Monday, December 23, 2013

Darkness and e. coli all around

8Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.    Matthew 1:18-25

The winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year. Or, put another way, it's the longest night. This time of year it’s dark when everyone leaves my house in the morning and it’s dark soon after we get home. Oftentimes, I have to hurry up and change my clothes in order to get the dog walked before it’s too dark to see.

Some people are comfortable in the dark. My husband Matt likes to walk the dog in the quiet of the night. To him it’s peaceful. But, because I have terrible night vision, it can be frightening. Raccoons, ground hog holes, or a tree root that sticks up are threats in the night. And so when the sun goes down, my day pretty much ends. I try to avoid the literal darkness. But there is another darkness--the metaphorical darkness that descends upon us when tragedy strikes. Even though many of us try to avoid it, darkness creeps into our lives.

Darkness wrecks havoc with our existence. Even though it's something we don't like to acknowledge darkness plays a big role in our lives and in the Bible.

  •  In the beginning, the very first words of the creation story tell us the earth was a void and covered in darkness.    
  • The psalmist walks through the darkest valley but fears no evil.
  • The prophet Isaiah says: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.
  • Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

Light and dark—it’s the stuff of creation. It is the stuff of salvation. It is the stuff of life.

Orion Nebula taken by Sarah Thornton

At Christmas we focus on the shiny, happy season of light. But sometimes our religious practice gets so skewed that we pretend that everything is light. At least on the outside. We fail to acknowledge that our lives are light and dark. Our world is light and dark. It’s a rhythm that feels eternal—night and day, birth and death, happiness and sadness, creation and destruction, joy and pain.

The birth of Jesus takes place during a dark time for the people of Israel. For them it had a long time of war and occupation.  The Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans came and conquered them time and time again. They were likely defeated and depressed. As we celebrate Christmas as a church and a culture, we often forget that Jesus came during what we metaphorically call a long, dark night of his nation’s soul.

But the hymn writers didn’t forget. The writer of O Come, O come Emmanuel know that Israel was captive to the dark and gloomy clouds of night, feeling lonely and exiled. The author of In the Bleak Midwinter knows that the world can feel like an unforgiving place, cold and hard as iron.

When we look closely at our traditions, we can see that the people who welcomed Christ into the world—the people who formed our faith through words, song and liturgy rejoiced in Christ because they understood the darkness. They welcomed Christ not as another ornament in a glittery life; they celebrated Christ because they wanted hope for their future. They loved Jesus, because he not only saw their pain and brokenness. But because he lived it like we do.

Jesus came into a dark world in a messy way. There was family drama as Mary and Joseph and their families figured out how to make the whole pregnant by the Holy Spirit thing work. Try to putting yourself in Joseph's place. The woman who is to be your wife is pregnant, and not by you. What if your spouse or the person you expected to marry were pregnant? How would you feel? Would you think that all was right with the world?

 For Joseph it had to be a time of disappointment and anger. But, after the symbolic darkness of his defeated expectations comes the literal darkness—and a dream. It's a dream that changes Joseph’s destiny and our own as Joseph follows the charge of the angels and raises Jesus as his own son.

But accepting God’s call didn’t mean life got easy for him or Mary.  When it came time to deliver the baby Mary and Joseph were itinerant. Dirty. Weary. And Jesus was born amongst the animals—E. Coli and darkness all around.  Everyone who’s had a baby can tell you that it’s not an easy, clean process in the best of circumstances. Some of us howl like animals giving birth. Some of us cry. Jesus came into the world through Mary’s pain. Not that you’d know it from our art.

Our nativity scenes today don’t even have dust on them let along dung or sweat. That babies have survived deliveries like this over the centuries is a miracle in itself. But the message of Christ is that out of the dark, out of the family drama, out of the dirt and the muck and the germs, sweat, tears and pain, out of all this, the promise that hope can be born. 

Hope doesn’t come into a sanitized world in a greeting card, an As Seen On TV gift, or twinkling light (although it can). Hope can enter our world anywhere and anytime. Like this baby born in the dirt and laid in a feeding trough, hope can survive the most difficult circumstances.

