Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Advent 4

Advent 4
December 19, 2010
On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we light our 4th candle and we remember the angels—God’s messengers of peace and good news. And on this last Sunday of Advent, I invite you to once again take a few moments of silence and get in touch with your longing. Close your eyes for these moments of silence, if you would like, and ask yourself, “For what do I long?”
Our gospel reading from Matthew today gives voice to one of the longings of our hearts. We long for dreams, for vision and the promise of God.
Our reading for today is one in a series of 4 dreams in Matthew that are all key components to Matthew’s telling of the story of Jesus’s birth, and these 4 dreams are central to the very survival of the baby Jesus. After today’s dream, Joseph is visited by the angel in his dreams twice more as he is warned to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt when Herod orders the slaughter of all the young male Hebrew children and then told that it is safe to return from Egypt. (The other dream in Matthew is when an angel comes to the wise men and tells them to avoid Herod on their way out of town, as he is desperate for information on Jesus’s whereabouts so he may eliminate him.)
In today’s dream, Joseph has discovered that Mary is with child and has seemingly broken both cultural expectations and the betrothal covenant. Being a kind, righteous man, Joseph forms a plan to divorce Mary, which is the culturally expected thing to do in such a situation, but he plans to do it quietly so to minimize the harm it may cause her. As far as plans go, it is a reasonable plan.
But then the angel comes to Joseph in his dream and explains to Joseph what is going on. The angel, God’s messenger, gives Joseph a glimpse of God’s vision—that the child that Mary shall bear will be “Emmanuel—God with us.” And the angel gives Joseph a new plan to follow: to take Mary as his wife and name the child, thus recognizing him as Joseph’s own son.
It is when Joseph wakes up that I think the truly remarkable happens. When Joseph awakens, he has a choice. He can follow his own carefully laid out plan that fits in with his culture’s expectations. Or he can follow the dream of God, the vision, the promise of God with us.
Like Joseph, we long for the dream of God, for tangible glimpses of God’s vision, God’s promise of God with us.
We long for surety, for answers about many things, including which direction to follow in life to be the people God calls us to be, and we make our own plans as to how to achieve that. We live within our own culture’s expectations, and we live our lives the best we can when often the way before us seems murky and even dark. And what we wouldn’t give sometimes for an angel in a dream telling us clearly what to do, for just a glimpse of the vision of God to help us on our path.
This season we remember and celebrate that God is with us. And I wonder how often in our lives this God-with-us offers us God’s messengers, the dreams and the visions for which we long, but we cannot recognize these glimpses of God’s dream, we cannot heed them, cannot follow because we are too attached to our own plans, our own or our culture’s expectations?
Today we give thanks for Joseph, a righteous man who was not afraid to put aside his own plans to follow God’s dream and whose courageous choice opened the way for the gift of God with us.

