Thursday, December 24, 2015

Finding Peace

Luke 2 8-12
 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,[a]the Lord.  This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

One of my favorite Christmas songs that I hear on in the stores this time of year is the duet with Bing Crosby and David Bowie. It was recorded in 1977 for Bing Crosby’s Christmas special. On it Bing sings The Little Drummer Boy while the other Bowie sings the question:

Peace on Earth, Can it be? 

That song and the question of peace resonated in my heart through my high school and college years. I still turn that song up and sing along when I’m driving in the car at Christmas time.

Peace on Earth, can it be? We are gathered here tonight to affirm that the answer is yes. Peace can be. We are here to affirm the hope that we can live in peace through Jesus Christ.

Peace isn’t just the absence of conflict but the presence of something deeper and richer. The Jews use the word Shalom—a word that captures the many different aspects of peace. If you look up Shalom on Wikipedia you see it means peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility. Peace isn’t the absence of war, it is the pervasive well-being of all people.

Shalom describes a community that is filled with love and respect for God and for each other. Shalom describes a group where nobody is living in poverty or fear. Shalom describes a community that cares. Shalom describes what God was giving us in the gift of Jesus over 2000 years ago. It’s a big, full word that is rich with meaning. It’s also the way the people of Israel answer their phones. Ring, ring, ring. Shalom!?

The say it with an uplift at the end. As if it’s both a invitation and a hope.

When we read the Bible story of Jesus’ birth, we can begin to see the stirrings of Shalom or true peace. The angels appear to Mary and Joseph and the Shepherds and call out to them, Do not be afraid.

The angels are telling us something very important. They are telling us that the peace of God can drive out fear. The prophets of old told Israel, Do not be afraid. The angels tell Mary and Joseph and the Shepherds: Do not be afraid. Jesus tells the people he ministers to, do not be afraid.

The words Do Not Be Afraid show up in the beginning of the Bible in Genesis and are repeated all the way to the end of the Bible in Revelation. They show up over and over again because it’s in our nature to live in fear. We fear for our lives, our health, our children, our safety, our finances. The list goes on and on.

Yet God shows up into the chaos of our fear and says, Do not be afraid.

We don’t hear those words too much in our world outside of the church. In fact, we hear the opposite. And I’ll tell you why. Fear sells. Peace doesn’t. Fear and conflict get our adrenaline pumping and motivate to do something—tune in to TV or radio—and the ads, click and comment online, or play a game to decompress. Can you imagine a news or talk show full of peace and harmony? Or an Xbox or Playstation game about peacemaking?

The world is constantly telling us to be afraid—of what people think of our appearance, of our neighbors here and abroad, of our economy, and it’s capitalizing on our fear. 

Trust me, there are media executives, game developers and politicians depositing your fear into their bank account.

But here in Christ’s church, we preach a different message. We hold with God’s prophets and angels who say “Do not be afraid,” even if it seems naïve and simple. We hold out the hope that through the gift of Christ we can find peace, not fear.

And so the message for you this evening is an eternal one. The one made flesh in the incarnation of Jesus:

Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to stand up for what you believe. Do not be afraid to work for God’s peace. Do not be afraid to follow the example of Jesus Christ, the prince of peace, in caring for the poor, forgiving the sinners and loving the outcasts.

Do not be afraid: God has promised to never leave you or forsake you. In sickness and in health, in failure and success, I hope that you find peace knowing God is with you.

Do not be afraid: God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. I hope you find peace in knowing that death does not get to have the final word in your life, God does.

Do not be afraid: The God of the universe promises to make all things new. The world is and always has been filled with conflict, but a vulnerable baby came to change all that. God trusted us—humanity—to love and nurture that baby. There is conflict in the world, but I hope you find peace by trusting that there is also great love growing in the world.

Do not be afraid: There is nothing you can do that will separate you from the love of Christ. Your past is past. I hope you find peace knowing that God is calling you into a new future, one where love triumphs over evil.

“Do not be afraid, the Bible says, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord… He is called Emmanuel God with us. That vulnerable little baby is our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

What to Expect When You Are Expecting--Jesus Edition

39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."
46And Mary said,
"My soul magnifies the LORD,
47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

When I got pregnant with my oldest child, I felt very alone. None of my friends or family members were pregnant or had children. I was having the first grandchild on either side of the family. Social media and mommy blogs didn’t exist. So, there I was, a bewildered twenty-something experiencing all kinds of weird symptoms and wondering if they were normal. I felt like an alien had taken over my body and, some days, my personality.