It’s important for us to remember this aspect of the Christmas message because sometimes our lives are filled with darkness, drama, tears, sweat and pain. It can be so hard to feel the “spirit of the holidays” when we are suffering inside. It can be hard to feel joyous when all we can think about are the years of traditions spent with a spouse whom we have lost to death or divorce. It can be difficult to imagine the gifts we cannot buy because this year we just don’t have the money. It can be heartbreaking to celebrate when a diagnosis of cancer is new.

We can be conflicted about Christmas because we want to be cheery for those present in our lives, but we can’t help but know that something or someone is missing. We imagine their place at the table, we think about what gifts they might have enjoyed. We remember that what he or she baked or made every year. Christmas can intensify the ache of loneliness or the emptiness of depression or the anger at the unfairness of circumstances.

The good news is, you can come to Christmas just as you are. You can come to Christ if you are full of love and joy and you can come to Christ with a hurting heart and tears that just won’t stop. You can come to Christmas as a bewildered man following his dreams like Joseph or a pregnant woman howling in pain in the dark of the night. You can come to the manger with awe or tears.

We can come to the manger, to Christmas, to Christ as we are, because it is Christ who brings the gifts. It’s Christ who brings the light. It’s Christ who is Emmanuel, God with us.

There is no greater love than a God who walks with us. There is no greater gift than a friend who stays with us when the night is the darkest. This is our purpose. We are here to remind each other that even though life is difficult, God is with us. When we are convinced that we are alone in our pain, we are here to remind each other that God is with us. When we forget the gifts that God has given us, we are here to remind each other that God is with us.

We live in a world that includes darkness, but we are the people who point to the light. And when we cannot point ourselves, we have other people who can point it out for us. This is what it means to love each other. This is what it means to live in community.  This is what it means to be a church.

Into the darkness and the void of creation God spoke of light. God has walked alongside us into the darkest valleys. God came to us on a dark night through the cries of a young woman.  God came to us through the scandal of an unplanned pregnancy. Emmanuel means God is with us--though it all. 

You are not alone if you struggle with darkness. The great Mother Teresa revealed her struggles to her spiritual advisor. This embodiment of Christian love and compassion sometimes felt empty on the inside. She and other great mystics and saints sometimes had trouble praying. They sometimes felt abandoned. Just like you. Just like me.

When we can’t feel God, we sometimes need someone to help us see God’s light. Mother Teresa knew this. In the book of her writings titled, Come, Be My Light, she reminds us—and I remind you with her words:

“Jesus wants me to tell you much is the love He has for each one of you--beyond all what you can imagine...Not only He loves you, even more--He longs for you… He loves you always, even when you don't feel worthy...” 

So come to the manger. Make the journey as you are, remembering the rhythms of life. Night and day, birth and death, happiness and sadness, creation and destruction, joy and pain. Come, trusting that out of darkness, God created. Come, knowing that out of family drama, a savior was born. Come, remembering that out of defeat, hope arose. As we come to the manger, let us remember that God is indeed with us each step of the way.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

John the Baptist: Worst PR Guy Ever? or Best?

MATTHEW 3:1-12

John the Baptist is either the worst or the best public relations rep in history.  As part of the Jesus Christ advance messaging team, he seems pretty far off base at first glance. He’s hanging out in the wilderness of Judea carrying on about repentance, crying out for people to prepare the way and straighten out paths.

He’s a Lady GaGa worthy spectacle in his camel hair clothes and weird diet of locusts and wild honey (Lose that Belly Fat!?). And like today’s superstars and their odd behavior, he’s attracting attention. People from all of Judea are heading to the Jordan River to see him. They want to hear what he was saying. They want to be baptized by this fiery prophet. John the Baptist would be a great cover story for People magazine if he were here today.

But John the Baptist seems so out of place to us. Now that we’re past the Black Friday frenzy, all of his shouting and passion is out of place in our warm, fuzzy Advent bliss. He’s so UN-Jesus-like. 

He’s the raucous party before the Silent Night. 

He’s the shouting prophet who precedes the singing angels. 