Advent 3

3rd Sunday of Advent
December 12, 2010
Advent is a season for remembering. In the lighting of our Advent candles, we remember the message of the prophets, quiet Bethlehem where Christ was born, and we remember the shepherds who first heard the good news of God with us. Today we light the pink candle on our Advent wreath on this Rejoicing Sunday.
Advent is a time of waiting and expectation, of both hope and longing. Last week, I invited you to become acquainted with your own longing this Advent season, and I will once again invite you into a space of silence and reflection, but before I offer you my Advent question, I want to acknowledge something.
It is easy for me to stand up here over these four weeks and ask you the question, “For what do you long?” but getting in touch with and befriending our longing is not easy work. Many of us spend much of our time, our energy, our lives convincing ourselves that everything is fine, that life is good, that we are content and that we have everything we could possibly want or need, and we fill our lives with busyness, bustling from task to task, from idea to idea in an attempt to dampen our restlessness. But underneath all our busyness, underneath it all dwells our lonely longing heart.
This past Monday, it was well past my bedtime, and I couldn’t sleep (which is very unusual for me—usually I collapse into sleep moments after my head hits the pillow). This particular night, I was restless, so I got out of bed and went and sat in my favorite chair with my journal. And I was still restless, so finally it occurred to me that perhaps I needed to spend some time with my own Advent question—for what do you long? So I asked and I waited and I listened. It did not take long for the Holy Spirit to whisper in my prayers and give name to my longing that night; it was a longing for solitude, for space and time to be quiet and to have absolutely no one and nothing in between my soul and God.
So now I invite you to close your eyes if you want and to spend a few moments in silence listening to the Holy Spirit as you ask yourself this morning: “for what do you long?”
Our scriptures give voice again this week to the longing of the people of God, and this week, all three readings give us different glimpses of longing for home; each in its own way is a snapshot of a homesick people.
The reading from Isaiah gives us a kaleidoscope of beautiful images of a new home that is both the new promise of God and the lovely dream of a homesick, exiled people.
The writer of the book of James is more of a realist who advises a sort of spiritual “buckling down” in the face of homesickness and longing, trials and persecutions, that we may endure patiently until the Lord comes again and restores our home for us.
And the gospel of Matthew gives us a glimpse of the imprisoned John the Baptist, who is homesick for his mission and ministry and who longs for answers and for inclusion in the new home and new kingdom that Jesus is creating.
In his book The Longing for Home, the writer and theologian Frederick Buechner writes about a powerful moment in a church service when he was a lost young man listening to his next door neighbor and mentor, the Reverend George Buttrick preach a sermon one Sunday morning. Buechner writes, “It was toward the middle of December, I think, that he said something in a sermon that has always stayed with me. He said that on the previous Sunday, as he was leaving the church to go home, he happened to overhear somebody out on the steps asking somebody else, “Are you going home for Christmas?” and I can almost see Buttrick with his glasses glittering in the lectern light as he peered out at all those people listening to him in that large, dim sanctuary and asked it again—“Are you going home for Christmas?”—and asked it in some sort of way that brought tears to my eyes and made it almost unnecessary for him to move on to his answer to the question, which was that home, finally, is the manger in Bethlehem, the place where at midnight even the oxen kneel.” Buechner continues, “Home is where Christ is was what Buttrick said that winter morning and when the next autumn I found myself to my great surprise putting aside whatever career I thought I might have as a writer and going to Union Seminary instead at least partly because of the tears that kept coming to my eyes, I don’t believe that I consciously thought that home was what I was going there in search of, but I believe that was the truth of it.” (24-25)
On some level, all of us long for home and go in search of it in various ways; for some of us it is the home of our memory which we try to recreate in some ways in the present, or perhaps it is the home of a distant dream, a place that no longer or has never existed. The church father, St. Augustine wrote that our hearts are restless until they rest in God, and it is true that while we are in this life, we will always be longing for home, longing for God. But a friend recently reminded me that even while we long for our spiritual home, long for God, God is present with us in our very longing. It is the reality, the promise, and the hope for which we both rejoice this day and prepare to kneel before at the manger on Christmas eve. God with us. In Christ our true home is always present.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Advent II

Advent 2A
December 5, 2010
The season of Advent is my favorite season of the church, and it is also the most counter cultural. While the world around us rushes to decorate, to cook, to shop with a frantic and frenetic energy, we are called to wait, to be still, to be silent, to listen. The other day I was listening to an Advent cd in my car—hymns like what we are singing in church today—hymns that give voice to our longing and our expectation; and I went into a department store and encountered a riot of Christmas decorations, a long line with grumpy shoppers, and the sounds of Jingle Bells playing too loudly and at a tempo that was 5 times faster than normal and which made it quite frazzled and frantic.
This Advent, if you find a space for silence and for waiting, for hope and for longing nowhere else, I promise that you will find it here.
For the rest of this season, I want us to consider one question: “For what do you long?” What is the deepest hunger of the deepest part of your heart?
Take a moment of silence now, breath, listen, and dwell with your longing. For what do you long this day?
This Advent we will dwell with our own longing and we will listen to our scriptures as they give voice to our deepest longing.
Today’s scriptures name two of our deepest longings. We as God’s people long for hope, and we long for harmony.
Hope is a gift from the God of steadfastness and encouragement, and it flows freely through our relationship with God and the scriptures. I’ll never forget the time that I was teaching an Inquirer’s class, and I quoted, almost off-handedly, a passage from a book to them that said the scriptures are “the love story between God and humanity. They tell us where we have been, who we are, and where we’re going.” When I looked up at the people I was teaching, I saw that they each looked like they’d been hit in the head with something, and I realized what a profound concept this is. The scriptures tell us what we already know: that we are people who spend a lot of our days wandering in the wilderness, longing for someone to love us and help us. And when we pay attention, we see that God is with us, loving us, helping us, and offering us the gift of God’s hope, which is the fruit of our trust in God.
The other longing that our scriptures name today is the longing for harmony. We see in Isaiah God’s ancient promise of harmony for all God’s creation and the vision of God in which we are invited to participate. Harmony means our willingness to encounter God’s welcome to each one of us, encountering God’s wide embrace which means that all belong in the heart of God. When we know this and believe it, then we act accordingly to others, and we take our place in the vision of God, even as we give others the invitation to join us there.
Another way that we find the fulfillment for our longing for harmony and participation in the vision of God is to remember that we human beings exist not for the fulfillment of ourselves but for the glory of God. When we are all working for the glory of God, then we are more likely to dwell within the vision of God’s peace.
Thomas Merton once said that life is a perpetual advent. This Advent season, may you not be afraid to dwell a bit with your longing, may you make peace with it, and “may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Thanksgiving Sermon