Along the way somebody recommended the book What to Expect When You are Expecting. It offers a month-by-month description of what a woman goes through during her 9 or 10-months of pregnancy. Suddenly, I knew I knew I wasn’t the only woman who wanted bacon, eggs and a milkshake for three meals a day, even though the doctor said all I needed was a regular diet with an added an apple and yogurt. (really?)  It was comforting to know I wasn’t the only one weeping during cheesy country music songs. My husband read the book, too. I think to see if I was, indeed, normal.

The book was helpful, for sure, but when it came time for the delivery, words on a page could not do the experience justice. What I experienced in real life was far more painful, powerful and beautiful than any book could describe. There were definitely some moments that I was NOT expecting.

This week’s Bible reading focuses on two women who are expecting—Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist and Mary the mother of Jesus. And it’s a beautiful, intimate portrayal of expectation. Elizabeth is old and any hope of having children has worn thin. Mary is young, unmarried and not ready to have a child since she’s not even married. Really, neither one of them should be pregnant. But surprise! They are. And we all can learn a few things from their experiences. 

First, when we are expecting Jesus, we trust that God is with us. We read that Mary when greets Elizabeth, Elizabeth knows without being told that Mary is carrying her savior. John, the child in her womb leaps for joy when he hears Mary’s greeting and Elizabeth responds by saying:

Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.

Mary agreed to take the difficult road of explaining her mysterious pregnancy to her fiancé and her parents. Mary believes that God will see her through her pregnancy.

When we are waiting for Jesus in Advent, we often profess that whatever life brings, God is with us. We remember that God promises something deeper, richer and more meaningful than what we see. Sometimes this feeling is based more in our intuition than the facts. We trust that intuition, sometimes in the face of evidence to the contrary. It’s this deep trust that allows us to face unplanned pregnancies like Mary or risky pregnancies like Elizabeth. It’s this belief that helps us through times of illness or divorce or job loss.

When we are expecting Jesus we realize that sometimes things are reversed. In the story of the visitation between Mary and Elizabeth we see examples God’s reversals. Elizabeth is the older woman and therefore to be honored, but it is she who defers to Mary, the younger. This plays out later when John tells his followers that the one who comes after him will be greater than he is. It plays out in the manger when the God of the Universe comes not as a powerful leader but a helpless baby.

As we await Jesus today, we remember Jesus’ teaching about reversals— reminding us that the last shall be first and the first shall be last and that the meek and poor are blessed. We remember that prostitutes and tax collectors get into the kingdom ahead of priests. We know that Jesus wants us to serve others and not wait around to be served. We know that death leads to life. As we go through Advent, we can try some of our own reversals like letting someone with an armful of packages or whining children go first in the checkout line or serving Christmas dinner to a homeless person.

When we are expecting Jesus, we feel compelled to sing and shout. When Mary visits Elizabeth she exclaims blessings upon Mary in a loud voice. Some translations say Elizabeth cries out (a la the prophet in the wilderness) others say she sings exuberantly. Whichever translation you pick, the woman is making some noise.

Elizabeth and Mary aren’t two refined ladies speaking in quiet voices in a back room. The Holy Spirit is upon Elizabeth and she’s letting loose with her baby bump and graying hair, heaping blessing after blessing upon Mary. I’ll bet in later years the neighbors looked at her child, John the Baptist and said, “You know, John gets that wild streak is from his mother.”

After Elizabeth’s ruckus, Mary replies with a song that describes her joy and blessing:

My soul glorifies the Lord
 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
 for he has been mindful
 of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
  for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
  holy is his name.

When we are expecting Jesus, we remember the good things God has done for us with joy. We name the times when God works powerfully in our lives and we want to share our experiences with others.

When we are expecting Jesus, we begin to see and speak prophetically. Mary’s song begins by rejoicing in God, but make no doubt, her song is one that the prophets of Israel had been singing since God brought them out of slavery in Israel.

The prophets of the Old Testament reminded Israel that God took a rag tag group of slaves out from under the thumb of the powerful Pharaoh. God took them when they were the least and made them mighty. God took them when they were last and made them first. God took them when they were poor, powerless and hungry and made them into a nation.

Mary sings a song that is repeated over and over again in the Bible. It’s a song that is both about herself and the nation of Israel. She is bold to claim that God is for her--a peasant, a woman, a young person with no title:

He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
   but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
    to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.”

I'm guessing Jesus probably heard his mother say these things when he was a boy. Maybe she sang this song every night while she did the dishes. It’s no wonder Jesus grew up to think the poor are blessed and the meek will inherit the earth.

Those of who are expecting Jesus during Advent remember Mary’s song and the ministry of Jesus. We see the injustices in our society and do what we can to help lift up the humble, feed the hungry and practice acts of mercy. We long for the day when this will happen.