He’s a foul-mouthed accuser not a bearer of love and forgiveness.

When the Temple leaders head out to see what he’s doing, he unleashes a stream of invective and insults. Calling the Pharisees and Sadducees a brood of vipers in his time was like using profanity in our time.  Not a good way to win friends and influence people. Our friend John needs a few lessons in both subtlety and hospitality. Eventually his outspokenness costs him his head. He ends up offending the wrong people with his hard-line approach. And yet, people are coming to him. Crowds travel into the wilderness to hear him and find out what he is offering.

Can you imagine if John the Baptist were doing his thing today? What if he set up camp along the banks of the Youghiogheny River and people started streaming to him. What if you and I and a few of our church-going friends went to check out his revival? Would he look over at us and spit out: You Presbyterians, Methodists and Catholics! You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? …Do not presume to say to yourselves we have John Calvin or John Wesley or the Pope or any of your other big church names. For I tell you God can raise up Christians from the stones along the river!  Would we be the ones John is calling names?

Used with permission from the blog Southern Visions the photos of Earl Carter.

When we look at this story in the book of Matthew we see two sets of people—the crowd and the religious elite. The crowds who came to John the Baptist were not only being baptized, but were also confessing their sin.

There’s no mention of the Pharisees and Sadducees confessing. Perhaps it was their smug assurance that started John on his rant. Perhaps they were too confident in their own righteousness. Perhaps they thought that because of their heritage and their position that they were somehow favored by God and didn’t need to confess. And so, John feels the need to put them in their place.

Now John is no slouch when it comes to following the religious rules and teachings himself. Like the Israelites who left Egypt, John is in the wilderness scrounging for food and depending on God to provide. His camel hair clothes made his followers think he might be the return of the prophet Elijah. And he knows his scriptures backwards and forwards—he’s quoting the prophet Isaiah to people and he’s also using the same words that Jesus does when he kicks of his ministry: Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near. When it comes to being religiously righteous, John can probably hold his own against the Pharisees and Sadducees.

But John isn’t relying on his own history or practices. He tells the Pharisees and Sadducees that as biblical and influential as he is, there is someone else coming who is more powerful—more righteous.  He tells them that when Jesus finally comes his own watery baptisms will seem tame. The one who comes—Jesus—will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. 

John is not about John. John is about Jesus.

What John the Baptist is doing on the riverbank is creating a break in history.  He’s telling us not to rely on the things of the past, but to change in order to be ready for the future. The Pharisees and Sadducees likely came to the river for baptism, but were they ready to repent?  Could they change? Did they have too much invested in staying the same?

Today, as we think about the coming of Christ, are we ready to repent? Remember repentance is change—it means to turn or turn around. It doesn’t have to be about feeling morose and guilty-- although sometimes those feelings come with it. 

Repentance can be decision to bear good fruit—to do the right thing more of the time.  We confess what has been hurting us  or what we've not been doing and change it. Repentance can be a commitment to live a life more like Christ—a life of light, love, healing and forgiveness. Confession and repentance is a shedding of darkness whether that darkness is our own action or circumstances that have hurt us and prevent us from bearing that good fruit.

Living a life of confession and repentance means that hope can become reality—that a better future can begin to take root in the not-so-perfect present—that a small candle can transform a dark room. John’s call for confession and repentance means we can break from our own past and move into a new future. It’s a radical act that can redefine who we are.

That’s what the people who flocked to John the Baptist realized. They may not be righteous like the religious elite, but they were willing to confess their darkness in order to get rid of it—have it washed away. Confession and repentance can free us to change our way and straighten out our path. 

But when we refuse to confess or repent, when we insist on letting our reputation or heritage define us, we become so invested in our selves that we can’t truly love our neighbors. When we are like the people that the Pharisees and Sadducees represent, when we end up caught up in maintaining our good social position and reputation, we don’t risk ourselves for the sake of others. We may have good fruit, but it rots in the pile because we are afraid to share it. 