Thanksgiving sermon
November 21, 2010
I don’t know about y’all but we at St. Peter’s have been talking a lot about first fruits lately. I would imagine that we are not unique in this utilizing of October and November as a time for the annual stewardship drive. And in that time of stewardship, we have spent some time talking about first fruits, how it is important to give to God off the top of our lives rather than out of what happens to be left-over. This is emphasized in our passage from Deuteronomy this evening, how God has saved the people of Israel and brought them out of slavery and exile in Egypt and has brought them into the land of promise that is their inheritance as God’s people. Because of this special relationship with God, the people are instructed to give the first fruits of the ground to God. It is an act of thanksgiving, an act of relationship, an act of remembering all that God has done for them and responding.
I would imagine that it was pretty easy to do this, that first year. After all, we know that it is not a hard task to be thankful to God when the milk and honey of the land is flowing freely. It is easy to be thankful when all is going well, and my heart is practically overflowing with thanksgiving to God for the glory of creation, when the skies are brilliant blue and the sunlight sparkles on the sound. It is easy to be thankful when my household is running smoothly, kids and husband are happy and healthy, and the kids are acting sweetly. (In fact, my moment of deepest thanksgiving every day is inevitably when I am putting each child to bed.)
It is easy to feel thankful when all is going well. But what about when it is not? How do we give God the first fruit that is thanksgiving when our hearts are heavy or burdened, when we don’t really feel that we have anything for which to be thankful?
There’s a great scene in the lovely book the Life of Pi by Yann Martel, that gets to the heart of thanksgiving. Pi Patel, the hero of the novel, is a 16 year old boy from India, who practices Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam and who has the gift of seeking out and holding up the kernel of what is best in all of them. Through a strange series of circumstances, Pi finds himself stranded in a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a 450 pound Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker. Pi is forced to use every ounce of his reason and skill to survive, and he often relies on his faith to provide meaning and comfort in his bleak situation.
In the following passage, Pi speaks of his reliance on his faith over the course of his journey, and it is a faith that is strengthened and upheld by a spirit of thanksgiving:
“I practiced religious rituals that I adapted to the circumstances—solitary Masses without priests or consecrated hosts…They brought me comfort, that is certain. But it was hard, oh it was hard. Faith in God is an opening up, a letting go, a deep trust, a free act of love—but sometimes it was so hard to love. Sometimes my heart was sinking so fast with anger, desolation, and weariness, I was afraid it would sink to the very bottom of the Pacific and I would not be able to lift it back up.
At such moments, I tried to elevate myself. I would touch the turban I had made with the remnants of my shirt and I would say aloud ‘THIS IS GOD’S HAT!’
I would pat my pants and say aloud ‘THIS IS GOD’S ATTIRE!’
I would point to Richard Parker and say aloud ‘THIS IS GOD’S CAT!’
I would point to the lifeboat and say aloud ‘THIS IS GOD’S ARK!’
I would space my hands wide and say aloud ‘THESE ARE GOD’S WIDE ACRES!’
I would point at the sky and say aloud ‘THIS IS GOD’S EAR!’
And in this way I would remind myself of creation and of my place in it.
But God’s hat was always unraveling. God’s pants were falling apart. God’s cat was a constant danger. God’s ark was a jail. God’s wide acres were slowly killing me. God’s ear didn’t seem to be listening.
Despair was a heavy blackness that let no light in or out… I thank God it always passed. A school of fish appeared around the net or a knot cried out to be reknotted. Or I thought of my family, of how they were spared this terrible agony. The blackness would stir and eventually go away, and God would remain, a shrinking point of light in my heart. I would go on loving.”
Just as love is a choice, an action, so may we also choose thanksgiving, even when our hearts are not feeling particularly thankful.
One of the most powerful things I have ever experienced was my first time attending the noon-day chapel service at Stewpot Soup Kitchen in Jackson. I had just started working there, fresh out of college, and the leadership of Stewpot had decided a while before that people needed to be fed spiritually as well as physically. And so they started holding an ecumenical worship service 30 minutes before the noon meal, and people were invited but not required to attend. Well, the service was usually packed full, as it was on this first day I attended. At one point in the service, the leader went around the room asking each and every person to name one thing he or she was thankful for on that particular day. He asked the homeless people, the mothers struggling to raise their children without enough money to buy food or clothing—name one thing for which you are thankful. He asked the mentally disabled who aimlessly wandered the streets of Jackson in an attempt to escape their abysmal group homes, and he asked the senior citizens who had to choose whether they could buy food or medications with their limited incomes—name one thing for which you are thankful. As I sat there, curious about what these worn-down people could possibly be thankful for, I was overwhelmed by the sincerity and simplicity of their responses. Every person found at least one thing to be grateful for that day, and many of them responded simply, “I am grateful that God woke me up this morning and gave me this new day.” It quickly became evident to me that they understood and believed that everything, every day is a new creation with new possibilities and new ways to love, that all that is has been given by God. And they were grateful. I will never forget the lesson that those beautiful, broken people taught me that day: at any point in our lives, any person can choose to find at least one reason to be thankful for God.
I think that too often we think that thanksgiving is an emotion that must well up out of our over-full hearts. And friends, that just isn’t the case. Thanksgiving is love in action. It is a choice that we make to live our lives a certain way. Pi Patel recognized this even as he was stuck in abysmal circumstances, he remembered that all that he had been given was really God’s and even though bad things were happening to him, he chose to carry on with his life and to carry on trying to love God. My friends at Stewpot had made the choice to be thankful as well; in the midst of their own oppressive situations, they recognized that all that they had, including their very lives, was a gift from God, and so they chose to respond to God and their neighbors with love.
And so this night we gather to break bread together, and to help each other remember that Thanksgiving is choosing a path, a way of living our lives, recognizing that all that we are and all that we have comes from God, and offering love as our first fruits, our thankful response.