Finally, when we are expecting Jesus, we should expect to be surprised.
Neither Mary nor Elizabeth are expecting to bear a child at this point in their lives. Old Elizabeth will be chasing a toddler who grows up to baptize people in the Jordan. Young Mary will be a chased out of the country, a refugee intent on saving her child. The Son of God.

When we are expecting Jesus, we don’t want to be caught looking in the direction. We need to be open to the way that the sovereign God works in the world, even if it’s not what we are expecting in our own minds. Remember, the nation of Israel was expecting a messiah who would conquer and rule. But they got the reverse, a helpless baby who grew up to be iterant preacher that died on a cross.

This Advent as we remember Christ’s birth and await Christ’s coming again, I encourage you to think about how you are expecting Jesus to come again and whether or not you are open to being surprised by God. Will Jesus literally come down on a cloud like the Bible says? Are you expecting Jesus to be good-looking and have flowing hair and long robes? Are you prepared to consider that Jesus may come again to a tiny African village or the sprawling metropolis of Lagos or Mumbai or even the wilds of Canada, of all places?

The Bible tells us that we can expect a faithful God, full of mercy and abounding in steadfast love to redeem our world. The Bible tells us that God so loves the world that he gave his only son so that we won’t perish but have eternal life. But the Bible is full of surprises, too.

Think you are too old to have a baby? 
Surprise! Ask Elizabeth about that.

Think women can’t speak the word of God or give flesh to the promises of God?  
Surprise! Mary does it. 

Think you are holy and first in the Kingdom of God? 
Surprise! You’re last.

Think you are going to get a messiah to lead you to political victory? 
Surprise! Your messiah is crucified.

Think death has the final word? 
Surprise! Christ is resurrected and is coming again.

Read the Bible carefully and thoroughly. It can tell you where to look and what to expect. But keep your heart and eyes and mind open to the Spirit so that you, too, may experience a God-given surprise that you are not expecting.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Butter Turkey Sculpture and Eternity

John 6: Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. 3 Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. 4 The Jewish Passover Festival was near.
5 When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.
7 Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages[a] to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”
8 Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, 9 “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”
10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). 11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.
12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.
14 After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.

How many people are getting ready to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving? At my house we have been doing the same thing the same thing for Thanksgiving year after year. Matt makes the stuffing, my sister’s brings squash and maybe a dessert and my parents make salad and cranberries. Matt’s family brings pies. Sometimes we have the meal at our house and sometimes we make the short drive to my parents’ house and take the food over there.  But I always made the turkey. I feel like I’ve made a pretty good turkey every Thanksgiving for about the past 10 years. This is a big accomplishment for me because I’m not much of a cook.

But this year is different. This year we are going to drive down Virginia to have Thanksgiving with my husband Matt’s parents. Instead of baking a turkey, I’m taking this…

It's a turkey butter sculpture. I didn't even know they existed until I saw it in the store!

This year we are the guests, not the hosts for Thanksgiving.  It changes the dynamic a little bit. It makes me wonder about how we give our thanks—do we give thanks for the joy of decorating and hosting our families? Do we give thanks because we have a table full of food? Is a butter turkey any different for a 15 pound bird? Or are they both just something that is transitory?

As I was doing some reading about giving thanks, I was struck by a comment by Rev. Martin Copenhaver made about our human nature. He says: Nobody is born knowing how to be thankful. We are taught thankfulness in childhood.

And you may disagree with that. You may believe that infants and toddlers children do have an innate sense of gratitude. Either way, I think we can agree upon is that somewhere along the way we are taught to name gratitude and practice it in good times and bad. Our gratitude helps to shape our response to the events of our lives.

Our phase of life influences our gratitude. Image a Christmas morning. Children are genuinely surprised and delighted by the gifts that they get. They know they could never get them on their own. When Billy gets the right Xbox game from his grandma, he learns that the excitement he feels is a form of gratitude. Dad tells him to remember to go hug grandma and say thank you. Billy learns that gratitude is part of the excitement when he gets a really cool gift. But then, one year grandma gives him socks. He’s about to toss them aside to open the next gift when he hears his mom’s voice.

Go give grandma a hug and thank her for the gift. And he does. And he learns that gratitude isn’t about getting what you want. It’s a response to the love of the giver.

But as we age, many of us get to the point where we can buy things for ourselves. We get jobs and have incomes. We can buy own Xbox games and socks. We aren’t dependent and on others anymore and so we run the danger of shallow gratitude. In this phase we write checks for a lot of things—church, house, cars, kids, college, retirement, etc. We say a quick prayer of thanks in the morning or before a meal and then rush to the next thing. In the busyness of life gratitude becomes more mechanical.  We may practice it, but we do it by rote.