Or, on the flip side, if we define ourselves only by a dark past--a childhood trauma or marital abuse or that one big mistake that haunts us—if we can’t break with that past, we end working so hard at protecting our fragile self that we can’t bear fruit for others. We are afraid that our bruised fruit may not meet other people’s standards and so we hide it.

The people who came to John on the banks of the Jordan must have realized that confession and repentance can change that. Why else would he be so popular? Despite his poor people skills, John is offering hope for a better future.

One of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, says that confession and repentance is actually a radical declaration of hope. She puts it this way:

"Those of us who have committed ourselves to a life of repentance and return will not give up on ourselves, no matter how many times we have to repeat the process. We will keep telling the truth and turning around, every day if need be. We will never say never (I'll never recover, I'll never get it, I'll never learn). Why? 

We believe in God's goodness more than we believe in our own badness."[1]

Even those of us who think our lives are pretty good need to do some serious examination. Are we willing to live a life of confession and repentance so that we can risk ourselves for others.  Why should we do this?

We believe in God’s goodness is more important than our reputation or social standing.

I know, I know. It’s easier to live a life without change. It’s easier to keep our heads down and do the same thing day after day. But easy is not what the Christian life is about—Just ask John. Or Jesus. Sometimes we need someone who seems little bit crazy to shake us up a little bit. Sometimes we need a prophet who is going to shout at us and wake us from our stupor. We need someone to remind us to prepare.

With his insults and camel hair clothes and wilderness baptisms, John is very different from Jesus. But, the two of them share the same ministry goals. They are calling us to expect a different future. They are telling us that good news, God’s kingdom, is here for us. They are daring us to heal and change and leave the past in the past. They are telling us to prepare for a new future in our hearts, in our minds and in our lives. They inviting us to hope. Jesus is coming. John is shouting and pointing so that we don't miss it. He sees it coming. Can we?

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “A Cure for Despair: Matthew 3:1-12,” Journal for Preachers, 21, no 1 (1997): 16-18.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Christmas? Bring it On!

36“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, or the Son, but only the Father.37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Are you ready for this? It's December is the time of year where there is so much going on—parties and preparations, shopping and shipping. We have lists that we check once, twice, or three times. We spend a whole month making Christmas happen.

We are a people who know how to be prepared. We have learned not to leave things until the last minute. We buy gifts. We donate gifts. We serve food at the homeless shelter. We plan and attend church and school events. 

Christmas? Go ahead. Bring it on.  We are ready for it.

Or are we?

Our words from Jesus today show us people who are busy, busy busy. They are eating and drinking and marrying and working. They are in the fields and grinding the meal for breads and cakes and cookies (well, maybe not cookies).  They are heads down and gittin’ er done when suddenly, some of them are swept away or taken up. They are blindsided as God enters the world. They didn’t see it coming. They were focused on the wrong thing.

Advent is the four Sundays before Christmas. Christians use the time to think about Jesus coming to the world. The first week’s readings are typically a radical call to think of the coming of Jesus. It focuses not on the baby Jesus but the coming again Jesus. Advent is as much about expecting something in the future as it is remembering something from the past.

The stories we tell the first week of Advent remind us of our hope in a Christ who promised to come again—a Christ who promises to usher in God’s vision of a peaceful world. But the message this week tells us we have no idea when this will happen, BUT we must somehow be prepared. Now that’s a challenge.

We know what it means to prepare for Christmas, but do we know what it means to prepare for Christ? Can we ever truly be ready for the God of the universe to come crashing into our lives like a thief through a broken window? Can we ever truly be ready to discover that Christ is looking up at us through the eyes of a newborn?

In our world being ready means completing everything on the list. Jesus’ to-do list is a little long. Love God. Love your neighbor. Pray for those who persecute you. Forgive seventy times seven times. Make amends with people you are fighting with. Give away your stuff. These aren’t things we can do once and then check off a list in four week’s time.

Getting ready during Advent is a process. It’s as much about continuing a loving lifestyle while waiting. It’s more about being open to Christ and others as it is about trying to contain Christ in a list. It’s about knowing that while we are busy preparing for Christmas, Christ is preparing us—preparing our hearts and minds to expect the unexpected and encounter his radical presence in our lives.