Last Sunday after Pentecost--Christ the King

Christ the King Sunday—Proper 29C
November 21, 2010
Today is the last Sunday after Pentecost, last Sunday in our season of ordinary time, and the last Sunday of the church year. In our church, this Sunday is designed to lift up the theme of Christ as King, and then we move next Sunday into the season of Advent with its themes of waiting and hope, of expectation and longing.
So what does it mean to say that Christ is King on this day?
Our readings give us three depictions of kingship that are startling in their differences. For Jeremiah, a true king is one who is responsible for the people and should not allow them to be scattered through ruin and disaster. True kingship is the promise of one who will not only gather those who are scattered but he will also fulfill the kingly task of bringing all people together and be present with all people.
In the hymn to Christ, the writer of Colossians gives us a poetic smattering of images of Christ’s kingship: his glorious power, his inheritance of light, the image of the invisible God, first born of all creation; “he is before all things and in him all things hold together;” in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him God reconciled all things to God. It is a high and lofty expression of what it means to see Christ as King.
Then suddenly we find ourselves right in the middle of Jesus’s crucifixion from Luke’s gospel, and we see him being mocked by his tormenters and ridiculed in his kingship. We witness his humiliation, and his sublime power as he forgives again and again and again. And we see him honor the thief’s request and his confession of faith as he grants him a place in his kingdom.
So how do these three different pictures of Christ’s kingship come together for us to inform us and help us in our relationship with God?
I think it’s important to remember this day that in the earthly realm, the function of a king is symbolic. A king rules over a particular place or a particular ethnic group. For someone to be a king, he needs to have a people. And what we celebrate this Sunday of the year is that Christ has made of us his people.
As most of you know, I grew up here in Mississippi. David, on the other hand, grew up in Northwest Arkansas, and so he was not familiar with a lot of our Southern culture as it is lived out here. When we first moved to Mississippi, he was baffled by the Southern ritual of “who are your people.” You know the one I’m talking about. You get a couple of people together who are just meeting for the first time, and they want to know who your people are—that means a family name and a location. Here in the South, your “people” is a biological unit. When we first moved here, David didn’t much care for this exercise. His people weren’t in or from Mississippi, and so he didn’t see the point in it. But for those of us who live here, it’s a way of connecting to people, of understanding who they are, where they come from and seeing how their life patterns may be interconnected with ours by knowing the same people. This is what Christ does for us, and we lift that up today. He gives us that common relative, that connection through which we can relate to one another.
We are scattered and fragmented, and we are called back into wholeness, back into God by Christ who brings all together. And we remember this day and give thanks that we are all made Christ’s people and united to each other in and through his forgiveness. We become related through his kingship, and we are bound together through our forgiven-ness.