But then life changes again. And I’m not at this stage, but this is what some of you saints of church have taught me. We age some more and our incomes are limited and our bodies start to slow down or even hurt. Because we are living so much longer, we have a new third phase of life. It’s not childhood or adulthood. Scholars call this new phase from the late 70s on the third phase, but I’d call it wisdomhood.

In childhood our toys and socks are a reminder that someone loves us and is caring for us—and we are taught to say thank you. In adulthood, our stuff is symbolic of our accomplishments in life. It’s proof that we have become independent, productive people—and again we give thanks. In the third phase or Wisdomhood, it seems that the lifetime of practice becomes second nature.

Some of you who are entering into wisdomhood are the most grateful and giving people that I know. You know how to be thankful not just for the things. Your thanksgiving becomes deeper and richer and truer and frankly, is an inspiration to me.

People in wisdomhood remember to give thanks for things that people like me take for granted. For waking up and getting out of bed. You don’t even take that simple act for granted.

People in wisdomhood seem to be grateful for the most elemental thing—life itself. It doesn’t have to be a life with the right toys or a life of independence., but being itself.  It’s not excited gratitude for  the gifts and stuff of life but a great thanksgiving for the one who gives the gifts—God. 

Those of you who are living this phase of gratitude aren’t doing because it’s easy or it comes naturally. You are doing it because you practiced it your whole life. Your parents taught you to say thank you when you received a gift, even boring ones like socks. You probably write thank you notes for things that you receive.  You’ve come to church where week after week you’ve practiced giving when your income was steady.

You still come and give of your time and treasure even though you may have less—less money, less energy or less physical ability. And so I am thankful for you. For the gifts you give to God’s church and the gift of wisdom that you share with us here.

In our Gospel story today, we don’t have a turkey and stuffing Thanksgiving, but we have a big meal. A large crowd is following Jesus and listening to his teachings. There were a lot of people because the Passover festival was near. Jesus looked out on the crowd who had been following him and decided that they needed something to eat. Jesus had a plan to feed them but he turns to his disciple Phillip and asks where they might buy some bread for the people.

Phillip, thinking that it’s all up to him says they can’t afford to feed all the people who showed up. It would cost hundreds more than they had. Andrew must have overheard them because he pipes up—there’s a boy with five barley loaves and two small fish. But the idea that 5 loaves and two fish could feed 5,000 was ludicrous.

That’s like taking a lunchbox from an elementary student and trying to feed the whole school with it. A sandwich, an apple and a drink for 300 kids.

But Jesus knew better. Jesus didn’t look at the loaves and fishes and worry about how little was there. He looked at the loaves and fishes and trusted that God would provide.

Jesus looked at the loves and fishes and blessed God.

All of our English translations say that Jesus gave thanks. But in Jesus’ Jewish tradition he would have said a blessing. But this blessing was not for the food. The blessing was for God, who provided the food. The blessing was for the giver, not the gift. Jesus’ gratitude was directed toward God.

As a good Jew Jesus would have said the bread blessing. One of the things I learned in Israel is that there are different blessings for different foods. AND there is an order in which the blessings are to be given.

In our story, Jesus starts with the bread blessing because bread is the first food blessing to be given:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, Hamotzi lechem min haaretz.

Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe who brings forth bread from the earth.

Then he did the same with the fish:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, Shehakol Nihyah bidvaro

Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe by whose word all things come into being.

Even if you don’t know anything about Hebrew, you can hear that the opening in the prayers is the same. They all start Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam. They bless God, the giver of all gifts.

This is a subtle change in language but I think it makes a big shift in the way we see our lives. A shift that many of us make as we enter old age. At Thanksgiving, we say thank you God for the food. Or we ask God to bless the food we are about to eat. This makes the object of our thanks and prayers the food. We are thankful for the food, which is good. But even better is when our thanks are for God. The food is temporary. God is eternal.

It’s like the difference between a thankful child and a grateful adult. The immature child is excited for the Xbox and the things of life. The wise adult knows that gifts come and go, but living and loving and faith are what really matter. The wise adult blesses the things that are of eternity, not the things that can be unwrapped or eaten or worn.  

In the feeding of the 5000 Jesus, takes the bread and gives thanks, saying Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe who brings forth bread from the earth.

Jesus recognizes what is temporary and what is eternal. Jesus knows the difference between the gift and the giver. We take a lifetime to learn that the Xbox game or the socks are not what we are saying thank you for. We are saying thank your for the person who cared enough to give the gift. We are thanking God, the ultimate giver.

Is a butter turkey different from a 15-pound bird on the Thanksgiving table? Not really. In our lives the turkeys will come and go--literally and metaphorically--but God remains steadfast and eternal. Let us give our thanks to the giver.

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam

Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the Universe who gives us everything. Amen.