We don’t know when Christ is coming. We’re not entirely sure what it will look like, but we are told to expect him at anytime. In any place. And so, we wait.

I don’t know how you are with waiting, but I will confess right now that I’m terrible. I’m ready for it to be Christmas. I want to sing carols in church (which we usually don’t do until closer to Christmas), exchange the gifts, visit with family. It’s even harder as a pastor because I’ve been thinking about Christmas things for a whole month already.

But, it’s not Christmas yet. It’s Advent. Advent means Christmas is coming. Advent is a time of it’s own. Advent is a time to think about what is coming—to anticipate what is coming—to prepare for what is coming. Our spiritual journey during Advent shouldn’t be one more thing that we check off the to-do list before Christmas. We shouldn’t rush though Advent with the destination of Christmas in mind.

Instead we should journey though Advent thoughtfully noticing the presence of Christ, feeling the peace that descends when the candles are lit. We should encounter the joy of our community and the church traditions. We can be prepare for Christ’s coming when we are aware of the people and events around us.

If we are too busy rushing here and there we might walk right by Jesus and not even notice.  That’s why young children are such a joy during the holidays. The live in the present. They NOTICE things. They pay attention. Everything is new and wonderful and they take in all of it.

How well I remember Christmas shopping with my two young children. The decorated mall was a wonderland. They were mesmerized by all of the shiny, glittery ornaments, the giant candy canes and the little train. They loved it, but it was a challenge for me because I had things I needed to get done.

Some years, I’d even take my kids and my grandmother in order to get things in order to take care of two obligations at once. My attempts at multitasking backfired as those trips were exponentially longer.

 While my children were memorized by the decorations, Grandma was thrilled to have so many people to chat with. By the time she checked her items out of a store the sales person knew who she was buying for as well as her life history whether she wanted to or not. She was in her late 80s and early 90s and so her life history was looooong. She was a talker. I’d stand beside her fidgeting or trying to keep my kids from hiding in the center of the clothes hanging on rounders.

But, looking back, I don’t remember a single thing I bought on those shopping trips. I realize now the important thing about those trips was that they allowed us to time together.  

Those trips were preparing me because they were about seeing and appreciating the beauty of the Christmas, with my family at the local mall. They were about connecting with each other.

The trips were also about connecting with other people. My grandmother knew that, but I didn’t. While she would converse at the cash register or chat up the person next to her on the bench. I’d have my list in hand, checking things off one at a time.

Jesus could have sat down next to Grandma and she would have been ready for a meaningful conversation. Jesus could have walked up to my kids dressed in his first-century robe and flowing hair—the way he’s always pictured—and my kids would have received him. After all, there were adults dressed as elves in green and a big fat man in a fur suit laughing manically. That Jesus guy? He must be part of all of this somehow.

But me? I’d have my list in one hand and bags in another walking purposefully to the next store. And I’m still like that. When Jesus wants my attention, he has to make himself obvious. I’m not well prepared. Jesus has to break into my life like a thief. Like the women in the story, I get so busy grinding my meal, that I fail to notice him. I want Jesus on my agenda.

Let’s meet at 2 PM on Tuesday. Does that work for you, Jesus? Are you free then?

I want a Jesus that fits my schedule. I want Jesus to show up when I pray in my bed in the evening. I want Jesus to make an appearance on Christmas Eve between 7 and 8. Preferably while I’m preaching the sermon so that everyone can experience it. But that’s not how it works. I know that. You know that. The Bible tells us that.

But I keep falling into the same old patterns. Humanity keeps falling into the same old patterns.  We don’t know how to expect the unexpected.  We don’t think to look for Jesus at the mall. But, I suspect he’s broken in there to, just like he breaks unexpectedly into our hearts.

This Advent, let us say Come Lord Jesus, while we "prepare" in a new way.  Let’s slow down enough notice when Jesus breaks in and we get a glimpse of God. This Advent, let’s watch and wait and pray. Let's expect the unexpected. We may not know the day or the hour, but we can journey though Advent trusting that God’s love and grace will be revealed to us. Are you ready for this?