for. That is the invitation that we long to accept – the invitation to be made new again, and again, and again. And all to the glory of God. Amen.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Advent - Celebrating Hope

This Sunday was our Service of Lessons and Music. The music cannot be posted due to licensing requirement. Instead, here are a few thoughts on the Season of Advent and the way in which we are being formed and shaped by it at FPC. 

Although I do not think we could have managed with any more help than we had, I wish you all could have been here yesterday afternoon and on into the night. We helped C.U.P.S. (Communities Uniting in Prayer and Service) distribute over 500 Gift Baskets. I’m sure there were Parthians and Medes here – at least Spiritually. We did not check I.D.s or orthodoxy; that is kind of the point of gathering with others in common unity. The common cause is all that matters. The common cause was bearing witness to the abundance of God’s grace, mercy, and providence. The common cause was demonstrating hope.

I wore lights to remember to be a bearer of light. And although three young boys were disappointed to find that I was wearing pants purchased at Goodwill and a hand me down battery powered string of lights rather than some hot new trend of extreme flashiness, I think they were also encouraged by it. My light was minimal compared to those who battled fatigue and illness to create space for light in the midst of darkness.

Although there were frustrations and noise and tension, there were yet these amazing sounds. The first one is not a sound so much as an action. Last Monday Phil Lotspeich, coordinator for church growth and transformation for the PC(USA), was here speaking to ministers, elders, and congregation members from our Cluster about a program called New Beginnings, and I just had to show him our baskets. He walked in and made the inaudible sound that everyone makes when they go up there. It was a literal – ever so slight – jaw drop.

Yesterday an 8 yr old boy did the same, except he had not been taught by the cruel hand of life to hold his breath. Instead, he gasped! He made a sound that is so deep and automatic that it communicates one thing alone – wonderment.

Then there was the single mother whose choices are limited by the needs of others – needs that become all consuming. I showed her the presents, separated by age and gender. She said, “You mean I get to choose?”

The stories go on and on – at least one for every basket. It was the wildest New Year’s Eve party I have ever been to. What? Did you miss New Year’s Eve? Today begins the New Year of the church and the season of Advent. We ended the year last Sunday by acknowledging Jesus as the Christ – the chosen one of God – and as the King of Kings – the Lord of the conscience.

Our New Year begins with the Season of Advent and the proclamation of hope. Why hope? Because we are surrounded by manufactured joy and melancholy that leave us feeling, well, nothing. All this promise of things that confirm our love or our being loved leaves us with nothing more than we had to start with, and sometimes with even less.

How many of us go through Christmas year after year feeling the need for something more – maybe even feeling a little let down. We come into Christmas with such high expectations for what the season will offer us – not just stuff but also feelings and experiences – and often we come away from it feeling like the little girl in the home movie who said, “Mom, it’s not the one I wanted – but I’ll deal with it.”

Our Wednesday night Advent Study suggested to us last week that the reason for all of this is that we are worshiping the wrong God. Our place of need moves us to worship, but we tend to think of that as being limited to what we do in here on Sundays. What if that is backwards? What if what we do in here is the result of what we do out there? What if true worship is not about songs we sing and prayers we say, but about the direction of devotion in our everyday lives? Thinking about it that way might even force a change in your life.

Exactly what change I can not say. Maybe you will begin a new tradition of lighting an advent wreath and devoting time and prayer to God. Maybe you will do like they suggest in the Advent Conspiracy and give more of your time to others, make homemade gifts, or give honorary gifts to loved ones that support important ministries like Heifer International or the Synod of Living Waters international clean water program. One year my brother adopted a Siberian Tiger for me – it’s one of my favorite presents ever. Maybe you can even tell others to give you that kind of gift to encourage a new kind of devotion in others.

Whatever you do, remember that all of it is in preparation for the celebration of the Advent of Christ – the coming of Jesus into the world! And in the midst of all that takes up the space of your life, God is still waiting to enter in – all newborn and tender.

So today we not only light – we actually become a candle for hope, trusting that as we open space in our lives for God we will see that God is already there – giving birth to new life and holding us just as we are being held.

We become this candle of hope with the faith of Joseph – who became the righteousness of God through vulnerability and subservience to the greater good. We become this candle of hope with the faith of Elizabeth – who attended to the spirit within her that gasps and leaps for joy. We become this candle of hope with the faith of Mary – who truly became a bearer of light.

And that is the invitation of Advent – to become bearers of light in a darkened world, wherever, whenever, and however we can in every chance encounter and every relationship we have been given. It is just that simple, and it is just that hard. But, Beloved of God, I tell you this. The Spirit of God has come into this world that you might have life, and that in abundance. And as we move into this season with a sense of hope, with a sense of longing, and with a sense of expectation – be assured that Jesus is the unwrapped presence of God that you will receive - maybe in the jaw dropping gasp of a child, and probably in places that you least expect it. For that is still the way that God enters in – even through you, even through me, and all to the glory of God. Amen!